I was reminded of this while listening to the impeachment hearings. Pundits are referring to Gordon Sondland’s testimony in front of the House Intelligence Committee as a “John Dean Moment”: a reference to the White House Counsel whose 1973 testimony before the Senate Watergate Subcommittee implicated his boss, then-President Richard Nixon.
However, Sondland tying a quid quo pro to the man who gave him a job (ambassador to the European Union) for which he had no apparent qualifications—aside, perhaps, from the $1,000,000 contribution he made to said boss’s inauguration—is not the only echo of a scandal from the past. As venal as Donald Trump and his administration have been, there is, sadly, almost nothing new about the kinds of corruption that have marked him and it—or, perhaps more to the point, what has enabled that corruption.
People even older than I am, some of whom are lifelong Republicans, regard Trump’s administration as the most corrupt of their lifetimes. Historians are already comparing him with the most unethical leaders in American history, such as Andrew Johnson and Warren G. Harding.
The latter occupied the White House nearly a century ago. One of the darkest stains on his legacy was the Teapot Dome Scandal. Interior Secretary Albert Fall (such an appropriate name) leased oil-rich Federal lands in Wyoming in exchange for large bribes. For that, he became the first Presidential Cabinet officer to go to prison for a crime committed while in office.
Evangelical Christians, who overwhelmingly supported Harding’s election, didn’t seem to care much about the scandal, just as today’s Evangelicals (82 percent of whom supported Trump in 2016) don’t seem too upset that some of his associates, including his former lawyer, campaign chairman, campaign adviser and national security adviser, have pled guilty or been indicted for crimes committed in the service of their boss.
In another bizarre parallel with Trump, Harding had a number of extramarital affairs, including some trysts that took place in the White House. Oh, and some of the Ohio cronies he appointed to prominent positions helped to keep his shelves stocked with bootleg whiskey—after he himself voted for the Eighteenth Amendment (a.k.a. Prohibition) as a Senator from Ohio. Evangelicals, who—along with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union—supported the Amendment, were willing to overlook Harding’s flouting of the law as well as standards of sexual impropriety, just as today’s Evangelicals excuse “baby Christian” Trump’s two divorces, numerous extramarital affairs and sexual assault of scores of women.
In perhaps the eeriest and most damning parallel of all, Evangelical Christians’ support of two men whose behavior directly affronted the values Evangelicals professed had, at its base, the same essential motive: preserving their idea of a “Christian” nation. Harding’s predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, helped to build the League of Nations but failed to get his own country to join it. His efforts were of a piece with his refusal to support Congressional efforts to restrict immigration: efforts that would finally succeed a year after Harding died in office, with the Immigration Act of 1924. One reason Evangelicals supported this legislation is that the massive immigrations of 1880-1920 were almost entirely non-Protestant (Catholics? Jews? Oh, my!) and were thus seen as undermining the “Christian” culture of this country. On the other hand, the League of Nations was seen as an attempt to subjugate America to the authority of outside forces that, presumably, would have opened the floodgates to people fleeing poverty, violence, natural disasters and political corruption in all corners of the world
Like the Harding-era policies supported by Evangelicals, Trump’s “America First” policy is an appeal to a yearning for a country based on “godly” American values that are undermined by immigration from poorer, darker countries. Thus, in another parallel with the Harding administration, “Christian” is conflated not only with the beliefs of a few Evangelical and mainline Protestant churches, but with whiteness and Anglo-Saxon heritage. Moreover, that vision of Christian Nation America is one free of “entanglements” with the rest of the world. That, along with the benefits that accrued to the Trump family and a few others in their income bracket, is a reason why Trump took the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord (signed by his predecessor and nemesis, Barack Obama) and other international agreements—and claimed that he did so because he was elected to “represent the people of Pittsburgh, not of Paris.” In doing so, he was able to present himself, to his supporters, as a champion of the “traditional” white “Christian” nation of which they were a part.
Such blatantly false appeals lead to the selling-out of the interests of this country. Evangelicals of nearly a century ago enabled the corruption that led to Teapot Dome and other scandals; Fundamentalist Christians of today likewise enabled Donald Trump to use the security of this country’s elections, and potentially of the security of this country itself, as currency in exchange for military aid to a country that, for decades, writhed under the oppression of Russia, its neighbor and former-US-enemy-turned-Trump-client.
History is repeating itself. Gordon Sondland helped to confirm that.
Science is a process that methodically gathers knowledge about the natural world. Science leads us to knowledge about the world around us, and how it works. We all make observations about the world around us all the time, but those using the scientific method are careful not to jump to conclusions based on those observations until they are testable repeatedly and independently. This means that, for scientific findings to be valid, anyone with the right training and resources must be able to repeat the experiments and consistently come out with the same results. Science, though it is conducted by biased and imperfect humans, must be conducted in an unbiased way. Scientists have to learn to put aside their biases and preconceived beliefs before they conduct their experiments. Bias can very easily cause someone to misinterpret the results. This is the fundamental difference between the scientific approach and the approach taken by most people in society. If you have a favorite political party or sports team, you are likely to cheer for them no matter how they perform. Even if your sports team never wins, you may still convince yourself they are the best team. The difference between the scientific method and what I would call the political or religious method is best explained by the following illustration:
In the scientific method, all the evidence on a particular topic is examined. Then the conclusions are drawn from the findings of the evidence regardless of whether the scientist likes the conclusions or not. Conversely, in the political or religious method, the conclusion is generally formed first and then evidence is gathered to support that conclusion or theory. When it seems like science has been wrong about something, usually it is because scientists have not properly taken their bias out of the methods and therefore have misinterpreted their findings. A very important part of science is also acknowledging when you don’t have enough data to form a conclusion. (More on that later in relation to scientists being wrong all the time).
Deliberate Discrediting of Science and Scientists
There are two classic examples in recent years of how good science has been rejected because it conflicts with an agenda: 1) evolution; and 2) climate change. Evolution is a process that explains how biological diversity arises by changes in the inherited genotype (genetic make-up of the organism) and phenotype (the observable characteristics) through generations of offspring. The word “overwhelming” is often used to describe the amount of evidence supporting evolution. There is no doubt that evolution happens in biology, and that humans evolved from more primitive primate species (not monkeys!). Evolution is as established and verifiable as many other parts of science, such as gravity, germ theory, etc. I don’t need to list all the evidence in favor of evolution here, that information is available to anyone who honestly wants to know the truth. However, evolution goes directly against the concept that God created the species (including humans) as they are, and that humans are somehow special among the many species of animals. Therefore, those people who are unable to let go of their belief that God exists and that he created the species as they are, must reject evolution, try to discredit the science behind it, and even teach children known falsehoods in science classes, all because the truth of evolution challenges their pre-conceived conclusion that God created humans as we are.
Another example is climate change. The global climate is a complex phenomenon. There have been large variations and cycles in the earth’s climate throughout its history. Cycling between ice ages and warmer periods seems to be a natural occurrence. However, in the past decades, the earth’s climate has been changing much more rapidly than ever before. This has been occurring in concert with an increase in carbon dioxide levels, higher than they have been in roughly 100 million years. The rate of change is completely out of whack with the natural cycles that have happened in the past, and corresponds to the recent centuries of industrialization of our society and our massive increase in use of fossil fuels (which give off carbon dioxide). Again, there is no doubt in science about the facts of climate change. Though the process of climate change is not as established as evolution, there is no doubt that human activity is dramatically affecting the climate on our planet. But to alter this process would take some very, very significant changes in all our lifestyles. (This is the part where climate change deniers roll their eyes and claim that environmentalists would have us all living in caves). One of the huge changes that would have to take place is a shift towards cleaner energy sources, and there are very, very wealthy and powerful people who make all their money by having you and me use fossil fuels. They have an agenda, and they don’t care about the science. Therefore, the science of climate change has been very deliberately attacked by organized and well-funded groups with special interests.
Both of these (evolution and climate change) are great examples of the political and religious process of having an agenda or a conclusion, and then going out and looking for evidence to support that agenda, rather than forming conclusions based on all the evidence. Sadly, many people have been led to believe exactly the opposite: that scientists have an agenda with evolution and climate change, and they are making it all up to support their agenda. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Don’t Scientists Have an Agenda Too?
The short answer is no. Scientists are human, of course, so they all have biases and are capable of making mistakes. But the scientific method is specifically designed to remove human bias, errors, and agendas. The whole point of the scientific method is to discover without bias. Yes, some scientists have an agenda. Yes, some scientists do take money from funding agencies that want to prove they are right more than they want to discover the real truth about something (think pharmaceutical companies). But the vast majority of scientists deliberately try to remove bias from their work, look for the honest answer regardless of what they want the answer to be, and when they do have their findings, they present them publicly for others to review and criticize to ensure they are valid findings. That is the way good science is conducted in research institutions, and the vast majority of the time it works to uncover a lot of knowledge about the world around us.
If you get into a disagreement or argument with a scientist about his or her particular area of expertise, then one of two things is likely to happen. Firstly, and much more likely, you are wrong and are not accepting the evidence that the scientist is using to back up their position. (A simple example would be arguing with a physicist about whether the earth is round or flat. You are wrong. He is right. The physicist is right because he based his position on the evidence). Or, secondly, you are right and the scientist is wrong because he has either left the scientific method of examining only the evidence, or he has over-extended himself beyond what the evidence tells him. (An example of this would be if a physicist tells you that we know we are in the only universe in existence. We don’t have enough evidence to support that claim, and if a scientist claimed that fact, then he has forgotten not to extend his conclusions beyond the evidence).
Why Do Scientists Seem So Arrogant?
In short, because they are right! Remember, when they are doing their job properly, scientists only form their conclusions based on evidence and facts and limit their conclusions when they don’t have enough evidence. Therefore, when they do draw a conclusion about something, it is very, very likely to be correct. You’ll notice that it is very hard to win an argument with someone when they do this. Try to take the position in an argument that the sky is not blue, or that gravity does not exist and see how you do. If you knew nothing about gravity, you might think a physicist seemed arrogant for being so adamant that he is right about gravity. But the physicist is only adamant because the evidence overwhelmingly supports his position. If you base your arguments on evidence and are careful not to overextend your position beyond the evidence, then you will always be right, simple as that. Of course, most scientists have extensive knowledge on one specific topic that is far greater than that of the average person. Therefore, when you argue with them on that one topic, they are always right and you are always wrong (assuming they base their argument in evidence). This can seem like arrogance.
