I’m not completely sure when I first started realizing that the enormous amount of suffering in the world, so much of it completely gratuitous, is a problem for anyone who believes that there is a loving and powerful God who is in control of what happens. Before reflecting on the evolution of my own thinking on the problem from years ago, let me stress a couple of points.
First I am talking about enormous suffering. I am not talking about the small and even not so small aches and pains of daily life – the broken wrists or torn ligaments, the fender-benders, the shattered relationships, the worries about the mortgage, or the loss of a loved one. Such things, in my view, do not call into question the existence of God, because they could well be explained if there is a loving and powerful God in charge of the world. They could, for example, be “teaching us something,” or molding our character, or making us more grateful for the (other) good things we have (no pleasure without pain), etc.
No, I’m talking about suffering in extremis, enormous suffering that helps no one, least of all the sufferer. Every seven seconds in our world a child dies of starvation. An innocent victim, suffering horribly of hunger and then dying, often abandoned and forsaken. Who does that help? It doesn’t help her. Does it help me? Does it make me appreciate all the more that nice filet mignon I had last night, with that fine bottle of Bordeaux?
And that’s just one kind of suffering – children starving to death. What about others? The birth defects, the disfiguring and debilitating accidents, the cancers and strokes, the brain tumors, the epidemics, the accidental deaths of children, the tsunamis that kill 300,000 people who were just trying to eke out an existence – and I haven’t even started on the tragedies humans create: millions of people displaced from their homes (it’s relatively easy to pass over that one when we just read it on p. 3 of the paper; but think about yourself being removed from your home, forced to wander and find sustenance for you and your family with nowhere to go and no idea of what to do. And having millions of your neighbors in the same boat), innocent casualties of war, millions tortured to death, six million Jews killed for being Jews. And so on.
My experience in my years now of talking about this kind of suffering is that people who hear such comments are all too ready to write and tell me “the answer.” They have a way of explaining why it happens that satisfies their thinking, and they can’t believe that I don’t find their explanations satisfying. I find that with simple uneducated folk and with highly trained professional philosophers.
I had a radio debate some years ago when I was in London with a rather famous professor of philosophy from Oxford University on whether the problem of suffering should cause problems for anyone who believes in God. He thought he had the answers to why there is suffering when there is a good and all powerful God in charge of the world (he himself is committed Christian). The suffering of others benefits those of us who are not experiencing their suffering, as it helps us recognize that grace that we receive and appreciate our own situations all the more. The suffering of others makes us “more noble.”
He wanted to stress this point specifically with respect to the Holocaust. It had an upside. It makes us more reflective and ennobles our lives today.
I have to say, I get rather roused up when someone tells me such things – especially when they do so with the smugness of an armchair observer of suffering. I got pretty angry in our back and forth. I simply couldn’t *believe* that he thought that innocent children were gassed for the sake of my personal nobility. It’s all about *me*. God allows such horrible and massive suffering because if he didn’t, I myself would be less noble. I simply lost my cool. It’s all fine that this fellow in his comfy confines of his cushy Oxford position felt ennobled. I (in my equally comfy confines) felt completely repulsed.
— Bart Ehrman, The Kind of Suffering That is a Problem, June 27, 2017
Americans express a considerable degree of intolerance toward atheists. More than half of Americans believe atheists should not be allowed to put up public displays that celebrate their beliefs (for example, a banner highlighting Americans’ freedom from religion under the Bill of Rights). More than one-third believe atheists should be banned from becoming president, and similar numbers believe they should be denied the opportunity to teach in public schools or the right to hold a rally.
And therein lies the problem: The stigma attached to the atheist label may prevent Americans from claiming it or sharing their beliefs with others. In certain parts of the country, pressure to conform to prevailing religious practices and beliefs is strong. A reporter with The Telegraph writing from rural Virginia, for example, found that for many atheists, being closeted makes a lot of sense. “The stakes are high,” said a Virginia Tech graduate who was raised Christian but is now an atheist. “Do I want to be supported by my friends and family, or am I going to risk being kicked out of clubs and organizations? It’s tempting just to avoid the whole issue.”
The fear of coming out shows up in polling too. A 2016 PRRI survey found that more than one-third of atheists reported hiding their religious identity or beliefs from friends and family members out of concerns that they would disapprove.
But if atheists are hiding their identity and beliefs from close friends and family members, how many might also refuse to divulge this information to a stranger? This is a potentially significant problem for pollsters trying to get an accurate read on the number of atheists in the U.S. It is well documented that survey respondents tend to overreport their participation in socially desirable behavior, such as voting or attending religious services. But at least when it comes to religious behavior, the problem is not that people who occasionally attend are claiming to be in the pews every week, but that those who never attend often refuse to say so. Americans who do not believe in God might be exhibiting a similar reticence and thus go uncounted.
Another challenge is that many questions about religious identity require respondents to select a single description from a list. This method, followed by most polling firms including PRRI (where I work as research director), does not allow Americans to identify simultaneously as Catholic and atheist. Or Jewish and atheist. But there are Catholics, Jews and Muslims who do not believe in God — their connection to religion is largely cultural or based on their ethnic background. When PRRI ran an experiment in 2014 that asked about atheist identity in a standalone question that did not ask about affiliation with any other religious group, we found that 7 percent of the American public claimed to be atheist.
