Saturday, May 25, 2013

There Are No Teams

I’m re-reading Antony Flew’s 2007 book There Is A God: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.  In the Preface, Roy Varghese laments the rise of the “new atheists,” Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens.  Dismissing their work as largely demagoguery, he ties them to Bertrand Russell (who was influential to my deconversion), whom he accuses of contributing little to advancement of religious discussion, but gaining notoriety through sarcasm and colorful language.  He then, says the following:

"The chief target of these books is, without question, organized religion of any kind, time, or place.   Paradoxically, the books themselves read like fundamentalist sermons.  The authors, for the most part, sound like hellfire-and-brimstone preachers warning us of dire retribution, even of apocalypse, if we do not repent of our wayward beliefs and associated practices.  There is no room for   ambiguity or subtlety.  It’s black and white.  Either you are with us all the way or one with the enemy.  Even eminent thinkers who express some sympathy for the other side are denounced as traitors.  The evangelists themselves are courageous souls preaching their message in the face of imminent martyrdom."

I think Varghese is exactly right on this point.  While his preface is an amazing example of how to be a hypocrite while also saying something important, this paragraph sums up a huge problem on all sides of the religious conversation.  We all think we’re right.  We all think “they” are wrong, and more than being wrong, they have bad intentions, and can’t be trusted.  When I was attending beer church, this was on display constantly.

When Antony Flew came to believe in God (the Prime Mover, not the Christian God) based on what he perceived to be solid evidence, he was practically carried around the world by believers proclaiming, “See!  You guys are wrong!”  Likewise, when evangelical preachers like Dan Barker and Jerry DeWitt go from Christians to atheists, they are touted by the freethinkers as an example of how Christians ought to be able to see the error of their ways, and reject their silly faith.

What’s interesting about the converts (Flew, Barker and DeWitt) is how noticeably different their approach is compared to the evangelicals (Varghese, Hitchens etc.).  Because they’ve been on the other side, they don’t treat people who disagree with them like they’re stupid.  Certainly they weren’t stupid when they held those beliefs themselves.  I think people like Flew and Barker can be quite useful for those who need validation as they reach the conclusion that they’ve been wrong.

We might ask ourselves why it’s so easy to demonize people who have done nothing other than hold a different idea.  What threat does an atheist pose to a Christian?  What threat does a Christian pose to an atheist?  Certainly there are some doctrines that don’t help mend these fences.  Eternal hell as punishment for not holding a narrow truth certainly presents an issue.  Fortunately, this doctrine is losing steam, both as it contributes to people leaving their faith, and as believers reject it as bad theology.  With that threat less prevalent, can we begin to discuss these issues in good faith, assuming that no matter who is speaking, she is being honest in what she says, and charitable in her responses?

For those to whom the existence or non-existence of God matters, who have rejected agnosticism as laziness, and who try really hard to determine the answer to the question, let’s hammer out the arguments thoroughly, admit when we’re wrong, and see if by having these discussions, we can improve the world we live in.  The solutions to poverty, wars, and inequality don’t require common ground on God.  If we’re willing to trust each other, I think we’ll find that we want the same things, and can achieve those things together.

For your viewing pleasure:
Dan Barker’s testimony:
Jerry DeWitt’s testimony:
Anthony Flew:
 (sorry for how crappy Flew’s video is.  He’s an old, old man, and most of his more coherent stuff is pre-YouTube)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

First Word 5/19/13

Text of my opening message at West Hills Friends on 5/19/13

Evangelicalism taught me to be a fighter.  Fight for the truth, no matter what it costs.  Fight for God, even at the expense of others’ feelings.  Fight for the Bible, even if faith is all you have to fight with.  Nobody told me that faith is a fleeting weapon.

Quaker retreat stirred some stuff up within me, and I’ve been struggling to put them to words.  The group was invited, without the usual pre-requisite that one be prompted by the supernatural, to speak about what they were feeling, about their current situation, whatever it may be.  It was my chance, I thought, to say the things I’ve been feeling without having to pretend that a spirit wants me to say them.  But I couldn’t speak.  I bit my upper lip and tried to keep the tears silent.

When I realized I didn’t believe in God anymore, intellectually or emotionally, I thought I did a pretty good job of putting my history in its proper context.  Church and faith had been a result of family influence, as we went every Sunday.  I, as the child of two confident people, had become zealous in my faith, sometimes obnoxiously so.  This would have happened to just about anyone in my situation, so I reasoned.  And it’s true.  Most kids who grow up with a faith system in their pocket tend to hang on to it.  Other religious ideas seem foreign, not part of the safety of home.  This attachment isn’t a good measure of the validity of these beliefs, but it’s a good explanation for why it’s so hard to leave the faith of our childhood.  Attending West Hills has made me see, by contrast, the damage that evangelicalism did to me, separate from issues of faith.

Evangelicalism taught me that it is virtuous to be stubborn in one’s convictions.  Adulthood has shown me that this is wrong.  The fool, upon being shown his errors, should change his mind.  It is not virtuous of him to cling to his error.  What began as stubborn apologetics became stubborn insistence that we should watch Survivor first, then go to bed.  Your valid argument that sleep is more important loses to my virtuous hold on the remote.  Evangelicalism taught me it’s a good thing to stand out from the crowd, that your message is more likely to be received if people know who you are.  What started with zealous evangelism became a narcissistic need to be special.  I have to stand  out wherever I go.  If we’re all playing golf, I’m special because I’m left-handed.  If we’re having dinner, I have to find a conversation topic that I’m more knowledgeable about than you are.  And if we’re sitting in silence, I have to stand out because I’m an atheist.  As if non-belief is somehow inspirational.

I think I recognized my need to be special just as I should have been standing to speak at retreat.  And in this rare moments of honest self-reflection, this community invalidated my argument.  There is nothing I think or feel that isn’t being felt by someone else in this group.  When someone stands to say she doesn’t know if anything is going to happen when she dies,  I’m with her in that thought.  Someone spoke of her husband who is on a different faith path, and how much he’s enjoyed the retreat, and for the first time in a decade, I have good news to share with someone about church!  I am not alone in my doubt, but I am also not alone in my feelings of home within this community.  I am not special, and it’s a relief.

Not being special is a realization that is healing a lot of wounds.  Being special lets me be separate from, or outside of, groups of friends and family. Being special assures me that if something goes wrong, I can exit painlessly, because I was never really on the inside.  But one can’t experience the full benefits of community while insisting on being special, and outside of it.  For my growth as a person, even if never as a believer, I must learn how to envision myself as part of a group, not a special visitor.  

To close, I want to comment on Greg’s message regarding evangelism from 2 weeks ago.  While you and I may disagree on whether or not certain beliefs are worth sharing with others, we all agree that embracing our gay brothers and sisters as equals is an essential element of this community.   When I see A.J. being welcomed as a member of this meeting, another piece of my anti-religion worldview disappears.  This has been happening more and more recently.  What I want to say about evangelism is that if churches want to bring in people from the outside, be they disillusioned Christians from other denominations, or an ex-Baptist atheist who would love to find God under a rock one day, that church must embrace the gay community.  It’s practically a consensus among non-believers, and much to my surprise, a growing contingent of Christians are taking the brave stance that the God they believe in doesn’t intentionally create people that She thinks are genetically flawed.  This stance you have taken is the biggest reason I came here in the first place, and if the rumors are true that this church marches in the Pride parade, you can count this atheist as someone willing to march in line behind a church banner.