Of course, in reality many scientists do overextend themselves beyond the evidence and make claims that are not supported. Then they are just being arrogant.
Aren’t Scientists Wrong All the Time?
Scientific findings are often corrected as we learn more about the natural world. Sometimes scientists discover something and then realize down the road that their discovery was not quite right after all. But that is not a good reason to reject science whenever it conflicts with your particular preferences, and to explain it away by saying that scientists are often wrong anyway. The scientific method gradually produces knowledge and facts about nature, but one experiment might not immediately provide all the answers. For example, if you want to know whether drinking aspartame has negative effects on pregnant women, you don’t want to draw your conclusions after one experiment. After many experiments by many different scientists, we may discover the truth about that question. But each experiment by itself tends to give an incomplete picture. The important thing in understanding science is to distinguish between the findings that are preliminary and those that are overwhelmingly supported. If you read in the news about a study that found that eating seven carrots a day will reduce your risk of cancer by 36%, then you can likely assume that it is a preliminary finding. Much more research needs to be done to establish the actual benefits of a certain number of carrots per day. But, if you read a textbook on evolution, you would be wrong to roll your eyes and think that this is a preliminary finding. Over 150 years of scientific research in many different fields (geology, biology, genetics, microbiology, etc.) all lead to the same conclusions about evolution.
It is easy and tempting to look back over time and claim that scientists have been wrong about so much. You could look back in history and claim that scientists first thought the earth was flat and the sun went around the earth and so on. But most scientific claims have a degree of uncertainty to them. (Statistics dictates that certainty is not possible in any one scientific experiment. Most scientific experiments are set up statistically so that the likelihood of misinterpreting the results are roughly 1 in 20. But that does not mean that the chances of science being wrong on well-established findings are 1 in 20. For example, any single experiment on tobacco smoking leading to cancer will have a 1 in 20 chance of being wrong. But the chances that smoking does not cause cancer are much, much less than 1 in 20, almost infinitely smaller.) That is why scientists have to be careful to say that the evidence supports their findings, given what we know so far, but that there may be a lot more to the whole story. Scientific findings have to be interpreted with a great deal of humility about what we still don’t know about nature. Anytime scientists conduct one experiment and then claim to know the truth about that phenomenon, they are probably being hasty and arrogant. Only over time, with careful and unbiased repetition of results, can we state things to be true with a very high level of certainty.
Usually, when science has turned out to be “wrong”, it is in fact a case of a scientist having drawn a conclusion before there is enough evidence to support it, so that when enough evidence does come to light their conclusions don’t hold up. In ancient times, a true scientist would not have made assumptions about the earth being flat, but instead should have said: “We don’t have enough data yet to know what shape the earth is.” This is the approach modern scientists take on many unknown issues surrounding things like dark matter, and the exact origins of the universe. Since we don’t have enough data yet, we have to be careful not to draw too many conclusions. Sadly, this acknowledgment is often exploited by the religious with a statement that God must fill in the gaps in knowledge, or that since science can’t explain everything about the origin of the universe, God must have created it.
Can You Be A Scientist and A Christian at the Same Time?
It is possible, but very uncommon. In my time as a scientist, I’ve met very few scientists who are religious. The vast majority of those have grown up in religious cultures and families that they have just continued with in their lives as adults. When they go to work each day and conduct experiments, they almost always set aside their religion and just work as scientists. To work as a scientist and keep your firmly entrenched Christian beliefs in the forefront of your mind would create a conflict because science requires that we set aside personal biases. If your personal bias is that God created the world and is ultimately responsible for how everything works, then you’re unlikely to be very good at interpreting your scientific findings objectively. In my experience, the vast majority of scientists are not religious. Most of them, if asked, would probably admit to agnosticism since there is no sure way of knowing whether a god exists or not. The best answer I’ve heard on this was from my high school chemistry teacher. When asked if he believes in God, he replied: “You define God for me, and then I’ll tell you whether I believe in your definition.”
Are Science and Religion in Opposition?
This is an age-old argument. Carl Sagan’s fictional book Contact has a great debate on this topic. Everyone seems to have a different point of view on whether science and religion can co-exist. My position (which I am not saying is the only correct one), is that the two are in conflict. The whole point of this post has been to show that the scientific method is one that forms a conclusion only after examining the evidence. The religious method is the opposite: you hold a belief (or have faith) and then look at the world and find things that support that belief in God. If you always stick to the scientific method, I am confident you’ll never find a reason to even bring religion into the conversation. In my mind, everything in the world is explained naturally with no need for the supernatural. It was science that ultimately helped relieve me of my religious beliefs. After years of studying science, I finally realized that the level of scrutiny I demanded of myself for my religious beliefs was completely out of whack with the level of scrutiny for everything else in my life. I lived an evidence-based life, always being careful to critique what politicians and others claimed against what the evidence actually stated, but when it came to religion, for some reason, I just accepted what the Bible said about God without ever questioning it. Eventually I overcame that inconsistency in my life and left Christianity behind, so it is not surprising that my particular point of view is that science and religion are not just incompatible but are in direct opposition to one another.
I wrote at the beginning that: “for scientific findings to be valid, anyone with the right training and resources must be able to repeat the experiments and come out with the same results.” The beauty of science, therefore, is that it is freely available for anyone and everyone. No one can come along and claim to have knowledge that is not accessible to you. No one can claim that they know better than you, and you should just trust what they say without independently verifying that knowledge. You will notice that this is in direct opposition to the religious approach to knowledge by revelation. The Bible tells us that Jesus died on the cross and came to life again three days later. But this is not independently verifiable. You cannot test this claim. You must rely on someone else’s description of that event in order to believe it. This is exactly the opposite of the scientific approach. While you may have to rely on scientists’ description of things that are very complicated for you to understand, nothing is stopping you from going and getting trained in that field of science and then conducting your own experiments to find out for yourself if they are correct. If you do that, no honest scientist will ever tell you: “Yes, but I have superior knowledge and findings in my experiment, so I’m still right.”
Why Do We Need Science Anyway?
The way science is conducted is changing rapidly in universities and research institutions. Governments are focusing funding on things that they think are important and ignoring or actively discrediting the science that they think is either unimportant or that goes against their political agenda. This is not the way science is supposed to work. Science is a process of discovery, but you often don’t know what you are going to discover. Many of the greatest scientific discoveries in history were made more or less by accident when a scientist was actually looking for something else. When Alexander Fleming stumbled upon penicillin in 1928, he did so by accident. He wasn’t even studying antibiotics at all. Yet, that accidental discovery changed all of our lives for the better, probably more than any other medical discovery in the twentieth century. Imagine if governments had shut down Fleming because they didn’t feel his relatively obscure scientific research was contributing to society. The point is, you never know where the most important scientific discoveries are going to come from. So, trying to focus on curing cancer while stopping the study of sea-slugs would be a big mistake because ultimately the cure for cancer could lie in knowledge gained by studying sea slugs. When you limit the process of discovery, you limit the discoveries you will make.
The other very important reason that science is important in society is that if everyone took an evidence-based approach to life’s decisions, we’d have a much better world. There would be far fewer (if any) wars, and governments would be forced to serve the best interests of the population, and not the party. The scientific method teaches us to take a humble and open-minded approach to life. Don’t go into things assuming you know the answer before you begin. Stick to your conclusion if the evidence supports it, even if everyone else says you are wrong. But do admit when you are wrong. These are the hallmarks of a good scientist, but most of us don’t act this way when engaging in politics, marriages, friendships, conversations, and so on.
Summary: Why Is Science Relevant to a Discussion About Religion & Atheism?
What does science have to do with religion? Isn’t religion outside the realm of science? Doesn’t religion require faith, which doesn’t involve science? Well, science is all about basing conclusions on evidence. If there is no evidence for something, then it probably isn’t reality. Therefore, science is relevant to discussions on religion because there’s no objective evidence for God. If there was a God, and if there was evidence for God, scientists would be the first people lining up to tell the world all about it. Discovering that God exists would be the single greatest scientific discovery in history, for which any scientist would be glad to get credit, if only it were true. The reason scientists do not generally agree that God exists is not because of some agenda or some grand anti-religious conspiracy. No, the reason science does not support the existence of God is simply because there is no evidence to support that claim. All the claims for the existence of God (or gods) are based entirely on personal experience. All the personal experiences recorded in the Bible are examples of exactly the opposite process of discovery in science: they are not reproducible, they are not supported by evidence that anyone can observe, and they are not carefully controlled observations by people trained to be unbiased in their interpretations. This is where conversations between believers and scientists can start to go in circles, with believers claiming that God is outside the ability of science to detect and therefore does not require evidence, and with scientists claiming that nothing is outside the ability of science to detect and therefore God must not exist since there is no evidence for God.
I’ll conclude with a statement and a challenge. My statement is this: “Everything that exists is explainable by science, given enough time and resources.” I state this because my position is that there is only the natural world. There is no supernatural. Since science provides answers to the natural world, science has the answer for everything. My challenge is this: “Come up with a question, for which there is a definite answer, that science is not capable of providing an answer with a reasonable level of certainty.”
In 2014, Brandon Fibbs wrote an article titled “Carl Sagan Took My Faith — and Gave Me Awe,” for the now-defunct Washington Post “On Faith” blog. Fibbs wrote:
I was not always an atheist.
I was once a devout and sincere believer in the Christian faith. I am the son and grandson of pastors and missionaries. My family founded one of the country’s largest Bible colleges, Christ for the Nations, from which I earned a theology degree. For years, I contemplated, and began strategizing, a run for national political office under the banner of Christian reform.
The longer a belief system—any belief system—remains in place, the more likely it is to become an unmovable fixture of that person’s identity. In my experience, most persons of faith who undergo a deconversion experience do so during their middle or high school years. But that is not my story. I did not begin to question, nor finally abandon, my faith until my mid-30s.
That was when I discovered science. And Carl Sagan.
Carl Sagan was an astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist and author who became a household name in the early 1980s when his television series “Cosmos: A Personal Journey” became the most watched program in PBS history. Before his untimely death in 1996, Sagan was the nation’s leading science communicator, a regular guest on both the nightly news and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
But in my childhood home, Carl Sagan was a fundamentalist caricature of science. He was a figure of scorn and mockery, conjured in conversation only when one needed a large and easy target for pillorying evolution.
