Sunday, June 28, 2009

More Death and How to Talk

Okay, almost done with this topic. I think I provided this link before. The writer of it is a librarian. He has a lot of information at his hands. At some point information has to be interpreted. He seems to be pretty good at that too. Evaluate the above link for yourself, I won’t give my opinion on the conclusions. Also, just click around, it’s a great site.

I will reproduce a list he has of how to evaluate who is culpable for all the killing throughout history. When I was young I once said, “More killing has been done in the name of God than anything else.” I said it because I had heard it, not because I had actually counted it up. This guy has done the counting! But, how do you decide what category to put your counts. If you were counting deaths by Christians, here are some questions to ask:

1. Were the perpetrators Christian?
2. Were the perps from a traditionally Christian society?
3. Was the Christianity mainstream?
4. Was the conflict mostly religious?
5. Was the conflict partly religious?

He has more detailed definitions of these if you follow the link.

In the heat of an argument, many people, even people who are otherwise reasonable, will take a “yes” answer to anyone of these and say that proves the point. One “No” answer usually does not win such an argument. Like I said, the guy who came up with this is a librarian, if you want to go have a shouting match in a library, you go ahead, I’ll be here writing about his 5 point scale of death tolls.

Someone recently said that anytime you bring Hitler into an argument, you’ve automatically lost. As in, “well, oh yeah, would you have given Hitler’s Mom an abortion, huh, did he have a right to life?” But I’m not arguing, just blogging. If you read the whole page in the above link, you’ll see he gives World War II 2 points and puts it in the “Christians are Not Guilty” part of the graph.

The Holocaust is a special case because of Christianity’s history of anti-Semitism. He puts it in the gray area, but right at the top. Not stated here, but very important, is that each action must be viewed in its time. That is, I don’t consider myself anti-Semitic, but I have to acknowledge that it is part of my ancestral history and part of an institution that I choose to associate with. This gets worse the farther back you go. A common reason people have for abandoning their faith is that they read the book of Leviticus. It’s nasty.

Going to church on Sunday neither condones the actions of people who went to the same church 50 years of 5,000 years ago, nor does it require that you follow the rules that those people followed 50 or 5,000 years ago. If that were true, then you also have to apply that rule to every government and ethnic group and then we would all be guilty. And that may be a good way to look at it. We are all responsible for dealing with the mess that our ancestors left us, and all of us have ancestors somewhere back there that did something atrocious. It’s at least easier than trying to claim that some of us are innocent and holding trails for everyone in our family tree to prove it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bad Theology

On August 1, 2007, I turned on my television and saw the bridge over the Mississippi collapsed, I e-mailed my family and let them know that I was okay. I had driven over that bridge several hundred times. It was an odd time of community mourning. For several days the news focused on the rescue efforts, then the investigations. After a week or so, a radio call-in program had a show discussing the grieving process.

One interesting call was from a woman who didn’t have so much of a question as a statement. She commented that at funerals, she often hears a lot of bad theology. Some people may not discern good theology from bad, it’s just all bad. They didn’t get specific, but I’m sure she was talking about the type of talk by Christians that involve details of the experience the deceased is having, how they are setting up housekeeping, the process of being admitted to heaven, discussions they are having with deceased relatives, and of course how their pains are all gone and that they are happier.

None of this is supported Biblically. It is more Eastern in its origins. Christianity has Eastern influences, but they were split from the Western during the Great Schism in the 11th century. There are no descriptions of the accommodations in the afterlife. God and Jesus apparently have chairs, so the former can sit at the right hand of the latter, but anything else is purely in our imaginations.

The guest who was taking questions on the radio show said that he was familiar with this type of talk. He was a pastor or something, someone who is expected to respond to and engage a grieving person. I found his answer interesting. He said he agreed that it is not healthy, but if the grieving person finds if comforting, then it should be allowed, at least at the funeral, and possibly for months to come. If after a time, it seems the person is not dealing with their loss, then these theological issues could be discussed.

