Tag Archives: Theology

How a god can both exist and not exist?

Does God Exist

Does “God” exist”?  Well, it depends how you define your word “God”.

The classic theist way is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving invisible being that intervenes in the world and after death.

Well, we have absolutely no evidence of an invisible being intervening in the world.  The problem of Theodicy (see Wiki) has made this clear for millennium.

Now, if a person’s definition of “God” means: “that invisible being who causes me to have peace and happiness (or awe or dread or whatever emotion the believer weighs strongly)”, and offers no way to test such a thing, then we could say, ‘Sure, if you want to call that feeling “God”, and since I am willing to assume you indeed are having that feeling, then, using your specialized vocabulary, I am OK saying “your God exists”.  But I am not saying that the theist god exists, of course.

So sure, a believer may believe a god like Krishna or Yahweh or Jesus or Allah moves their hearts and fills their life with meaning and I would be happy enough for them.  Yeah, I don’t think any of those people/gods exist in reality but in those person’s minds, that is the word they use to label their experiences and feelings.  So sure, as long as they don’t push their god on me, on my politics, on my children, on my science, they can have their god.  I am glad they have a word for what makes them happy.
_________________

Notes:

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Hindu vs. Christian Eschatology

Hindu_Xian_Eschatology

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“The Bible Says” is a Trojan Horse

Not HomogenizedWhat Christians call “The Bible” is not one homogenous book but instead an anthology of books and letters.  To top that off, the various sects of Christianity often have different anthologies. Most importantly, those anthologies have no internal consistency – no homogeneity to allow the use of the phrase “The Bible says” in any meaningful way.  Heck, even using the phrase “The Bible” can contain the same hidden, wrong assumptions.

If someone says “The Bible Says…”, be they Atheist, Christian or anyone else, any of following questions may be helpful in revealing the trojan assumptions within that expression:

  • TrojanWhich Bible?Which translation from which tradition?
  • Whose Bible?
    • Whose anthology: Catholic, Protestants, Jews, Ethiopians, Eastern Orthodox?  Or perhaps former Bibles which we forbidden and destroyed.
  • Which author in the anthology?
    • Bible has lots of authors and the authors had different theologies.  There is no spirit writing all those books using men as puppets.
  • Which type of book in the Bible?
    • Poetry, letters, apocalyptic stuff, myths, fake history …
      You can’t generalize about the Bible — tell us what you are talking about.
  • Which redaction do you prefer?
    • The books collected by the believers have been changed over time.
  • Which hermeneutic do you embrace?
    • There are lots of ways to interpret and understand the books in the Christian Anthology — what is your favorite theological spin?

You see, there too many questions to allow someone to comfortably us “The Bible says” — because “The Bible says” is a trojan horse sneaking in all sorts of misunderstandings of the politics, the history and the nature of the many collection of books that Christians called sacred.

Below are two of my charts linked to posts showing why “The Bible” is a problematic phrase.  And below them are links to other posts I have written emphasizing the same trojan nature of the expression “The Bible Says”.

Translations_Large

Translation Pathways

Bible Texts_2

Related Posts of Mine:

CreditHT for the trojan horse pic

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My Pathetic Deconversion: Failed Christian Exceptionalism

Introduction

This post was inspired after I read some brave deconversion stories of ex-Christians. I am ashamed to admit that unlike them my deconversion from Christianity was both unscholarly and cowardly.  Below, then, is the my confession of a pathetic deconversion — well, a few bits, anyway.  I thought I’d share this because, it is important to realize the variety of dec0nversions that can occur (from any religion).

Not a Theological deconversion

I’ve read the deconversion stories of very bright people who had decades of deep Bible study and commitment to Jesus before giving up the ghost (Holy Ghost, that is).  Compared to these folks my Christian days were short and shallow.  Some of these folks were pastors and others were scholars. Reading their criticisms of Christianity are enlightening. But my deconversion was pathetically simple. I was never sucked into the anti-science type of Christianity, so learning science was not why I left.  I also was never was a systematic theologian type, so seeing the problems in any given theology was not why I left.  Though I had a year of theology and read a lot, my Christianity was not one of my head.

