Quitting Christianity a la Anne Rice: a Manifesto of sorts

Anne Rice

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I’ve gotten angry with religion quite often lately. Like being part of a nation or state which also angers you because of their stupid policies and marginalizing of certain groups, finding your religion consistently betraying its preached principles is very disheartening. And although I’ve claimed atheism at various times in my life, I can never willfully give up that part of me that convinces me personally through experience a belief in a Divine Will that operates in/throughout/above/below the Universe. Many times I throw my hands up in despair and say, “No more of this bullshit for me!” Yet, I always come back.

Anne Rice has gotten a lot of flack lately for quitting Christianity. Some say that quitting Christianity is not possible. I would agree with the semantics of that. If you believe Christianity is an institution, you can quit it. There are differing definitions of “church” although I believe the church is made up of Christians no matter where they are. Others are in agreement with her and have come out of their religious institutions as well. We all agree that the polarization Christians (and all religions) cause when they insist on following this or that dogma, tenet, doctrine, or “prophetic” saying are the prime motive for our coming out. On her Facebook page, Rice has posted the various responses and there are so many that I can’t single out just one. However, I can say that I agree with her 100%.

When I became a Christian, I was not evangelized nor did I “come forward” in an alter call at a church. I had my own experience of Jesus and “God” on my own time and in my own way through personal prayer and from reading parts of the new testament. The Divine manifested itself to me in terms I could understand. It just happened to be in Jesus’ form. My first mistake after this experience was searching out a church where I could meet with fellow believers and connect with others and perhaps compare notes about our experiences. That would have been great, had it stopped right there. Unfortunately, becoming part of a community such as that seems to imply that others can become your moral compass and tell you what you can and cannot do and what you can and cannot believe. This got me wondering what the church is for then. Is it primarily a place where others can compare experiences or is it a club where only those who pay the right amount or who follow all the rules others laid down for us by others, away from the secular world and all its contaminates? Is it supposed to welcome all who wish to come to it or is it primarily set up to exclude? You will find as many explanations as there are religious sects, so nothing can be decided either way. What’s left is the kind of individualism that Rice espouses and that church leaders so despise. It is fundamentally a lack of faith in people to do the right thing at the right time and for the right reasons. I think it’s time we grow up from that.

Church leaders argue that Jesus set up these rules, but of course there is no evidence of this. The bible cannot even be counted on to accurately record the words of Jesus or to set down the history of the church without those, who happened to win the power play of sects back then, redacting those portions that came down to us ahead of time.  The one thing that convinces me that religions as practiced in the world are not absolute truth is due to the confusing witness provided by the varied sects, churches, religions, and practices throughout the world. None are in agreement. If such dogmas were ABSOLUTE TRUTH, there would be consensus about these issues and there is not. Individualism is the only answer here. Actions such as peace, simplicity, and love are its evidence. What I think these so-called leaders fear most is being out of a job! Do they not think that a Divine Will can’t accomplish what it wants with or without us?

My individualism imposes no belief on anyone. My individualism does the most good and spends my money where I see fit. I don’t funnel funds through the church and expect it will go where I want it to go. I send it directly. I don’t evangelize nor do I believe every believer called to do that. This thinking is only an institutional tool to garner the most numbers. In this day and age, it isn’t necessary to evangelize. The information is out there. It’s up to the Divine to speak, not me.  Much like the Religious Society of Friends, I believe in the Light that is in every person. This is the Light of God and it has to be trusted that whoever or whatever Divine Will is accomplishing in the world, what is accomplished is what is meant to be accomplished. The church as a traditional institution has done irreparable harm in the world by not trusting this concept. They believe “truth” is funneled through authority and hierarchy. Judaism and Islam share in the harm done and in believing in imams, priests, prophets, or “special” people. The “big three” have a lot to answer for and I’m not going to blindly follow the herd and say “They told me to” because they claim authority over me. My only authority is my conscience informed by my spirit, however that comes to me (brain, soul, outside me, whatever), through a community I choose, if I choose, and through information garnered from experts in other fields; scientific, religious, or otherwise. Therefore, I will stand or fall on my own decisions, no one else’s.

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Are Religious Beliefs Based on Evidence?