At the time, the images I had of the people who were being talked about were of older people who had attended a Christian church regularly. The rule could be applied just as well to someone who had never been to church. It’s a good idea to have some idea of the beliefs of the person who died and of the close family and friends when attending a funeral or other gatherings related to it. If your beliefs are different, imposing your theology on them is bad enough without it being bad theology. An atheist, who has no doubt spent much of their life defending their beliefs, and possibly knows the Bible better than you do, does not want to explain their beliefs when their good friend has just died.

This may seem more obvious if you imagine someone from a different country with a different religion coming to your best friend’s funeral with symbols from their tradition, attempting to engage you in a discussion about their version of what happens when someone dies. Something to think about.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

How to talk

I recently read a book review of “10 things I hate about Christianity.” One of the 10 was the way Christians talk. The book is by someone who attends church regularly. I know exactly what he is talking about. I have managed to get comfortable around all the “amens” and “hallelujahs” and “glory to this or thats”, but I still don’t use that language much myself. When I do, it’s with someone who I know is accustomed to it. It’s really no different than not using the same language I use in the men’s locker room, when I’m in a business meeting, but some Christians insist on interjecting it whenever they can.

It reminded me of a particular Christian I happened upon. I should note that she had no idea who I was. I was a stranger to her, coming to a semi-secular meeting at her church on a Wednesday evening. The speaker was talking about psychological issues of military people coming back from Iraq, something that interested me. I was not shopping for a church or even a religious experience that evening. I walked in to this non-descript, almost pre-fab building of a church and introduced myself and asked how long the building had been there, I hadn’t really noticed it before.

She launched into a story of the whole history of how it came to be. I will summarize part of it for you and spare you the parts where she said it was a miracle. A contractor came to give them an estimate on what would have been a significant expense. When he was done, he was given someone else’s name to contact, someone on the church board of trustees. The contractor clarified who that was and then said, “I’m only going to charge you for the cost of materials”. That resulted in several thousands of dollars saved. As it goes, a nephew of the contractor had got drunk and done something stupid involving the family of this board member. Instead of suing the family, and basically ruining the young man’s life, they forgave him.

This is where the language comes in. This woman, who just met me, and is representing a supposedly non-denominational church is now preaching to me that the above story proves the truth of Jesus’ resurrection and could only happen under the guidance of a just and loving God. Granted, I don’t know too many stories like this, so you could make some correlation that this forgiveness grew out of the Christian traditions, but correlation is not proof, and the language she was using was creating more of a divide than a bridge. I have spent the last decade or more learning to live with this type of language and accept it, but I was still having trouble staying for that meeting. I convinced myself that this person was not representative of the rest of those I would meet.

The book mentioned above is one of the few efforts I have seen from the Christian side to work on this language barrier. Rather than try to start my own suggestions from scratch I searched and found many suggestions coming from atheist for how they would like to be addressed but disappointingly few from theists. Here is a good starting point.

Some of this is just common communication skills and some of it can be reversed and looked at from the other side. For example, knowing the common arguments. It is amazing how many YouTube videos and websites there are that use the same arguments for the existence of God over and over again. Each one speaks as if they are the first to put these words out there. Working through these arguments and studying both sides, either on your own, or with others who agree with you, can be a valuable exercise that can actually strengthen your faith if you have it, or help you understand why someone would make the leap of faith if you don’t. If you are reading this, then these tools are readily available to you.

The last one on the list is “don’t pray for us, or at least don’t announce that you are.” This is a good point. If you pray, it’s not so you can get points for doing it, so announcing it can be a form of pride. For atheists, I ask that you also be respectful and careful about when you ask someone to not pray. A funeral is not a place to enter into a religious argument. People grieve in different ways and comfort themselves in different ways. It’s best to let that go, or at least wait a few months to bring it up.

I’ll explore this in more depth in blogs to come.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Beast at Tanagra

In one of my favorite Star Trek The Next Generation episodes, the crew of the Enterprise comes in contact with another race that they can’t communicate with. Their computer translator can translate the words, but the words are in the form of metaphors, stories from their culture. Without knowing the story, you can’t understand the words. So, using this page to translate, my title here refers to an obstacle to overcome. In the end Captain Picard figures it out and he realizes that he should re-familiarize himself with the legends and stories of his own culture. In the final scene he is reading the book Gilgamesh, in it’s paper form, not on one of their hand held data devices.

