Tag Archives: religion

You Shall Know Them By Their Fruits

In other posts, I have occasionally reminded Christian readers of this excerpt from Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:15-23):

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. . . . A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. . . . Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not . . . done many wonders in Your name?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me . . . .”

Christian or not, it seems advisable to check oneself and one’s beliefs and projects, to make sure there has not been slippage between what was supposed to happen and what is actually happening.

What was supposed to happen, in Christianity, was the development of a religion reflecting the priorities that Jesus set forth during his time on Earth. In that same Sermon, he expressed one such priority: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Or, as expressed in Romans 13:9-10, “[T]he commandments . . . are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Love for others is an important theme throughout the New Testament. It does seem reasonable to ask whether the project of Christianity has indeed been Christlike in the particular sense of demonstrating love for one’s neighbor. The answer is very much in the negative. The remainder of this post provides historical examples, some continuing into the present.

In my experience, Christians do not like to read this sort of thing. Certainly they are not big on preaching it and learning from it. To the contrary, they seem confident that, unlike all the generations of believers before them, they are different. They are better. They are not supporters of a disgusting religion.

That may be true of certain individuals and even of certain Christian denominations. And let us not deny that religious belief can have positive effects upon people and communities. Whether the positives outweigh the negatives is a topic worth discussing. The following evidence suggests that, over the 2,000-year history of Christian belief, the overall answer would be no: the Christian project started going off the rails within its first few centuries; it was enormously harmful for more than a thousand years; and it has become prettier and more tolerable in recent centuries only because secular political and intellectual pressures have reduced its control over daily life.

What I offer here is, obviously, only a fraction of the evidence on those matters. If any reader feels that the evidence does not support the conclusions just stated, I am open to comments and, time permitting, I will investigate further and revise this post as needed. For now, the material presented below is provided just to make clear that Christianity has been really terrible, in many ways, throughout its history.

In my view, as I say, the core problem lies in Christianity’s longstanding determination, very much against the advice of Jesus, to prioritize a lawyerly, text-oriented approach to the words of the New Testament, and on that basis to disregard the key Christlike priority: love of one’s neighbor.

Torture, Murder, and War

This section drew the bulk of my attention, as it seems to address the most extremely violent outrages committed in the name of Jesus. These are just a few examples, starting shortly after Christianity obtained political power during the Roman Empire.

  • Roman Emperor Theodosius I (380) ordered,

It is our will that all the peoples who are ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans . . . . We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, . . . shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative . . . .

[T]he successors of Constantine were ever persuaded that the first concern of imperial authority was the protection of religion and so, with terrible regularity, issued many penal edicts against heretics. In the space of fifty seven years sixty-eight enactments were thus promulgated. All manner of heretics were affected by this legislation, and in various ways, by exile, confiscation of property, or death.

  • Charlemagne (774) defeated the Saxons and gave them a choice: be baptized or be killed.
  • The Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges widespread public demand, by ordinary Christians in the Middle Ages, for heretics to be tortured and burned at the stake.
  • Wikipedia on the Crusades (primarily occurring in the 11th to 13th centuries):

Crusaders often pillaged as they travelled . . . . During the People’s Crusade, thousands of Jews were murdered in what is now called the Rhineland massacres. Constantinople was sacked during the Fourth Crusade. . . . The Crusades also reinforced the connection between Western Christendom, feudalism, and militarism.

  • The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) ruled,

Secular authorities . . . shall be admonished and induced and if necessary compelled . . . to take an oath that they will strive in good faith and to the best of their ability to exterminate in the territories subject to their jurisdiction all heretics pointed out by the Church . . . .

  • Wikipedia reports that the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834) resulted in countless tortures and an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 executions by the Church. The Catholic Encylopedia admits that even witnesses were tortured.
  • I encountered and verified some claims by a site called Heretication (which, later, I found was probably based on a webpage in the Bad News About Christianity website).  Having determined that the claims I investigated were supported by other sources, I was inclined to believe other Heretication claims, including these:

The Waldensians . . . were excommunicated as heretics in 1184 at the Council of Verona, and persecuted with zeal for centuries. 150 were burned at Grenoble in a single day in 1393. . . . Anyone in Villaro who declined to go to a Roman Catholic mass was liable to be crucified upside down, but there was some variation in the manner of killing in other towns. Some were maimed and left to die of starvation, some had strips of flesh cut off their bodies until they bled to death, some were stoned, some impaled alive upon stakes or hooks. Some were dragged along the ground until [their] flesh was scraped away. One at least was literally minced. Daniel Rambaut had his toes and fingers cut off in sections: one joint being amputated each day in an attempt to make him recant and accept the Roman faith. Some had their mouths stuffed with gun-powder which was then ignited. Paolo Garnier of Roras was castrated, then skinned alive. Children were killed in various ways before the eyes of their parents. . . .