Asking people about God in a multiple-choice format is self-evidently problematic. Conceptions of God vary substantially and are inherently subjective. Does a belief in mystical energy, for example, constitute a belief in God? When Gallup recently asked a yes-or-no question about belief in God, 89 percent of Americans reported that they do believe. But, in a separate poll, only slightly more than half (53 percent) of Americans said they have an anthropomorphic God in mind, while for other believers it’s something far more abstract. Many survey questions also do not leave much room for expressions of doubt. When PRRI probed those feelings of uncertainty, we found that 27 percent of the public — including nearly 40 percent of young adults — said they sometimes have doubts about the existence of God.
Attitudes about atheists are quickly changing, driven by the same powerful force that transformed opinion on gay rights: More and more people know an atheist personally, just as the number of people who report having a gay friend or family member has more than doubled over the past 25 years or so. Despite the fears that some nonbelievers have about coming out, 60 percent of Americans report knowing an atheist. Ten years ago, less than half the public reported knowing an atheist. Today, young adults are actually more likely to know an atheist than an evangelical Christian. These personal connections play a crucial role in reducing negative feelings. A decline in stigma may also encourage more atheists to come out. This would allow us to provide a more accurate estimate of atheists in the U.S. — is it 3 percent, 10 percent, or 26 percent? — and could fundamentally change our understanding of the American religious landscape.
These days it’s tough to find reasons to be cheerful about the state of the nation – but an America without Duck Dynasty is a good place to start. No show in television history has ever sucked quite like this one. And if the TV gods are willing, no show ever will.
A&E’s massive hit became a cultural presence in 2012 for its down-home charm – the zany adventures of a real-life Lousiana clan who kept their country manners and backwoods habits, with Phil, Miss Kay, their bearded sons and loopy Vietnam vet Uncle Si. Tonight, after five seasons of shenanigans running the family duck-call business, the Robertsons sign off tonight with their series finale, the last gasp of their barely noticed farewell go-round. The decline and fall of Duck Dynasty seems like it should have been a big-deal event, but it’s a surprisingly meek exit for a hit that loomed so large just a couple of years ago. This is the way the dynasty ends – not with a quack but with a whimper.
It’s poetic justice that 2017 is the year the Robertson family is finally heading off to the duck pond in the sky. The show represented the pre-Trump Christian right’s fantasy of itself – a family of hairy but God-fearing bootstrappers bowing their heads in prayer over the dinner table. Just a year ago, this was the most feared demographic in American politics – the bloc that couldn’t be bought or sold. But when the Christian right fell in line behind the most flamboyantly secular presidential candidate of the past century – a pussy-grabbing New Yorker who didn’t pretend to owe Jesus a damn thing – they sold themselves out, ensuring it’ll be a cold day in heck before they get another chance to vote for one of their own. The right is a whole new bird hunt now, as the godless white nationalists take over from the church ladies. And that makes Duck Dynasty look pitifully dated, in addition to everything else that blows about it.
The Robertsons weren’t even fun to watch on a reality-trash level, because they were too phony to believe – so artificial in their micro-scripted dialogue, so cynical in their piety, so bone-headed in their recycled sitcom plots. Hell, even their beards looked fake. So their family values always came across as a made-for-TV shuck; however sincere they may or may not have been in real life, the Robertsons never failed to turn into show-biz frauds onscreen. In one episode, Miss Kay confides that Phil never remembers their wedding anniversary – the only dates he can remember are Christmas and Easter. Aaaaawww.
Yet as any viewer with any kind of Christian background could have informed the writers, Easter isn’t a date – it’s a moveable feast that bounces between various Sundays. (This year it’s on April 17th.) A church lady like Miss Kay should know that, right? Except either she didn’t know, or she didn’t care, or the writers felt it was such a clever button-pushing line they made her say it anyway.
Duck Dynasty always had plenty of those cynical moments. In one episode, Phil refuses to bathe for hunting season, while Miss Kay wants him to wash up, so they read Bible verses to each other to defend their positions. Miss Kay wins the argument by reading the proverb, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Except that isn’t in the Bible. (It dates back to John Wesley in 1778.) Either Miss Kay and Phil don’t really know their family Good Book, or they’re just obediently reciting any old half-assed banter the writers feed them.
A typically phony gag, from this phoniest of reality franchises. Farewell, Duck Dynasty. The end of your era is a rare reason to celebrate in 2017 – but we’ll take it.
Let me end this post with a photographic reminder of how these frauds looked BEFORE their Duck Dynasty Days and a few quotes from anal sex obsessed Robertson patriarch Phil.
“God says, ‘One woman, one man,’ and everyone says, ‘Oh, that’s old hat, that’s that old Bible stuff. But I’m thinking, well, let’s see now. A clean guy — a disease-free guy and a disease-free woman — they marry and they keep their sex between the two of them. They’re not going to get chlamydia, and gonorrhea, and syphilis, and AIDS. It’s safe.”
“Men should use the men’s bathroom and women should use the women’s bathroom. Just because a man may ‘feel’ like a woman doesn’t mean he should be able to share a bathroom with my daughter, or yours. That used to be called common sense. Now it’s called bigoted.”
“In this case, you either have to convert them[ISIS], which I think would be next to impossible. I’m not giving up on them, but I’m just saying either convert them or kill them. I’d much rather have a Bible study with all of them and show them the error of their ways and point them to Jesus Christ… However, if it’s a gunfight and a gunfight alone, if that’s what they’re looking for, me personally, I am prepared for either one.”
