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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A Semester At Liberty University

Cover of "The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner...

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Would you take a semester off from an Ivy League college to attend Jerry Falwell‘s bastion of conservative education and politics? Kevin Roose did and he wrote about it in detail in his book Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. I wish I could go into detail right now about all the things he gets right about being submerged in the Christian subculture, but I can only say right now is that is it very fair and not at all that different from belonging to an evangelical church. He describes people who are blindingly obtuse and those that are open and loving. As with anyone who subscribes to religious or political ideologies as the whole truth, there are good people and not so good people encamped therein.

Roose’s assessment never hits a false note and his complete openness to the experiment is a credit to his Quaker parents and Episcopalian grandparents. Although they “feared for his life” down there in the bowels of Jerry Falwell’s hell (to hear them tell it), Roose intelligently and compassionately tried his best to experience everything as a new student and newcomer to Christianity. And while he may not have been converted, he came away with a new respect for folks that, while demonized in the press, are not so different as those students he attended Brown with. All of them struggled. There were bigots as well, just as in his circle of friends who wished Falwell dead for his statements about 9/11.  No, liberals can also be as un-compassionate as their evangelical counterparts. Sometimes rabidly so. Neither side holds the final majority on compassion.

I’m glad I read this book. The people he describes can be found in any evangelical church in America. I recognized some of my friends in those students. It also gave me hope that those much younger than me are taking openness more seriously than my generation is; that he’s willing to open up a dialogue with those that others have assumed are strange and probably sprouting horns of some kind.  My generation has sadly become entrenched and committed to warfare. This book is a very easy and pleasant read and one I’d recommend to Christians and atheists alike who keep an open mind. I admire Roose’s effort to get more constructive dialogue going rather than just rehash all the demonizing and tired old arguments that get us nowhere. We need to start with people not dogma.

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.

“Unless She Can’t Think….”

John Piper and all his ilk explain exactly why women need to steer clear of any male dominated religions:

I need to see videos like these and read articles pertaining to this doctrine to remind me why I no longer adhere to Christianity. Like Anne Rice, author of Vampire Chronicles long before Stephanie Meyer was born, I’ve given up on that religion and really any religion that glorifies a male prophet/God: Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Baha’i, etc.

Guide: Beth Moore is a prominent bible teacher/expositor in the Baptist tradition. Elizabeth Eliot also.

Let Go

24

He who stands on tiptoe
doesn’t stand firm.
He who rushes ahead
doesn’t go far.
He who tries to shine
dims his own light.
He who defines himself
can’t know who he really is.
He who has power over others
can’t empower himself.
He who clings to his work
will create nothing that endures.

If you want to accord with the Tao,
just do your job, then let go.

Tao Te Ching

The Politics of Shame

Luke 18:9-14  He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:  (10)  "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  (11)  The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  (12)  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’  (13)  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  (14)  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

You know, the bible has a lot of practical lessons in it. All I had to do in my reading this morning was insert other words for “Pharisee” and “tax collector.” How about “two people went up into the temple to prayer, one was a man and the other a woman…” Or insert “Democrat” and “Republican” or “Evolutionist” or “Creationist.” Or how about “Two people went up into the temple to pray, one was Barack Obama and the other Sarah Palin….” You get the idea.  And yes, we can easily reverse all of the above insertions and still it would make sense. When I did all that, I knew I had to say something out loud.

During Advent, I always start questioning my spiritual beliefs, not because I am afraid of hell, as I used to be as a fundamentalist Christian, but because I’ve grown so much in the last couple of years that I have to check in with my own spirit to realize what it is I really do believe.  And I realize that we live in a culture of shame. Some of us are ashamed of our beliefs in the wake of backlash and some of us, who should be ashamed, aren’t. But I can’t be concerned about them. I can only change myself.Butterfly

Yesterday, I got my picture taken for our staff directory. In times past I absolutely hated to get my picture taken. It’s a rare person that loves it, but I have never loved it. So, when I got to view the results instantly on a digital camera, for the first time in my adult life, I was not ashamed of my picture. I was amazed at myself. Why? Because I’m fat. By everyone’s standards today, I am considered fat, even obese. Although some views of fat and obese are obviously skewed mightily by the diet industry funded BMI community. So, yesterday, when I saw my picture, I thought, “Yep, that’s me and it looks just like me.” For the first time, I felt at home in my skin. What was my miraculous turnaround attributed to? Love of course. The love of friends and the love of a man who loves me just as I am. This love has convinced me that if I don’t love myself, others will anyway, but I will just make it that much harder by my bitching and moaning about weight, when I don’t mind my weight at all. It seems to be others who mind it for me.  (to catch up on the politics of fat, read Kate Harding and her links)

Another thing that struck me this week, during this season of Advent, was how much shame is being generated by religion, some completely from biased individuals, but some unnecessarily from religion itself. Even I have wanted to distance myself from the Christian community because of the stupid acts of a few. Fortunately for me, I work in a church where pastors and members display acts of love and charity and caring beyond anything I’ve ever experienced outside the Christian community.  My counselor finds it significant that even though I have a love/hate relationship with God, I continue to work in a church and am fine with that. This is interesting. I think I do because it allows me to be part of the church, but with as much aloofness as I like. These people don’t spend their time arguing minutiae of doctrine or this and that “law.” They spend their time buying gifts for a community wide distribution day at Christmastime. They give to St. John’s Breadline which feeds the hungry. They donate their time to Meals on Wheels. They give blood to the Red Cross. They help the unfortunate in Darfur. They go on Mission Trips to repair housing for the poor.  It’s enough to make me ashamed that I can’t be bold enough to claim that I believe because of shame in the internet community.

