Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Why don't you believe in God?

A day or two ago I received the following message on facebook from one of my cousins. Far from offended or put off I was delighted with the opportunity to really put my thoughts down somewhere ... Maybe I can refer people here in the future if questions arise regarding what exactly I believe.

** Just did a once over and there is so much more I could go into .. I never touched on why I think agnosticism and atheism are in fact the same thing, for example....

We can see this as a conversation ... but it's now so freaking long that I feel I have to end it at this point. I'm not after all trying to write a book :) And I've now managed to have a lot of beer ;) **

Anyway .. here's what she sent me

Hey Geir,
How are you and the family doing? From pictures it looks like you all stay pretty busy. πŸ™‚ I'm not sure if you are aware or not, but I recently moved to Dallas, Texas to attend seminary. It's crazy how warm it still is in November....I didn't realize how different it was going to be from Georgia. Although I'm sure it's already pretty cold where you are. πŸ™‚
I realize that this message is coming out of the blue, so please don't feel obligated to respond. However, I would love to get your opinion on something if you felt comfortable. As you can imagine in my seminary classes I have begun doing a more in-depth study of various topics. However, if I'm honest, I am very curious as to the opinions of people from all viewpoints as it relates to God. I am not one who is afraid to learn why people believe differently than myself.
In a completely non-confrontational sense, I would love to know what your view is on God and how you came to that belief. Also I would love to know what your biggest frustration is with Christians in general.
Like I said, please don't feel obligated to respond; however, I am truly curious and would love to know your response if you felt comfortable to share. I hate the idea of making assumptions, so I see this as a way for me to learn from you.
Well, I hope you and your family are doing well! Take care!

I answered that I would love to answer and asked here if it would be okay with her for me to answer in the form of a blog post... She agreed and here we are:

From her message I divined the following questions which i've outlined here (I've interpreted a bit here and there):

  1. What is God? Are you an atheist or agnostic is kinda how I see this.
  2. How did you come to believe this .. pretty straightforward really.
  3. What is it about christians that you find so darn frustrating
I think I'll try to address these all in a series of reflections which I'll flesh out below...

The God of Abraham: In the beginning I was a christian and then after some rumination it made no sense anymore

Like most Americans in my general age group I attended church regularly, and moreover, I attended a parochial school, Good Shepherd Lutheran in Irving, TX ... and look they even have a website now: http://www.gslcirving.com/,  until the 4th grade where religious instruction was a regular part of the curriculum. I constructed "I love Jesus" crafts (something Ann Sofie loves to bring up every now and then), attended church on Sundays (mostly .. I can't remember exactly how often we went, but I know that my mom is a believer and at that time I think we attended quite regularly), and even constructed my own weapons for apostle action figures (we had some kind of arts and crafts assignment in 2nd or 3rd grade where we used popsicle sticks, glue, and construction paper to make our own apostles ... probably we did more than this but this is what I can remember). 

I realize that this is crazy, but it's an indelible memory of mine. I remember combining toothpicks with tiny red straws to create what were would be swords and even constructed tiny bow and arrows for the dozen popsicle stick men I had created. I even had a running narrative where the apostles become blessed with super powers and used their weaponry to exact revenge on Pontius Pilate and his gang of rapscallions (they might've been reading Twain aloud to us around that time as well ...) I also have clear memories of Mr. Lions informing me that this vengence filled indulgence was not only wrong (and probably a bit disturbing .. but I was an eight year old boy interested in ninjas) but was really missing the point. There was a story here that had a message and altering it was not only revisionist (of course he didn't use these words to explain it to me ... but it's the general message I remember coming away with) but derided the very sacrifice that was made. Jesus died without a blood thirsty gang of ninja apostles to swoop in and defend his honor. He died alone. He suffered for my sins. Was tried for my sins. And I needed to be thankful for this.

For my sins. My sins as an eight year old.