“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”
“Women with women. Men with men. They committed indecent acts with one another. And they received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. They’re full of murder, envy, strife, hatred. They are insolent, arrogant God haters. They are heartless. They are faithless. They are senseless. They are ruthless. They invent ways of doing evil.”
“I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude? Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.If it happened to them,” Robertson continued, “they probably would say, ‘something about this just ain’t right.”
“I tell people, ‘You are a sinner, we all are. Do you want to hear my story before I give you the bottom line on your story? We murder each other and we steal from one another, sex and immorality goes ballistic. All the diseases that just so happen to follow sexual mischief. So what is your safest course of action? If you’re a man, find yourself a woman, marry them and keep your sex right there. … You can have fun, but one thing is for sure, as long as you are both healthy in the first place, you are not going to catch some debilitating illness. There is safety there. Commonsense says we are not going to procreate the human race unless we have a man and a woman. From the beginning Jesus said, ‘It is a man and a woman.’ Adam was made and Eve was made for this reason.”
“Look, you wait ’til they get to be 20 years old, the only picking that’s going to take place is your pocket. You got to marry these girls when they are about 15 [Robertson’s wife was 15 when they married] or 16. They’ll pick your ducks. You need to check with mom and dad about that, of course. Make sure that she can cook a meal. You need to eat some meals that she cooks. Check that out. Make sure she carries her Bible. That’ll save you a lot of trouble down the road. And if she picks your ducks, now that’s a woman!”
“Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers — they won’t inherit the kingdom of God … Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”
“Sin becomes fine. Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there — bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.”
“It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”
“We murder each other and we steal from one another, sex and immorality goes ballistic. All the diseases that just so happen to follow sexual mischief… boy there are some microbes running around now.”
“Jesus will take sins away, if you’re a homosexual he’ll take it away, if you’re an adulterer, if you’re a liar, what’s the difference? If you break one sin you may as well break them all.”
“Temporary is all you’re going to get with any kind of health care, except the health care I’m telling you about. That’s eternal health care, and it’s free… I’ve opted to go with eternal health care instead of blowing money on these insurance schemes.”
“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
“There is a penalty to be paid from what the beatniks and had morphed into the hippies, you say ?what do you call the hundred and ten-million people who have sexually transmitted illnesses?? It’s the revenge of the hippies. Sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll have come back to haunt us. In a bad way.”
“Why do they murder and why do they hate us? Because all of them … 80 years of history, they all want to conquer the world, they all rejected Jesus and they’re all famous for murder. Nazis, Shintoists, Communists and the Mohammedists. Every one of them the same way.”
“I am a God loving, Bible believing, gun-toting, capitalist!”
The mind-rape called fundy evangelical belief, leads the follower down a ritualistic path of self-harm. It begins with admitting that you are a hopeless sinner and unworthy. That is an important first step necessary to start the foundation for the royal heart-rape of Salvation. It is based, or was in my experience, on feeling the truth in things. As a child I was made to understand that I was unworthy by being human, born in sin. That became my world as it was given to me in love from my parents, in a fashion similar to their own childhoods. I knew I was evil because I knew I was evil, as it were. It was my beginning. I thought bad words in my head for no reason whatsoever than that I was clearly evil. How else could the word ‘shit’ or the evil ‘fuck’ appear to me? The path was laid out long before my time, churches were built on every corner and nobody much questioned this reality. I have thought and expressed every word Allison says above here and I have believed that I was right. Trouble is, the human body, the mortal life of a person does not just go-along like a follower. It protests with feelings and ideas, with dreams and daily LIFE! The cycle of belief always left me needing to be ‘saved’ again by Jesus, forgiven or whatever, and the cycle persisted no matter what sort of maturity I had in my faith. You know, I still remember just weeping like a helpless lump when I realized I actually had a choice in the matter. I had heard and ingested all the preaching about free choosing and so forth but I did not get it because, well, I never did have a choice, did I…. not from the get-go. It took me over a quarter of a century to realize I could choose…. Both Allison and me as young people should have been wearing warning labels so that others would know how truly we believed! When I actually realized I had a choice to say, No, it floored me. I had to practice it secretly, whisper it, keep No in a closet. But I knew I could not let No go because, you know what, I could really breathe when it came to me. I could feel my chest fill fully and the air was mine to use. I sensed freedom in my body long before my heart and mind could even see it from the church basement they lived in… I did not even dare think that one day my heart and mind would come home with me, so to speak. They never did for much of my family. We still produce many preacher teachers and missionaries for the cause…. they pray for me and I am sure would not mind at all if I agreed to wear a warning label myself: Fallen, ungrateful backslider! Beware!
I just now – fifteen minutes ago – came to realize with the most crystal clarity I have ever had why I cannot call myself a Christian. Of course, as most of you know, I have not called myself a Christian publicly for a very long time, twenty years or so I suppose. But a number of people tell me that they think at heart I’m a Christian, and I sometimes think of myself as a Christian agnostic/atheist. Their thinking, and mine, has been that if I do my best to follow the teachings of Jesus, in some respect I’m a Christian, even if I don’t believe that Jesus was the son of God, or that he was raised from the dead, or that… or even that God exists. In fact I don’t believe all these things. But can’t I be a Christian in a different sense, one who follows Jesus’ teachings?