The term heresy covered ever more and more areas of belief. . . . Pope Innocent III . . . said that those who interpret literally Jesus’ statements about limiting their statements to a straight Yes or No were heretics worthy of death . . . . In 1229 Pope Gregory IX . . . [organized] a crusade against the Stedingers, a Germanic people living near the River Weser, whose heresy amounted to no more than rejecting the temporal authority of the Archbishop of Bremen. . . . The whole population was exterminated. . . .

It was heretical to eat meat on Friday, to read the bible, to know Greek, to criticise a cleric, to refuse to pay Church taxes, or to deny that money lending was sinful. . . . Franciscan spirituals were burned at the stake for such behaviour as claiming that Christ and the apostles had not owned property, preaching absolute poverty, wearing traditional hoods and habits and refusing to lay up stores of food. The Apostolicals, a sect founded in 1300, tried to live like the apostles. The luckier ones were burned at the stake like the sect’s founder, but others suffered worse fates. Dulcino of Novara, the successor to the founder, was publicly torn to pieces with hooks, as was his wife. . . . Cecco d’Ascoli, an Italian scientist, was burned at the stake in 1327 for having calculated the date of Jesus’ birth using the stars. . . . Heresy still covered everything from refusing to take oaths to refusal to pay church tithes. Any deviation from Church norms was enough to merit death: vegetarianism, the rejection of infant baptism, even holding the (previously orthodox) view that people should be given both bread and wine at Mass.

In 1482, under Pope Sixtus IV, 2000 heretics were burned in the tiny state of Andalusia alone. Pope Leo X condemned Martin Luther in 1520 for daring to say that burning heretics was against the will of God. Evidently he thought it presumptuous for an ordinary human being to claim to know God’s will. Perhaps he was right, because Luther changed his mind in 1531 and started advocating the death penalty for heretics and blasphemers. He thought it should be a capital offence to deny the resurrection of the dead, or the reality of heaven and Hell.

Translating the bible into vernacular languages, or helping with the printing of such a bible was heresy according to the Roman Church. Generally, in Europe, women were buried alive for this offence. Men were burned alive. . . .

Anabaptists, the precursors of modern Baptists, were persecuted by Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists alike. The Anabaptists’ main crimes were to call for social reform, to favour adult baptism over infant baptism, and to embrace pacifism – they would not kill, condone capital punishment or serve in armies. They also allegedly advocated ancient Antinomian views. Their leaders died in various ways. Thomas Münzer was burned at the stake in 1525. Feliz Manz drowned in 1526 (drowning was a favourite way of executing Anabaptists because of their views on baptism). . . . When a whole town, Münster, went over to the Anabaptists in the 1530s Catholics and Protestants joined forces to retake the city. The Anabaptist leaders were publicly tortured to death with red-hot pincers and their bodies hung in cages outside a church, where they remained for some years. . . .

A Protestant writing master from Toledo was burned at the stake in 1676 for having decorated a room with the full text of the ten commandments. . . . Around 1520 the diocese of Lincoln alone was convicting over 100 people a year for the crime of “not thinking catholickly”. . . . In 1528 Patrick Hamilton was burned at St Andrews for holding heretical opinions, notably a denial of the freedom of the will. In 1546 Anne Askew was burned at Smithfield because of her beliefs about the Eucharist. In 1592 Henry Barrow and John Greenwood, who preached congregationalism, were hanged at Tyburn for “obstinately refusing to come to church”. . . . Unitarians were executed in 1612 in London and Lichfield, and one in 1651 in Dumfries. William Prynne, a Puritan lawyer, published criticisms of Archbishop Laud. For this had his ears hacked off by the public hangman in 1633. Along with others he was charged again and tried by the Star Chamber in 1637. The others charged had their ears cropped, and as it was discovered that Prynne still had stumps left on the side of his head, these were severed too. He was also branded on the cheeks, and then imprisoned for life along with the others.

