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.

Columba of Iona: Spiritual Pilgrim, Progressive Saint

Columba of Iona: Spiritual Pilgrim, Progressive Saint.

Quote of the Day:

Postmodern people possess no stable identity, nothing is inherited from the past, no family ties bind, and all forms of personhood must be chosen, and often, chosen again. Many people live in several states (or countries), marry more than once, change religions one or more times, and switch jobs a dozen times or more. Indeed, instability is so pronounced that some philosophers argue that constant questing for personal meaning is the only sane way to adapt to the contemporary world. Life is an unfinished and unfinishable project. Human beings are, in essence, homeless wanderers, spiritual tourists or religious nomads.

Growing Out of Church

Interesting article about a prominent church author leaving the institutional church. The comment that caught my attention was this one the blog author wrote:

Finally, John Eldredge says, “The accusation is that we are backsliding, but the fact is, we are living a richer Christian experience than ever.  It’s mature Christians who have opted out of church.

That’s a good way of putting it. Church is mainly designed for new believers who are clueless about what it means to be a Christian. Once done teaching that, it only makes sense that one gets “out of school” as it were, and goes out into the big world as it is. It’s like leaving home for the first time to go to college or to get married. Some of us leave happy homes and have a hard time getting out there. Some of us leave bad environments and can’t wait for freedom. Church is like that. It’s a religious school for the baby Christian. I know that I felt church could no longer offer me much, especially if I was learning and believing vastly different things than they were willing to teach. When someone with an insatiable curiosity chooses to stay in that environment, one learns to either turn off one’s questioning ability completely or come up with some pretty creative answers to hard questions. Like going to the movies, when you go to church and listen to what they tell you, you need a high threshold of suspension of disbelief in order to get through it. At least I did.

I miss it sometimes.  However, while I can romantically and nostalgically remember my time in church, while I can read about doctrinal disputes and dogmatic questions, while I can keep an eye on the establishment and decry the base wickedness of clergy abusing children or parishioners swindling each other, I cannot seem to accept it all at face value any longer. There’s a time I’d like to crawl back into that comforting womb and be innocent and wide-eyed again (not that I was ever that!).  But leaving church is like the child who realizes her parents aren’t these god-like beings she always thought they were. She discovers they too have feet of clay and don’t know what’s going on either. They just act like they do. It’s an evolutionary necessity to get the young raised and out the door. So like a parent, a healthy religious institution should send “mature” Christians on their way into the world like we send our children into adulthood. Wouldn’t that be the logical thing to do? Because what makes it all worth it is that moment you realize that you are now on your own. It’s scary, but what a giddy, wonderful feeling to be free and trusted to make your own decisions about your life!

Plurality of Beliefs

This is one of the most helpful posts I’ve read on the plurality of belief systems.  My favorite bit:

In the main, I agree with what Prothero writes and the perspective that he takes. One of my early mentors who encouraged my academic investigations of Buddhism and Asian religion impressed upon me that if all religions are simply a path to the same thing that there was no reason for us to talk. That is and remains a fundamental principle of mine and is an important core around which to form an understand of pluralism as it exists in modern America.

If all paths indeed head to the same place, then no dialog is needed, right? I don’t necessarily ascribe to the “all paths..” viewpoint either and neither does Derek Olsen. Overall, it’s a fine post on where, positionally, the dialog should take place, and I don’t mean on the kitchen table either. (smile)

Experience Vs. Evidence

My partner and I have many, many discussions about faith and reason. Faith in our own experiences and reasoning behind the decisions we make. We like to think we are rational people. We discuss the same ideas everyone discusses. However, we’ve found that when it comes to major issues in our lives; those we love, the faith we follow, reason has little to do with how we act when decisions are made. When it comes to ethereal emotions such as love, faith, anger, sorrow, joy… well, reason does not even come close to touching our reactions in the midst of such emotions. Realizing this makes us question whether we can even trust ourselves to come to sensible conclusions if we are such creatures of spleens, hormones, brain patterns, emotions, or any other thing that seems to sway reason to a good extent.  But that’s assuming there is such a thing as pure reason. If everything comes from the brain as some scientists now think, whence comes the bifurcation. And, not only that… which is a better tool for discerning decisions or is that question the wrong question to ask?

As a society we are both told again and again by our peer groups and our families that our experiences count for very little. We are told that we should be “reasonable” creatures and not base our lives on those pesky emotions we are all born with. We are told that we cannot trust ourselves to make important decisions because emotions “get in the way.” Wait.. HUH? Of course emotions get in the way. That’s what they are designed to do! Everyone knows that right? The go on… reason demands laws to be observed; laws of nature and laws of man (begging the argument “which man?”). Breaking them, we are told, will rip the fabric of the universe and cause chaos to reign! You don’t want to bring about chaos do you? And yet… chaos already reigns, from the very folks sometimes who claim we should not listen to ourselves! There are clearly over-thinkers and over-emotionalists. Why can’t the two halves meet?