And god was omnipotent (and omniscient) 

This whole ninja thing was actually pretty important. I mean I gave up ninjas almost immediately, but the interest in stories and fiction was fierce. I loved it. I loved reading stories and I began to read a lot and in particular I had a penchant for fantasy novels. My father's interest in the natural sciences and let's face it the fact that he was running a nuclear pharmacy also had their impact. At home we watched Star Trek and discussed simple physics and the world seemed amazing ... Even if at the time I thought the christian god was the one behind it all.

Somewhere around this time I also had a sort of puerile philosophical monologue in my head about the nature of god's omnipotence. I remember wondering if God was so powerful that he could somehow be better at being "me" than I was. What kind of sense did it make for God to be more capable of acting out the flawed thinking and actions of an eight year old than that eight year old himself. This is hardly an argument that would convince me of anything today and i'm not sure that this line of thinking is really and truly defensible (I mean I'm not sure omnipotence needs/must be inclusive of such a definition... It's like being tolerant of intolerance ... what kinda sense does that make), but it's part of what ultimately led me to dump faith altogether.

We moved to Houston in 1984. This move meant that we lost the connection we had with our former church and were forced to build a new life in League City. We never found another church to attend really though we did try at least one if memory serves (A presbyterian church). I learned that my father in fact was an atheist (something I remember feeling a special kind of dread about). My interests in science, science fiction, and fantasy were emerging and growing... At the same time I was hearing from my another friend of mine, a baptist, that these interests of mine were injurious and that I should cease with this dalliance immediately. He was a good friend of mine for a time, Darren Strunk, and I even attended lock-ins with him at his baptist church (Lock-ins btw are creepy as fuck.... try explaining this concept to a swede ... It hadn't really occurred to me how bizarre a concept they were until I tried explaining them to people here).

Anyway .. All this came to a head when I realized one day while eating lunch with Darren and McKee that I actually wasn't sure about this whole god thing at all. Darren had again begun to condemn the books we were reading "the Xanth series by Piers Anthony: Xanth) I had learned about the word "agnostic" from my dad.... He had explained that our Aunt Betty Ann was agnostic... To be honest I didn't really understand what it meant more than his simple explanation which was basically, "she wants to see to believe." As it turns out this is a terrible definition of agnostic, but it was enough of a working definition for me at the time ... So at the ripe age of 13 I decided I didn't believe this nonsense anymore.

** I gather she went back to Christianity long before she finally passed (which I'll never understand, btw)... but in the 80's she claimed to be agnostic and I kinda had a special relationship with her because of it. She and I had a number of endearing conversations throughout my adolescence through to adulthood... She was the first person to recommend me to read Hume and introduced me to the concept of empiricism when I was still in Junior High.

There was no God that was going to damn me for playing Dungeons and Dragons, reading fantasy, and enjoying the wonders of science above and beyond what was in the bible. If there was any accountability in the world to be had at all then surely actually committing bad deeds would weigh heavier than enjoying stories.

I know what you're thinking... You're thinking, "But Geir, God doesn't require that at all!!!!" I realize that of course, but you're fooling yourself if you think that many a pundit circa 1988 didn't espouse such things. This was the time where the world was imprisoning people who played role playing games... I was an AVID role player during this period... I only stopped playing really when we got children of our own and really couldn't find the time to do so anymore.

That whole RPG-scare has since died down, but it left its mark on society in general and on me specifically.

This led to a sort of freedom. It turns out my friend McKee didn't believe anyway. His parents were a part of some weird Indian sect that worshipped what they called "The Master." I never really figured out what the heck that was all about, but suffice it to say that he didn't really believe in anything anyway. We began to look at the world more skeptically.

Surely if there were a god there would be some sort of accountability.

What does it mean to live a "good" life?

How on earth could God punish people (depending on the branch of christianity you believe in) who never even knew anything about God or Jesus?

What kind of sense does it make to allow a serial-killer to repent on his deathbed but condemn an otherwise "good" (at least in a biblical sense of good works) person to hell or at least limbo (again depending on your flavor of christianity)`

**** This is really the biggen for me and always has been **** What kind of morality is derived from belief? Can we even control what we believe? Surely our actions and the intent behind them must weigh more heavily than what we believe.

