Friday, March 28, 2014

Burying Religion

I’ve been keeping to an accommodationist theme this year, but here’s a pretty intense exchange between two of the biggest minds willing to debate the topic of religion vs science, physicists Lawrence Krauss and Christian apologist William Lane Craig. I include it because I think it gives the best arguments from both sides. It’s pretty long so I’ll provide some points you can skip to.

The topic is actually “Has science buried religion?” The first 20 minutes is introductions. Then you might enjoy just listening to Krauss’ 20 minute opening statement. It’s a great statement of why we need to bury religion to produce a more ethical world. WLC then does his thing, claiming science needs religion, for about the same amount of time, then it gets wild. I find it hard summarize Craig since I disagree with him and I know many practicing do too. I think Krauss said it best that his distortions are disservice to anyone, including people of faith.

The moderator does a fantastic job with some great questions, IMO. Around 1:10 he points out that Krauss is using a “greatest good” argument for ethics and points out that is something that has been discussed (and shown to have weaknesses) in secular philosophy for centuries. I think Krauss loses a few points here as he does not care much for philosophy. It leaves him with no tools to defend himself. He attacks Craig for his statements defending the slaughtering of the Canaanites, but Craig uses his logic that God gives us life so He can use whatever means he wants to take life.

The moderator notes that consequentialism and utilitarianism have been rejected by the major monotheisms and they say we should be judged not on making the most people happy but on how we treat the most vulnerable. They stumble around this for a bit and skip over to art and love, but some minor points are made. Krauss makes an awkward aside to Mother Teresa. This is not something he should try to explain in 30 seconds.

Craig probably wins with his own audience when he talks about how his theory of God is consistent. This is one of the few times I’ve heard a major theologian call his beliefs a theory. I think Krauss wins the debate when he explains how science actually works. It’s not just an explanation of what we see that happens to fit the observations. Science continues to review its own assumptions, check its own work, and check if its predictions turn out. If not, it changes.

Craig is left finding straw man arguments of scientist who don’t accept new data, they instead keep trying to alter the interpretation of the facts to fit their preconceived notions. When they get to how science developed historically, Krauss admits Newton and Darwin were religious, but that’s because it was the only game in town at the time. Today most scientists are atheist. Craig has to rely on a study that says scientists start out as non-believers, they are usually people who hated God when they were young, it’s not science that creates atheists instead atheists become scientists. Krauss is a bit thrown by this, but his point that the study actually proves religious indoctrination is the problem, is a good one.

I doubt he converted many with that though. Krauss tends to go pretty hard for the jugular of “religion is child abuse” and “defending genocide is abhorrent”. I think he could really benefit from a little better understanding of philosophy. Throughout, he points to the values of honesty, full disclosure and transparency and Craig is only left with the mystery of God’s righteousness.

Krauss could connect these values to our survival, that we are here because of these values. For a creature to have survived all of the extinction events on this planet it must have some form of these values. At one point Craig has to ask, “but is it good that humans survive?” This is interrupted for a minute by the moderator, but when it gets back to Craig, he says there has to be an objective standard provided for us to know if we are making moral improvements. For Craig of course that is God.

I think a better grounding in philosophy would have helped Krauss bring together all of his other points. He speaks of a better world for as many people as possible and the ability of evidence based knowledge to overcome superstition, but he doesn’t connect this to why we should do that. This leaves him open to the objective morality debate. He tried to bring in the question of who has the right to judge what is good, or in Craig’s case, who gets to decide which God is right, but he had not establish the philosophical ground work to force Craig into answering that.

With Craig, I can’t get past how obvious it is that genocide is wrong and minimizing pain is right. I don’t need to dig any deeper for a philosophical basis for morality, although I realize that is exactly what philosophers do. Even so, he needs to appeal to our fear of death and our need for salvation to support his argument for God. Any one of his premises depends on one of the others, making each one not really a premise at all. I didn’t speak to his arguments much here in my notes because I find them trite. Unfortunately, as long as he continues to deliver them so well, he will continue to a formidable debate opponent.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Metaphorically Speaking

Alright, this is an old YouTube with not that many views, but Thinking Atheist is actually very popular, Seth Andrews came from Christian radio and produces a great show. AronRa was an early atheist activist. He came out with a great series that of videos years ago that answer many of the standard questions.