This does not mean I endorse fundamentalism of any stripe. This does not mean the bible holds complete truth, as written by men. It doesn’t mean I have hard and fast rules about other people’s sex lives or that I automatically subscribe to everything other Christians believe. It only means that I believe in a Spirit that I can only call Divine. This means I believe this Spirit is best embodied in Jesus Christ.I don’t know what that means “doctrinally” and I don’t care.  I believe that it takes more that buildings, rituals, and texts to make a Christian who is filled with this Spirit. And I also believe that I can’t deny it in public any longer. Call me ignorant. Call me deluded. Tell me I’m fat and therefore stupider than most of the population. Tell me or call me anything you like. It doesn’t change the sweetness of the Spirit when I cooperate with it in my life. I will not be ashamed any longer.

Blessings.

New Perspective on “Old” Temptations

Explorefaith.org has always been one of my favorite Christian web sites. Produced by the Episcopal Church and those in ecumenical communion with them, Explore faith has been one of the few places that has ever challenged my faith in new ways. Their gentle spirit is evident and best of all, on their About Us page, they do not list the bible as their chief idol (unlike some christian churches, web sites, domains, etc.) I like that, mainly because the one turnoff of the fundamentalism I left behind was the insistence that God only works in the world through this one set of writings. This extremely limiting belief keeps millions from fully understanding the love of God, whatever that is or wherever that may be manifested in the world.

Michelangelo Eve detail

Michelangelo Eve detail

This view of scriptures has kept me from acknowledging a merciful and loving Deity precisely because belief in this prohibitive doctrine is so insidious to an individual’s thought processes. Again, mine were damaged I think by the incessant drilling into it of dogma and doctrine  insupportable from the evidence offered outside of a few lines of ancient text. Sure, there are great things in the Hebrew and Christian texts that, together, comprise the “bible.” However, there are great things in all the world’s spiritual texts, each of which display a facet of human understanding about this thing most call “God.” However, when we elevate what others have said about God and ascribe qualities to this written body of experiential knowledge; qualities that should only be ascribed to Deity, we tread on dangerous territory I think. When is it good to part company with established dogma when it runs counter to what we know to be true from experience? Our growth is stunted and eventually spirituality dies out if we constantly deny and repress true experience. One’s spiritual, mental, and physical life cannot be circumscribed to such a degree and remain any kind of life at all.

With that in mind, I have had to restructure my faith in such a Deity and simultaneously re-examine my relationship to that particular book, which, for many, many years, became almost a talisman for me. I’ve been half afraid to pick it up again and read it because of the ingrained processes that fundamentalism implants into the unsuspecting brains of those of us who were too open and eager and hungry for spiritual food to be very discerning. Yet I didn’t want to dispense with the wisdom in it altogether. I knew that Progressive Christians such as the Quakers and others gain much insight and wisdom when they put scriptures in their proper context. I needed to recognize that the trigger for me was trying to absorb everything within the bible’s pages as absolute and unequivocal truth, unprocessed through human thinking; in other words, seeing the bible as straight unfiltered God-talk. When in fact, it’s not God-talk but Human-talk with a God-tinge.  There is truth contained it it, but it’s spiritual truth and not necessarily factual truth; something the individual soul must discern for herself.

With that caveat, I’ve been wanting, during this Lenten season, to re-examine my beliefs because frankly, I miss them (and truth be told, I miss examining them, which is what this blog started out to do). Explorefaith has wonderfully pragmatic resources for processing Lent, one of which is to journal your way through it. This isn’t a new practice, but they do ask good questions. This Sunday was the 4th Sunday in Lent and the journaling prompt was this:

Week Four: TEMPTATION
All that we desire in life is not beneficial to us. We often are pulled away from what is helpful and healthy because we feel a lack of excitement, energy and enthusiasm in our life as it is. The seed of temptation begins to grow subtly within us, and we begin to find ourselves moving in a direction we had not planned, a direction we know is risky, a direction that promises more than it will ever deliver. Dealing with temptation is as much about rediscovering the wonder of our current life as it is about avoiding that which is alluring and seductive. Lent invites us to turn from temptation by turning toward what is helpful and healthy for us and finding there again what is life-giving. Take time this week to return to what feeds your life and captures the best part of your passion and soul.

journaling questions:
What in my life has become so familiar that I am tempted to find something new, and how can that familiarity be revived so that its previous exhilaration is restored?
* In my family?
* In my work?
* In my community?
* In my soul?