  • Wikipedia’s article European Wars of Religion includes some of history’s deadliest wars. Examples include the Thirty Years War, with a death toll nearly half the worldwide toll of World War I — at a time when the population of Europe was only one-quarter of its 20th-century level — as well as the Hundred Years War, the French Wars of Religion, and the Crusades, each taking roughly two to three million lives.

Other Areas of Christian History

Bad News About Christianity (BNAC) offered additional reports on a rather astounding number of areas in which Christians have displayed execrable attitudes and behavior. Here were several examples:

  • Rape. “The words of Deuteronomy 22 . . . were often used to justify the rape of virgins. If a man wanted to marry a woman – whether she wanted him or not – a standard method was to abduct her and have sex with her. As “soiled goods”, she would be unlikely to find another husband, so her choice was to marry her abductor or live out the rest of her life as a spinster. . . . [This practice] was popular well into the twentieth century in conservative Christian countries.”
  • Freedom of Expression. I was concerned that, lately, liberal views were tending toward mild persecution of religion in the U.S. Yet it was difficult to sympathize with Christians who had brought this on themselves by failing, so intensively and for so long, to stand for scientific learning and for the universal human right of freedom of expression. Excerpts from BNAC:

Within a century of the introduction of printing in Europe a formal process was required to keep track of books that the Church had ordered to be destroyed. . . . [including works by some of the greatest minds in history, e.g., Dante, Copernicus, Galileo, and Locke]. Also placed on the Index were writings that told the truth about the forged documents that the Church had produced . . . .

Christians in secular states have often managed to ban respectable works, again well into the twentieth century: Webster’s Dictionary for example was banned in Arkansas because of its entry on Darwinian evolution. Information about family planning and birth control has been banned in many Christian countries.

Over the centuries the Christian Churches have burned countless thousands, perhaps millions, of books of which it disapproved. . . . Some writers destroyed their own unpublished works, fearing the consequences of discovery. . . . Philosophers were also obliged to publish posthumously or anonymously, for fear of the consequences. . . .

The traditional Christian obsession with sexual matters resulted in prosecutions for obscenity not only against books about birth control, but also against respectable literature and even books on psychology. . . .

Christians still seek to impose their views on others. Because of Christian sensitivities the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian . . . could not be shown on British commercial television. . . . In Britain and the USA attempts were made to ban Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ when it appeared in 1988. . . .

Fundamentalists in California have managed to ban schoolbooks that deal with a wide range of subjects, including the theory of evolution, race relations, nuclear war, sex discrimination, human sexuality, birth control and the Holocaust. . . .

During the whole period of 1,500 years or so that the Church enjoyed absolute power the concept of penal reform was unknown. Prisons in 1800 were as insanitary, cramped, infested and dangerous as they had been when the Roman Empire first adopted Christianity. . . .

Christian tortures took many forms. People were restrained by irons and fetters, sometimes locked into agonising positions with neck, wrists and ankles held within inches of each other. After a short time in this position they were permanently disabled. Alternatively prisoners could be racked, beaten, flogged or otherwise abused. One method was to keep their feet in water until they rotted. . . .

The pioneer of modern penology was an Italian rationalist, the Marquis Cesare Beccaria-Bonesana, who published Dei Delitti e delle Pene (On Crimes and Punishments) in 1764, claiming that the prevention of crime, not punishment, should be the prime aim of an enlightened society, and that crime was deterred by the likelihood of detection rather than the severity of punishment. The Inquisition condemned his ideas. For the Churches the prime purpose was punishment and retribution, as affirmed by the Bible, not rehabilitation, which was not mentioned in the Bible. . . .

The idea that gaols should be primarily for rehabilitation was entirely a secular one. So were the beliefs that prisoners had rights; that they were entitled to basic sanitation, and freedom from flogging, torture and mutilation; and that they should receive access to medical attention, adequate nutrition, and education. . . .

[The following are captions accompanying photos on the webpage.]