“Billions and billions of years” was a “Cosmos”-inspired quote my family and friends would mimic in Sagan’s telltale nasal inflection, always earning animated laugher. Not because it was fun to imitate so singular a personality, but because anyone who believed, much less preached, such nonsense deserved nothing more than sarcastic contempt. And so it was for most of my life.
As the product of a mostly terrific private school education, I never had to worry about encountering something like Sagan’s “Cosmos” in my school science classes. A literal reading of the book of Genesis, including a six-day creation, 6,000-year-old Earth, and a historic Noah and Tower of Babel, constituted our learning of cosmic and human origins. Evolution was a dreadful ploy spat up from the pit of hell, with which the world’s scientists were in complete collusion.
The closest I came to Sagan was in my mid-20s, when the film Contact, based on Sagan’s only novel, appeared in theaters. The story centered on a mysterious alien signal and the manner in which the globe’s many cultures processed the realization that they were not alone in the vast universe. I, like many people who saw the film, found it awe-inspiring. I can still remember returning home from the theater on a euphoric cloud, opening my Bible, and reading with wonder the majesty of God’s creative prowess.
A year or so later, I decided to read the novel, and while it entertained a certain ambiguity where matters of faith were concerned, the book initiated my first-ever crisis of faith. “Contact” raised and inspired questions that neither I nor anyone I knew could satisfactorily answer. I resolved that crisis of faith not by reconciling those quandaries, but rather by listening to those who told me that the questions themselves were either wrong to ponder or not even worthy of my time. I decided to ignore the questions, telling myself my faith was as strong as ever.
But the questions festered, continuing to grow and feeding off my neglect, until they were too large to ignore. I could not be intellectually honest and continue to ignore them. They demanded a verdict. And when I finally turned to face them down a decade or so later, I found that all my years in church and all my academic training was not enough to halt their advance.
I did not abandon my faith because I was hurt or angry or disillusioned. I did not abandon my faith because I wanted to rebel, or live a life of sin, or refuse god’s authority. I left because I could no longer believe. I left because I felt there simply was no convincing evidence for my belief. I left because my faith insulted reason one too many times. I left because once I applied the same level of skepticism and incredulity to Christianity that I always had to all other faiths, it likewise imploded. Once I accepted that the Bible’s account of cosmic and human origins could not possibly be true, I began to realize that it was just the first in an interminably long line of things the Bible was wrong about.
Science killed my faith. Not “science,” the perverse parody invented by some Christians—a nefarious, liberal, secular agenda whose sole purpose is to turn people from god—but rather science, an objective, methodological tool that uses reason and evidence to systematical study the world around us, and which is willing, unlike faith, to change direction with the accumulation of that evidence. Science is a humble and humbling exercise. Science is the impossibly dense core of curiosity—always asking, always seeking, always yearning to know more, never satisfied.
My newfound appreciation of science came, in no small part, from the writings of my old nemesis, Carl Sagan. What I discovered in Sagan’s elevated verse—particularly in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark and within the baker’s dozen of the series “Cosmos”—was one of the most transcendent experiences of my life. Here was a man who could stir both body and, if you will allow me a bit of poetic license, soul.
While Sagan’s personal views set him safely in the camp of atheism, he was more comfortable claiming the title of agnostic. He certainly never made it his mission to destroy anyone’s faith. His sights were always set on something far higher. His mission was to build up, not tear down.
As I read, I began to wonder—why had Sagan been so reviled? His manner was so meek, his words so respectful, his position so evenhanded. He was compassionate and affable, even when he quarreled. Certainly, he was nothing like the thought leaders of modern unbelief, such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, who take pride in their public disdain for religion. Sure, Sagan was staking a position against mythology, irrationality and pseudoscience, but he was so, well, kind about it.
Perhaps it was this very gentleness, warmth and humanity that made him so much more menacing than his ideological peers, then and now. He did not attack so much as elevate. He spent only as much time as was necessary dismantling those things that posed a significant threat to rational living, instead focusing most of our attention on the wonders science had revealed.
So it was with my own deconversion process. I had a mentor in the final years of my faith—a name with which everyone reading this is familiar—who never took my spiritual tumult as an opportunity to hack at the foundations of my religion, but who also didn’t turn his back when I came to him with my quandaries. He never attacked or belittled my faith. He merely redirected my gaze to the wonders that can be found within a scientific framework and let everything else take care of it itself. He simply showed me something unspeakably beautiful and inarguably true and then stepped back, trusting in a process he knew would ignite my brain and consume my body. Whether he knew it or not, he was walking in Carl Sagan’s footsteps.
This, for me, is Sagan’s most enduring legacy—this realization that science is the most emotional journey imaginable. Science does not castrate awe or inhibit transcendence—science unleashes it.
Though I am no longer a person of faith, I retain an understanding that there is something vastly and, at times, unfathomably larger than myself. And while this thing does not have intent or agency, so far as the evidence shows, that in no way modifies the wonder and majesty that washes over me when I contemplate it. Having removed a god from the equation, I counter-intuitively possess a greater sense of awe now than I ever felt in faith.
This immersion in something both utilitarian and grandiose was the definitive purpose of Sagan’s work. He does not inform; he immerses. He does not teach; he transports.
Science—that minuscule word saddled with the burden of representing the entirety of the colossal human enterprise of decoding the world around us and how we fit into it—is the greatest endeavor humans have ever undertaken. Routinely taught as a dull set of facts and figures, science is the most sweeping adventure we can know. With it, hairless apes build great cities, do miraculous medicine, see the unseeable, stir the dust of other planets, and peer back into space and time. While faith purports to have all the answers, science thrives on the questions.
Carl Sagan did not invent this wondrous tool, but he was one of its most eloquent advocates. His voice, like a clarion call in a dense miasma of irrationality, can still be heard, clear and true.
Afterward, Fibbs engaged one of his former Bible college professors in a discussion about his post and science in general. Readers will likely find their conversation quite entertaining, especially when the Bible college professor uses classic Evangelical apologetics methods: quoting Bible verses and threatening hellfire and brimstone. When boxed into a corner and Jesus is not listening to your prayers for deliverance, quote the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God and threaten people with Hell.
[Grammar in the original]
Bible college professor: Shout! Can’t believe 12 inches of snow in the “Big D”….Wow! Gotta love Gores imaginary global warming.
Brandon Fibbs: Ignoring your lack of understanding between weather and climate, that *is* amazing!
Bible college professor: Yep Brandon, I am one of those who actually refuse to drink liberalisms elitist “cool aid”…Don’t ya just hate it when freemen employ their discretionary judgment?
Brandon Fibbs: We call it scientific literacy but you can call it whatever you’d like! 🙂
Bible college professor: Funny….and they call Evolution science… Hmm… better stop drinking the coool aid bobo!
Brandon Fibbs: I prefer to drinks facts. Far more nutritional value!
Bible college professor: Brandon, you keep gettin funnier. Global warming- facts is an oxymoron.Didn’t you read the fabricated emails from the G.W. elitist? Shout! I prefer “Truth truth” as to home made-imagined-birthed in deception ‘facts”. You seem selective Brandon, how is truth [facts]knowable? definable? Aren’t facts just man-made interpretations? How can we know anyones “interpretation” isn’t just made up or influenced by their bias? Seems you put your trust in” depraved humanity”being able to define truth without bias or prejudice affecting their interpretation while rejecting inspired biblical writers? Ouch! Don’t yajust hate it when “someone thinks it through and outs the inconsistency demonstrated in yer hypocrisy?”… Love ya-mean it!
Brandon Fibbs: I want to note that I did not inject God into this conversation. I called you out on your lack of comprehension between weather and climate. I brought up the issue on the most basic of etymological, scientific terms. You immediately introduced both God and the origins of the universe. Not that I am surprised. Richard, you are a stereotype of modern evangelical charismatic Christianity, someone who, from all I have seen here, finds his religion and his political ideology so intertwined that he doesn’t know where one ends and the other begins, someone who sees liberalism as some sort of blanket affront to his faith (as are those who practice it). Take comfort in the fact that you are far from unique in this ideological misappropriation.
Some clarification is called for. Science, distilled to its simplest terms, is any systematic practice capable of predicting an outcome. It does this by acquiring knowledge based on research, by study, by observation. Science is an ongoing effort of discovering the previously unknown, to increase human knowledge—not through supposition or assumption or faith, but through disciplined research that uses controlled methods to collect observable evidence of the world around us—to chart and measure that phenomena under controlled conditions and from that, construct theoretical explanations for how things work overtime in the real world.
Science (not necessarily scientists) is not ideologically driven. It is data-driven. Its interest is the truth, no matter what that means to the one monitoring the data. You achieve this by a strict, peer review process that basically encourages other scientists to blow holes in their colleagues’ work. When enough try but cannot, you can be pretty sure you have a strong consensus. Like we have on global warming. And yes, evolution. Seeing as how science as we know and apply it wasn’t even “invented” until midway through the last millennium, I find if laughable that you insist on a book written predominantly by Bronze Age (and a few Iron Age) peasants who lived during a time when the world’s population believed things even you now find utterly preposterous.
Most Christians reject evolution, microbiology, planetary cosmology, neurology and dozens of other scientifically valid disciplines as a matter of daily practice. They are the literal liturgical descendants of those who persecuted Galileo and denounced the work of Copernicus. My model invites skepticism and dissent, yours cannot tolerate it. And while yours no longer has the unchecked power to do so, it once punished or killed those who disagreed with it. There is a reason Christians prefer to educate their children in their basements, or in ideologically indistinguishable communes or entrust them to pederasts (the latter part assumes you even consider Catholics true believers, which I doubt): this is far safer than exposing them to a view of the world that insists you must be able to prove what you believe.
It would be pedantic to list the social evils caused by the rejection of science and its intellectual and philosophical fruit. But those who refuse to embrace science and instead insist on ancient mythology have been on the wrong side, the evil side, and the obviously stupid side again and again. But of course they deny that. After all, denial is easy when forgiveness is cheap and you regard history as some sort of secular lie.