I’m more of a data person, more like Mr. Spock than I am a story person, but I’m coming around. I have found many people hard to communicate with if you don’t understand their story. Religious people are a good example. I try using logic, but at some point it gets to me needing to be familiar with a parable or obscure character from Leviticus to be able to continue the discussion. If I’m not familiar with their story, I can’t be sure if their point is valid or not.

This can also be true in politics too. I found this recently in my reading of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. To demonstrate how this works, I’ll refer to a metaphor she used. In this case, my understanding of the use of the myth led me to conclude that her point was not valid. I had figured that out anyway, but if someone who has read the book tries to use this metaphor, I’ll be ready.

The book was written around 1960 and set in her not too distant future, which has now past for us. In it, all of the great minds of the day, the inventors, the industrialists, the engineers and the innovators go on strike because they feel their value is not recognized, that the riches they have created for society are being squandered in a welfare state. They do it secretly at first and wait for things to begin to collapse, then come out and say “I told you so.” One of the analogies that Ayn Rand uses is that of Prometheus. In the story, she says Prometheus has gone on strike.

Prometheus is the guy who was chained to a rock and got his liver pecked out every day by an Eagle. His liver would grow back, so he would never die, just suffer. His punishment was meted out by Zeus, the King of the Greek Gods. It was for giving fire to the humans. Prometheus had helped Zeus come to power, but then had some different ideas about what to do. So the analogy is to the inventors who create things that are used and consumed by all humankind. That’s about as far as I can see the analogy being accurate.

In no Greek myth that I have read does humankind appear ungrateful to Prometheus. He is the one being tortured, so I gotta assume that the teller of the story wants you to sympathize with him. It’s the mean guy who just wants something from you, and will toss down a lightning bolt if he doesn’t get it, that you are supposed to hate. He may be in charge of running the world, but he doesn’t command respect, just fear. For Prometheus to give up his torture, he would have to apologize to Zeus and somehow take fire back from humankind. He’s not going to do that, he represents those who struggle for justice.

More important, and Ayn does not address this at all, Prometheus is freed from captivity by Hercules. He is freed by strength. This has happened throughout history, when leaders become too brutal, people rise up and defeat them by force. More often than not the result is a new leadership with different problems, but that’s another story. If you try to apply Atlas Shrugged’s story back on to the Greek mythology characters, humankind and Zeus are conspiring to keep Prometheus in chains and somehow they control Hercules to make sure he stays there.

The myth doesn’t go that way, because history hasn’t gone that way. For short periods, yes, a government can raise an army and force people to use their minds to benefit only the ones behind the guns, but eventually the army itself becomes powerful enough to work for it’s own good, or another army comes along. An army can only get so big if it is not supported, and that support requires something worth fighting for.

In Atlas Shrugged, the people are all lethargic, they have given up and don’t know what to do. The welfare state gave them the option to be lazy and they took it. When it becomes obvious it is not working, they just go on waiting for a hand out and whining. There is a lot of whining in that book. I know there are people like this, but it is a very small minority. Most people want to work, want to leave things better than they found them. I think a story about industrialist going on strike would be a good myth for our times, but I think the result would be that nobody cared, it would be a chance to clean up the messes they made.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Build Caring Community

If this were the “religious” blog, instead of religious atheist, I would have an easy blog this week. It was a sermon given by a long time member of a community that I was once a part of, and now am only remotely. She summarized her history and weaved it in to the history of the community. She used scripture from Matthew 12:24 and the Greek story of Persephone as stories that relate to her personal story. It was really moving and a bunch of people cried. I could tell it in a way that would move some people, but for people who are not a member of that community or not familiar with a story of the kind of growth and healing that takes place in a community, it would probably not mean much. That story was from a church community.