I have some problems with some of the assumptions in this meditation. First, how do we know that moving in a new direction “promises more than it will ever deliver?” Second, why is temptation always described as harmful? Now it’s clear that when people think of temptation they think of two words: sex and food. Nobody ever says that they are tempted by too much reading or excessive writing practices. The visceral reality of sex and food make those the chief targets of what I think can be called temptation politics in the church. We are considered lustful or gluttonous most times and our inclinations are always toward satisfying these two things we are told. Or are they?

I am a pessimist by temperament, which is why fundamentalism appeals to me.  I can easily believe that humans will do the worst thing in all circumstances. However, if I’m honest with myself, I have to concede that there is equal evidence to the contrary; that humans more often than not do the generous thing and it’s been proven to me over and over (thank you Pelagius). Yet, temptation from the pessimists view stems directly from the Augustinian approach to Genesis and to that doctrinal bugaboo called “Original Sin.”  It’s always fascinating to me that in the Adam and Eve myth in Genesis 1 and 2, God put into a mythical Garden a man and then what does he (sic) put in next? No, not the animals, even though they did go in next. No, God puts in Eve and a tree to eat from (e.g.  sex and food). (foot note 1) And yet…. and yet, God puts in another tree and says, Don’t Eat This. Now really, was that necessary? I ask you.

I would argue that God knew exactly what he was doing by introducing all the things necessary for a good and reasonable and happy life in that Garden. You know what Adam was probably thinking, “SWEET! Two things that any man could want; sex and food” objectifying both of course.  Both sex and food seem to me to be necessary processes to life in general and necessary to help us learn and grow. God knew full well that life in the Garden would have its limits and that his “children” would be unhappy. Like an obedient child Adam took the instructions God gave him literally, but Eve, bless her, decided she was going to trust that this God knew what was good for both of them and gave her the tools necessary to bring it about; in other words, the implications were more important than the outright commands. She was probably thinking, “Food and sex are great, but really, what’s it all for?” Besides that, God didn’t tell her not to touch the tree, he only told Adam, who always had to have things spelled out for him and probably was a little scrupulous to boot. So Eve took it upon herself to find out what that other tree was all about and voila! The model for modern sexual relationships was born, well at least the heterosexual ones anyway, and knowledge of good and evil fell into the world in one stroke. Pandora’s box in Hebrew form. Hmmm, yes. This story does sound suspiciously like one of those etiological myths that attempt to explain how things came about after the fact. A biblical “Just-so” story if you will. Interesting. The Hebrews were probably working up to something here and had to cover all the bases when they were recreating their religion from scratch. (see footnote 2)

So, back to temptation. Rather than look at temptation as something that makes us stray from the tried and true and even worse as a command to never question our situations, why not look at temptation as a way to further personal growth? Temptation could merely be opportunities to see things in a new way and perhaps change course because of them. Now I’m not saying giving into drug abuse as a temptation is an opportunity to growth. Discernment in this area is needed. But isn’t that the key to everything? Discernment? Why must biblical myths always be interpreted as dire warnings about impulses God knew very well we would have and even built them into the “Garden” to prove it? We are all born with drives common to the majority of us. The trick is to separate the trivial temptations from the ones that inspire growth. Can we possibly distinguish between the two? And this is where individual conscience and discernment come in. Much like how I’ve had to teach myself to read the bible with a critical eye, I’ve also had to learn which things are “temptations” and which things are true nudges to move in a new direction.

In that case, I would ask my own questions for journaling:

  • Where is the balance between being satisfied with the familiar and stretching our horizons?
  • Where’s the balance between self-justification and rationalization of “sin” and knowing what’s good for our lives and acting on it?
  • How can we move beyond mere proscription and into a mature decision-making mindset?
  • When is it good to part company with established dogma when it runs counter to what we know to be true from experience?
  • How does the fundamentalist wash cycle of “sin, repent, rinse, and repeat” defeat the purpose of living life in a loving, purposeful, and fulfilling manner?
  • And finally, where in all this does the role of individual conscience begin and where does adherence to ancient “principles” end if the ancient principle no longer fit into modern society?

Discuss…. or better yet…. Journal!

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Footnote 1:

We won’t get into the feminist issues of the bible’s claim that Eve was created “for” Adam and not as an active agent in her own right. It’s obvious the biblical myth makes Eve simply a biological tool for Adam’s libido to act upon and a “foil” for what comes next. This interpretation is a necessary dogma of fundamentalism and every fundamentalist religion reinforces this idea; women are made for men’s USE. Period. That’s what it boils down to when you toss aside all the “yes, buts” they offer in rejoinder. Women are to produce men’s offspring and take care of all men’s needs.  That’s it.

Footnote 2:

Here’s one very good reason the bible cannot be taken literally as written and especially Genesis, nor can we see it as any way chronologically set down by God. Notice the injunction inserted into Genesis 2:24 which says that a “man shall leave father and mother, etc.” Uh, forgive the obvious, but there were no parents at this point, only Adam and Eve, right? Who’s speaking here? Who’s father and mother? And if Adam’s is not meant, who’s? There aren’t even any children to lecture at this point.