The Thinking Atheist podcast

I want to focus on the caller, who says he is an atheist and and an anthropology student. His call comes in at about 22 minutes. He insists the Bible should be read as metaphor. He gives the example of the story of David being a story of revolution and the tyranny that inevitably follows. That may be true, but if he is trying to make this point, he doesn’t support it with much else, but I think he has a point and I think atheists need to get that point.

You can listen yourself, read this summory or skip past it to where I talk about why what he says is worth considering.

Instead of supporting his claim with more information, he says something about the Bible being a metaphor for what is going on in people’s heads. He tries to blame the world’s problems on secularism. AronRa does a good job of correcting that. So he rephrases saying what the Bible is telling us is we should live our lives in a conscientous manner. AronRa agrees and adds that we don’t need to overlay that with speculation as fact or allow presuppositions that may be completely wrong to affect our policies and systems.

The caller gets a bit flustered and says something about “something else out there” which is just a non-sequitor and that he’s not supporting the McChurches. This only tells us what he isn’t. We still don’t know what this guy really believes. He says something about doing some kind of research into this, then says, “you can’t deny that it’s a powerful book.”

Seth steps in and tries to help out asking “how do you speak to that whole ‘Bible as metaphor thing?’.”

AronRa answers, “Let’s find a metaphor worth living by”, then he picks Exodus 31 as an example of something that would be very difficult to find a decent moral in and gives a couple other examples including the story of how the Milky Way galaxy was given it’s name as literally the milk from the breast of the goddess Andromeda. Reality turned out to be much more interesting than this “metaphor”.

This is one of the best respsonses I’ve heard to a caller like this. Rather than believing there is “something out there”, how about looking at what we have found out and marvel at how amazing those things are. Our natural sense of awe and wonder is enough to inspire us. However, I also think it is worth understanding what the caller was trying to say.

I don’t think the caller had in mind a battle of who could find good or bad Bible passages. By this time, the caller is gone. I’m not sure who hung up on whom. Although it’s not clear what the caller had in mind, it’s doubtful that he would have come up with some amazing metaphors that could have altered AronRa’s or Seth’s thinking.

I felt for the guy, because I’ve been there.

I thought I had found these great metaphors and that I would find more. There are a lot of modern theologians who claim they have. What I had found, after reading and listening to these theologians, is a few decent stories that were not all that special compared to others and some stories that taught people lessons that needed to be taught at that time in history.

The Bible also has what the caller mentioned, but I wouldn’t call it metaphor. I would call it history written by ancient historians. History was not written then like it is written today. It was expected that you would make it a story and put words in people’s mouths. The story of David is that type of history.

I would have liked to help this guy out by giving him some more examples. I found these examples helpful when I was considering being a lay speaker and I still like them for defending the value of the Bible and defending it against fundamentalism. These don’t take the Bible literally or gloss over it’s horrible parts. Neither do they transform the Bible into some kind of modern book of enlightening stories that can guide us to a better tomorrow.

I also think AronRa, Matt Dillahunty and others need to acknowledge this other way of looking at the Bible. It is not Christianity 2.0 or a way to save Christianity. It does not require belief or dogma, in fact those get in the way. It is just as strong and sometimes a stronger argument against fundamentalism than pointing out discrepancies in the Bible or passages about slavery.

I’m not suggesting that they become scholars of modern theology only that they acknowledge that it is there. Give them the ground that there is a better way to read the Bible than 13th century Catholicism, then invite them to give an example. Most likely, they will either reference some author or speaker without being able to describe them or their example will be something lame like the one given here about King David. I think exposing this is better than returning to the argument of the problems with the Bible. Not exposing them leaves listeners wondering if there is something to this modern theology.