Compromise? Convince them of the error of their ways? Easier to plow the sea, and just as useful. When you point out evidence, it’s ignored. When you point out where they are wrong, it’s ignored. And why? Because they have the ultimate trump card. They don’t answer to man, but to God. And how does a mere mortal contest against God? You believe your truth is incapable of criticism because it originates from a deity. Your Bible allows you to sidestep logic and basic, elementary rationality and call it a higher truth, truth with a capital T. It’s all very convenient. It allows you to adhere to something at best unprovable and at worst demonstrably false and yet charge the person calling you out as the ignorant one. Quite the free pass. You base the totality of your interpretations of the natural world on a book written millennia ago, yet I’m the ignorant one. You offer no refutation based in empirical evidence. You refuse to bend to proof and are not even expected to. In the face of overwhelming consensus you can always play the higher power card. When backed into an irrational corner, you can always claim that I am debased and that God mocks those who are wise in their own eyes (which, as this string shows, you have already done). Why let a perfectly good fantasy get in the way of facts. You can’t lose because you never once actually participate in the game. Yes, very convenient indeed.
Yet somehow I’m the selective one, I’m the inconsistent one, I’m the hypocrite. Hypocrisy is, by its definition, a pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles that one does not really possess. Please explain to me how that is the case here. According to you, I’m a hypocrite for no other reason than I don’t believe what you believe, because (gasp) I think human beings can arrive at truth without a god. What an interesting world you must live in where the scientific method is somehow deemed depraved.
Christians believe without evidence. They order their lives without evidence. They kill without evidence. They die without evidence. And they call this cognitive disconnect faith. Show me evidence against something and I’ll disbelieve it. I don’t believe in anything that can’t be proved. I may suspend disbelief in the absence of proof, but my mind will always follow the proof. If there was evidence for something other than evolution—an angel with a flaming sword guarding the Garden of Eden, for example—I would consider it. An angel with a sword would go a long way toward transforming Genesis into an accurate narrative. Yet the world we both live in cannot support your mythology and is suffused on all sides by evidence of evolution. And yet you continue to cling to your stories, secure in faith and faith alone. Judgment Day never comes, prayers get answered with the exact same percentages as randomness, and miracles never get repeated on film. (And when was the last time God healed an amputee?)
I will never convince you and you will never convince me because our worldviews are antithetical to one another. Some scientists claim religion and science can coexist. Many more Christians say the exact same thing. Yet how is such a thing possible precisely because of what you wrote above? It is not. And why? Because you BELIEVE. You JUST KNOW. As with all adherents of all religions down through all of time.
You claim facts are just man-made interpretations and simultaneously that every word in the Bible is true? Very well. Guzzle this antifreeze. The Bible says you will be fine. Evolutionary biology offers a very different result. And for this reason, you cannot beat faith with logic or reason. And so, after posting this comment, I will not even try. Your religion has damaged your critical thinking skills.
I would rather place my faith in a system of check and balances, of research and observation, of discipline and evidence, yes even in flawed, biased people than in a prehistoric book you continue to awkwardly stretch to fit a contemporary era thousands of years on, an era that daily exposes just how tattered and incapable your beliefs are of operating in a world that no longer needs its mythologies to explain how the world works.
Bible college professor: Brandon, Brandon, Here is how your apostasy is viewed by The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…. in his own words:
You have become a fool and as a Reprobate, God’s wrath has given you over to your vile passions.
22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. 24 Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, 25 who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. 27 Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.
You can expect severe divine judgment!
26…. no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. 28 Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
May it be so!
Brandon Fibbs: Indeed. As I’ve said before, you are nothing if not predictable, going so far as to perform precisely as I predicted, in print, that you would. And once again, you prove you are philosophically and ideologically incapable engaging the argument but rather turn to your narrative crutch. Rather rude of God to hamstring His followers and make it impossible for them to engage in, much less win, a debate without blatantly ignoring the issues and falling back on the tried and true declarations of hellfire and brimstone. When you’re ready to talk without taking the cheap way out, I’m here. Till then, this is a waste of my breath. I’m done.
Looking back on my 1988 valedictory address at an Evangelical Christian school, I would like to put my remarks into some context. Some of you may have read parts of my story in other posts, but the quick summary is that my mom and I left my abusive dad in Knoxville, Tennessee when I was three years old to live with my grandparents outside Nashville, Tennessee. My mom held some relatively progressive views on racial and gender equality, and she encouraged me to read and to ask questions. She even admitted that a lot of things in the Bible might be allegory instead of historically accurate. Sometime during my adolescence, I realized she had turned thoroughly Christian Fundamentalist, forbidding movies such as “Star Wars” which we had previously enjoyed together.
Additionally, due to rumors that students in my public school district were to be sent to a predominantly African American school district, my mom and grandparents decided to send me to an Evangelical Christian school for grades 5-12. This school taught everything from a “Christ-centered Biblical view” — which means we learned lame apologetics for Young Earth Creationism, were required to take Bible classes, attend chapel, and were forced to abide by a gender-specific dress code. I hated that school.
My grandparents were very active in the Southern Baptist church in our rural community. Grandma became a neophyte culture warrior, and Grandpa was a deacon who quietly helped anyone in the community (whether a member of our church or not) who he heard was in need. He was a master of connecting those in need with those who were willing to help. Grandpa also taught me that my education came first and that I should NEVER EVER be dependent on a man financially. His biggest dream was for me to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville. It became my biggest dream, too, and I determined to excel academically to make it happen.
In my endeavor to achieve academic excellence, I came to look down upon my peers as inferiors. In my estimation, popular culture was cheap, anti-intellectual, and as useless to one’s intellectual improvement as cotton candy is to one’s nutrition. However, I also grew to look down upon the pastors and leaders of our church as teaching anti-intellectual doctrine. I considered the (male) teachers at our school to be only slightly better. My viewpoint was exacerbated by my exposure to working with Ph.D. Biochemists at Vanderbilt University when I was 16 years old. My mom worked in the Biochemistry department as an administrative assistant, and due to our lack of automobiles, I had to work wherever was convenient for my family in terms of transportation. At 16 years old, I got a job as a dishwasher and lab assistant at the university. I was able to meet highly educated people from all over the world. I knew these were the people I wanted to be like, not the Christian Fundamentalists of my church and school world. However, I knew that the Christians among them were not Real Christians®, and some of the scientists weren’t Christians at all. It became difficult for me to reconcile the Fundamentalist teachings of church and school that these people were damned to an eternity in Hell with the reality that they were kind, intelligent, socially active human beings. These people became my mentors and my friends as I worked with them for eight years (two years before college, during college, and for two years afterward).
As a high school student, I did not have many friends. Students attending the Christian school came from far and wide, so some of my classmates lived a 30-45-minute drive away and I did not always have access to a car. I was not allowed to participate in activities outside school (except for piano lessons to which my stepfather drove me each week), so my goal was to excel in everything I was allowed to do. My competitive nature, coupled with my determination to gain admittance to Vanderbilt, fueled my path to academic and musical dominance. I refer to it as “dominance” because my goal was not merely to learn the material, it was to master the material and to score the highest grades. It wasn’t uncommon for me to “blow the curve” on tests, where I would score 100 and the next highest score might be 85 or even in the 70s. I was known as the “smartest” student in school, and I relished that title.
However, I was a depressed and angry teenager. I felt utterly trapped in a school where everything must fit within a “Christ-centered Biblical worldview.” For Bible class, it was easy for me to regurgitate the material. While there were gaping holes in our education about history (for example, we never learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement), we weren’t required to recount history in a particularly Christian manner — just the facts were required (the facts as they were presented, that is). And looking back, I believe our English teacher was struggling with the confines of Fundamentalist Christianity as he only preached in chapel the minimum required number of times, and he walked a fine line with the literature he selected for his classes. (Years later I heard that he and his wife divorced, and he took a job as a truck driver, traveling the country, and no one seems to be able to find him.) In most classes, there would be discussions of some sort about God, the dangers of secular humanism, the ridiculousness of evolution, and the erosion of society due to people “turning away from God.” And let’s not forget that every chapel service was a reminder that we were all filthy sinners in need of the saving grace of Jesus in order to escape eternity in hell.
I resented that my whole life was supposed to revolve around giving glory to God. “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman who needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV). This was one of the mantras of the school. The other was this: “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” (1 Timothy 4:12 KJV). As a student, I worked hard for my success and thought I deserved recognition for it. Maybe God had given me intelligence, but I had worked hard to use it. I hated hearing all the “God talk” where people were thanking God for this or that in which humans had more of a hand than an invisible deity seemed to. These praises seemed obsequious to me, as from someone seeking favor from a deity they feared.
Students in our school were encouraged to attend Evangelical Christian universities. The administration and faculty wanted as many students to follow a “Christ-centered Biblical” path as possible, both to promote this as a benefit to prospective parents and because they felt it was the right thing to do. Many of my classmates were personally steered toward these types of universities. I was the only one who was not steered in that direction. It was also a benefit to be able to promote that not only do most students attend Christian universities and become pastors or teachers, but the academics are so sound that they can also be admitted to nationally-ranked universities.
When it was time for me to write my valedictory address, I had a lot of different emotions. I was ecstatic to finally be free of the shackles of the “Christ-centered Biblical” education and able to pursue secular education. Additionally, I still looked down on the majority of my peers who were secretly (or not so secretly) listening to rock music and attending parties — to which I was not invited — instead of forging a path for their future (in my opinion). Furthermore, I considered graduation a celebration of my hard work and accomplishments, and I wanted to make sure that was evident to all in attendance. Neither did I want to sully my accomplishments with “giving glory to God.” I was a pompous jerk, excited about having the freedom to escape Evangelical education for the opportunities available in “the world.” While I did have some trepidation about navigating “the world” — partly because I was more sheltered than my public-school-attending peers and partly because I was still afraid of what God might do to me if I strayed too far from the fold — I was glad that no one tried to stand in the way of my pursuit.
My valedictory address reflects my contempt for my peers (hence no congratulatory message to my peers) as intellectual and cultural inferiors. It reflects my arrogance in my own intelligence and willingness to read what I considered to be intellectual books outside those assigned in class. It also reflects indoctrination regarding the “evils” of rock music, premarital sex, drug & alcohol use, and divorce. However, it also reflects that I did not refer to salvation due to a return to Christian values or praying to God or any other Christian trope. I didn’t let the door hit me on my backside on the way out of Christian school.
At the university, I was active in the Baptist Student Union during my first two years and attended church services at a large Southern Baptist Church near campus. However, I took courses that opened my eyes to the false claims of inerrancy and literalism of the Bible, which led me to question much that I had learned in religious circles about human behaviors, and overwhelming, incontrovertible evidence contrary to Young Earth Creationism. I befriended people from different religions, people who were LBGTQ — who were cut off from their religious families for just being who they were — and people who were from different cultural, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. Gradually I lost some of the intense fear of the Evangelical Christian God and was able to live my life freely. Again, I didn’t let the door hit me on my backside on the way out of Fundamentalist Christianity.