My I-am-not-special deconversion

Instead, I left because I didn’t see Christians (myself included) as being special or different from non-believers in ways that the propaganda of my Christianity professed. I left to rejoin the rest of humanity, declaring myself to again be one with them. With my departure from Christianity, my world quickly broadened as I dropped the burden of Christian exceptionalism.

My downfall began several years after my born-again experience, when I hitchhiked to India and met lots really fine non-Christians: Hindus, Muslims, atheists and more.  Those experiences and others on the trip destroyed my Christian exceptionalism. See my post – Hinduism was my Undoing.

Deconversion feelings but no thoughts yet (pre-thought: Meta-thought)

On returning from India, I finished up my last semester at my Christian college (Wheaton). As many ex-pats agree, it is strange coming back to your mother country and pretending that you haven’t changed. To everyone else I looked the same even if I had a few interesting stories. Not only did I feel different about America after exposures to people who loved their country and had naive patriotism like mine,  but I also met sincere believers in many faiths and so likewise I knew my opinion about Christianity had changed radically. 

Yet, though I knew my feelings had changed, they had not formed into thoughts yet (see my post on Meta-Thoughts).  So with out words or clarity, I could neither fully admit it to myself nor even discuss it with my Christian friends.  

My three roommates were all Christians (all three actually born and raised Evangelicals). Heck, my girlfriend was Christian (a missionary kid from India) while I had been raised in a nominal Christian home.  So inside I knew that deconverting would cause me great trouble with these totally enculturated friends. That may be part of the reason my deconversion took a couple of years.

First step: Cowardly Partial Confessions

But even though I was not outright in my doubts, I was no longer enthusiastic about Christian things and my friends noted my change of behavior. No longer was I spending hours in the basement praying — as I had earlier. I barely cracked the Bible and I didn’t use stock Christian phrases any more.  The deconversion came in stages.

The first step took place when one of my friends (probably put up to it by the others) finally asked me, “Sabio, are you still a Christian.” It was then that I took the next big step and partially confessed: “Well,” I said “I certainly am no longer a Christian in a way you guys are Christians.” And then there was silence. They did not want to push it.  They would rather hope I was just temporarily doubting than admit I wasn’t Christian. And I was grateful too, I didn’t want understand myself any further either.  Too much was at stake.

Running Away makes Deconversion Easier

Eight months after my return to Wheaton,  I graduated (my undergrad took 5 1/2 years).  Wheaton is near Chicago, Illinois.  After graduating, I needed a job and new home and so took the opportunity to move two hours north to Madison, Wisconsin.

I no longer fit in that Evangelical-soaked culture — I knew I was escaping.  But ironically, I jumped out of the skillet, into the fire.  I had friends connect me with a Christian communal household of men where I had a room.  But that was uncomfortable after six months, so I moved out and lived on my own.

It was only then, after casting off all my close connections to Christians, was I finally able to admit to myself and then others that I wasn’t a Christian. My “coming-out” was much less painful that way. Even though I still considered myself mystically religious, I was OK saying I was not a Christian.  Only much later did I leave the mystical theology behind too.

Conclusion

Many Christians leave their Christianity after decades of commitment. Many leave while they are still in their community of friends and family. Unlike these folks, my exit was pathetic.  And unlike many ex-Christians, my deconversion wasn’t so much about the Bible and intellectual concerns, it was simply about people. I had no more felt need to be exceptional — and I certainly wasn’t!

Sure, some Christianities are not as into exceptionalism as mine was, some are far less magical and exclusive, but my God-switch is off and I am much more knowledgeable about the Bible and the many varieties of Christianity than I was in my Christian days. I am also far less cowardly. So it is unlikely that any twisted knots in theology can make the Christian flock and their various Christianities look enticing again.

It is nice out here!

Questions to Readers: If you are an ex-Christian, share some factors in your deconversion. If you are a Christian, play a thought experiment with us: imagine you realized Christianity was false, what things in your life could you see obstructing you from admitting it.  And for you atheists who have never been an adult believer, you can just listen because you probably can’t even begin to understand some of our feelings and experiences. 🙂

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Secular Gods: Abstractions

“God” is an abstraction.  Well, theists don’t think so, of course, but I do. Theists use the word “God” to cluster together feelings of identity, purpose, belongingness, hope, safety and more.  “God” is a package. “God” is a tool to speak fast to others about their agreed package of preferences or to manipulate others into new preferences. When speakers basically agree on their use of “God”, the conversation is very effective — for the better or the worse.