Questions like these will continue to come up and atheists should be aware that this modern theology may be an improvement over fundamentalists who want to ignore the poor and exploit women. This will help build partnerships against that form of religion. It also helps to be aware that in the end, it’s still theology. It still works back to requiring a level of open mindedness that makes your brains fall out. It's still the circular reference that we should love God or live like Jesus because they are God/Jesus and they're good and we should want to be like them and they'll give us love so then we'll be good and that will show others He is good and they'll join us in following God.

Here are a few examples:

There’s the story of Lazarus being shown a thirsty man in hell while his servant is in heaven. The gospel of Luke 16:19 presents this as a parable, a metaphor. So we can take away the literal meaning that you’ll go to hell if you don’t accept the laws of Moses, but what is the lesson? It has something to say about living a good life and how usually the rich and powerful get their comeuppance in the end. It doesn’t mention that it can take generations for power structures to crumble. It’s a message of hope for a slave in Palestenian Rome.

An oft mentioned passage is “an eye for an eye”. That seems pretty brutal and a rather barbaric justice system, but at the time, something as bad as having your eye put out might be returned with killing the offender and perhaps other members of their family. So it is defended as an improvement. But we’ve continued to improve since and although not perfect, our justice system is no longer this primitive, so it’s really not much of a defense at all.

The Parable of the Talents is well known by liberal preachers as one that has this difficult bit at the end where the slave who hid his talent is thrown into the outer darkness by his master. It can be found at Matthew 25:14. The slaves who are praised by the master are the ones who use their talents to do business and collect interest and make more talents (talents are money, FYI). So this gets used as Jesus praising capitalism, despite capitalism not existing for another 1,500 years.

For anti-theists, this parable is used as an example of Jesus advocating throwing people into the outer darkness because they don’t use what God gave them. There are a few, inlcuding myself, who believe this is a warning from Jesus of how they will be treated by their Roman masters if they don’t play by the rules. Again, a parable the Jews in Palestinian Rome in the 1st century can relate to, but not us.

I hate to admit it, but I actually preached to the story of Abraham going to sacrifice his son in Genesis 22. I did what many do and turned it into a story of commitment. I talked of being committed to my family and community, more conservative preachers might talk of being committed to God. It’s a horrible metaphor, and most likely nothing to do with the author’s intentions. More likely, it is a story that is telling people to stop doing human sacrifice, that God no longer wants that, but He’ll take a lamb. And of course, God is still in charge and don’t you forget it. Great story.

In the history category, much is made of the genocides and the commands from God to go attack other nations. These are especially strange since archeaology has not provided any evidence of these wars actually happening. Not only are they not trying to hide their warring ways, they are making up stories of conquest to show they are good fighters and killers. The only “metaphor” I know of is that they were a small nation, one that had probably overthrown their own corrupt government and they wanted a mythology that showed they should be players on the stage of the Ancient Near East.

There’s a speech out there somewhere on YouTube by a psychologist talking about the Noah story. He points something out that I’ve never heard anyone else point out. The story of Noah immediately follows the story of Cain slaying Abel and God letting him go unpunished. It could be this is a way of saying that if we tolerate intolerable acts the meaning of tolerance will be lost and society will fall apart. That God deals with it by killing everyone doesn’t say much for God.

Then there’s the big one. Christ dying for our sins. One preacher, who eventually got me to join his church, gave a sermon on Easter that turned that bloody story into one of love. When the guards came for him, he told his disciples to put away their swords. He preached that you should love your neighbors and love your enemies and when his time came to live by those words or to fight, he walked the walk. Looked at this way, it’s probably why the story has survived for 2,000 years. It of course ignores some of the other things Jesus said and more importantly what Christianity became in the 4th century and the book of Revelations and a bunch of other stuff, but it’s a great metaphor.