[C]hurchmen branded people with crosses and with letters: A for Adulterer, B for Blasphemer, etc, Sometimes in the forehead, sometimes in the cheek, sometimes on the chin. . . . Prisoners were often chained to an immovable object, or to a heavy object . . . not only to immobilize the victim, but also to cause pain: note the spikes on the inside of the iron ring. . . . [In the Iron Shoe, a] screw mechanism allows the torturer to crush the victims foot. . . . [The Scold’s Bridle included] various mouth-pieces that can be fitted to restrict speach and cause acute pain. . . . [In the Iron Maiden,] the doors shut “slowly, so that the very sharp points penetrated his arms, and his legs in several places, and his belly and chest, and his bladder and the root of his member, and his eyes, and his shoulders, and his buttocks, but not enough to kill him; and so he remained making great cry and lament for two days, after which he died.”

The Churches considered it wrong to attempt to eliminate poverty, since Jesus himself had given an assurance that the poor would always be with us. . . .

Oppression of the poor and aged has been common in all Christian countries. . . . On the other hand Churches have traditionally provided wealth and power to the younger sons of noble families whatever their beliefs. . . . Throughout Christendom the poorest were liable for a range of Church taxes. The nobility, which provided almost all senior ecclesiastics, was generally exempt. . . .

Not so long ago the rich sat at the front of the church and the poor at the back. Sometimes the rich took Communion on a different day from the poor, and sometimes the rich and poor were offered wine of different qualities. Some priests even preached that there were different heavens for the different sections of society . . . .

Churches have changed their ideas since secular principles of equality have become widely accepted. Few of them now use the third verse of the hymn All Things Bright And Beautiful although its truth was unimpeachable within living memory:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

As in so many other areas of social improvement, the dynamos of change were almost all outside the mainstream Churches [being advocated instead by freethinkers, Utilitarians and Quakers]. . . .

[Photo caption:] Children were sold throughout Christendom . . . . This brace of babies was offered for sale around 1940 in France . . . .

Christians opposed all attempts at [workplace] reform, saying that existing conditions were natural, and reform was contrary to the Bible. Churchmen in the nineteenth century opposed the reduction in working hours, protection for women and children, and even safety legislation. Agitation to improve industrial working conditions came from freethinking Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill. Ideas like safe and hygienic factories, education for workers, and infant schools were pioneered by the philanthropist Robert Owen, who had rejected all religions at the age of 14 after reading Seneca. . . .

At this point, I desisted from providing additional long excerpts from BNAC on other subjects of interest or, should I say, disgust. Briefly, here are a few examples of what some of those summaries would have contained:

  • Family life. “Relying on biblical passages, early Christians inferred that family life was worthless and hailed virginity as the ideal.”
  • Slavery. “For many centuries slavery was perfectly acceptable to Christians . . . [who] used a number of Old and New Testament quotations to prove their case.”
  • Treatment of mental illness. “According to Christians, lunatics were possessed by unclean spirits. . . . [Thus] for many centuries no advance was made in understanding the nature of mental illness . . . . [and] many thousands of men, women and children, already burdened with madness, were confined in chains and subjected to routine torture.”
  • Abuse of animals. “The Church deduced that because animals did not possess souls, they were . . . disposable toys provided for mankind’s amusement. Activities in which animals were tortured for sport, were recorded without any hint that there might be anything wrong with them. . . .” (Examples: cat burnings; blood fiestas; dog fighting.)

“What Is Truth?”

“What is truth?” is a question. You realized that, and you also realized that it is the title of this post. What you may not have fully registered is that the title is in quotes. I am not asking, here, what truth is. I am asking what the question is.

That may seem rather ridiculous. I say it is no more ridiculous than many of the things that people think, and say, and believe are true. At least I am not claiming anything significant. I am just observing that those three words, arrayed in that order, comprise a question.

But if you’d like, I can try to explain why the question would catch my attention. To me, there are two noteworthy things about it. First, it focuses on truth, and truth is commonly considered important. Second, it is the question that Pontius Pilate asked Jesus (John 18:38).

Pilate’s question has been interpreted in various ways. For instance, Wiersbe (2007, p. 303) observes that Pilate may have been either “sneering or sighing . . . we do not know.” Wikipedia, citing Wiersbe, suggests that Pilate could have been implicitly criticizing either the nature of Jesus’s trial or his claim to speak the truth.

