Monthly Archives: January 2013

“The Book of Mormon” and the Real Reason People Hate Christianity

“The Book of Mormon” is a Broadway musical about Mormon missionaries in Uganda by the creators of “South Park”, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez. The young men- one idealistic and arrogant, one reluctant and ill-prepared- find the natives are more worried about war and don’t have much use for God. And yet they are eventually won over by the second’s change of attitude toward his mission, and all are happy Mormons at the end. The play has been tremendously popular and praised by all kinds of people, including Jon Stewart.

But don’t the kind of people who go to Broadway musicals hate religion? Aren’t they typically atheists, or at best functionally agnostic? This is all strange on the surface, but it shows a lot about how religion actually works in America.

I see the terms “low church atheist” and “high church atheist” bandied about, the latter being a serious and intellectual opponent of religion like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, the former someone who just doesn’t believe in God but isn’t dogmatic about it. Low church atheists generally believe religion is a harmless fantasy for the simple-minded, but not the actively destructive force high church atheists regard it as, unless you’re talking about fanatics of course.

Parker and Stone take this a bit farther though. They grew up in Colorado, and seem to have known quite a few Mormons. They seem to have noted that while Mormons believe wacky things- not that all religions don’t believe wacky things- they were nice, well-adjusted, responsible people, so maybe the Mormon belief, while false, has the functional purpose of producing positive behavior. If religion is treated as a metaphor- not as literally true- it can have big positive effects with few or no negative effects, or so the play argues.

I haven’t seen the show, but Parker, Stone and Lopez seem to have made their case brilliantly. Still, the only reason they were able to is because they seem to have exactly nailed the low church atheist view of religion.

To the LCA religion is something pretty foolish, for people not too bright, people weak of mind and spirit. They do seem to understand though that it can be very helpful to certain people in certain situations. If a drug addict gets religion and is able to get off drugs, that’s good. If a criminal gets religion and stops committing crimes, that’s good. People believe a lot of crazy things and whatever gets you through the night, as John Lennon said. Of course LCAs believe some pretty wacky things themselves, like that the races are all equal (except for lower class whites of course) and that anything bad blacks do or suffer is the result of racism (by lower class whites, of course).

On the other hand, LCAs don’t the idea that such a person now becomes their moral superior and has the right, privilege and duty to look down on them. This is rarely explicitly stated, because LCAs being liberals hate to condemn drug addicts and criminals, even annoying Bible-thumping ones. The guy quoted in this post is an unusual example.

It’s much easier for LCAs to express their discomfort with religion by attacking morally traditional Christians who oppose homosexuality, other forms of sexual immorality, and abortion. Religion is OK, they say, as long as you use it to live your own life in a positive way and don’t judge anybody else. Because it says right there in the Bible don’t judge, right? (Even liberal Christians, even plenty of conservative Christians, use this one all the time themselves!) HCAs feel the same way but don’t bother to talk about much since they are more interested in the lack of verifiable evidence.

So, while we see two general critiques of religion in general, and Christianity in particular- variance from current moral standards, and lack of verifiable evidence- I think something much deeper and stronger lies behind it. On one level, the idea of a God with no moral standards- who judges nothing if you believe- shouldn’t bother atheists of any kind, because they are mostly liberals and don’t believe in judging much behavior themselves, especially deviant lower class behavior, even if it involves harm to others. And yet while they themselves don’t judge- partly because this is a value, partly maybe because they don’t feel qualified, which is a healthy skepticism to a limited extent, but not as far as they take it- the idea of a God who judges nothing, not even rape and murder is very disturbing to them. People need to believe in a just God, and the thought of an unjust and capricious God is very disturbing, even to those who say they don’t believe.

But God is just. The idea that simple belief frees you from judgment, while attractive to bad people and those who love them, is wrong. Repentance and a change of heart is required, and this is no easy thing. It can only be approached with bottomless humility.

I came across this in my wanderings. I like it because the guy knows he’s not there, and he knows he can’t get there by himself at all, that he is totally dependent on God.

Holy Sonnet XIV, John Donne

Batter my heart, three-person’d God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Truth be told, I have more confidence in a humble, honest atheist than the average Christian. At least atheists don’t have false doctrine, and to believe in nothing is much better than to believe in something false.

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“Proof of Heaven”, But What Kind of God?

I was in an airport bookstore and saw “Proof of Heaven”, by Eben Alexander III, MD. Dr. Alexander is a brain surgeon who contracted meningitis and had a near death experience in a coma and wrote a book about it.

Many books have been written on this subject before, but this one is different because Alexander is a top-level neurosurgeon and brain scientist. The typical skeptical response to these experiences is that they are generated in the brain due to trauma, and before this experience Alexander says he would have thought the same. But he says the condition of his brain in the coma, the entire neocortex damaged by the meningitis, would have made this impossible. He uses explanations from quantum physics to explain that the material world is not all there is, and that consciousness creates the material world rather than the other way around.

