Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Forgiving a Ghost

My friend Mark wrote about forgiveness this morning.  My initial response was , "My quandary is who is going to forgive God, who may need it most, and deserve it the least, whether he/she is real or not."  While forgiveness as related to the Bible doesn't feel especially relevant to me, I am interested in the idea of how best to let go of unhealthy anger.  Because forgiveness isn't about the perpetrator, it's about the victim.

The way I process it, forgiveness is an emotional realization rather than a conscious choice.  In Mark's story, writing a letter of forgiveness didn't accomplish anything, certainly not forgiveness.  Forgiveness seems to be a point that's arrived at over time, sometimes unknowingly.  Eventually the wrongdoings of another no longer evoke emotions of anger or distrust, and that person can be approached with the same charity that's given to everyone else. 

One way in which atheism has been helpful to me is that the horrors around us are much simpler to process.  There are causes and effects, rights and wrongs, but no cosmic scheme that has to fit within the problem.  In retrospect, the Christian concept of forgiveness seems quite unhealthy.  As Mark wisely points out, instant forgiveness of any offense can't be reasonably expected.  Where I think Christianity puts the brakes on too early is in regards to forgiving God herself.

Many folks have written at length about how they've forgiven God.  But the underlying assumption is that God hasn't actually done anything wrong.  It's the perception of being wronged that required forgiveness, not an actually wrong act.  When a young child dies for no reason at all, anger at God is okay, so long as one accepts that God hasn't (or can't) done anything wrong.  I think this is victim-blaming behavior, and can't be healthy for us.  Even if God exists, and there is a divine plan, there has still been pain inflicted.  And how much more offensive to be harmed by a being that can supposedly do anything, loves infinitely, and has made astounding promises. 

For the believer, there are multiple places in the Bible where believers are promised things in exchange for their faith.  Metaphors like being able to move mountains, or that if one asks sincerely, they will receive what they ask for.  We all know this isn't true.  There are theologies built around how to justify God's promises being broken, but they're still justifications.  Promise made, promise broken.  Broken promises require a response; Can God be forgiven, and if so, what does that mean?

My process with forgiving God has been mostly subconscious.  Realizing I didn't believe, it was incredibly easy to let go of the problem of evil.  Evil wasn't a problem because I didn't have to explain why God lets things happen to good people.  What I did have to let go of (and still do) is the disappointment of realizing my paradigm was wrong.  I have found forgiving a theoretical being to be as difficult as forgiving a real one. 

As a poor analogy, my daughter used to sprinkle oatmeal and glitter on the lawn for Santa's reindeer at Christmas time.  When she learned that Santa wasn't real, she asked who ate the oatmeal, and why we had let her put food on the grass.  She easily transitioned from one paradigm to another, and understood why we let her have her fairy tales.  How much more difficult would it have been if she believed Santa had conversations with her in head.  How would she have reacted if her whole life we had given her letters from Santa, full of stories and rules written just for her?  I suspect the transition would have been harder, and she would have resented us for leading her along.

So it has been for me with God.  While I can accept that the people who fed me the fables were sincere in their own beliefs, and believed they were doing what was best for me, it's easier to forgive them than to forgive the supposed receiver of my prayers, who turned out to be a ghost.  I imagine that eventually I'll realize my emotions have realized what my intellect already knows - being mad at an imaginary friend is ridiculous, and serves no purpose.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Cosmos and Conflicting Paradigms

My friend Daniel asked me to respond to his blog post this morning regarding Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Cosmos, and the mingling of faith and science.  As Dan has gone through seminary, I've seen a lot of familiar patterns, as the ideas he's tackling are similar to ideas I tackled going through philosophy and religion majors in undergrad.  We were both given fairly small truth boxes as kids, and the process of breaking out of them and finding a new paradigm to live under has been enlightening for both us, albeit at different times, and likely with very different conclusions.  While we grew up together in church since we were 2, faith itself wasn't really a focal point of our friendship.  Decades later, with him going into ministry, and me trying to figure out how to deal with atheism, we've found a way to talk about these things again, and it's been a lot of fun, at least for me.

As to Dan's blog post; He probably doesn't know it, but he's diving into some of the largest and most interesting areas of philosophy.  Epistemology is the study of knowledge.  What is knowledge?  How do we know that we know things?  Part of the study of knowledge is differentiating it with belief.  Knowledge and belief are not the same things.  A person cannot "know" something that isn't true.  A person can, however, believe something that isn't true.  All of us believe things right now that are complete nonsense; We just haven't figured it out yet. 