When a person wants to escape that abstract God-package, one technique is to change the god — change the theology, alter the revelation, revamp the hermeneutics, call for return-to-the-source and more.  These are the moves of reformers, people who like the “God” tool and want to keep it. But another technique, the atheist move, is to see through the illusion of the “God” abstraction, “look behind the curtain” and expose the manipulation.

Using abstractions to speed up conversation is a valuable language tool. Though atheists may see behind the “God” abstraction, they often don’t fully see behind the phenomena of “abstraction” itself.  Many Atheists, acting just like theists, continue to use the same manipulation tool that theists used to create their “God”.  Atheists, buying into the illusions of abstractions, then create their own “gods” — their secular gods.

Some of these secular gods include abstractions like “Nature”, “the World”, “Justice”, “Religion”, “Patriotism”, “Equality”, “Freedom”,  “Love”, “Reason”, “Me”. Depending on the Atheist, any one of these or more become their “god(s)”.

Abstractions are needed for many of the games we play. Games are best played when we take the rules seriously and forget their arbitrary nature.  However, the harmful aspect of games is best kept in check when we keep in mind that it is arbitrary.  Many of the complexities of our lives involve this tension: simultaneously holding in mind the seriousness and arbitrariness of our games, of our abstractions, of our gods.

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See my other posts on: The Limits of Abstractions

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Christians: Doctrinal vs Casual

There are a huge variety of Christians.  Heck, in this chart alone I list 19 different Christian theological categories that have multiple positions and there are more, of course.   The permutations of these theological positions make for our plethora of flavors of Christianity — something for everyone.  Don’t get me wrong, every religion splinters up like this and every religion has those who lament the process, only to ironically produce yet more sects.

With all these varieties of Christianity, it is impossible to generalize about Christianity. On this site I have slowly learned to be more careful about generalizing since anything I say about Christianity in general may be contradicted by some sect or other.  I have become more careful to try and  get agreed upon definitions to make progress in discussing religion.

To that end, let me experiment with the following definitions and see if any of my readers can imagine them useful:

Doctrinal Christians:

Christian who care about doctrines.  Christians who care about what they feel qualifies someone as a “real” or “true” Christian or follower of Jesus.  Christians who care about what the Bible really says.  From my experience, spanning progressives to conservatives, this category includes almost all the blogging Christians I know.  These Christians tend to consider themselves systematic in their thinking.

Casual Christians:

These comprise the vast majority of my Christian friends, and a huge percent of the Christian populations.  These Christians are casual, cultural or cafeteria Christians who don’t do systematic thinking about doctrine, the Bible, Jesus or God.  Fortunately for me, these folks aren’t into doctrine and don’t believe much of what they confess.

Question for readers:

Given that definitions can be artificial, fuzzy and doomed to problems.  And that they are just temporary agreements (usually implicit) to speed up conversation).  What do you think?  Are there too many problems with these categories to make them useful?

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Snoring through Theology

Theology_Peanuts

I have studied lots of theologies: Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu. I have dabble in others including Islam, Shinto and Taoist. And over the years I have come to see theology as stories; stories to help a believer accomplish something like: reinforce moral systems, secure tribal bonds, offer comfort for loss and suffering, explain away troubling uncertainty and more. More nefariously, theology can also used by religious professionals to secure their status and money-making ability. See my diagram to the right which illustrates all the modules that “God” fulfills for people (see the related post).

Modular_God_medium

So when I listen to religious folks theologizing, I simultaneously search to understand how their systems translate into methods to secure these essential human goals. I don’t believe their stories, but I think their narratives (even if wrong or delusional) can serve concrete, practical functions for them.

But we can talk about all these common shared human desires without using parochial theological chatter. Theology only adds an unnecessary layer of abstraction. In my previous post, I called this a “theology knot”. Pic to the left.

Theology_KnotSo when I question people about their theology, I am looking for these basic human functions or obvious inconsistencies or both. But I am often not as patient as I’d like to be.   For after too much god-talk, I inevitably tire.