None of this God-stuff made any sense any more. The moment I let go the moment the world started to fall into place ... And it landed in such a way that was far more parsimonious with regard to cause and effect than God ever was.

** A smallish afterword....  Look, this is just how I moved away from God. I'm not suggesting that these particular arguments are especially compelling, but this, I think, is a pretty good rundown of how I left faith behind me... 

College: Studying Philosophy and rewriting God as god

This whole question of god isn't something I've taken lightly... Honestly, this has become a lifelong interest and passion of mine. Why do people believe? And, more to the point, how can I help my peers move away from what is clearly flawed thinking ... How can we as humans move from God to god and thereafter do away with this altogether.

This interest grew so much that I opted to study philosophy in college. I should be clear here,  that it wasn't *only* this god question that caught my interest, rather, the philosophical interest in clear thinking and pursuit/love of wisdom intrigued me. Well, that, and I had a genuine interest in existentialism. My foray there, however, isn't really of any interest here.

I really began to cement my ideas on this god matter in college. There is no God, or at least no evidence of one... And this missing God certainly isn't worthy of a capital "G." We can absolutely refer to him/her with a 'g.'

It was during college when I realized that there really are two different types of arguments around "God" with the capital 'G.'
  • Is there any kind of God, or prime mover, or intelligent designer, or god of the deists, or Brahma, or any other kinda Upanishadic/vedic god that is sort of everywhere but without agency
  • Is there an [insert specificl religion here] god **OR** can we trust [insert religious text here]
The former is a harder question ... Is there a prime mover? How the hell should I know? How can anyone know? What caused the prime mover? Are there turtles the whole way down? Unmoved Mover

This concept comes up a number of times throughout the history of philosophy: Aristotle, Aquinas (really just expanding and trying to christianize Aristotle), Spinoza, and really all the way to the Big Bang. The definitions here are, in my humble opinion, nebulous... It's really just its own formulation of the cosmological argument... The problem is that it's so generic that it can't be answered really.

Then there's the question of specific religious texts and the claims they're making based upon those texts. This second question is the far more polemical question, bizarrely. All of these religions and interpretations cannot all be simultaneously correct. As convinced as you may be of the veracity behind scripture christianity may in fact be declining. Many are speculating that populations demographics will drive more muslims into our global population and that within 100 (maybe even 50) muslims will outnumber christians. This is nothing new ... We've been aware of this development for quite some time.

But what does it mean that the definition of god will change proportionally on the globe? I dunno. Nothing?

For this we have to start comparing scripture. How do we rank scripture in terms of historical and or predictive veracity? That's one question. Another question may even be what their predictive power is for our practical world.

It's this latter argument that garnered my attention in college. Why should we ascribe any meaning and power to the bible if it provides nothing to help what really is our bottom line in this life. How long do we live? How can we mitigate suffering? How can we help people live more productive and meaningful lives?

The bible wants to answer these questions but it simply doesn't. Modern medicine saves lives. Go read up on humorism and decide for yourself if you think this is reasonable... And remember this was officially endorsed by the church: anything else was blasphemy.

Now, perhaps you're thinking ... "Yes, but that was a long time ago. There's nothing inherently incompatible with modern medicine and Christianity." Well, the problem is that this battle has been waged for more than a millennium now this way. With Christianity begging/demanding that research claims stop here or there until the evidence becomes so overwhelming that ignoring it begins to be deemed negligence.

The last 10 - 15 years:ish

The last decade or so has seen the rise of the "four horseman." I don't approve of or agree with everything that Dennet, Hitchens, Harris, or Dawkins have written/said but they certainly did a fantastic job of popularizing the movement. I can actually be a bit stronger than that and say that I find a lot of what Dawkins says on twitter to be repugnant. Not everything and I enjoy seeing him speak in public, but I do sort of wish he'd delete his twitter account.