Speaking of Jesus, why do they sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” at Christmas? It’s because of a metaphor, or more accurately a prophecy. The metaphor was of a son being born of one nation that would be sacrificed or given to another as a way to bring peace. It’s in the Old Testament. It was a prophecy that didn’t come true at the time it was given. Later people looked at it and said it must apply to Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment of that prophecy.

Brian McClaren, in a well known book about bringing Christianity into the modern world speaks to the passage, “there will always be the poor”, Matthew 26:11, spoken by Jesus himself. It is used and abused by conservatives to claim that Jesus meant there is nothing that can be done to fix that problem. Taken literally it seems like he is saying that. But McClaren points out that he is referring to an earlier passage in the Old Testament that says there will always be poor, AND WE SHOULD HELP THEM, Deuteronomy 15:11. Kinda changes the meaning. Jesus knew his scripture. Or at least the authors of the gospels knew them. Today’s readers don’t.

That one really isn’t a metaphor, it’s just a statement about a value, some advice about how to live and act with justice. It’s a better interpretation of the Bible than the brute capitalist who is just looking for some words from Jesus to justify his actions, but if the only reason you want to help the poor is because Jesus says to, then maybe you need some other sort of ethical education. Jesus did not invent these ideas for living together. He lived in a brutal time and to people born into slavery and treated like dirt, his ideas no doubt seemed radical. For anyone who has access to clean water and fast food, it shouldn’t seem radical at all.

I could keep going, but hopefully I’ve made my point. I wish callers like this would actually tell us what their modern theology is instead of referring to others and making wild claims about new and improved Christianity. Any time I’ve tracked these down, they may be kinder and gentler stories, but they don’t offer anything that couldn’t be taught in other ways. They don’t need to be superimposed with supernatural actions. It’s not even necessary to claim that their characters are somehow better than any other characters in stories with morals. We have lots of great stories, let's use all them.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Straw Vulcan





This is a bit of fun with philosophy from Julia Galef. Julia did not invent the term “Straw Vulcan” but she explains it very well. She may not look like the stereotypical philosopher, but she is first rate. She brings some fun to a discipline that really needs it.

The term comes from “straw man” which means an argument that is against a caricature of your opponent’s argument. To bolster your argument, you create a weak version of their opponent, then attack it. “Vulcan” is a planet from the Star Trek series. Citizens of that planet are said to be very logical. They solved their problems of modern warfare by adopting a culture that taught emotions are bad. The “Straw Vulcan” says that this version of a person who thinks logically is problematic.

If you have watched Star Trek, you know that Spock, the primary Vulcan character, is always getting in trouble because he over emphasizes the use of logic. Because he does not consider the emotions of others, he makes bad decisions.  Other characters refer to him for facts and help with weighing the odds, but in the end, they trump his advice based on their intuition. What Julia explains is, this is not an argument for why we should value emotions over logic it is an example of someone who uses logic poorly.

Rational thinking has become associated with focusing on utility and quantifiable things such as money, productivity and efficiency. Emotions are said to “get in the way” of rational thinking. There is some truth to that but it also shows a misunderstanding of why we are trying to think about anything in the first place. If you are trying to figure out how to pay for your kids’ college it’s not because you want them to take care of you when you’re old. You might want them to do that, but their education is for them. The desire is first an emotional one.

I think you’ll enjoy it, especially if you are a Star Trek fan but you don’t have to be. She goes through 5 fallacious behaviors that are associated with the Vulcan characters. These are typical misconceptions about what it means to act rationally and what is wrong with rational thinking.

The straw man version of rational people….

1.       expect others to act rationally.
2.       wait until they get all the information before making a decision.
3.       believe anything tuition based is irrational.
4.       believe being rational means not having emotions.
5.       value only quantitative things.