Pilate’s utterance is probably why the question seems to be of interest especially to religious people. For example, at this writing, among the first 50 results in a Google search for that question, the large majority are patently religious — mostly Christian, but with a few Mormon entries and at least one that looks Hindu. Christian commentators (e.g., Rolheiser, 2011; Sancto, 2012; A Catholic Thinker, 2012) often consider Pilate’s question ironic, insofar as he seems to have been expressing uncertainty about truth while looking directly at the one who claimed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

These insights suggest a characterization. “What is truth?” is a question that matters to many Christians because it highlights the contrast between their religion and the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition. In that tradition, someone like Pilate could (and perhaps Pilate did) snidely or sincerely allude to the complexity of philosophical truth, while completely missing the presence or possibility of religious truth.

Pilate, presumably not stupid, was able to miss the significance of Jesus (as portrayed in the New Testament), just as many Christians fail to understand various philosophical truths, because the alleged answer to the question of truth was not provided in an acceptable form. In that light, “What is truth?” points to the phenomenon, witnessed recently in the polarization of American politics, in which a given event can be interpreted in deeply incompatible ways, depending on one’s prior mental and emotional needs and commitments.

It could seem reasonable to respond to this state of affairs by striving for an open mind, freeing oneself from the distortion of those prior commitments. Unfortunately, while that may make sense from a secular perspective, it could be the exact opposite of what faith requires. In response to Thomas’s doubts (John 20:29), Jesus said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” The greatest faith, within this religion, may be that which is most extremely capable of disregarding or reinterpreting evidence, so as to conform with prior mental or emotional commitments.

From a secular perspective, that may seem like craziness. Playing games with reality is a good way to get hurt or killed — even more so when believers exult in their freedom to behave irrationally, by seeking out endless nonsensical sociopolitical perspectives that have little or nothing to do with faith. You can support the Bush Administration’s counterproductive wars; you can insist on keeping guns in your home as a political statement; you can fight against vaccines and taxes; you can claim expertise in climate science and other fields in which you have no training. But your faith does not require you do to any of that — if anything, it is directly opposed to most of it — and if you insist on looking for trouble, eventually you will find it.

It is neither considerate nor intelligent to behave as if you need not try to make sense to your neighbors. And yet one might say the same thing to the philosophers. At least the believers do have a relatively coherent response to “What is truth?” By contrast, among the results of my Google search, I found these words in the introduction to the Truth entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP, Glanzberg, 2013):

The problem of truth is in a way easy to state: what truths are, and what (if anything) makes them true. But this simple statement masks a great deal of controversy. Whether there is a metaphysical problem of truth at all, and if there is, what kind of theory might address it, are all standing issues in the theory of truth.

So, not a bad start, given 2,500 years to work on it. With religion as an obtrusively irrational counterpoint, it has been easy for the secular types to assume that they all agree on science as a superior alternative. Yet this is not so. Another SEP article (Oberheim, 2013) observes that Kuhn (1962) and Feyerabend (1962) were labeled “the worst enemies of science” because their philosophies supported doubts about the rationality of science. Oberheim says the sociology of science became a recognized discipline as a result of that challenge — and, again citing the SEP (Longino, 2015), research within that discipline has contended inter alia that “philosophical analyses of rationality, of evidence, of truth and knowledge, [are] irrelevant to understanding scientific knowledge.” Going further, Good (1999, p. 186) says that some views held by mainstream philosophers of science “have actually been serious hindrances” to the science of chemistry.

So the philosophers are not consistently on the same page with one another, much less agreeing en masse with the scientists. “What is truth?” thus leads us around to the suspicion that truth may be perceived in multiple ways, depending upon one’s perspective or purpose. And — as if to suggest that we might finally be approaching the actual state of affairs — that sympathy to multiple perspectives may irritate believers, scientists, and philosophers alike, insofar as all seem to think they know a lot about truth, and are prepared to explain it to me in detail.

If I had to venture a guess at this point, I might say that truth appears to begin with those statements that must be true, in order for a certain enterprise to proceed. For instance, you have to start by assuming certain things about Jesus, in order to proceed with the Christian project; and you have to assume things about language or the physical world, if you are to get anywhere in philosophy or science. The assumptions will seem well founded in some situations, less so in others; the assumptions of one project may seem much more solid than those of another; but their basis in reality typically becomes less of an issue, once you roll up your sleeves and get absorbed in the details of the project.