On a similar note, I have exchanged a few e-mails with a guy who leads a community in Austin, TX called the Austin Community of Atheists. He once asked me to describe anything that a religious community has ever done that could not be accomplished by a secular group. I answered him with the stories of the people who started the abolitionist movement, the story of Moses (maybe just a fable, but one of slaves throwing off the yoke of their masters) and a couple others. He came back with how that could have been accomplished by any secular group.

Well, yeah, but the point is, it wasn’t. So, I’ve been asking myself this question. What is it that sets a religious community apart? What makes it different? Hearing that sermon this week made the answer obvious to me, but how do I relate that experience to others?

The simple answer of what sets a religious community apart is beliefs. However, I’ve been around a few religious communities, and many of them don’t restrict membership based on belief. The national church body may officially want you to believe something, but the individual church will not quiz you on every detail every time you walk in the door. I have researched the differences between denominations, but most people don’t. When I say to someone, “Why do you go to that church, they believe in Armageddon?”, their answer is usually, “I just like the community.” For the most part I’m fine with that answer, as long as the money they are putting in the collection plate doesn’t go to blowing up abortion clinics or similar extremes.

So, maybe the right question is what is community? That only took me about 15 years to figure out, so I won’t try to give a trivial answer. The best answer I know to the question of “what is community”, is that you have to experience it for yourself. That’s not an eloquent answer, and it’s not even really fair to expect someone to go immersing themselves in communities all over the place that may or may not be valuable. There are definitely “bad” communities.

I think what my atheist e-mail friend was asking, or maybe saying, is that anything that has been done by a religious community, didn’t actually involve any miracles or require the existence of a God. The stories in the Bible frequently involve people turning away from God, then when a leader, or the group turn back, they get a miracle. In the present, some communities will tell you that they prayed and someone who was sick, got better. Or that they prayed and accomplished a difficult project that did not seem logically possible. An atheist will tell you that people recover from illness all the time, even when doctors say they won’t, and illogical projects sometime succeed.

Back to the question of what is it that is different about a religious community. Without going into too much detail, the sermon I mentioned earlier was given by someone who started experiencing depression in her teens. She was part of a loving family, with a lot of Lutheran ministers in it, but they didn’t know a lot about teen depression. Not many people did at that time. A little later in life she happened upon the Walker Church community. Not only did she find friends, but some of those friends went on to found organizations and pass legislation that now support people like her. In turn she has helped many people. I doubt she would have been as productive a member of any other community.

That last statement is a difficult one to substantiate. I’m sure that there are some other communities that could have helped. Her immediate family did not have the resources, the public school system didn’t offer much, and I am not aware of any support groups that she could have found back in the mid 1970’s. So, one possible defining difference of a religious community is there acceptance of all as members. That does not pertain to all religious communities obviously, but it covers the ones that I like, so I’m sticking with it for now.

Of course, any group could choose to not discriminate, but it wouldn’t make sense in many of them. Greenpeace might benefit from having some mentally ill people on its board, but more likely it would be a hindrance. Mental illness is not their issue (I’m not classifying my sermon giving friend as mentally ill, I’m discussing a larger issue of inclusion now). Organizations working on mental illness or physical disability issues would more likely benefit from inviting people who had those issues. Walker Church didn’t have a goal of affecting policy on a State level regarding people who occasionally had bouts of depression. It happened because they welcomed all, and the people who came together discovered something others had not. They discovered the issues on a personal level, and they found the strength to work on those issues beyond their immediate circle. That is most likely to occur in a group that has a very broad vision, like bringing peace and harmony to the entire planet. I don’t know of any secular groups with that goal.

That’s not to say that there couldn’t be such a group, but organizations tend to grow out of some sort of tradition. Religious traditions go back thousands of years, when people didn’t know that the earth revolved around the Sun or believed they had to sacrifice a goat to make their crops grow. They also started traditions of accepting others, caring for the sick, and giving to the needy. As we learned about our universe and how our own minds work, some of the traditions were abandoned. The caring parts have stayed pretty well intact. Without the direct experience of a caring community and a sermon like the one I experienced last Sunday, that’s the best explanation I can give.