Fifteen minutes ago I realized with startling clarity why I don’t think so.
This afternoon in my undergraduate course on the New Testament I was lecturing on the mission and message of Jesus.
In today’s lecture I wanted to introduce, explain, and argue for the view that has been dominant among critical scholars studying Jesus for the past century, that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish apocalypticist. I warned the students that this is not a view they will have encountered in church or in Sunday school. But there are solid reasons for thinking it is right. I tried to explain at some length what those reasons were.
But first I gave an extended account of what Jewish apocalypticists believed. The entire cosmos was divided into forces of good and evil, and everything and everyone sided with one or the other. This cosmic dualism worked itself out in a historical dualism, between the current age of this world, controlled by forces of evil, and the coming age, controlled by the forces of good. This age would not advance to be a better world, on the contrary, apocalypticists thought this world was going to get worse and worse, until literally, at the end, all hell breaks out.
But then God would intervene in an act of cosmic judgment in which he destroyed the forces of evil and set up a good kingdom here on earth, an actual physical kingdom ruled by his representative. This cataclysmic judgment would affect all people. Those who had sided with evil (and prospered as a result) would be destroyed, and those who had sided with God (and been persecuted and harmed as a result) would be rewarded.
Moreover, this future judgment applied not only to the living but also to the dead. At the end of this age God would raise everyone from the dead to face either eternal reward or eternal punishment. And so, no one should think they could side with the forces of evil, prosper as a result, become rich, powerful, and influential, and then die and get away with it. No one could get away with it. God would raise everyone from the dead for judgment, and there was not a sweet thing anyone could do to stop him.
And when would this happen? When would the judgment come? When would this new rule, the Kingdom of God, begin? “Truly I tell you, some of you standing here will not taste before you see the kingdom of God come in power.” The words of Jesus (Mark 9:1). Jesus was not talking about a kingdom you would enter when you died and went to heaven: he was referring to a kingdom here on earth, to be ruled by God . Or as he says later, when asked when the end of the age would come, “Truly I tell you, This generation will not pass away before all these things take place.”
When I finished laying it all out in my lecture, stressing that Jesus thought this all was going to happen within his own generation, I had about two minutes left, and I had a final point to make (on my PowerPoint outline): “Jesus Now and Then.” Today the idea that Jesus expected the imminent end of the age to be brought in a cataclysmic act of judgment leading to a world of peace and universal happiness is no longer preached or taught in churches (well, the vast majority of churches). But it does appear to be who Jesus really was.
I told my students they had to decide for themselves if they agreed with this scholarly view or not, after looking at all the evidence. But I stressed that they should not reject the view (historically) simply because they thought it was wrong religiously (since Jesus then would have been wrong about when the end would come). I then explained why, and it was when I gave this explanation – impromptu, off the top of my head – that I realized why it was that I was not and could not be a follower of Jesus’ teachings.
I told my students that the apocalyptic Jesus realized that ultimate reality and true meaning do not reside in this world. Following Jesus means to realize that ultimate reality resides outside this world, in a higher world, above this mundane existence that we live in the here and now. I stated this as emphatically as I could. Students surely thought I was preaching, that I was affirming this message. I made the statement as rhetorically effective as I could.
And I’m not sure I’ve ever said it this way before in my 32 years of teaching. When I said it I had two immediate mental reactions to what I had just said: (a) I realized that I really do think this is Jesus’ ultimate (apocalyptic point) and, even more graphically, (b) I don’t agree with that view at all.
My personal view is just the opposite. My view is that there *is* no realm above or outside of this one that provides meaning to life in our world. In my view this world is all there is. Yes, I know there are aspects of physical reality that are extremely odd and completely inaccessible to me. But I don’t think there is anything outside our material existence. Meaning comes from what we can value, cherish, prize, aspire to, hopeful, achieve, attain, and … love in this world. There is no transcendent truth that can make sense of our reality. Our reality is the only reality. It can either be (very) good for us or (very) bad for us. But however we experience it, it’s all there is.
That’s what I really think. I never push this view on anyone else. It’s simply my view. And I think it is diametrically (not just tangentially) different from the view of Jesus. It is completely at odds with his view. That’s why I don’t think I do subscribe to his teachings, his views, or his message (in some metaphorical way).
For lots of personal reasons I do find that sad, but I’m afraid it appears to be the case.
Now, let’s jump from my impressionable years to just a few years ago. I was touring the country in a show about the Scopes Monkey Trial. Ed Asner was playing William Jennings Bryan and I played Clarence Darrow.
This was not Inherent the Wind. This was the actual 1925 trial transcript arguing the teaching of evolution in the public schools—an argument, I’m sorry to say, that’s still raging today for all the wrong reasons.
We were on the college circuit, but performances were open to the general public. During our month of touring, we were picketed, yelled at, and booed—most of the time before the show even started. At one of the universities, I was finishing up a Q&A for a group of 100 or so students when the teacher said he’d seen the play the night before and highly recommended it.
Then, with a wink in my direction, he turned and asked the class, “With a show of hands, how many of you believe the earth was created on October 22, 4004 BC?” Seventy-five students raised their hands. I was stunned. Speechless. My head dropped as I silently bore witness to the death of knowledge, the death of curiosity—wiped out in an instant by some religious nonsense—yet these college students believed it. And they were secure in their belief, you could even say smug considering the enthusiasm with which their hands shot up into the air, affirming: “I believe.”