That seems to explain Balkin’s (2003) contention that “law creates truth” — that “[i]t makes things true in the eyes of the law. And when law makes things true in its own eyes, this has important consequences in the world.” For instance, what the law makes true regarding taxation is “not true and false from the standpoint of mathematics or natural science” but rather just “from the standpoint of law . . . in ways that matter to us.” The idea seems to be that you start with your own little corner of the world; you say and do things that seem true within that limited physical or mental space; and then, at some point, what you have been saying and doing begins to affect people and things outside of your sphere. As Balkin observes, that can become problematic:

As soon as law creates a category or an institutional structure, it is possible for things to become true or real in the eyes of the law whether or not they are judged true or real from another perspective– for example the standpoint of medical science, religious belief, or political philosophy. . . .

As in religion, philosophy, and science, Balkin observes that legal truth gives people “tools to think with” — “a way of understanding”:

When law “recognizes” a cause of action for sexual harassment, for example, it sees that such a thing exists as a legal wrong. At the moment the wrong becomes cognizable to the law, it becomes real to the law, whether or not it had been real to generations of individuals before that point.

Balkin suggests that other forms of knowledge, behaving in roughly similar fashion, include medicine, psychology, social science, and history. These ways of knowing can conflict because “truth and knowledge are shaped by institutional purposes.” For instance, to a doctor, a person who walks into a hospital’s emergency room is “a set of clinical problems to be tested, identified, diagnosed and cured” but, to a lawyer, that same person is “a potential tort suit.” Both perspectives may be correct, but they can be unrelated or even opposed to one another.

In words that also apply to religion, philosophy, and science, Belkin closes with these remarks:

Law’s construction of a social world and its development of the social imagination can do enormous good. But it always also has other effects. It always also serves other ends, including the empowerment of legal institutions and legal forms of thinking. . . .

My point is to focus on the ways in which legal concepts, legal thinking, and legal imagination colonize moral and ethical imagination. To do this, we must pay careful attention to the many ways in which . . . the moral imagination becomes ensnared by and held in servitude to the legal. Then the truth of law does not necessarily set us free. . . . Law’s power grows organically and relentlessly out of law’s colonization of social imagination.

With those words, “What is truth?” takes an ominous turn. No longer are we talking about a familiar conflict between the old antagonists, God and science, each comfortably sealed in its own self-congratulatory echo chamber. Now, much to the contrary, Belkin portrays truth as an aggressive, colonizing force, a weapon with which to take control of what people think and do. This characterization resonates: this is, after all, what religions and philosophies have always seemed to be hoping for.

In such a setting, the question may be whether truth is your friend — whether the world is actually better off when you or I think we can answer the question, “What is truth?” The image comes to mind of two theologians or lawyers, fighting for years on end, to advance their own firm convictions as to the only permissible outcome of some dispute. When people think they have the truth, they dig in their heels. They become angry; they become hardened. This, it seems, is where wars begin.

Yet there is, perhaps, a response to such concerns. This post adopts a God’s-eye metaposition, standing above the fray, critiquing claimants to the prize of Truth. These various special-purpose forms of truth — legal, religious, etc. — do not generally seem so wise and true as to justify ignoring other forms of truth. In other words, by writing about these perspectives, I have implicitly taken the view that these are all just pieces of the puzzle. The heretofore unstated claim is that, approached honestly, “What is truth?” ultimately drives us toward questions and adaptations, rather than answers and verities.

Pilate asked, “What is truth?” We don’t know what he meant by that. And that is fortunate. Because what he achieved, by leaving us in limbo, was to exemplify the nature of the question. The query pushes us to keep asking him, and each other: Why do you say that? What do you mean? If the scripture is to be our guide, in this case it guides us to keep thinking about religious people, like Jesus; and about philosophers, like the Greeks and Romans in whom Pilate may have been schooled; and about the political and legal and other influences at work, in that moment of Christ’s Passion.

Taking Ministry Seriously, with Humility

I started first grade in 1961, in a one-room elementary school just down the road from our home in rural Indiana, as the child of a housewife and a railroad worker. The teacher, and the preacher in the Lutheran church supporting that school, were the first professionals whose work became familiar to me. When Mr. Gemmer, the teacher, would ask the two dozen (or so) kids in our eight grades how many of us wanted to become teachers, a majority of hands went up. Mine was among them.