My personal favorite of these is Hitchens... I can watch his debates on youtube for hours at a time and I've read a number of his books (he died 2011). All that said .. These are just debates and to be honest debates don't really prove anything at all; they tend to turn into a sort of smack-down fest which doesn't really lend itself to finding any truth about anything.

In 2004 or 2005 I read Angels and Demons and then The Da Vinci Code. At the time I had a colleague far more well read than I in patristics .. That's an exaggeration. I didn't know bupkiss about patristics at the time. Anyway, he and I were talking and he basically laughed at me for believing the nonsense written about in Dan Brown's novels. He suggested I read up more on the subject before I started believing this kind of pop-fiction... At this point I was blissfully unaware of the aforementioned four horseman, but they were becoming more and more popular at the time. I still think the reasons I had in college for leaving faith behind me were still more than valid, but the integrity of history is important and this kindled an interest in history that's still very much alive in me today...

So after that I started reading ... I read more and more of the bible. I read Eusebius, I read Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet, and Harris. I read Josephus (well, if I'm honest I read the jesusy parts ... which is like almost nothing. I think I read a bit more than that but not much. It was like 10 years ago too so it's been a while)... Then I read Ignatius, Tertullian, and Ambrose. I read Ehrman. Actually, i've read several of Ehrman's books now. I read Robert Price (and btw ... I think the whole mythicism thing is a bit fringe. It's interesting, but I'm not ready to take that leap yet). Just a few months ago I read Trypho by Justin Martyr .. I also read the Koran and am currently in the middle of the Elder Edda.

Anyway ... This is hardly something i've discarded without thinking about it.

What I find frustrating with Christians

This one is a bit unfair. It's not so much that I have problems with Christians as much as I reject religions in general. I do have significant problems with Dominionism in the US, but that's really an intersection of christianity with US politics.

In the US I think christianity poses the greatest risk to a progressive society, but I'm not blind to the fact that Islam in fact poses the greatest risk globally. Having said that, we should remember that no one cared about Islam 30 years ago. This has become embroiled in its own political struggle

Really, I think I can list only three issues...

1) There seems to be some bizarre notion, among US christians at least, that I just need to have god explained to me again. This is ridiculous. I've given this WAY more thought than the vast majority of people ever will. I've considered this long and hard .. and I'm simply unconvinced. To be honest I think I never would have believed had I not been indoctrinated to do so from when I was young... Like all of us btw ... Or Like Muslims, or Hindus, or Sikhs, etc.

2) There's an assumed primacy among christians that I find annoying and some bizarre predilection to refer to the bible. Why on earth should I rely on the bible as authoritarian for anything at all? Christians should really read the bible more **AND** they should really read some textual criticism. It's ridiculous that most christians have never considered the differences in the accounts portrayed in the synoptic gospels .. that most christians are blissfully unaware that the adulterous woman from john 7:53 - 8:11 doesn't exist in *ANY* of our earliest manuscripts.... and so on .. and so on..

3) And this last point is for me the biggest one .. And it's one that's honestly been with me since I was a teenager. Morality is either a constant or it isn't **full stop**

As an atheist I live a moral life by example. I don't assume that a creator somewhere decrees things good and bad and nonetheless has wiped out entire civilizations multiple times (including children) capriciously. This is an act that if committed by anyone but god has precise wording: genocide. The bible is quite clear on slavery, on rape, and on worship. There are rules for each of these which imply an acceptance of them. Yet, to me these things are relegated to a barbaric past and hardly something I'd elevate according to today's stanards. I'm open to discussion on ethics and I admit that I'm not sure where on the consequentualism spectrum I land but I'm quite sure that you can't both allow that god did "good" by murdering children in the great flood and demand that killing children is bad. And depending on which ten commandments you choose ... why on earth should so many be devoted to how we worship god? Why aren't more people upset with this salient point? It's insane. Why isn't, "thou shalt not rape or enslave thy neighbor" in there at all? It's omission is egregious and historically obvious ... Our norms have changed.

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