Archive for the ‘age of reason’ tag
The debate on the god question has come up recently on Facebook between a couple friends of mine, and I thought it might be interesting if I laid out and clarified a few points about my own experiences regarding this matter to attempt to come around to an overall theory. Some family, friends, former church members of mine have probably noticed peculiar postings of mine regarding religion and God, and I thought an explanation was in order. This post took me a couple weeks to write (Thus the reason for no other recent posts), so bear with me. I’m not saying my conclusion won’t or can’t change, but my thoughts right now as they stand are recorded in this post. To borrow a religious term, here is my “testimony:”
First, as I have stated to a couple people in the last year, I set about in Oct. 2008 or so to the task of trying to figure out precisely why I believed what I proclaimed to believe. I will say here that I was raised in the Christian tradition, as most people in the southeastern United States are, and spent many years performing musically and otherwise toward that end. I sang with my grandfather, whom I miss to this day, in more than one Southern gospel group. I played acoustic and electric guitar for seven or more years in a contemporary-style church in Upstate, South Carolina. Until I reached college, I knew little of teachings other than what was in the Bible. Despite taking and passing a philosophy class and many English classes which served to, at least, introduce certain issues that would later challenge my faith, I maintained my core beliefs through college and even through numerous years after college.
Like so many with physical ailments who have wanted desperately to believe in a god who had the power to, not only save souls, but to physically heal, I tried my best to read the Bible and believe. In the years after college, my life was largely dominated by loneliness and despair over various issues, the most immediate of which would be emphysema.
I had heard stories that many people back home prayed me out of certain death when I was a baby hospitalized for 3 1/2 years in New York City, apparently saving me from dying from a critical immune system disorder. I don’t want to discredit or marginalize family members’ and friends’ efforts or concerns back home. They were doing what they thought was best.
So, poof, after much research and after three years of testing and poking and prodding at me, doctors came up with a way to give me an unprecedented unmatched bone marrow transplant to set my immune system on the right course. In the early 1980s, this was no small thing.
Now, I’m wise enough to recognize that science and research saved me in my infancy. I’m wise enough to know that, had I been lying in a crib inside my home in South Carolina, with the same prayers but without the same science and medical treatment, I would be a memory, and would probably not have even made it past my first year. So, at 4 1/2 years old, with medical research providing and setting my path toward adulthood, I set out on a vast world that I had never known cramped inside my little, sterile hospital-world.
And, of course, my parents not only gave me life … but a second life. I was a dead man, but they packed up their things in their early 20s at the time (I’m now 32 and can’t imagine doing such a thing at their age) and moved 900 miles north to a cockroach-ridden Manhattan apartment with their young daughter … all for me. For all my hard-boiled, emotional determinism, the thought of what they went through to keep me alive still brings a lump to my throat … and I’m thankful beyond words.
Back to religion, I decided a year or so back that it would be the most insincere and dishonest thing that I could imagine if I were to continue to lead the people in church worship without believing myself in the words of the songs I was playing (I think even believers can agree with me on that point.) I surmised that it would also be distasteful to not know full well why I believed in what the folks around me were singing, and not be able to articulate what I believed, and why I believed it. I concluded, even before I began questioning faith, that to believe and live my entire life and then die some day without knowing precisely why I believed such and such, without evidence and without a good explanation for any of it, essentially giving my entire life to something, sheepishly, was a most foolish and tragic thing (In fact, the word “tragic” probably represents an understatement).
Believing simply based on a “feeling” that we get on Sunday morning in the presence of nice music and other believers — which is all it is, since there’s not a stitch of evidence for any of it — was not good enough for me, and this was the realization that hit me between the eyes at some point last year. I can, perhaps, pinpoint the precise time. It may have been during a long car ride to Boston with my wife, when I had a fantastically long time to do a lot of thinking.
To catalog a few of the works I’ve studied thus far that have influenced me one way or the other since and before that particular trip:
- “Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God” by Jack Miles
- “God: A Biography” by Jack Miles
- “Mere Christianity” “Surprised by Joy,” “The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis
- “The Case for Christ” and “The Case for Faith” by Lee Strobel
- “Godless” by Dan Barker
- “Why I Became An Atheist” by John Loftus
- “The Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine
- “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris
- “The Stranger” and “The Myth of Sisyphus” By Albert Camus
- “Notes from the Underground” By Fyodor Dostoevsky (To a lesser degree, “The Brothers Karamzov” and “Crime and Punishment”
- This does not mention, of course, most of the Old and New testaments, numerous Christian commentaries, two decades of Christian teaching from various workshops, sermons and classes, and many of the gospels and texts that did not make it into the “official” King James Bible as pieced together by various church officials centuries ago.
I’m under no illusion that my recent thoughts and studies are crushing to any possibility, or any fraction of a possibility, that I might supernaturally be made better physically some day (For I deny even the possibility of a being capable of such things … nothwithstanding his unwillingness). I dare say no one has called out more to God than I for answers, even for answers about his own existence. No one has pleaded more with God for help. No one has been on their knees more than me. But I’ve heard nothing. Not one thing but my own voice, until eventually I got the impression that my prayers were merely floating to the ceiling and falling back down like stillborn stars. So, I got off my knees and determined, like the human that I am, to find the truth.