In 1967, the school closed and Mr. Gemmer went away. I finished my primary and secondary education in public schools. In the last two years of high school, I became involved in the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s. During my senior year especially, a group of perhaps 15 students, participating in our school’s prayer group, generated an environment of caring and companionship that I have never forgotten.

At times during my junior and/or senior year in high school, I taught Sunday School in the Lutheran church next door, worked as the president of that church’s youth group, and served as an office assistant to the minister, Rev. Hillmer. In my private religious practice at that time, I was studying the Bible intensively, memorizing substantial pieces of it verbatim, fasting (for one or more days at a stretch), speaking in tongues, praying at length, and wrestling with the real or imagined demons of the pentecostal worldview pervading our portion of the Christian life.

These experiences gave me a foundation of religious conviction as well as some minor exposure to leadership, in those roles as Bible teacher, informal prayer group leader, and elected leader of the youth group at the Lutheran church. Through my encounters with Rev. Hillmer, I began to see that it could make sense to pursue a career in the ministry. That was the basis on which I decided to attend college rather than just study my Bible and await the Second Coming of Christ, which I understood was imminent. In fall 1973, I became a pre-ministry student at Concordia Lutheran Junior College in Ann Arbor, MI.

In their work at that time and in years to come, Rev. Hillmer and Mr. Gemmer embodied the faith of the committed Christian. I did not find, in their Lutheran church, the drama and intensity of our prayer group and of other Christian worship and practice in the Jesus Movement. But there was no question of their sincerity and devotion to the Christian faith.

It appeared that such devotion likewise motivated many of the professors at Concordia. By contrast, my pre-ministerial classmates were more of a mixed bag. Some did go on to become ministers, but others visibly lacked the kind of personal religious commitment that would motivate them to be vigilant against the Devil and to strive to expel sinful thoughts and acts from their lives. Frankly, in some cases I saw no real difference between these would-be future ministers and the completely secular young people I had known in high school. For instance, I wasn’t surprised that a first-year college student would want to have a female student climbing in his window at night; I was just surprised that he would want to be enrolled in a conservative religious college, much less a pre-ministerial program.

My own future as a minister did not pan out, but for a different reason. What waylaid me was not the temptations of the rich life, but rather the intellectual problems of faith. As described in another post, I discovered that things I had been taught and/or had assumed about the Bible and about Truth were not necessarily so. Starting during my year at Concordia, and with increasing intensity over the next two years, I struggled, sometimes rather desperately, to find a way to continue in the faith or, if necessary, to be certain that leaving it was the right thing to do.

I was not always alone during those years, but that was an extraordinarily lonely experience. It seemed like nobody else among my acquaintances wrestled with this sort of thing. It was as if I were somehow required to endure my own version of what Martin Luther had endured more than 450 years earlier, when he rejected the religious orthodoxy of his time with the famous words, “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.” Luther’s drama might seem overblown to some; but in fact that moment, as much as any, heralded more than a hundred years of religious war that would rage across Europe.

As such, that moment may have more current relevance than meets the eye. Because — to move quickly through the subsequent years — what happened next in my own life was that I drifted some distance away from conservative Christian practice and belief. I became a philosophy major and then moved to New York City, married a Jewish woman, and became a lawyer. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, I watched scornfully as Christian conservatives confronted sex scandals in their midst, including adultery by famous ministers (e.g., Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker) and sexual abuse of minors, as well as fraud within churches. To me, such developments vindicated my hard-won realization that wanting to believe something does not make it so. If it’s not the cold, hard truth, then you have no business dragging God into it. He did not create your problems, and he is not likely to fix them for you.

I say that Martin Luther’s line in the sand has contemporary impact because now, in this U.S. presidential election season of fall 2016, we are seeing a quasi-religious confrontation among true believers reminiscent of Luther’s 16th century.

There was a time, in my years as a lawyer and, later, as a student of social work, when I could join liberal America in smug agreement with St. Paul’s words to the church in Corinth, “Few of you were wise in the world’s eyes . . . when God called you.” In other words, religious rigidity tends not to be very compatible with worldly concepts of intelligence; smart people tend to remain skeptical. My own experience persuaded me that people committed to finding truth will realize that the Bible is not what believers want it to be.