Although she attended Mass and didn’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent, she was hardly the Catholic version of a “Holy Roller.” She never talked about her concept of God, and of our many conversations, I can’t recall more than a couple that included any talk about our beliefs or even religion. What little she knew of Roman Catholic doctrines, she learned in Catholic schools during the ‘40s and ‘50s. And she knew even less of theology in general, or the Bible itself; even in my generation, Catholics weren’t encouraged to learn about those things for themselves. She often expressed disagreement, or even disdain, for much of what she heard from priests and fellow parishioners. I was only partially joking when, during one of our conversations, I exclaimed that she believed even less than I, an atheist, of what the church teaches.
The real reason she sent my siblings and me to Catholic schools, she said, was that she felt it offered “a better education” than the local public schools—and, on the money my then-blue-collar father was making, secular private schools were out of the question. To me, that is consistent with what she once told me was the main reason she continued to attend mass on Sundays (and on weekdays during times of crisis): “It’s comforting. It’s something that doesn’t change.” In other words, although I don’t doubt that she believed in God and adored Jesus, I think that she saw the church and its educational institutions as things she could depend on when other things in her life changed or failed.
Of course, I do not share my mother’s trust in the church, and not only because I survived sexual abuse from a priest. Other experiences, including my formal education, and my inquisitiveness, would undermine my ability to believe. I think that my mother understood as much, and saw my loss of faith in both the church and in God as more or less inevitable. (As far as I know, she never knew about the abuse.) My mother sometimes talked about what she might have done differently: She would have gotten more education (she didn’t finish high school), developed a career of her own and had her children later than she did. I have to wonder whether her church-going habit would have withstood such changes.
As it was, she began to hold views, and engage in practices that would have been unthinkable in the church of her youth. She was never homophobic or transphobic, but she told me—years before it became a popular view—she thought people should be allowed to marry people of their own gender. She expressed that belief even before I “came out” as transgender and started my own gender affirmation process. Although she didn’t think abortion “is a good thing,” she understood that there are times when it’s better than allowing a child to be born to someone unwilling or unable to be a loving, nurturing parent. Oh, and she had a Do Not Resuscitate order, which was carried out along with her wish to be cremated.
Signing the order to remove my mother’s life support was “the hardest thing I ever had to do,” my father said. But he knew of my mother’s wishes, and he has the same wishes for himself. While he has never declared himself an atheist or agnostic, my father doesn’t have much, if any, more belief in the church, or religion generally, than I have. Nor does one of my brothers, even though he was baptized into another church; something he did, he admits, mainly to be accepted by the family of the woman he married.
My sister-in-law, however, is firm, even adamant, in her religious beliefs. So are my other two siblings, who have remained in the Catholic Church, and their spouses, who were raised by families more devout than ours. Not surprisingly, all of those in-laws and the two still-Catholic siblings disassociated themselves from me as I began my gender-affirming process. As you can imagine, having to deal with them for the first time in many years has been stressful. Just as difficult, though, is having to countenance not only their religiosity, but their smugness about it. They believe that the only way to mourn my mother, or any other deceased, is through expressions of their religiosity, including ostentatious prayers. They do not understand that my way of mourning is more private because, for one thing, I’m simply more introverted and, for another, I care more about the relationship I’ve had with the person I just lost than with any appearance of piety. To them, the fact that I will enter the church only for my mother’s memorial mass—and not for any other ceremonies or prayers—is proof not only of my immorality (why else would I “change” my sex? they ask) but also that I didn’t truly love my mother. In their eyes, only the Godly—which is to say, those who adhere to their religious practices—can truly love anyone; never mind that one sibling and spouse, at least, have constructed their lives to avoid contact with those of different races and economic classes from themselves.
My mother did not approve of their “holier-than-thou” attitude, let alone that they shut me out of their lives. But she still loved them. Likewise, she didn’t always approve of everything I did—including, at first, my turning away from the church and faith altogether—but she loved me. And I love her. That is all we have now; that is all we ever could have, or could have had—whatever else we did or didn’t believe in.
Recently, I found this essay among my late mother’s things. My grandmother had saved it with a cover sheet that said:
“Keep! (ObstacleChick)’s valedictorian speech at senior high graduation at (fundamentalist evangelical) Christian Academy, May, 1988”
It took me three weeks to summon enough courage to read this essay, as I knew it would be antithetical to what I believe today. I recall that my goal with this speech was to display my superior intellect before my peers and their parents and to present something that would be approved by faculty. These are my words as a Christian-school educated student (grades 5-12) who used education as a means to gain admittance into a top secular university. I believed these words at the time, and I considered myself superior to the vast majority of my peers whom I considered babies drinking the pablum of popular culture. While today I cringe at my parroting of the culture war indoctrination of my church and school, I am starkly aware of what was missing. Can you see it? This was a speech that I was required to submit to the English teacher and school administration for approval, and it was returned to me with no edits. Please feel free to comment. I’m just going to sit over here and cringe a little more at the 18-year-old I was trained to be 31 years ago.
It is often stated that society changes but people do not. This statement is true in the sense that the inner qualities of man remain the same from generation to generation. However, this statement should be expanded to include the fact that society, created by previous generations, affects those who live within it. Although it is difficult to characterize an entire generation, it is evident that young people, as influenced by society, are becoming increasingly insecure and pessimistic, and unless this trend is reversed, the future will not be very promising.
One reason for the condition of young people is the breakdown of the family unit. The parents of a child are to be responsible for nurturing their child so that he is able to become the best that he can be mentally, emotionally, and psychologically. Parents are also a source of security and encouragement for a child. It is also apparent that parents serve as role models for their children; since children, especially very young ones, are so inexperienced in life, they naturally imitate their parents, or the people to whom they are closest. Therefore, it is evident that parents play a very important role in the rearing of a child.
Unfortunately, many children do not have both parents, and in some cases, if both parents are present, there is so much unrest and disunity in the family that the children are not given the proper nurturing they need. Many children experience the pain and uncertainty of being torn between two parents who proceed to separate or divorce. Often, children become mere objects of which each parent struggles to gain custody. In cases in which the parents remain together, there is either disunity between them, or the parents simply do not have the time nor the desire to give the children the nurturing and attention they need. Therefore, the children become psychologically scarred and unprepared to fulfill their duties as members of society.
In addition to children who are products of broken families or families in which the parents do not fulfill their parental responsibilities, there are also children who desire to rebel against their parents and the values of their parents. There are many reasons for this desire to rebel, but the main reason seems to be the encouragement of the media and peers. The media present a certain image of what is and is not acceptable in order to be the “average” teenager. This standard invariably includes the characteristic of rebellion which often naturally occurs as a child begins to grow into adulthood and yearns for independence from parental authority. Since young people fear the insecurity of individuality — in other words, nonconformity to the “acceptable norm” — they eagerly imitate any image they see that offers an opportunity to “fit in” with what is acceptable to their peers, who can be cruelly intolerant of anyone who does not conform.
Today’s society is permeated with young people who are products of their inadequate family lives or their desire to rebel. In both cases, these children seek attention which they do not receive or do not accept from home. Therefore, they naturally seek it elsewhere. Unfortunately, they seek it from a world containing too many problems to deal effectively with those of neglected or rebellious young people whose unguided and uncontrolled presence only contributes to the growing problems of society.
Another reason for the condition of young people is the effects of society upon them. The world offers many deceptively appealing yet ultimately harmful attractions for which these young people, seeking security and a sense of well-being, eagerly grasp. These attractions assume many forms, a few of which are rock music, premarital sex, and drug and alcohol usage. All of these enticements, perhaps with the exception of rock music, previously were primarily presented to adults but are now forced upon adolescents who are not prepared to handle these harmful attractions. As a result, young people participating in these activities are injured mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically.
Because it is the attraction in which most young people openly participate without a great deal of parental interference, one must first examine rock music. Many believe that this music is harmless, merely a characteristic phase through which the majority of youths pass on the way to adulthood. It is viewed as a trend that has benignly existed for the past thirty years and will probably continue as a part of being a youth. Upon closer examination, one is able to realize the adverse effects this music has upon the bodies, minds, and emotions of youths.
Music is an important part of the lives of most people. It is used as a means through which to express emotion or even to produce a specific emotion. Music is also a means by which people celebrate worship. Allan Bloom in his work The Closing of the American Mind defines music as such:
“Plato’s teaching about music is, put simply, that rhythm and melody, accompanied by dance, are the barbarous expression of the soul. Barbarous, not animal. Music is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror….Music is the soul’s primitive and primary speech (p. 71).”
Therefore, it is evident that music is an important device through which man is able to express himself.
Since rock music is not just one specific type of music but is characterized by various forms and names, it is difficult to specifically define. However, its lyrics primarily contain three major themes — sex, hate, and a hypocritical version of brotherly love (p. 74). Its rhythm, as young people are aware, has the beat of sexual intercourse (p. 73). Because one naturally responds physically and emotionally to the rhythms and lyrics of music, young people listening to rock music begin to unconsciously respond to its presentation of uncontrolled and misrepresented sex. Through rock music, young people are made aware of subjects which they are too immature to fully understand and experience. Therefore, they view a normal part of life in a perverted and immature manner.
Rock music exalts premarital (and extramarital) sex as well as drug and alcohol use as being socially acceptable and normal. As a result, many young people are led to believe that in order to be accepted as “normal” as presented by the entertainment industry, they must participate in one or more of these activities. This participation, in addition to being a way to gain security, is also a form of rebellion against authority. Therefore, one may conclude that rock music is not as harmless as many believe but is really an agent encouraging young people to rebel against authority by participating in activities which are traditionally unacceptable.
The activity probably most advocated by the media — movies and television — is premarital sex. Many young people view the lack of participation in this activity as a social stigma or, in other words, a lack of peer acceptance. Unfortunately, this uncontrolled behavior has produced many adverse consequences such as sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancies. Many young people are physically and/or psychologically injured as a result of this exploration into an activity with which they are unable to cope.
Another activity in which many youths participate is alcohol or drug usage. One reason some young people participate in this is in order to escape problems which they cannot or will not attempt to resolve. The resulting “high” they obtain after using these substances can offer a feeling of well-being which they do not know how to receive any other way. A greater number of youths use these substances to gain peer acceptance; if they refuse to use drugs or alcohol, they are often treated as social outcasts. In order to avoid this isolation, many young people give in. Unfortunately, some young people die or are permanently scarred as a result of their experimentation with these substances.