Believers will probably question this, saying something like, “Well, you can’t just give up. God is faithful to answer prayer in his time on his watch” or with, “God answers all prayer with either a ‘No,’ ‘Yes,’ or ‘Maybe.’” But those are the only three possible options, aren’t they? We can write off or explain away any unanswered prayer (or perceived answered prayer) by that logic to help God escape an explanation for his own silence.
We have, indeed, for centuries, received nothing at all but silence from the God of the Old Testament, just as we have received no recent word from Jesus or Zeus or Apollo or Allah or Osiris. Thousands of years have passed and not an utterance. Does that not strike anyone else as peculiar? Believers, again, will say the Bible is God’s revealed word or his instruction manual and that he exists in the hearts and minds of those who are filled with the Holy Spirit because they have believed in him. Well, I have believed — I have with all my heart — and other than some hormones jostled around, stimulated by some inspiring tune in the company of believers, have felt or heard nothing but my own voice.
So, I know there will be those to whom these words are very troubling — family, friends, former churchgoers, etc. but please know that I expect none of the same thoughts from any of you and am not trying to convince anyone of anything. I’m merely stating my experiences, and don’t particularly want this to meltdown into a large debate. Again, I did not set out at the start to disprove anything. I set out to find the truth. And these truths we can’t escape: Earth is billions of years old, Earth exists on a spiral arm of our galaxy, an insignificant spot, and not the center of the galaxy as many of our forebearers thought (which, by the way, gave creedance to the argument that we are the special planet, and a special species, in all of creation). The Earth will one day be uninhabited by people once again, not by a rapture, but either by a wayward asteroid or gamma ray burst or by the sun losing power. The truth is the canonical Bible contains many irreparable self-contradictions; condones slavery, mass slaughter, rape, the mutilation or altering of children’s genitalia, among other things; and cannot even get the details straight about the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Again, when I set about my studies, I was not seeking hope or spiritualism or miracles or wishful-thinking, I was seeking the truth, which in the 17th century when John Milton was alive, “a wicked race of deceivers … took the virgin Truth (and) hewed her lovely form into a thousand pieces, and scattered them to the four winds.” But they are not at the four winds anymore. Truth is much closer to us in modern America. So, at least at this juncture, I have concluded that the ancient, contradictory books of the Old and New testaments, written in a time of widespread myth and legend, are not good enough to make me, first, believe, and second, to base my entire life on such things contained therein.
I feel compelled to say that I apologize to certain people (of whom I still hold a great deal of respect) for that statement, whom I know, would want me to conclude differently, but that’s how I feel. The Christian tradition is so embedded in this part of the country (the Southeast), that to say such things, is almost like seceding a second time from the Union. But again, I ask, what’s more important? The truth or wishful thinking? When I set out about this, I resolved to be comfortable with whatever philosophical pathway on which my studies took me down. And that’s what we all must do.
And at some point, all us of have to make a similar choice: Do we want to be complacent in living our lives for a faith that may or may not, in reality, be true, or can we mentally and emotionally handle another possibility: that we are an insignificant dot in a vast, vast universe. As a friend of mine was saying, we need religion. We do indeed. But can’t we be strong enough to move past it and accept our place in the cosmos? As one writer, John Loftus, said that we humans think we are so special that we can’t imagine a fate that would see us go extinct like all the rest of life on Earth. Yet, that is our fate. Our extreme intelligence compels us to think of other worlds or other dimensions like heaven or hell, but our humanity also compels us to surmise that we are on a small planet in an insignificant galaxy, of which, there are millions. It is quite believable to think other species in some undiscovered galaxy thought themselves self-important, like us, and then, saw their own existence come to a crashing hault.
Of course, we may never know 100 percent if there is a god or not and we may never know 100 percent how life began, but I think we can be pretty sure it did not happen as the Bible, with its self-contradictions, recounts. (Note: I do not cite examples of the Bible’s contradictions here because they are well documented and this post is long as is. Search Google for “bible contradictions” and you can view them for yourself.)
For me, the option that we are an insignificant dot in a vast universe, takes much more wherewithall, and frankly, is a quite liberating axiom, to know that we are, at the core, connected and interconnected with the universe, not just Earth, and everything in the universe is quite a beautiful thing, as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson noted.
Thus, again, I did not seek hope (specifically for my health conditions or otherwise) or karma or spirituality or wishful thinking. I sought the truth. For truth, should we reference the record of science, which says this planet has existed for billions of years and will again be vanquished or a book authored by superstitious people thousands of years ago during a time consumed with myth and legend? I have to side with the former.
I’m currently reading Thomas Paine’s “The Age of Reason.” Phillip Foner, in his biographical introduction to Paine’s widely read work said this of Paine’s hunger for learning, despite the “meagre education” he received at Thetford Grammar School:
He continued his process of self-education throughout hsi life, convinced that ‘every person of learning is finally his own teacher.’ ‘I seldom passed five minutes of my life however circumstanced,’ he once observed, ‘in which I did not acquire some knowledge.’
Note: I thought it might be interesting to keep a running log of some of the better quotes from my personal reading each day (or as often as I can.) This is the first such post.
Note: This is not to suggest I’m going to begin posting quotes I find every single day. (Though I may) I do have a life, you know, albeit, not much of one.
The hinting and intimidating manner of writing that was formerly used on subjects of this kind [religion], produced skepticism, but not conviction. It is necessary to be bold. Some people can be reasoned into sense, and others must be shocked into it. Say a bold thing that will stagger them, and they will begin to think. — Thomas Paine / Letter written to Elihu Palmer