In the green room that evening I told the cast about my experience. There was a young theater “groupie” hanging around, and I asked her if she would have raised her hand like the others.
“Oh yes,” she said.
“Why? In light of everything we know today, why?”
“Because I believe God is my bus driver.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t know what that means.”
“That I can sit at the back of the bus and party-hearty because God is driving my bus. And if the Bible says 4004 BC, who am I to disagree?”
“4004 BC is not even in the Bible,” I said.
“Well… I don’t know. That’s what I believe.”
“But that doesn’t make sense, you idiot. Next, you’re going to tell me that you believe vaccines give you autism; or that Obama is a Muslim; or that not having healthcare makes you free; or that AIDS is a punishment for being gay; or that Sandy Hook was staged.”
Of course, I didn’t say any of this. I just looked on in despair and half-heartedly asked her if God required exact change to get on the bus. She didn’t get the joke.
“God is my bus driver” precludes any and all critical thinking. It exposes this young woman to a lifetime of nonsense both benign and dangerous. It typifies the mindset of a segment of our population who can’t tell the difference between truth and fiction because they’ve wasted their formative years focusing on whether Adam wore flip-flops or walked barefoot in the garden—with his dinosaur.
The willingness of these twenty-first-century college students to believe the calculations of a seventeenth-century prelate, in spite of indisputable evidence to the contrary, is astounding. And because they’ve gone down this path, these young people are entering a world woefully unprepared for the challenges they’ll encounter. They will look at a hillside and see, perhaps nothing—certainly not iron ore. In their youth, they’ve not been encouraged to understand the world they live in, but rather have been directed to explore an imaginary world. They will enter adulthood with neither the disposition nor the skill to untangle complex, earthly problems. Healthcare, global warming—too complicated. Same-sex marriage, bathrooms—perfect.
When someone we love dies, it can intensely undermine our sense of stability and safety. Our lives have been changed forever, generally by forces we had no control over—and it can feel as if nothing’s in our control. It can feel like the ground under our feet, which we once thought was stable, has suddenly gone soft. Our sense of being able to act in the world, and of having some reasonable expectation of what the consequences will be, can be deeply shaken.
This feeling can be especially strong if the person who died was someone we were exceptionally close with and who had a large presence in our everyday lives, like a spouse or a partner or a child. It can be especially strong if they were someone we knew for all or most of our lives, like a parent or a sibling. And it can be especially strong if the death was unexpected, like an accident, a sudden illness, or death by violence.
Typically, religion teaches us to cope with these feelings by denying them. It tells us that, no matter how insecure we may feel, in reality we’re completely safe. The people who have died aren’t really dead—we’ll see them again. Their death hasn’t actually changed our lives permanently. In fact, the next time we see them it’ll be in a blissful place of perfect safety. (There are exceptions—many Buddhist teachings, for instance, focus on the inherent impermanence of existence.)
The opposite is true for nonreligious and nonspiritual views of death. Nonbelievers don’t deny this experience of instability. So instead we can try to accept it, and find ways to live with it.
The reality is that safety isn’t an either/or thing. We’re never either entirely safe or entirely unsafe. The ground under our feet is never either totally solid or totally soft. Stability and safety are relative: they’re on a spectrum. We’re more safe, or less safe.
Coping with grief and moving on with it doesn’t mean that the ground feels entirely solid again. It means that the ground feels more solid. It means we feel more able to make plans, more trusting that our actions will have consequences that are more or less what we’d expect. We still understand that things can come out of left field—terrible things, and wonderful ones. We can go ahead and make plans; and make contingency plans in case those plans don’t work out; and do risk-benefit analysis about possible actions and possible outcomes; and accept the fact that a sudden wind could rise up and radically change everything.
There’s no such thing as perfect safety. That can be difficult to accept. But it can also be a relief. Imagine an existence where there are no surprises, where everything happens exactly as you expect. It would be tedious to the point of derangement. It would be sterile. It would be isolating.
When we let go of the search for perfect safety, it can be frightening and upsetting. But it can also be comforting. Letting go of the struggle for something that can’t be attained, and letting go of the guilt or resentment when we don’t attain it, can be a relief. It can even be liberating.
The fear that grief can bring on, the anxiety about an unstable, unpredictable world, is still frightening. And none of this philosophy makes that pain or fear go away. But it may make that fear more manageable, less overwhelming, and easier to accept.
Nothing seems to get a heated debate started faster than challenging a Christian who practices Yoga on this subject.
“But I only do the stretching part.” I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this. This article is written for the sake of clarification and education on the practice of Yoga.
Yoga (/ˈjoʊɡə/; Sanskrit: योग, Listen) are the physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines that aim to transform body and mind. The term denotes a variety of schools, practices and goals in Hinduism, Buddhism (including Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism and Jainism,[ the best-known being Hatha yoga and Raja yoga. The term yoga is derived from the literal meaning of “yoking together” a span of horses or oxes, but came to be applied to the “yoking” of mind and body.- source
Yoga:noun a mystic and ascetic Hindu discipline by which one seeks to achieve liberation of the self and union with the supreme spirit or universal soul through intense concentration, deep meditation, and practices involving prescribed postures, controlled breathing, etc. a system of exercising involving the postures, breathing, etc. practiced in this discipline.