Up to this point, one can see that many young people participate in ultimately harmful activities in order to deal with their insecurities. Of course, it is natural for young people to possess a certain amount of insecurity, for they are struggling with the effects of maturing into a unique individual. However, it seems that young people of this generation possess insecurity to a greater degree than preceding generations. This increase is basically due to the effects of modern society upon young people.
Modern society is permeated with many problems. The family unit, which is the core of society, is rapidly deteriorating. There is friction between groups of people within society. Many baffling, communicable, and incurable diseases exist. The world economy is highly uncertain and unstable. Nations are unable or unwilling to coexist peaceably. The list of social, economic, and political problems continues indefinitely.
Often, when young people are made aware of the various problems within society, they become pessimistic, realizing that these problems cannot be easily solved. They realize that they will be presented a world that is so tainted with problems and will be expected to resolve them, or at least to prevent them from becoming worse. One cannot but wonder how these young people, as generally unprepared as they are presently, will be able to create a decent world within which people can exist relatively contentedly. Of course, as one can see, this lack of preparation is not entirely the fault of the young people, for it is difficult for young people to grow up successfully in this society, but unless this trend is reversed, the future cannot appear to be very promising or attractive.
The relationship between society and the members of society is a unique one. The state of society depends upon its members, and the members are influenced by the society in which they live. The state of the future of society depends upon the attitudes and preparation of young people to deal with the problems presented to them. However, when the young people are not adequately prepared, the future of society suffers. Therefore, one may conclude that because the young people of this generation are generally insecure, pessimistic, and inadequately prepared to take their place within society, the future will not be very promising unless this trend is reversed.
One of the important things about growing up Southern Baptist is the concept of “believer Baptism.” This means that unlike other Christian sects which practice infant baptism, members of the Baptist faith choose their own timing for Baptism, based on when they feel they are ready. Many of my peers did this when they were around the ages of 8-14 (I was 12), often after a youth retreat or some other special service directed toward youth. There was no small amount of peer pressure and/or family pressure involved. The family pressure existed because (a) parents want to make sure their kids “get saved” so that they can enjoy eternity in heaven not go to hell and (b) parents often viewed it as a personal failure if their kid didn’t make a profession of faith; no one needed their Christian parental skills to be judged by the Smiths and Joneses in the congregation. Peer pressure played a role because (a) it was easier to make a profession of faith en masse with other youth rather than being the center of attention and going it alone, and (b) kids didn’t want to be gossiped about any more than usual by their peers as being “lost” or “unsaved” or “worldly.” There were some who may have chosen baptism as adults, particularly people who did not grow up in a church or who never had experienced baptism, or perhaps someone who had been baptized as an infant but wanted to have his or her own believer baptism experience. A lot of Baptist churches don’t consider baptism in other churches to be “Real Baptism.”
As children in the Baptist church, we would attend Sunday school on Sunday mornings, followed by the church service. Wealthier churches that could afford staff or could recruit volunteers would have a separate Children’s Church for the under-12 crowd. There was a time when our church had a Children’s Church, and I much preferred that to being in Big Church with the adults. Big Church was really boring. I liked the music, but once the sermon started, I was bored out of my mind and had to find ways to occupy myself while the preacher was giving his sermon. I was supposed to look interested or at least to behave and not fidget, but it was really hard. I would occupy myself by counting the chandeliers, counting the windows, counting window panes, counting the number of boards on the ceiling, or counting pews. Sometimes I would count how many people were wearing a certain color, then move on to the next color. Sometimes I’d try to read the words of the songs in the hymnal or less often would try to read the Bible, but the language of King James’ English was cumbersome. Big Church was just torture.
At the end of each service, there would always be the Altar Call. A mood-setting song was sung by the choir and congregation (often “Just As I Am”), and the preacher would stand at congregation level in front of the altar so that any who felt called could go down front and profess their faith in front of the entire congregation. Occasionally someone would go, but there were far more people who “rededicated their lives to Christ” or went to pray to confess some sin. Those who went forward to “get saved” or to rededicate their lives to Christ would shake the preacher’s hand, and then one of the deacons would take the person aside to ask questions and fill out a card with their information. The questions were generally about whether the person recognized that they were a sinner in need of God’s saving grace, and did they accept that Jesus died on the cross and rose again for their sins. Then when the song was over, the preacher would pray and thank God that a new believer had come forward, and after the prayer everyone would file forward to shake the hand of the new believer. Then we would all go home. At a later service, there would be a Baptism. The church usually tried to schedule several people together because performing the Baptism took a lot of work.
Because my grandfather worked afternoons and evenings, he had mornings free to do other things. When I wasn’t in school, he’d take me along with him on whatever errands he was doing. A lot of times we would go to the church so he could work on the air conditioning or refrigeration equipment that needed tending. He did this pro bono as a member of the church. He was a deacon and for a while was on the Buildings and Grounds Committee, so he took responsibility for making sure the church was taken care of in whatever way he could.
Going along with Grandpa meant that I got to explore the church on my own. Sometimes I’d hide items or notes around the church so I could find them later or to see if other people found them. One Monday morning we went to the church while Mr. Hall, the janitor, was cleaning out the baptistry. For those unfamiliar with the term, a baptistry in our church was a special “room” behind the choir loft in the Baptist church. Ours had a tall window with a short panel of glass, and the tall window reached to the top of the peaked ceiling. Long red velvet curtains were closed when the baptistry was not in use, but when it was in use the curtains were pulled back to expose the huge backlit cross, lights were turned on, and one could see the water sloshing along the surface of the glass. When Mr. Hall cleaned the baptistry, he emptied the water through the drain in the floor, and he had hoses and a bucket of soapy water so he could scrub the surface. He showed me how he mopped the floor and walls and rinsed the area with a hose, and the water went down the drain. There were concrete steps leading down into the baptistry from the women’s changing room on the left and the men’s changing room on the right. He let me look at the white robes hanging in the women’s changing room. They had special weights sewn into the hem so the robes wouldn’t float up in the water. When men were baptized they usually wore their pants and a white t-shirt. Mr. Hall showed me the white robe and fishing waders that the preacher wore. The robe was just like the choir robes except white instead of red, and it also had weights sewn into the hem. I was surprised that the preacher wore fishing waders – that’s how he was always able to be finished so quickly after the baptism, because he never got wet! Mr. Hall told me that one time someone accidentally filled the baptistry with too much water which spilled into the fishing waders, wetting the preacher’s pants, and the preacher had to send his wife home to get him a pair of pants so they could conclude the service.
When you are baptized in the Baptist church, the practice is full immersion. Before your baptism service, there is a rehearsal with the preacher. You practice walking down into the dry baptistry, turning to face a certain direction, and the preacher shows you how to hold your nose. He will put one hand on your neck or back and one hand over your nose, and after he says “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” you have to be ready to hold your breath and to bend backward while he lowers you into the water. The pastor is well versed in bringing people back up really quickly so they don’t have to be scared of drowning. Then you walk up the steps into the changing room where your mom or another lady in the church is waiting to help you out of the wet robes, dry off with towels, and get dressed again. Some ladies use a hair dryer (the sound of which can be faintly heard in the sanctuary) to dry their hair while others just towel-dry it. At the end of the service, you go back out so that the church members can file by and shake your hand to congratulate you. After your baptism, you are presented with a certificate signed by the preacher and the chairman of the deacons, and you get some other religious gift as well such as a Bible or a devotional book. After your profession of faith and baptism, you are considered a full member of the church and can take part in communion with the other members. You can be gossiped about and judged, but you can’t lose your salvation because, once saved always saved!
I used to talk to nothing Not knowing it was nothing. I was told it was love. Sacrificial love. Unconditional love. Life-changing, whole-making love.
But it turns out, it was nothing.
The silence of the nothing broke me. Upended me. Toppled everything over, onto me. Crushed under the weight of what was gone. Devastated that it never existed. Barely breathing. Arms clutched to my chest. Holding the emptiness where beliefs once dwelled. Beliefs once tightly held Wrenched from my fingers When I screamed out desperately into the abyss and in return Nothing came.
Not the love that was promised. Nor wholeness. My brokenness remained. Unchanged. No savior to heal the wounds Un-rescued, abandoned Utterly alone in random chaos.
The silence of nothing echoes so loudly.
Listen closely to the silence.
“You are depraved!” is missing, too. Worthy-of-eternal-torment-for-being-born no longer the mantra Berating me over and over And over. Not even a murmur declaring me Evil, sinful, wicked, debased, weak, less-than. Every condemnation for merely being human is muted. Beautifully quieted.
The crushing weight of silence almost feels like wings now.
In every empty place There is now space To love, to forgive, to change Myself.
In place of the nothing there is me And always was. I could have flown sooner if only I had known. The thing holding me back Keeping me down Damning my soul was actually . . . Nothing.
One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor in a church nursery, rolling a big ball to a little boy who would then roll it back to me. I was delighted with this simple game. An equally delighted adult was watching us. I can’t remember who she was, but I am sure she was smiling and encouraging us in our ball rolling. We were probably three or four years old. I felt safe, happy, and comfortable.
My family went to church every Sunday. I didn’t understand why of course, but it was always fun because there were other kids to play with. Eventually I outgrew the nursery and began attending Sunday school. In Sunday school the teachers were always ladies and they were always sweet. They taught us all sorts of Bible stories. It wasn’t quite as fun as the nursery had been, but it was pleasant and sometimes we got to color. We soon began learning about Jesus. We would sing “Jesus Loves Me” or the song about the wise man who built his house upon a rock, smacking our fists into our palms to show how good and solid the rock was. There was an important message in these songs, though I wasn’t sure what it was.
After a while, Sunday school took a more serious turn. Our teacher taught us about lepers. Lepers were people who had a terrible disease that caused their body parts to rot and fall off. Other people hated them and made them live far away. Only Jesus was kind to lepers. Jesus was better than other people. Like the Sunday school songs, there was an important message in this story. I still didn’t fully understand it, but so far, I liked Jesus a lot. I was glad he was nice to the sick people and he even helped one of them get well. I don’t remember the first time we heard about Jesus dying on the cross to save us, but the teacher started bringing it up every week. She told us it was very important for us to believe that Jesus died to save us from our sins. It had never occurred to me not to believe something an adult said, especially a teacher, so it seemed kind of strange that she thought we might not believe her story.