I actually find theology aesthetically unappealing — mainly because I think it is boring hogwash.  It is not that I mind fiction, but this stuff is usual ridiculous.  I try to remind myself that it somehow serves important functions for the person I am listening to but sometimes the person I am discussing theology with mistakenly feels I am actually deeply interested in the details.  They forget that I have absolutely no belief in spooks, spirits, demons, saints or gods.   It is at times like those, when I have burned out my god-talk neurons, that if the conversation gets carried away, all I hear is “Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah ….”.

In my next post, I will put up the question, “Why is Theology so Hard?”.

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Heaven now or later?

moneySystematic Christian theology contains debates over when Jesus will return and if and when he will establish his Kingdom on earth to reign as the perfect ruler in a perfect kingdom. This is called “eschatology” and I have some cool diagrams here showing the various types schemes Christians have creatively generated. Also I posted here how various groups have used end-time thinking to deal with their lots in life.

Besides these systematic end-times speculations, Christians also debate on whether to be of-this-world (Christian activists, liberation theology …) or out-of-this world (Amish and others) [see here for some verses]. Of course most believers fall between these extremes if they even think about it at all since most believer are cultural, cafeteria Christians.  BTW, does anyone know of the systematic theological term for this issue?

Tom Rees reviews an interesting article that shows that Italian Catholics want the benefits of heaven now, while Dutch Calvinists would rather wait for a greater gain. The study uses Atheists as a control.   So my wonderings are: Did theology seeped into nominal Christians, or did the mood of the land seeped into their theology? Or, is it true that theology sneaks into culture over time and affects even nominal Christians?  For certainly all these Italians and Dutch folks aren’t conscious of their theology.

Question for readers: If you had to choose, would you be a Dutch Calvinist or a Catholic Italian? 🙂

triangle_end_tiny

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Motivations for Embracing Religion

In my recent post called “Rewriting our Religious History” I described how religious folks join their faith for fairly simple reasons, but later report their reasons for joining in lofty, complex theological terms.  Like the boy in this picture, after lots of reading or teaching by religious professionals, a person has a hard time remembering their actual past.

Below I offer an extensive list of those more basic needs for joining a religion and divide them into three groups of needs: Physical, Psychological and Social.  Of course these groups and reasons overlap, but I think this is a pretty good list.  Can you think of other motivations?

British science blogger Tom Reese, at Ephiphenom, published a post today called “Recollections of Childhood Religion” where he describes a study which shows how we may change our religious histories in order to build a more consistent view of self.  A basic foundation in correct thinking needs to be informed by this understanding of the foibles of memory and one of the adaptive benefits of inaccurate memory: building a stable image of self.

Religion can offer many benefits — that is why it persists.  We can not minimize these needs nor their solutions. To solve the down side of religion, we must therefore offer other ways to meet these needs or encourage modifications of the religion itself that neutralize the downsides.  Do you agree?

Basic Motivations for Embracing a Religion

1. Physical Needs

  • desire healing, improved health
  • need shelter, clothing, food, education, health care …
    for yourself or your loved ones
  • hope for better finances
  • to feel safe

2. Social Needs

  • preserve family tradition
  • to pursue/ secure/ preserve a lover or friend
  • need for supportive community: desperate times
  • need for sense of belonging
  • to offer children moral training and social belonging
  • to improve or preserve social status
  • to supply moral framework

3. Psychological Needs

  • to follow childhood tradition
  • to model an admired person
  • to follow a leader, a guide: secure guidance
  • to obtain order: a comprehensive worldview or answers
  • to avoid harassment from other children or adults
  • to resolve confusion – to find meaning, purpose, hope
  • to rebel against former alliances – leave old tradition;
  • to secure a sense of identity: personal, national …
  • to ease fear: of death, of hell, of social loss
  • to secure a niché:  given their temperament, skills, and conditions: a place where they can  prosper psychologically, socially and physically.
  • to help leave old undesired behavior or social circles

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God’s Secret Life & Movies

Imagine this scenario:

A 17 year-old girl discovers that years ago her father had been a terrible criminal.  The girl is horribly confused because her father has been nothing but loving, nurturing and a great role model for her.  So now she has the psychological dilemma of having two drastically different fathers: the one she personally experiences and the one she has only only heard of or read about.