A Christian who studies the Word of God, should instantly see red flags and discern that Yoga and Christianity are not compatible. We see in the definition “Yoga is the physical, mental and spiritual practices or disciplines that aim to transform body and mind.” What does God say about transforming our minds?
“And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” (Romans 12:2)
Another red flag should easily be seen by a student of the Word. Let’s see what God says about being yoked together:
“Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14)
The picture of oxen being yoked together is used by both Yoga and the Word. In Yoga, the goal is for mind and body to be yoked together. It’s a Hindu discipline to bring mind and body into submission – but to what end?
Were you aware that every Yoga pose is a posture of worship to various Hindu gods? In this way, the person is making offerings to millions of Hindu deities! Of course, these details are left off of the “Welcome pamphlet” in Yoga centers. People are coming there to stretch and relax and be energized, right?
In an interview with Dave Hunt of the Berean Call (Dave is now with our Lord) the subject of the Kundalini Spirit was addressed:
“Well, to put it bluntly, it’s demonic. There is no way you can explain it physically, it’s a non physical force. There certainly is nothing coiled at the base of the spine, three and one-half times coiled like a serpent that’s going to spring up when you get in the proper state of consciousness, supposedly. This is the same occult power that all the occultists are in touch with, or try to be in touch with.”
Sex outside of marriage, however, was regarded very differently. The Puritans followed the teachings of the Old Testament in believing that adultery was a sin of the deepest dye. They defined an adulterous act in the conventional way as extramarital sex involving a married woman (not necessarily a married man), but punished both partners with high severity. Their criminal codes made adultery a capital crime, and at least three people were actually hanged for it in the Puritan colonies.
When cases of adultery occurred, it was not uncommon for entire communities to band together and punish the transgressors. In the town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, for example, a married woman named Sarah Roe had an affair with a neighbor named Joseph Leigh while her mariner-husband was away at sea. Several townsmen warned them to stop.When they persisted, no fewer than thirty-five Ipswich neighbors went to court against them and gave testimony that communicated a deep sense of moral outrage. In this case, adultery could not be proved according to New England’s stringent rules for capital crime, which required two eye-witnesses to the actual offense. But the erring couple were found guilty of “unlawful familiarity” and severely punished. Joseph Leigh was ordered to be heavily whipped and fined five pounds, and Sarah Roe was sent to the House of Correction for a month, with orders that she was to appear in Ipswich meetinghouse on lecture day bearing a sign, “For My baudish Carriage,” written in “fair capital letters.” In this case as in so many others, the moral code of Puritan Massachusetts was not imposed by a small elite upon an unwilling people; it rose from customs and beliefs that were broadly shared throughout the Puritan colonies.
In cases of fornication the rules were also very strict. For an act of coitus with an unwed woman, the criminal laws of Puritan Massachusetts decreed that a man could be jailed, whipped, fined, disfranchised and forced to marry his partner. Even in betrothed couples, sexual intercourse before marriage was regarded as a pollution which had to be purged before they could take its place in society and — most important — before their children could be baptized. In both courts and churches, the Puritans created an elaborate public ritual by which fornicators were cleansed of their sin, so that they could be speedily admitted to full moral fellowship.
Puritan attitudes were almost maniacally hostile to what they regarded as unnatural sex. More than other religious groups, they had a genuine horror of sexual perversion. Masturbation was made a capital crime in the colony of New Haven. Bestiality was punished by death, and that sentence was sometimes executed in circumstances so bizarre as to tell us much about the sex ways of New England. One such case in New Haven involved a one-eyed servant named George Spencer, who had often been on the wrong side of the law, and was suspected of many depravities by his neighbors. When a sow gave birth to a deformed pig which also had one eye, the unfortunate man was accused of bestiality. Under great pressure, he confessed, recanted, confessed again, and recanted once more. The laws of New England made conviction difficult: bestiality was a capital crime and required two witnesses for conviction. But so relentless were the magistrates that the deformed piglet was admitted as one witness, and the recanted confession was accepted as another. George Spencer was hanged for bestiality.
This hostility to unnatural sex had a demographic consequence of high importance. Puritan moralists condemned as unnatural any attempt to prevent conception within marriage. This was not a common attitude in world history. Most primitive cultures have practiced some form of contraception, often with high success. Iroquois squaws made diaphragms of birchbark; African slaves used pessaries of elephant dung to prevent pregnancy. European women employed beeswax disks, cabbage leaves, spermicides of lead, whitewash and tar. During the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, coitus interruptus and the use of sheepgut condoms became widespread in Europe.
But the Puritans would have none of these unnatural practices.They found a clear rule in Genesis 38, where Onan “spilled his seed upon the ground” in an effort to prevent conception and the Lord slew him. In Massachusetts, seed-spilling in general was known as the “hideous sin of Onanism.” A Puritan could not practice coitus interruptus and keep his faith. Every demographic test of contraception within marriage yields negative results in Puritan Massachusetts. The burden of this taboo rested heavily upon families throughout New England. Samuel Sewall, at the age of 49, recorded the birth of his fourteenth child, and added a prayer, “It may be my dear wife may now leave off bearing.” So she did, but only by reaching the age of menopause.
Arguing that an invisible god works inexplicable magic producing undetectable effects is the theological equivalent of a desperate child saying that the Tooth Fairy ate her homework. No parent or teacher or scientist can prove she didn’t. That said, it’s important to remember that humanity’s interest in prayer stems from a desire to get what we need and want. Actions of supernatural beings that have no discernable impact on actual lives are, from a human standpoint, simply irrelevant. Prayer persists because people believe that prayer affects this physical world and their own lives.