Yet, they tell us there can be no deviating from these so-called laws and once adhered to, they must always be adhered to. Take for example the marriage debate going on now about who can marry whom. Forgive me if I find these arguments fatuous and perhaps a little childish and self-serving. People break rules and make up their own all the time.  What was true 100 years ago is not true today and what we now know about science would be laughed at in the past. The institutional church changes its mind. Scientists by their very nature change their theories (they have to in order to adjust). Even, atheists, who claim reason at all costs, show that they too are subject to emotions like the rest of us.

No, what cannot be agreed upon, and what will never be agreed upon, is that everyone relies on their emotions to make decisions. Why people want to resist this notion and force everyone to conform to some standard that cannot be standardized is beyond me. Everyone knows the rules, but when push comes to shove, we use faith, love, and even hate to make decisions about the courses our lives will take. You can reason until you are blue in the face about a said rule, but if your experience (i.e. emotional life) proves otherwise, experience seems to take precedent.

This is why I’ve had my fill of those who try to convert “unbelievers” and atheists and of those who try to debunk Christianity. You cannot ever do either without the cooperation of said person’s emotional will. You can preach to people that they are not allowed to fall in love with particular people because God “said” this or that. You can tell them they will go to hell if they step across this or that line. You can tell them they are believing in imaginary figures or strange entities that do not exist all you like. But just experience it and all that changes, reason be damned. So-called rationality goes out the window when emotions come to call. That does not mean believers are wrong to base their beliefs on their emotional brain any more than it’s wrong for atheists to base their beliefs on their thinking brain.

The brain’s a funny thing. It may or may not be proved that minds are the result of brain activity or that emotions come from the brain. For me, it doesn’t matter where our thoughts or our emotions come from or whether we have souls or spirits of if these are created or non-existent. The fact is that we do have that something that scientists, philosophers and religious describe. But it’s not whether or how we have these thoughts, spirits, emotions, etc, but what we do with our thoughts, emotions, and spiritual challenges, even without guidebooks built into our paws at birth It’s an argument really, about which “brain” makes our decisions and remaining comfortable with that; the Emotional brain or the Thinking brain and some people clearly operate from one or the other. Some even operate from both, which is the ideal in my opinion. Clearly we need both.

Emotions inform our experiences and experiences inform our reason and new information informs both through media and voila! We have principles.  Think of it as algebra:

Experience ÷ (information + reason) = principles

I put experience first because we are born knowing nothing but what is genetically coded (knowledge is a posteriori as Sartre puts it). Experience ALWAYS comes first. What we add to it through reason and information.   When others start telling us that our own experiences are invalid in forming life principles, that’s when the trouble starts. We can choose what information informs us, say we call them our guidebooks in life, but most of us did not get to choose our experiences, our parents, our cultures, or our heritage.  It’s only natural we form our concepts and ideas from the  experiences we did have.  Trouble ensues when others tell us what to believe and disbelieve based on their own life experiences! They presume to know what we should or should not do.  Relatively few laws are really worth keeping, but foremost agreed upon is the  freedom to stay alive, work for our living, and enjoy our life without encroachment by others.

So, back to the conundrum, which is a more “rational” way of viewing the world?  It depends on who you ask. (smile) 🙂

Already and Not Yet

Some time ago I “wrestled” with my own angel. Today, I found Jessica wrestling with hers. Serendipity happens. It’s lighter and more fun than “shit happening” because it makes you stop and think about what you are doing and which direction you are going. As a former fundie and one who know works in a church that follows the lectionary, I’ve often wondered what purpose the lectionary served. To me, my Baptist roots were showing when I screamed, “But it stifles the Spirit to confine biblical passages to ‘talking point memos’ from God!!” But Jessica’s post explains quite nicely why a little stifling of the Spirit might be a very good thing. Providing parameters and aiming for the long view seem very good and very reasonable things in Christianity. We all know that we are given to excess given the room. The problem with Protestant denominationalism is that we give ourselves so much room, we hang ourselves frequently! What started as a burst of freedom from the constraints of institutionalism and corrupt hierarchy turned into the Prodigal son wallowing in pig filth just because he can. Ok, overboard with the similies! But you get the idea.

The point of the lectionary is as Jessica points out; a discipline. She writes:

At any rate, the lectionary apparently disciplines the pastor into following a pattern of thought and understanding regarding hermeneutics within a community, and also tends toward discouraging the abuse of confusing passages on a credulous and vulnerable public.

That right there sums up why we need pastors to begin with. Shepherds to guide the wayward sheep. Unfortunately some shepherds are too busy boinking the sheep to guide us, but my question is, where are the good shepherds and how do we know them? Finding shepherds of integrity seems to be the search of the decades now. But we are so busy being sidetracked by these scandals to pay any attention to the work Christians are supposed to do. I’m included in that lot called the “sidetracked.” I am so put off and scandalized by the shenanigans of the clergy that I want to swear off Christianity altogether. I mean, really, how do good Christian people stay and why? I suppose the answer is in staying with the person of Christ and not the institution. And this brings me to what I discuss with my partner all the time; what does that mean anyway? How do you stay with the person of Christ? How is that made possible? And where does that begin?

Now that’s a whole other series of questions entirely. Discuss.