This cognitive dissonance dilemma can be found in many movies and novels: a child [or adult] must decide what to do with the secret life of her father [or a loved one]. This literary trope usually ends in two main solutions:  (A) the child rejects her father [example 1] or (B) the child accepts her father [examples 2-6].  Below I list some of the classic responses with a name and a brief explanation. The parallels to Christianity should be clear by now, so I also offer examples of Christians [“Who“] who may take this position as they learn about Yahweh – the iron-age, tribal god of the Hebrew scriptures.  Finally, with help from commentors, I will offer examples of movies illustrating the type of response (warning! spoilers). Thanx to commentors.

0. Rejects the Father: She rejects the father with great pain and strong emotion (sad, angry…)

  • Who: Atheists, Those moving to another faith
  • Golden Compass (2007): Lyra discover that the enemy, Mrs. Coulter, is her mother.

1. Ignore the Evidence: She just ignores the evidence (or never really listened/read).

  •  WhoMany cultural Christians
  • The Godfather (1972): Kay asks Michael (her husband) if he killed Carlo, Michael denies it, Kay is satisfied with the answer despite all the evidence to the contrary.

2. Justifies the Father: She feels the evidence is true but feels her father must have justifiable reasons for his actions.

  • WhoMost conservative Christians
  • Hot Fuzz (2007): Sgt. Butterman finds out his father is a serial killer, he tries to justify him.
  • Let The Right One In (2008): Oskar realizes Eli is a vampire but accepts that she needs to kill in order to live.

3. Feels the Father has Changed:  She feels the evidence is true but trusts that her father has repented. (See how Yahweh repented after the flood.)

  • Who: Some “Dispensational Christians
  • Old School (2003): Marissa knows her husband is a drunk but pretends he has changed (for the majority of the film).
  • Halloween (2007) by Rob Zombie: Ismael knows Michael is a psychopath but he wants to believe he’s changed and he’ll take their friendship in consideration and not murder him.

4.  Joins the Father: She understands the evidence, she doesn’t care, she turns off her moral judgements and just embraces her father.

  • Who: few violent Fundamental Christians, Inquisitionists
  • Kick Ass (2010): Hit Girl finds out his dad was never a cop, she doesn’t care and keeps her original vision of him.
  • Green Hornet (2011): Britt finds out his dad wasn’t always the ethical man he thought him to be, he understands but strives to become what he symbolized and keeps his original vision of him.

5. Claims Misidentity: She may decide that the stories are about a completely different man and that all the witnesses are making an identity mistake: there is an evil man, but it is not her father

6. Refutes the Evidence: The daughter discredits the accounts of the witnesses or realizes their blinding biases and goes with her own personal experiences with her father.

  • Who: Many liberal Christians
  • Oldboy (2003): Dae-su finds out the woman he’s been sleeping with is actually his long-lost daughter, he goes to a hypnotist to make him forget that fact so he can keep being with her.
  • The Forgotten (2004): Telly ignores people telling her she never had a child and keeps her instinct until she finds out she did.

7. Uses the Father: She recognizes that her father is a horrible person, but she still needs someone to pay her impending college tuition, and so stay on his good side.

  • Who: Heaven-Seeking Christians: A Christian who thinks God maybe horribly cruel to nonbelievers, but I wants herself and her loved ones to go to heaven.
  • Breaking Bad (2008-13): Father(Walt) turns drug-dealer, wife (Skyler) first rejects, then helps her husband laundry his illegal money for the sake of the family.

Hopefully I have shown how the original scenario is a good analogy to the profound dilemma Christians experience when or if they carefully read about their God of the Old Testament — Yahweh.  It is a dilemma because the Christians haven’t experienced a cruel god, instead, they have experienced ‘God’ as loving, forgiving and supportive.  None of my Christian friends or acquaintances have experienced their God to be anything like the horrible Jewish Iron-Age-tribal-god Yahweh who would drown all their loved ones (Gen 8), or have a pregnant woman’s abdomen slashed open just because she didn’t believe in him (Hosea 13:16).  So after reading all the Old Testament atrocities  Christians, just like the girl in our real life story above, must reconcile these two different fathers: a good one and an apparently bad one.  The 8 options above are some of the common solutions.

Question for readers:

  1. Can you think of other solutions with Christian parallels?
  2. If you are/were a Christian, which technique did/do you use?
  3. Any movie buffs out there who can you supply more movie titles that examplify  any of the solutions I list above?

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