In Dan's post, he asks, "If scientific fact is true whether we believe or not, does that mean my faith - something I cannot prove or have tangible evidence for is automatically false?  Does the fact I cannot prove God created the earth mean it is not true?"

I would take the beginning of his question a bit further.  It's not just scientific facts that are true regardless of belief.  Everything that's true is true, even if you won't believe it.  This is just as true of God as it is of evolution, carbon dating, or the big bang.  God exists or doesn't.  The big bang happened or it didn't.  The difference between these two things is how able we are to test the questions, and come to conclusions that get anywhere close to knowledge. 

On NDT's show Cosmos, when he states something like, "4.5 billion years ago, X happened," the reason he can say that is because all of our scientific discovery, which has been accumulated by thousands of scientists over hundreds of years, all conclude the same thing.  Test after test confirms it.  Predictions made based on the original theories come true.  It's the beauty of the scientific method.  Scientists WANT to be proven wrong, because the whole point of science is to discover what's real and true.  Faith, or at least certain versions of it, operate in a quite a different manner.  The conclusion tends to be the starting point, and evidence is filtered or skewed to match the previously-reached conclusion.  The reason NDT mentions the flat-earthers, or people like Ken Ham, is because they're not doing science, they're doing faith.

I don't want to spend much time mocking the likes of Ken Ham.  There was a time when people like him where the dominant voices within Christianity, and thus deserved to be scorned for thwarting scientific progress in the name of silliness like humans riding dinosaurs and a 6000 year old earth.  Fortunately, the tides have turned, and large numbers are responding "YES!" to the question of whether or not faith and science can co-exist.

Tyson himself admits as much in this article:
"Rather than painting science and religion as diametrically opposed to each other, Tyson said that there are plenty of scientists who believe in God. “The issue there is not religion versus non-religion or religion versus science, the issue there is ideas that are different versus dogma," he observed.

He continued, “If you start using your scripture, your religious text as a source of your science, that’s where you run into problems, and there is no example of someone reading their scripture and saying ‘I have a prediction about the world that no one knows yet because this gave me insight.’”

“Enlightened religious people know this, and don’t try to use the Bible as a textbook,” he concluded.

Neil is exactly right.  One of the surprises people tend to find upon entering seminary, or grad school in religious studies, as that the most educated people of faith do not hold the same beliefs that the general religious population does.  You'll find very few young-earth creationists or Biblical infallibists in these places.  The reason is because those things don't hold up to scrutiny, and if one is committed to what is true, one has to be willing to let go of things that aren't.  But letting go of the idea that every word of the Bible is true doesn't necessitate abandoning one's faith, only re-shaping it, so as to be closer to the truth, and following the evidence where it leads. 

If truth has nothing to fear from investigation, the Christian should embrace science, and make the theological changes necessary to accept what is true.  My favorite bloggers are people who have done exactly that.  Benjamin Corey recently wrote an article on how Ken Ham damaged the cause of Jesus in his debate with Bill Nye.  Why?

"Ken lost because he didn’t produce scientific evidence to support his opinion. In fact, there were times in the debate where he seemed to spend more time talking about abortion, gay marriage and using the word “hijacked” than any focus on the issue of science. What’s worse, is he admitted that all of his science is based upon something I told you about before: adding up genealogies in Genesis as a method to dating the earth– which is not simply bad science but bad theology also."

Theologian John Haught's entire career is based around the idea that faith and science are absolutely compatible, and we should celebrate this reality.  You can read a sampling of Haught's work here.  You can also find many of his lectures on YouTube.

In conclusion, science and faith are certainly compatible.  The acknowledgement of this eliminates certain kinds of theology, as they are provably false, but this should only encourage the believer, as you're one step closer to truth, whatever the truth really is.  We should all be willing to let go of false ideas, believer and non-believer alike.  Science and philosophy help us do that.  We can cling to senseless faith if we want to, insisting that the interpretation of the Bible we were given as kids must always be true no matter what.  But if we do that, let's admit we're not really after the truth.  We're after certainty.  And if science has taught us anything, it's that certainty should be held with the most delicate grasp.