Around this time, I started learning to read. Thanks to TV, I even learned that all people did not use the same words as we Americans did. Some people spoke and wrote a language called Spanish. It had different words for things like “water” and “friend.” This was amazing. The subject of language came up one week in Sunday school when our teacher taught us about the Tower of Babel. In this story, God punished some men who tried to build a giant tower they could use to climb into Heaven. He did this by switching everyone’s words around. It all made sense now! That must have been where Spanish had come from, plus a whole bunch of other languages I had never even heard of. I found myself smugly wondering why God had written the Bible in English. I decided it must be because English was the best language.
It was the 1970s. Hippies were everywhere. Stores carried posters and signs with slogans like: “Keep On Truckin’,” “Peace,” and “Smile God Loves You.” One week our sweet Sunday school teacher had a warning for us kids. She told us not to believe the signs that said “Smile God Loves You” because they weren’t true. God did not love everybody. I didn’t think much about this warning at the time. I was already learning not to question the things I heard in church. As the years went by and I transitioned from a curious child into a quiet teenager, I grew frustrated with church. Those early lessons about kind and helpful Jesus didn’t mesh with the grown-up sermons about a righteous, angry God. The punishment doled out by God at the Tower of Babel seemed like a prank compared to burning unbelievers in Hell forever. I didn’t understand what we were supposed to do for Jesus. I knew that He had died for us wicked humans, but there was something crucial I was missing. Why did all these people spend every Sunday listening to the preacher talk about it? What was the point? Our preacher spent a lot of time and energy ranting about all these other preachers who had everything wrong. There was a long list of these false preachers. He also had a long list of behaviors that would not help you get into Heaven: praying, tithing, getting baptized, helping the poor, caring for the sick, winning souls, going to church, volunteering in church, building the church, studying the Bible, serving your community, and on and on and on. I got tense just listening to him talk about all the ways you could waste your time trying to be a good person. It was like listening to a song with an overly long introduction. I kept waiting for the tension to break and for him to finally say what we should do to get into Heaven, but he never did.
It occurred to me that church was vastly different from school. In school, you learned about a new subject, studied it, took tests on it, then you moved on to the next level. You repeated this process from first grade to second grade to third grade and so on. By the time you got to middle school, you didn’t keep going over the same topics you learned in grade school; you were expected to have them memorized so they could form the foundation of more advanced subjects. Not so in church. In church you went every Sunday, year after year, to hear the same lecture about how horrible you are and how you deserve to burn in Hell and how Jesus would save you from Hell if only . . . something. What that something was, I couldn’t quite grasp. I wondered if I was dumb. Obviously, every other person in church understood it, so why didn’t I? Confusion morphed into anger and I started to hate going to church. I was closing in on adulthood and longing for independence. It felt like church was keeping me trapped in childhood. My escape finally began when I left home for college at the age of eighteen. I was still a Christian, though I could not have described my actual beliefs to anyone who might have asked. I knew what I was supposed to say, but those Christian-approved words didn’t match up with the thoughts and emotions I kept inside. In college I made the shocking discovery that other people sometimes questioned the origins of the Bible. They talked about it as if it were any other book written by men. Even more shocking was the fact that college instructors now encouraged us students to think about these things. They wanted us to think! I couldn’t handle it. I decided they were all evil. Though I had problems with Christianity myself, it felt like an attack to hear others criticize the faith — my faith! Even so, I did begin allowing myself to think, just a little bit at first. This was the beginning of the end of my faith. It wasn’t until many years later that I finally left Christianity for good. It took a long time to get rid of the fear that I might accidentally come to the wrong conclusion and burn forever because of it. And it wasn’t until the advent of the internet, decades later, that I finally understood what our preacher was really saying all along. I had started reading online articles about Christianity in its various forms. When I came across a description of Calvinism, I realized that there was a good reason our preacher never told us what to do to get into Heaven. He did not believe it mattered one bit what we did, because God had already decided who was in and who was out.
I had heard this long ago, this doctrine of predestination. It hadn’t upset me too much back then, because I was so deep in fundamentalist brain fog that I couldn’t process the horror. It just didn’t sink in. Now I thought about all the convoluted, pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook I had heard masqueraded as wisdom. And I realized that the particular message of our peculiar brand of Calvinism did not require years of lectures to understand. It was as simple as it was cruel: God created some people to damn and some people to save. There is nothing any human being can do to change this situation so it is foolish to even try. I cannot describe the way this realization made me feel. I was astonished at how ridiculous it was, and at how many otherwise intelligent adults really believed that this was the sort of thing a righteous creator would do. It still gives me a strange feeling to think about how that church, which I first knew as a safe and happy place, was never anything more than a shrine to violence and injustice.
On August 15, Catholics will celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. That is, supposedly, the date on which the Virgin Mary was bodily hoisted into Heaven, thus ending her earthly life.
The day before, the 14th, just might be D-Day, at least in New York State. That day will mark the beginning of a one-year window in which survivors of child sexual abuse can file civil suits against their abusers, under terms of the Child Victims Act (CVA) passed earlier this year.
Nearly everyone expects a flood of suits to be filed that day. Some will have waited years, even decades for this opportunity: previously, if a child was molested in New York State, he or she could file a lawsuit or seek criminal charges until he or she was 23. Given what we’ve seen, it’s easy to see how this works against victims: it often takes decades for someone (as it did for me) who was molested or abused as a child to speak about it.
After the one-year window provided in the CVA has passed, victims can still file civil suits until age 55 and seek criminal charges until age 28. While these provisions are an improvement on previous statutes — which were among the most victim-unfriendly in the nation — the Empire State will still lag behind its heavily-Catholic neighbor Massachusetts, which gives victims 35 years to sue their abusers.
What galls people such as I, though, is that it took sixteen years for the state legislature to pass the CVA. Although I rarely have kind words for politicians, I must say that some members of the State Legislature–among them Assembly members Brad Hoylman and Linda Rosenthal, both Democrats from Manhattan — should be commended for their efforts. That it took so long is mainly a testament to how hard some organizations fought against them.
Will it surprise any of you to know that two of the main opponents of this Act–and its “window” in particular — are the Boy Scouts of America and — wait for it — the Roman Catholic Church? Although New York is one of the “bluest” states in the country, the Church still wields a fair amount of influence in the politics of both the state and New York City. Church leaders howled that the “window” will result in a flood of lawsuits that could impose “financial hardship” on the state’s dioceses and archdioceses. They have a point: California passed similar legislation in 2003, and within a few years, the dioceses of San Diego and Stockton filed for bankruptcy.
Still, the protestations of Church leaders in New York are at least somewhat disingenuous, if not entirely hypocritical. In claiming that the “window” could lead to thousands of lawsuits, the Church in New York is tacitly conceding that many children (and adults), over many years, have indeed been sexually exploited by priests, nuns and other authority figures such as deacons. But what is less-widely known is that, in a way, the dioceses of the state have implemented some version or another of the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP), which allows victims to file claims for past sexual abuse. There can be little doubt that this program was implemented because Church leaders knew that passage of the CVA (and similar laws in other states) was all but inevitable, and that by giving victims nominal compensation on the condition of confidentiality, they could forestall a number of lawsuits.
And, while some victims might reap substantial payouts for lawsuits filed under the CVA, it will probably take years to settle and collect. The IRCP process, in contrast, takes months, and therefore may appeal to older victims who don’t want to spend significant portions of their remaining years in a court case. I have little doubt that Church leaders knew this, too.
It will be interesting, to say the least, to see what happens to the individual dioceses as well as the church as a whole as a result of New York’s CVA. For years, individual parishes and Catholic schools (including the one I attended) have been closing, mainly in the five boroughs of New York City, but also in other parts of the state. While few people expect the Archdiocese of New York or the Diocese of Brooklyn to go belly-up, mainly because they still own lots of valuable real estate and other assets, it’s not hard to imagine some of the less-affluent dioceses upstate filing for protection.
I realize that I have focused on the effect the CVA will have on the Catholic Church. So have most of the media. As I mentioned, the Boy Scouts will also be affected. Although the Catholic church is the largest denomination in the State and City (though many claimed members have long since stopped practicing the religion, or even renounced it altogether), there are a number of other religious organizations that could be affected. Chief among them, I believe, are the Hasidic and Ultra-Orthodox communities. (In Orange County, there is a village, Kiryas Joel, which is essentially governed by Satmar Hasidic interpretations of Halakhic law, and most of whose residents speak Yiddish.) In addition, there are a number of insular religious communities ensconced in upstate enclaves and some outer-borough New York City neighborhoods. It’s hard not to believe that some current or former members of such communities will come forward as a result of the CVA.
Whatever happens, I am glad that some people who suffered sexual abuse from priests and other religious leaders will have an opportunity, however brief, to break the hold of their abusers and hold them to account.
From 1993 to 2002, a unique show called “The X-Files” ran for a total of 9 seasons on Fox. Fans were excited in 1998 when “The X-Files” and in 2008 “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” movies were released in theaters. In 2016 and 2018, two additional seasons of “The X-Files” were released to enthusiastic fans of a certain age who had followed the series. The basic premise is that FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dr. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) are teamed up to investigate unusual cases that defy conventional solutions. Agent Mulder has an open mind regarding the paranormal and is up to date on mythology across cultures. Agent Scully is a trained medical doctor whose goal is to find scientific answers to the cases to which they are assigned. The conflict of believer and skeptic, along with a good dose of sexual tension, combined with stand-alone cases and overarching story arcs created a cult following that eventually became a pop cultural icon. One of the props designed for the show, Agent Mulder’s poster of a typical 1960s rendition of a UFO ship with the caption “I Want to Believe,” is a well-known image that sums up who Agent Mulder is and who Agent Scully is not.
I know a lot of Evangelical Christians who profess to “know” that their rendition of God is the One True Rendition of the supernatural. In short, they believe that their deity is omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient. Many believe that gods from other religions are either nonexistent or are demons or Satan trying to pass themselves off as deities in order to deceive followers from adhering to the One True God of Evangelical Christianity. Not unlike Tigger from the Winnie-the-Pooh series who states that “the most wonderful thing about Tiggers is I’m the only one,” many Evangelicals feel the same way about their deity. Yet when I have asked any Evangelical Christian what evidence they have of their One True God’s existence, they always fall back on “heart” evidence; they felt it in their “heart” so it must be true. Additionally, they may comment that human knowledge is inferior to God’s knowledge, or that we cannot rely on our own understanding as we are flawed, inadequate creatures (Proverbs 3:5-6; Isaiah 55:8-9). Some may say that their deity reveals himself in nature and in His Holy Word, the Bible. Like Fox Mulder, they want to believe.