Oddly enough, there is a very rational, scientifically based therapy that flies in the face of this. If someone wants to change their behavior, like stop drinking or procrastinating, a therapist might use something called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT recognizes that our feelings affect our actions and that we can’t always control them. But it doesn’t attempt to suppress them instead it recognizes them and looks for ways to start new behaviors. In other words, it’s perfectly rational to be aware of your emotions.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

It takes two wings to fly


I heard this great discussion on the radio last year and couldn’t stop thinking about it. It drags at a few points, but the highlights are well worth it. Jim Wallis provides the most insightful aspects. Click the link above, then on the page, click the speaker icon near the top where it says “LISTEN”. It’s about 50 minutes long.

It is a discussion about activism, cynicism, the role of government, how we decide who to help and how much. And within that, they look at the problem of The Left and The Right misunderstanding each other. It is one of the most balanced and useful political/religious discussions I’ve ever heard. There is ample religious language, but it doesn’t require the kind of translation that religious discussion often does.

 It’s really a political discussion, but it is from the point of view of the people not the politicians. As Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman says, “You can’t legislate people’s heart, only their actions.”

One major theme is expressed in a quote provided by Jim Wallis originally from Abraham Joshua Heschel, “There are few who are at fault but we are all responsible.” When there is a problem that we don’t think we caused, we look for scapegoats. When there is something that we want to fix, we look for silver bullets. If we find either one, we don’t look back at the outcomes of those choices. A short term solution usually ends up with more problems and blaming others rarely helps anyone.

In the middle of the talk there is some discussion of the “nones”. Those are people who, when they are polled about their religion, check the “none” box. This gets interrupted by a commercial and I’m not sure if anyone got their points across, but it leads to a political discussion about the differences between conservatives and liberals.

Jim Wallis says the best idea the conservatives have is to focus on personal responsibility. It’s true that people don’t lift themselves out of poverty without taking personal responsibility. He also says the best idea liberals have is social responsibility. People can’t lift themselves out of poverty if there is no pathway.

They all agree the war of political ideologies makes no sense. They see too much emphasis on social responsibility creating a sense that individuals should not bother to have hope and too much emphasis on personal responsibility leading to blaming the victims. Either the system is so rigged that there is nothing you can do to better yourself, or people are so lazy there is no point in paying them any attention. Neither approach works. Paul Slack sums up how it should be, society builds the schools and the kids have to do the school work.

Jim has applied what he preaches too. He talks to kids in inner city schools and he doesn’t talk to them about political change. They are too young to vote and don’t need a long of explanation of how oppressed they are, they already know that. He talks to them about personal responsibility. They know they don’t have as many chances as a kid from a rich suburb, but they need to recognize a chance when one appears. He also has a great story about connecting a suburban church to those schools.

Scattered throughout is a theme; we all just need to keep working at it. I think it is a fault of Americans to believe that things can be fixed and then no maintenance is required. Truth is, the fight is always ongoing. We constantly protest our government and we throw people out of office all the time. It’s called an election. But we have come to focus too much on single issues and personalities and we’ve forgotten what we are really working towards. We all want healthy smart kids. We want safe streets and clean water. We need to be talking about balance, not polarizing over our differences.

Stories of people escaping poverty abound, but those are stories of individuals, they don’t add up to anything equal to the numbers still impoverished. People who are against giving kids another chance point to a program that failed or a person who was helped then returned to their self defeating ways.

But is that it? Isn’t that the problem? That these kids only kid get one big opportunity in their lives? If they miss it, too bad. “Having opportunity” means having multiple chances, it means having a safe place to return to after failure, a chance to assess what you’ve done. It means hearing the basic lessons of life from more than one person until it sinks in.

The handful of people on this program understand that. They don't care if you label it liberal or conservative. Hopefully their ideas will spread. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Google and Reason




I usually do a New Year’s blog, laying out some goals that only get roughly met. This year, I watched a Bill Moyer’s interview that talks about the research I wish I had found by simply surfing the web. But it’s too complicated for that. It involves about 100 years of history as well as the 200,000 year history of human beings. It starts with the teaser, “politics is religion”. This goes back to one of my earliest stories about the liberal interpretation of the Parable of the Talents.