In the mind of atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris, prayer apologists had cut themselves too much slack long before they began arguing that prayer is uniquely exempt from the scientific method. He says that even before the double blind randomized trials we had a mountain of evidence that prayer requests don’t work, and Christians have tacitly adapted to what they know but won’t admit: “Get a billion Christians to pray for a single amputee. Get them to pray that God regrow that missing limb. This happens to salamanders every day, presumably without prayer; this is within the capacity of God. I find it interesting that people of faith only tend to pray for conditions that are self-limiting.”
A God Should Do Better; So Should We
God the Almighty shouldn’t operate at the margins of statistical significance. He shouldn’t be most evident when the evidence itself is of the poorest quality, fading into invisibility as the light of scientific rigor becomes brighter. He shouldn’t need defenders who are willing to tie their reputations to expensive research that they then dismiss as irrelevant when results are disappointing. God shouldn’t need defenders who engage in rabbit hole reasoning, who insist that he moves in our world and in our lives, but only as long as we aren’t looking; or who insist that despite all evidence to the contrary bad is actually good because it must be good, because by definition God is good and he’s in charge.
Since the year 2000, the U.S. government has spent over $2 million on prayer studies without producing any result that is remotely congruent with the bold claims made by the authors of the New Testament. And yet those bold claims are a reasonable set of assertions to make about an all-powerful and all-loving, interventionist deity.
Our ancestors put forward their best set of hypotheses about how the world works, who is in charge, and how we can get what we need. They did so without the benefits of enlightenment philosophy or the methods and discoveries of science, without the global flow of information and the freedom to debate ideas. They had no way of knowing that their hypotheses would fail when examined in the light of modern knowledge and analytic capacity. But at least they knew not to simply accept and repeat whatever their ancestors had said 2,000 years earlier. Maybe we could try living up to that bar.
Perhaps I should have been prepared for the fact that answers to my many-religions questions were not forthcoming in the Bible. It was, to say the least, disheartening. Instead, I turned to the theology of the faith itself, particularly the book of Hebrews. Hebrews explains how the death of Christ is wed to the Old Testament covenants that involved ritual animal sacrifice. The Jewish people sacrificed animals to appease the wrath of God brought upon them by their sins; Christ was a perfect sacrifice that allowed the old covenant to be discarded and a new one, based on faith, was forged.
Except, none of this made any sense to me at all. Why did God want ritual animal sacrifice in the first place? What does that have to do with forgiveness? Perhaps, I thought, God wanted people to make a sacrifice — farm animals, in those days, were precious resources. But that explanation evaporates with Christ, since he took the sacrifice upon himself. What was so special about the “blood of Christ”? What did that have to do with God’s willingness to forgive people? And why did God spend centuries on ineffectual covenants in the first place? How does an omnipotent deity “sacrifice” anything at all — Jesus could have, conceivably, poofed himself right back into existence or simply refused to die in the first place. Generally when we mortals talk about “sacrifice”, it means something quite different. We don’t get to come back a few days later and float into the clouds.
Worse, Christianity holds that Christ is God. How can God sacrifice himself to himself to fulfill his own covenant? A covenant whose terms were, as far as I could tell, completely arbitrary! Adding insult to injury is the fact that modern Christianity (generally) holds that humans are “fallen”, and born into sin. Even those few who reject Original Sin still accept the Biblical decree that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. In other words, the system is rigged. You’re a sinner, and there’s nothing you can do to change that. But God can save you, as long as you assent to the belief that he created a convoluted system of arbitrary covenants and “sacrificed” himself to himself to appease himself of the terms he created so he could forgive you for being what you had no choice to be — a flawed human being. I should point out that it’s utterly irrelevant whether someone believes it’s all literal, as in the “penal substitution theory of atonement”, or they believe it’s either all or in part metaphorical. Either way, it doesn’t make an iota of sense.
Confused and frustrated, I sought out some church leaders to discuss these matters. One chaplain, in particular, was particularly patient with me as I probed for answers about the blood of Christ, ritual sacrifice, and atonement. But he couldn’t offer anything more than trite platitudes about having faith, that there are some thing we just don’t understand. Maybe that was good enough for him, but I couldn’t assent to beliefs that were, on their face, ridiculous. Frankly, I didn’t think it was too much to ask that a logically coherent explanation of basic Christian theology was forthcoming. These aren’t tertiary issues of theology, after all — they’re the fundamentals of what Christianity is in the first place.
There is, perhaps, no more striking example of the credulity of man than the widespread belief in immortality. This idea includes not only the belief that death is not the end of what we call life, but that personal identity involving memory persists beyond the grave. So determined is the ordinary individual to hold fast to this belief that, as a rule, he refuses to read or to think upon the subject lest it cast doubt upon his cherished dream. Of those who may chance to look at this contribution, many will do so with the determination not to be convinced, and will refuse even to consider the manifold reasons that might weaken their faith. I know that this is true, for I know the reluctance with which I long approach the subject in my firm determination not to give up my hope. Thus the myth will stand in the way of a sensible adjustment to facts.