I know Christians who say they cannot contemplate facing a day without knowing they have God overseeing and protecting them throughout the day. They derive comfort from thinking that their powerful deity is protecting them in their day-to-day lives, helping them find the closest parking spot at the supermarket, revealing the lost $20 in their jacket pocket, or protecting them from being in a car accident. Of course, when things do not go well, these folks attribute unfavorable circumstances to “Satan,” or to “sin,” or that “God has other plans” for them. There’s always a reason other than that their god doesn’t exist or that he is not a benevolent, all-powerful god who is striving to protect them. Like Fox Mulder, they want to believe.
My grandmother loved a song by William J. and Gloria Gaither called “Because He Lives.” I think it sums up how a lot of Christians feel about their God and their own attitude about their lives. That “life is worth the living, just because He lives.”
God sent His son, they called Him Jesus He came to love, heal and forgive He lived and died to buy my pardon An empty grave is there to prove my savior lives
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow Because He lives, all fear is gone Because I know He holds the future And life is worth the living, just because He lives
How sweet to hold a newborn baby And feel the pride and joy He gives But greater still the calm assurance This child can face uncertain day, because He lives
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow Because He lives, all fear is gone Because I know He holds the future And life is worth the living, just because He lives
And then one day, I’ll cross the river I’ll fight life’s final war with pain And then, as death gives way to victory I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know He reigns
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow Because He lives, all fear is gone Because I know He holds the future And life is worth the living, just because He lives
In response to my request for guest posts from liberal/progressive Christians, a reader I’ll call John Calvin submitted a thoughtful post detailing why he still, to some degree, “believes.” John is currently a minister in a mainline Calvinistic denomination. John feared his words would be seen as blatant hypocrisy, but I hope readers will listen carefully to what John is trying to say, and consider the deep emotional andpsychological struggles he faces every day. I know more than a few liberal/progressive ministers read this blog, including some who are atheists/agnostics and still preaching on Sundays. I appreciate John’s willingness to be honest about where he is in his life, and how he struggles with the existence of God. May his words be instructive and helpful.
I grew up in fundamentalism, the holiness variety, and was caught by all the claws of its well-designed trap. In my culturally deprived southern working-class environment, the church was essentially all I had. There was music — bad music, but it was music. There was poetry — bad poetry, but it was poetry. There was literature — bad literature, but it was literature. There was community, and it wasn’t bad. In a childhood of some moving around, the church became my hometown. It seemed full of warm, loving people. Now, though, after all these years, I greatly resent the fact that my spiritual life was entrusted to them. They should not have been in charge of it. Was the warmth and loving just one more tooth in the trap?
I’m sure I thought it was God’s will that I attend a denominational college; that I take a degree in Biblical Literature. I also married into the family of a pastor who used his fundamentalist conservatism as a weapon. Marriage among undergraduates in that school, especially for ministerial students, was almost expected. If you didn’t get married, you would probably end up having pre-marital sex, and there was nothing God hated more than that. After college, I went to the denominational seminary.
I never remember wanting or planning to be a pastor. You might say I didn’t take career planning nearly seriously enough. What I wanted was to understand the religion I found myself struggling to swim in. Being more of a seeker than was warmly welcomed at that seminary — where the truth, having once been delivered unto the saints, was already fully known, I transferred to an old, Eastern establishment seminary. The intellectual freedom I felt there was a wonderful breath of fresh air. By the time I graduated with my M.Div. I had departed my holiness denomination and become a pastor in a large, so-called “mainline” denomination. Frankly, I was worn out, had a family, was in debt, and didn’t know what else to do. (I was twenty-nine years old. I had started school at age four. I had taken a year off, twice, at different times, but essentially I had been going to school for twenty-five years. My diploma was written in Latin. I couldn’t read it. I still have no idea what the damn thing says. But it had better be good.)
A lot happened in subsequent decades. That large denomination I joined is a lot smaller now, partially, I’m sure, because of my feeble efforts. That cute little holiness preacher’s daughter I married, who could play the piano and sing like a bird (good one, not some crow or red-winged blackbird), told me she was embarrassed to tell people she was married to a minister, had a string of affairs, and finally left my sorry ass flopping in the dust.
I got out of the ministry for a while. Then I remarried, this time to a woman with no apparent pride and who didn’t mind being married to a minister, so I got back in. Now I am supposed to be retired, but I am still a part-time pastor, having the best time I ever had in the ministry. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it. Most of the time I found being a pastor a painful and uncomfortable experience. (Hey, I never wanted to do it anyway, but the hooks were well set.)
Now, as to why I am still doing what I do. I guess I fit the definition of a progressive, liberal Christian, I prefer the term “cultural Christian,” which to me is analogous to someone being a cultural Jew rather than being a religious Jew. Some people might call me an atheist. I have called myself that on occasion, but only to myself. Whatever is left of my Christianity is bereft of any supernatural elements.
I understand the Bible to be the product of human beings, at its best a record of peoples’ interpretations of how God had worked among them. The Bible is clearly full of errors, contradictions, and outrageous mythological constructions. The idea of a perfect, inerrant Bible delivered by the hand of God is ludicrous.
While I believe it is possible that Jesus of Nazareth was not a historical person, I also believe it is possible that he was. If the things the New Testament says happened, it is amazing that none of Jesus’ contemporaries felt them important enough to mention, not even the matter of Jewish saints coming out of their tombs on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. Seriously? No one thought to jot that down? “Hey! Guess what happened!” Still, it seems to me probable that there was a guy back there somewhere to build the legends around. Much of the New Testament is no doubt fiction, designed to present him as a divine prophesy-fulfilling miracle worker. Even so, I find the core of his teachings to be inspiring and, even if they are not totally original, potentially revolutionary. I think his teachings of love and compassion are especially needed in a world that is increasingly violent and hateful, most especially when so many of those who call themselves Christ-followers are enabling the hatred and violence. (“Christians have to keep telling people they’re Christians, otherwise no one would notice.”)
The Church that says it follows him is a humiliation and an embarrassment. It has done some good in the world, but it has done some horrendous things too. I am not convinced that Christianity is a net positive force in the world. If nothing else it is guilty of diverting peoples’ attention from important issues such as living with love and compassion, to minor ones. What the church most demonstrates is that humans are institution-building animals.
So, again, why do I keep doing what I do, and why would I have any hope of being anything other than a blatant hypocrite?
It does not take much to reach the realization that there is no big man in the sky, that the earth and its creatures were not zapped into existence 6,000 years ago. Still, almost every human culture has tried in some way to grasp something beyond itself. Some have called it “God.” That “something beyond” has had a powerful impact on humans and their histories. As it happens, more humans identify with Christianity than any other single religion, as they have been doing for 2,000 years. I think that’s significant. Even if it is an amazing shared delusion, is it not something that can be honored for what good it does contain, for what good it has done? Are we right when we say, “Well, all those people were idiots?” “Thank God, our intellect is so much better than theirs that we have it all figured out and can toss it all aside like ideas of a flat Earth or the belief that some chickens have lips.” Does not the tradition, if nothing else, deserve some honor?
Maybe none of that works. Honestly, I was at least a little uncomfortable writing it. But, as I said, I am a cultural Christian. This is where I was born. This is where my people are. We share history and ritual and community. I sit with them as they die. I pray with them then and there. Not because I am challenging God to alter the laws of the universe, but because I hope and think the prayer might help them. It is not about me. It is an act of service on my part, because the whole thing is so much bigger than me, and I am willing to accept the reality of mystery. I see no benefit in standing by a bed in a hospice and saying, “Well, I’m sorry you’re dying, but don’t expect God to hold your hand through this. You’re just gonna slip back into the darkness forever, so get over it.” I expect to slip back into the darkness forever, sooner rather than later, and I’m fine with that, but I don’t think I have a right to impose that on them, at least at that point. That work needed to be done a long time before that.
I do strive for authenticity in my preaching. I do not lie to people. I do not present the Bible as a magic book, but as a book written by real flesh and blood human beings. I do not pretend that Adam and Eve were real people. I straightforwardly acknowledge that evolution is true. At the same time, even though my cultural Christianity has lost its supernatural elements, I will never stand up on Easter morning and say, “Look folks, we know this never happened. Dead people don’t come back to life. If this was true we could at least expect the Gospels to get their stories straight.” I think of it as being respectful of people.
I do not encourage peoples’ belief in their mythological Father-God “up there” somewhere, and that the instant they die they’ll be reunited with their dead loved ones at Jesus’ feet by the crystal sea. Maybe I leave people to assume that I believe much of that just like they do, and maybe that all by itself makes me that blatant hypocrite. On the other hand, maybe that is what gives me the opportunity to move them along, little by little.
I genuinely care for the people in my parish. I embrace them with love. I try to educate them to have a better understanding of the Bible and what it means to be a Christian in these days, and I know that to some extent I succeed. I try, as gently as I can, to challenge their assumptions and presuppositions. I try to lead them to what I would like to believe is a more mature faith.
Sometimes, I think I must sound like a broken record, saying over and over, “Come on! Let’s live as Jesus said! With love and compassion.” I also feel like the voice of one crying in the wilderness when the vast majority of American Christians seem to be saying, “Screw that!”
I do not care about maintaining the institution of the church, which is too bad, because ultimately I believe that’s what parish ministry is all about.
I admit to being conflicted. Sometimes I think I would like to turn in my resignation and run out the door yelling, “Freedom!” I haven’t yet, and it is not because I’m getting paid. I do take the money, but if I stopped getting those big church bucks it wouldn’t change my life one bit. I guess I do it because for whatever reason it still matters to me. I’ve never been able to get those hooks out of me. I once asked a friend who seemed to have the same ambivalence about ministry that I had, after he had been fired as president of a seminary, “Would you do it again?” He said, “I would have to. It’s my curse.” I understood completely.
One thing for sure has happened. Here in my Calvinistic denomination, I have finally proved the truth of Arminianism. I have definitely lost my salvation. But, hey, heaven for the climate and hell for the company. Am I right?