Instead of finding insightful talks that make us think while casually surfing we find what we want. For example, I was never comfortable with GMOs being called “Franken-foods” but still I was stuck for years seeing Monsanto as an evil corporation that was raping the earth. Liberals, listen up, you’re going to be told that you are worse at listening to the opposition than they are at hearing you. Conservatives, you’re not off the hook, you are less caring. The interview is much more nuanced than that, and it includes solutions.

Solutions are rare in these days of cold scientific facts. The data is presented without much help for how to absorb it. Jonathan Haidt relates the problem of tribalism to things we can relate to like football games. He also covers how we went from that to a polarized nation in a pluralistic world.

One suggestion; don’t demonize. When we hear someone express an opinion on gay rights, welfare, the Pope or inequality, we think we instantly know much more about that person’s motivations and opinions on other issues. Thing is, we’re often right, but declaring it or just thinking it before the person has said it, creates a divide and that’s wrong. It may be that no value could have come out of a lengthy conversation, but more often that conversation is never had. Each walks away knowing they are right.

Another solution; understanding the scientific method. I know I’ll lose a few there, but hang on, he also says that, given human nature individual reasoning is not reliable. It comes a little after the half hour mark and it’s a great explanation. He doesn’t talk about evidence or the principle of falsifiability. He talks about bringing together people who disagree, actually seeking out people who disagree with you. There are some rules about how you disagree but basically, you don’t get to call your idea or research “fact”, if you haven’t had your peers review it. They used to do this in Congress. We used to do it at the kitchen table. You can see it on reruns of Archie Bunker. In TV shows today the kitchen table has some junk on it and people are running in and out shouting their opinions at each other.

Haidt uses a prevalent metaphor of The Matrix. In that movie, humans are asleep, slaves to the machines. It is consensual hallucination. The machines created it, but the humans had to accept it to remain asleep to reality. The computer generated agent explains to the human Neo that the first time they created the Matrix they made it a utopia but people kept waking up. We intuitively know that we can’t all agree on everything, so we knew it was not real. To keep us occupied, focused on conflict with each other, unaware of our real fate, they made a modern world with some comforts but with conflict and disparities.

We see so many people telling us we are in la-la land while we believe we have it right and it’s them that are deluded. Fast forward to 19 minutes to see the data on the worldview of the two sides. He also spends some time reviewing symbols and signs held up by each. See which push your buttons. I love that he uses “Protestant Ethic” and “Kharma” interchangeably. He is able to say that something is wrong with America without blowing away capitalism or saying we should let the free market go unfettered.

Another teaser, he says conservatives are more in touch with human nature. But being a better moral psychologist doesn’t make you a better person. He shows this with Newt Gingrich’s GoPac memo and Grover Nordquist’s pledge to not for vote for any new taxes as well as the failure of the way Democrats present their policies.

When you’re done, ask yourself; are you the ant or the grasshopper? Who are your sacralized groups? What is the proper role of government

Sunday, December 22, 2013

21st Century Conversation




I’ve mentioned “21st century conversations”, a term Sam Harris coined. This talk is one of those. I’ll provide a few notes on it.

Sam knows religion and has practiced Buddhism. In this video he discusses, among other things, that many Buddhists are open to empirical inquiry. The Dalai Lama has said that if principles of Buddhism are shown to be incorrect, then he will accept that.

Sam contrasts this with the current debate going on within Christianity about the use of contraception. If the Catholic Church makes it official that a married couple can use a condom when one partner has AIDS, this will not be an example of religion leading the way to a healthier world. The same could be said about the controversy over homosexuality. Religion has not led the way to accepting that two people are allowed to express their love for one another, psychiatry and modern science have.

We can fixate ourselves in earlier centuries, as late as the 6th if you include Islam, or much earlier if you go back to the Axial Age, or we can include all the wisdom of the world. We have effectively jettisoned much of the old dogma. Very few people defend the 600 some laws in Leviticus. The New Testament made a few improvements to slavery but did not lead directly to abolition. We have slowly moved toward treating scripture equally to modern philosophy but we have some big steps yet to take.