Even many of those who claim to believe in immortality still tell themselves and others that neither side of the question is susceptible of proof. Just what can these hopeful ones believe that the word “proof” involves? The evidence against the persistence of personal consciousness is as strong as the evidence of gravitation, and much more obvious. It is as convincing and unassailable as the proof of the destruction of wood or coal by fire. If it is not certain that death ends personal identity and memory, then almost nothing that man accepts as true is susceptible of proof.
The beliefs of the race and as individuals are relics of the past. Without careful examination no one can begin to understand how many of man’s cherished opinions have no foundation in fact. The common experience of all men should teach them how easy it is to believe, what they wish to accept. Experienced psychologists know perfectly well that if they desire to convince a man of some idea, they must first make him want to believe it. There are so many hopes, so many strong yearnings and desires attached to the doctrine of immortality that it is practically impossible to create in any mind the wish to be mortal. Still, in spite of strong desires, millions of people are filled with doubts and fears that will not down. After all, is it not better to look to the question squarely in the face and find out whether we are harboring a delusion?
It is customary to speak of a “belief in immortality.” First, then let us see what is meant by the word “belief.” If I take a train in Chicago at noon, bound for New York, I believe I will reach that city the next morning. I believe it because I have been to New York, I have read about the city, I have known many other people who have been there, and their stories are not inconsistent with any known facts in my own experience. I have even examined the timetables and I know just how I will go and how long the trip will take. In other words when I board the train for New York, I believe I will reach that city because I have reason to believe it.
If, instead, I want to see Timbuktu or some other point on the globe where I have never been, or of which I had only heard, I still know something about geography, and if I did not I could find out about the place I wish to visit. Through the encyclopedia and other means of information, I could get a fair idea of the location and character of the country or city, the kind of people who live there and almost anything I wish to know, including the means of transportation and the time it would take to go and return. I already am satisfied that the earth is round, I know about it size. I know the extent of its land and water. I know the names of its countries; I know perfectly well that there are many places on its surface that I have never seen. I can easily satisfy myself as to whether there is any such place and how to get there, and what I shall do when I arrive.
But if I am told that next week I shall start on a trip to Goofville; that I shall not take my body with me; that I shall stay for all eternity: can I find a single fact connected with my journey — the way I shall go, the time of the journey, the country I shall reach, its location in space, the way I shall live there — or anything that would lead to irrational belief that I shall really make the trip? Have I ever known anyone who has made the journey and returned? If I am really to believe, I must try to get some information about all these important facts.
But people hesitate to ask questions about life after death. They do not for they know that only silence comes out of the eternal darkness of endless space. If people really believed in a beautiful, happy, glorious land waiting to receive them when they died; if they believed that their friends would be waiting to meet them; if they believed that all pain-and-suffering would be left behind: why should they live through weeks, months, and even years of pain and torture while I cancer eats its way through vital parts of the body? Why should one fight off death? Because he does not believe in any real sense; he only hopes. Everyone knows that there is no real evidence of any such state of bliss; so we are told not to search for proof. We are to accept through faith alone. But every thinking person knows that faith can only come through belief. Belief implies a condition of mind that accepts a certain idea. This condition can be brought about only by evidence. True, the evidence may be simply the unsupported statement of your grandmother, it may be wholly insufficient for reasoning men; but, good or bad, it must be enough for the believer or he could not believe.
Upon what evidence, then, are we asked to believe in immortality? There is no evidence. One is told to rely on faith, and no doubt this serves the purpose so long as one can believe blindly whatever he is told. But if there is no evidence upon which to build a positive belief in immortality, let us examine the other side of the question. Perhaps evidence can be found to support a positive conviction that immortality is a delusion.
All men recognize the hopelessness of finding any evidence that the individual will persist beyond the grave. As a last resort, we are told that it is better that the doctrine be believed even if it is not true. We are assured that without this faith, life is only desolation and despair. However that may be, it remains that many of the conclusions of logic are not pleasant to contemplate; so long as men think and feel, at least some of them will use their faculties as best they can. For if we are to believe things that are not true, who is to write our creed? Is it safe to leave it to any man or organization to pick out the errors that we must accept? The whole history of the world has answered this question in a way that cannot be mistaken.
And after all, is the belief in immortality necessary or even desirable for man? Millions of men and women have no such faith; they go on with their daily tasks and feel joy and sorrow without the lure of immortal life. The things that really affect the happiness of the individual are the matters of daily living. They are the companionship of friends, the games and contemplations. They are misunderstandings and cruel judgments, false friends and debts, poverty and disease. They are our joys in our living companions and our sorrows over those who die. Whatever our faith, we mainly live in the present — in the here and now. Those who hold the view that man is mortal are never troubled by metaphysical problems. At the end of the day’s labor we are glad to lose our consciousness and sleep; and intellectually, at least, we look forward to the long rest from the stresses and storms that are always incidental to existence.
When we fully understand the brevity of life, it’s fleeting joys and unavoidable pains; when we accept the facts that all men and women are approaching an inevitable doom: the consciousness of it should make us more kindly and considerate of each other. This feeling should make men and women use their best efforts to help their fellow travelers on the road, to make the path brighter and easier as we journey on. It should bring us a closer kinship, a better understanding, and a deeper sympathy for the wayfarers who must live a common life and die a common death.
Clarence Darrow, Why I Am an Agnostic and Other Essays, The Myth of the Soul
You can purchase Why I Am an Agnostic and Other Essays here.