He has since started an organization to bridge the gap between the spiritual and the scientific, Eternea. Believers will believe. Skeptics will not be convinced. I would like to believe, but I doubt.

The thing is, all said and done, what kind of God is it that Alexander met? All-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful, but we don’t see much of that on earth. Alexander all in all has had a pretty nice life- I mean, he’s a freaking Harvard brain surgeon, for crying out loud, nice family, distinguished career. His big sadness was that he was adopted, and a few years before his experience he tried to contact his birth mother, and she declined contact. This made him seriously depressed for a long time and threatened his functioning. Still, his experience somehow reminds of “Big Time”, by Peter Gabriel- “My heaven will be a big heaven too, and I will walk through the front door”.

He tells us that a common part of near death experiences, or end-of-life experiences, is that a departed loved one appears to welcome the person into the next world, often their mother. Well, I hate my mother, and if I see her in the afterlife it will be pretty awkward. Some people have no loved ones at all, so who welcomes them? Some people have no loved ones at all, so who welcomes them?

Alexander describes himself as “slight above C&E” member of his Episcopal church before his experience “C&E” meaning somebody who comes at Christmas and Easter, the most marginal sort of believer at the liturgical churches. Afterwards he goes again and is moved by the service and the art of the church and sees elements of his experience in it, but his experience does not have any obviously Christian elements and he does not report getting more involved with his church or Christianity.

He describes his NDE as first being in kind of a primordial ooze- not pleasant, but not particularly unpleasant- and the seeing and being drawn toward a light, then seeing a peaceful pastoral environment with people and a woman he later identifies as his never-before-seen biological sister, then a purely spiritual realm. No hell, not much of what you would describe as purgatory, just unconditional love. For a person who had few difficulties in life, maybe it would be like that, but what about the rest of us?

The idea of God as an all-encompassing but fundamentally kind of remote being is common to most religions. Christianity is different because it contains God as a man, not a high and powerful man but a common man, and not just as a common man but a common man who suffered terribly, the worst possible fate in both the cultures in which he lived- death by crucifixion as a rebel against the Roman state, and death by crucifixion as a blasphemer and rebel against Jewish religious authority, outside the gates and without descendents. Jesus had many experiences of the worst sort human beings can suffer- rejection by family and community, contempt and hatred, repeated attempts to kill him through mob violence, and finally the engineering of his false accusation, criminal conviction and extreme public execution by the leaders of his own people.

In a world of evil, the all-powerful, all-loving and remote God seems absent and irrelevant. But Jesus is irrelevant to none of this, in fact most kinds of human suffering, if not each and every one specifically, is something he experienced personally. I would say “unjustly” but all suffering is caused by sin and thus unjust.

So God is not far from us, and our suffering and victimization do not separate us from him, but are things that he shares with us and understands. The shame we feel in human society for these things is not something we should feel with him, but only love and compassion.

Alexander’s account is attacked by atheist skeptics who say it still can’t be scientifically accepted, or that it can be scientifically rejected. It is attacked by Christians who say it isn’t Biblical. I detect a bit of sourness in both parties who really want to be right. The Eternea site goes into reincarnation, which is something I’m not prepared to believe in. But I hope that Alexander’s experience points to something bigger and better than all this.

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The Miracles of Jesus and Social Connectedness

Many of the things Jesus did have a greater poignancy when considered in their social context.

Many if not most of the miracles involved handicapped or chronically ill people. Today such people aren’t necessarily treated really well, or welcomed everywhere enthusiastically, but sickness is just sickness. It’s bad, hopefully a doctor can help you, but if not that’s life.

In that time and place though, a handicap or chronic illness was a sign of condemnation by God. Outside of one’s immediate family, no one would have anything to do with such a person. The woman with the “issue of blood”- continuous vaginal bleeding, to be frank- was regarded as ritually unclean, as menstruating women still are by Orthodox Jews. When a woman is having her period, her husband can’t touch her. As soon as it stops, they can have sex again. But for this woman the bleeding did not stop, and the unclean state was permanent. If she had ever been married, her husband had probably divorced her.

But with her healing, she became clean again. The old Hebrew religion at least had a way for people who had suffered some kind of uncleanness- usually a skin disease- to be declared clean and returned to the community. The miracles of Jesus tend to be thought of by modern people as individual things, but people at the time would have understood Jesus as returning these people not only to physical health, and spiritual wholeness, but social wholeness.

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The Satanic Evil of Farm Subsidies

The corn ethanol program is causing people to starve.

Isn’t this a political discussion, rather than a religious discussion? No. Things that are fundamentally evil are not political anymore. The political power of a small number of American farmers- the spiritually Methodist heirs of super-Protestant William Jennings Bryant, think their wealth must be protected at all costs, because the “family farm” and the salt-of-the-earth Midwestern farmer is the basis of America.

It’s not. Greed and venality are evil. Using the government to protect your income and wealth is evil. When this causes people to starve, it is far more evil.

Some farmer in Iowa is admiring his new $500,000 John Deer combine and thinking what a wonderful pillar of America he is. He and his cohorts will answer to God someday.

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