I was reading my Google Reader yesterday morning and came across this article by Ophelia Benson. I really appreciate atheists’ work to keep religious believers honest in what they believe. I appreciate that they call out sloppy arguments and show us that we believe too easily those things which are not supported by any evidence at all such as UFO abductions, ghosts, etc. (never mind that I find both fun and interesting) However, I must take some small issue with her statement here:

Scientific explanations of the universe are not just coherent, they are also based on evidence. Religious beliefs are not based on evidence. Makes a difference!

Benson makes a good point that we shouldn’t be biasing emotions and feelings about what we want to believe over our intellectual faculties and discerning what’s true, even though someone surely could argue that emotions/intuitions/faith can be reliable sources of information. If they couldn’t be, then no one would make decisions about love, marriage, fleeing a bad relationship, sensing dangerous people, etc. However, to then go on and assert that religious beliefs are not based on evidence is also an over-generalization. There is evidence that Christians came into existence because of the preaching of a man named Jesus and a Jew named Saul. There is evidence that this movement changed the world for good and ill. I’ve met people, who I respect greatly, who are or were radically changed by their beliefs and I consider that good evidence of something. I can’t name it, but it’s evidence to me. It may not meet Benson’s standards of scientific verifiability, but it is evidence. I think the problem is that maybe the believer’s threshold of evidence is lower but they do rely on some evidence on which to base their faith. It’s just not first hand evidence.

Look, I’m not trying to be an apologist here for any religion, but ordinary people make decisions all the time based on second-hand evidence. Someone tells us to stay away from the corner of Monroe and V. Parkway because the traffic is awful. Hearsay, yes, but we heed it.  Can we go check it out? Sure we can, but we don’t always check out every bit of information someone gives us. It’s not possible. If it’s possible we have that option. Some would consider not checking all evidence lazy. But we can’t verify every single thing presented to us as fact. No one can.  We make a decision about what we’ve heard or read and we act on it. A doctor may tell us that if we go where others are sick we have a chance of picking up whatever bug they have. So we avoid it even though we neither see the virus nor do we know if these people are indeed sick with anything.  We decide to act on this knowledge or we don’t.

While I do not condone believing without evidence of ANY kind, I cannot say there is no evidence of religious beliefs at all and I don’t think Benson can either. Sure she can say what she wants, but I find it a weak argument; just as weak as someone saying that they can’t prove God doesn’t exist. Peter Enns writes about this very well in the article Benson quotes. And even the part she quotes to pick apart is the part that makes sense to me. Enns wrote:

To say that God’s existence is detectable with certainty through reason, logic, and evidence is a belief because it makes some crucial assumptions. For one thing, it assumes that our intellectual faculties are the best, or only, ways of accessing God. This is an assumption that privileges Western ways of knowing and excludes other wholly human qualities like emotion and intuition.

It also reduces God to an object, a thing, a being among all other beings, whose existence is as open to rational inquiry as anything else….

I don’t believe, as Benson does, that Enns is saying that Easterners aren’t logical. To me, what he’s saying is that we, in the Western world, have derided intuition and emotion and excluded them as legitimate means of knowing.  The East and their religions have not done such a thing. For them religion is experiential and part of the world. We on the other hand have separated out everything that we can’t objectify in a rational, critical manner.

My argument is that these are people I admire who have faith yet have kept all of their critical thinking faculties. I also work with people who are highly educated, who struggle with faith, and who believe, not all in the same way of course, but they believe. For me, this is evidence that God or something exists and that people believe in this something to enhance their lives and that millions of people, rightly or wrongly, believe that they interact with a supernatural element that provides some kind of guidance, comfort, or vision. I don’t believe in the bible, but I read it as a testimony about other peoples’ faith down through the centuries, just as I would any other written record of someone’s experience.

This kind of personal experience has also proven to me that evidence comes in many forms. I may hate the institutional straight-jacket that Christianity has become. I may hate bibliolatry and all that passes for critical thinking in religious circles. I may rail at clergy who take advantage of people because of their position of authority and I most assuredly abhor anyone who uses religion as a tool of violence or stamp of approval for their hideous rage, but deep down I cannot ever deny that there is something out there in the universe that defies scientific knowledge; something that weaves itself into the warp and weft of this world so intimately that living our very lives is a sacramental act. My threshold of believable evidence may be lower than Benson’s but for me it’s evidence nonetheless.