One of our big hang-ups seems to be the issue of respect. People are deeply hurt when their religions are attacked or even questioned. Even pointing out their central tenets, like the Golden Rule are equally represented in other religions, can be a sore point. The problem is when respecting a culture means respecting their abuse of women or their violence toward other cultures. When that line of violence is crossed, there is more agreement, but what lies and manipulation led up to that violence? Is there something inherent in religion that allows for it?

As Sam says, when it comes to something like physics, we don’t ask for beliefs to be respected, we ask for reasons to be evaluated. What I like about Sam is that he is usually careful to state the other influences on people and the degree to which each is important. He highlights the issue of the double standard for religion. No other discipline would be accepted as justification for the types of irrational behavior that are promoted by religion. Somehow religion gets a pass.

Sam is very good at asking the right questions. He notes that Tibetan Buddhists come out of years of torture in prison and do not turn into suicidal terrorists. This can be explained partially by their approach to their religious practice. The political considerations are very similar, so we need to ask why Muslims choose the actions they do. Counter examples can be found on either side, there are many peaceful Muslims and a few militant Buddhists, but we need to focus on the real societal problems and their sources.

Scott Atran is shown in this video, but his parts are cut off. He provides some counter balance. If I find it, I’ll do a part 2 for this. Scott has studied influences on individual terrorists with some very interesting results. But I’m not sure why he has so much trouble with what Sam is saying.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Those old cliches

I’m seeing more and more articles by churches that talk about why people are leaving the church and what should be done about it. It appears to me that the only lessons learned in the past few decades is that simply changing the music or discussing current events in the sermons is not enough. This formula has actually worked in suburban areas, but it only gets praises for drawing people in, not for being theologically innovative or for improving the image of Christianity overall.

Common reasons for lower attendance are; failure to recognize that people have gay friends or maybe even gay parents so you better not exclude them, not offering any active solutions, not offering any thoughtful answers to complex modern problems and generally being associated with a conservative agenda. Inevitably, in the comments section of articles like these, someone claims that their church supplies all those needs and they are following Jesus correctly. But if there is a right way to do it, and some have figured it out, why don’t we see a trend toward those churches?

Recently I saw this article that had some interesting takes on the subject, but missed the same points that all of them do. My personal conclusion is that if you honestly address the concerns of those who have left the church (or never got there) it will lead to something that is not church. People are looking for community, and traditionally that has been found at churches. So like the zombies in Night of the Living Dead, they just go there because they don’t know where else community might be. When they get there, they can identify what they don’t like, but designing a place that nurtures what they want is much more difficult.

The church itself is not structured to build what these people are looking for. There are limits to what they can remove from their celebrations and mission work and still be considered a church. In this article in the Washington Post, Addie Zierman lists 5 of the common suggestions for improvement. Some of her ideas are pretty good, but I’ll show why they can’t work.


The Bible clearly says…
Addie suggests that pastors can gain more trust by admitting that there are different interpretations and competing ideas, not clear answers that work consistently in all cases. No kidding. She just defined the shift in thinking that occurred sometime between the 10th and 15th centuries and led to the scientific revolution and The Enlightenment.

Religion survived just fine while it was discussing Torah in the midrash, or the Koran in the Hadiths and on through the Reformation. People love to discuss where the universe might have come from or what consciousness is. The difference today is, you can’t ignore that people outside of your chosen group have an opinion. One person can’t stand up in front of any room full of people and tell them what is true without at least a few of them knowing it is not.

Many pastors would love to pursue a more rational line of discussion, but the problem comes with taking it to its logical conclusion. That is, pastors aren’t trained in history or physics or neuroscience. They can’t address these questions as well as someone sitting in the pew with a smart phone and a college education.

Most people can’t argue exactly why creationism is definitely wrong, nor do they know exactly which parts of the Bible are historically accurate, or even when Jesus is telling a parable vs a “fact” about the Kingdom. If they really want an answer to those questions, they might ask their pastor first, but they are also likely to do some fact checking.

Perhaps most important is the question of did Jesus atone for our sins. The Bible itself does not provide a clear mechanism for just how salvation works. Ask two Christians and you’ll get three answers. It is somehow “through” Jesus, but exactly how is not clear. It might be faith, or their may be specific actions required to demonstrate that faith. Belief seems to be important, but how do you test for that? It seems we can only know in our hearts. So any sermon that ends with Jesus being the answer is no answer at all.

“God will never give you more than you can handle”
If people claiming to be in your support group can’t get it that you have problems, then they don’t belong in your support group. This gets to the question of just what a community is. If I go to a club for people who like hiking, I expect to be supported in finding places to hike and people to hike with. Once I get to know others there, I might share some intimate details of my miserable life.

If I go to a place for people looking for answers to the big questions in life, I expect to find support for that. I don’t expect to be told that I’m not doing it right if I have doubts or questions. Religion has always had that as it’s ultimate answer. Even at the highest levels, there is nothing that can be done but to keep seeking. At some point, there is nothing left to do but read your Bible and pray.

Love on
Wow, Addie understands that love is a back and forth proposition. Good for her. I don’t mean that sarcastically. Not for Addie anyway. I assume she really understands that loving someone does not mean feeling sorry for them because they can’t accept Jesus into their heart, or holding some kind of space for them while they are mad at God because their sister just died of cancer, or even supplying a happy and joyful experience so people will see what God does. If I sound sarcastic it’s because she has to write this in her article and explain it to Christian leaders.

“Believer, Unbeliever, Backsliding”
The problem with these terms has always been; knowing what they mean. When there were few choices, either in small towns or as a child, the problem was figuring out how to fit in, or what you could get away with. Now it’s just finding a church that fits what you believe anyway. That is a form of community, but it doesn’t say much about church being able to offer something real.

True believers don’t much care for labels like “fundamentalist” and liberal Christians will go to great lengths to explain what sets them apart. None of them seem to get that “unbelievers” have the same aversion to being labeled. We all have a world view that was developed over a lifetime. Wouldn’t sharing our strengths and weaknesses be a better strategy than trying to create a franchise for one particular view?

God is in control
In this one, Addie uses the now tired phrase, “we like Jesus but not the church”, and tries to explain it. I guess I’ll never get that. She says, “the Jesus we read about enters into the pain of humanity where so often the church people seem to want to float above it.” My guess is she is cherry picking. She likes the passages about compassionate Jesus and ignores the Jesus who says, “I don’t know you”.

The mythology of a God who didn’t just come to earth and take human form, but became completely like us and even died like a human, is somewhat unique. There are other dying and rising gods but they tend to be pretty cardboard characters. They don’t try to work out moral dilemmas, or suggest we do things like love our enemies. They don’t defend women who have had affairs against an angry mob.

But no matter how many great ideas you have, if you tell me I have to follow the laws of Moses to gain your favor, you’re still a bully. If you can’t take the time to sort out just what those rules are, then you are just setting standards that no one can attain and threatening to punish me for not meeting them. I’ll listen to your advice and consider it, but you have no right to demand anything of me. I don’t care who your father is.

And if you are only representing this mythological character who speaks to you through the interpretation of multiple languages and multiple variations of the current language, you have considerably less rights to tell me anything about how to live my life. People used to want to go somewhere where someone “floated above” the pains of daily life and told them everything was going to be alright. If through some miracle, that message had actually made things alright, then they could have kept doing that. But we know what those priests were up to all those centuries, and it had little to do with making a better world.


The improvements in the lives of 98% of the people in the world came through hard work by dedicated people who believed that the laws of the universe could be figured out. They came by people who stopped listening to those who said revelation is just as good as reason. They came from people who asked questions of the people next to them, not the ones who sought simple answers from someone standing over them.