But I failed to take account of what happened next. Luther’s followers became as legalistic and dogmatic in their beliefs as the Catholics ever were — and now, as if to follow their example, liberal America has likewise departed from a commitment to truth, however unpleasant it may sometimes be, and is preferring instead to take a perverse pride in the sometimes destructive poses that it adopts on behalf of its self-appointed crusades. Like the Lutheran armies inflicting death on fellow Christians, supposedly in the name of a God of love, today’s liberal opinionmakers too often use their purportedly truth-oriented occupations — in academia, in journalism, and, yes, in liberal churches — to promote their preferred beliefs, distorting reality to win arguments. Such behavior recalls, all too clearly, the deplorable conservative habit of lying for the Lord.

In this 2016 presidential election season especially, I have been appalled at the supposedly educated liberals who evidently lack the capacity to think critically about their chosen dogma. In conversation after conversation, I have seen the kind of extremely partisan thinking that insists it is right every time, about every issue. That is not the mentality of a thoughtful person. And it comes out in public displays. Consider, for instance, the conflict between the New York Times‘s self-perception as a national “paper of record” and the palpable fact that the Times is grossly partisan, or the contrast between Hillary Clinton’s stated desire to bring Americans together and her claim that “you could put half of [Donald] Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.” Regardless of my own dislike for Donald Trump, these are not the behaviors of people who care enough about truth to have learned that it quickly departs from those who claim to own it. In the words of The Guardian (Mallaby, 2016), the privileged class “has never been so dangerously isolated from its surroundings . . . . its arrogance enhanced by the conviction that its privilege reflects brains and accomplishment, not luck and inheritance.”

Unfortunately, I have experienced this deadly liberal arrogance about the truth in my own life and career. In other blog posts, I have described, for instance, the corruption of procedures for fairly resolving grievances in the very heart of the liberal enterprise, in master’s and PhD programs at the universities of Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, and Arkansas. As documented in those linked webpages, the professors and administrators responsible for that corruption tend to prioritize other things over the truthseeking that society has traditionally expected from its intellectuals. Today’s university ambiance favors those who will readily sacrifice principle for self-advancement, so for the most part this corruption has become a de facto element of university ethics. In some cases, truth is disregarded, not only where it is inconvenient, but also where it would interfere with the gratification of power — with, that is, the latitude to abuse those who cannot protect themselves. Such sadism is perhaps most notorious in the university’s treatment of graduate students, but it also emerges in abuse of junior faculty and, in many ways, of the public trust.

To recap, earlier paragraphs in this post explain that I was dismayed to encounter instances of false faith among conservative Christian ministers, and these last several paragraphs explain that I have been, if anything, even more dismayed to see that false faith is rife among the alleged truths with which liberal Christians and nonbelievers confront the conservative believer. Yes, there are many problems with claims based on or implied by the words of the Bible. But, these days, those who claim to prioritize reason over faith are not championing a consistently superior worldview. Yes, to cite one example among many, they do far better with their medical machines than the believers do with prayer. But that is merely an argument that certain matters are best left to science. One can just as easily retort that other matters, including some very important ones (e.g., faithfulness; generosity; the richness of present-moment experience) tend to be better left to a worldview that does not glorify selfish individualism above all else — a worldview, that is, that prioritizes, not the corruptible pursuit of personal advancement, but rather an unselfish commitment to the well-being of one’s community or, possibly, the expectations of one’s God.

It is easy to assume that you know the truth and that others do not. But how can you be so sure? Those who have attempted the philosophical and/or psychological study of what we know, and how we can be sure we know it, are likely to affirm that such questions are vastly more difficult than one might expect. In fact, human beings tend not to have simple and clear knowledge of things. Learning this about oneself is essential, if one is to be well educated.

It is regrettable that colleges and universities are so frequently failing to introduce students to those fundamental insights. Their failure leaves us with the spectacle of this year’s election contest, in which Americans seem more partisan and less truthseeking than ever before — where one can observe, as just discussed, that the supposedly smarter and more reasonable liberals remain unable and/or unwilling to grasp and respond effectively to conservative concerns.

But even if the universities are no longer reliably able to teach students what truth is like, at least the schools of religion should do so. The person who claims to have the answers, thanks to his/her own liberal intellect or conservative interpretation of selected Bible passages — the person who simplemindedly rejects the knowledge, intelligence, experience, and sincerity of those who disagree with him/her — may lack a basic sense of perspective on the breadth and complexity of life. Such a person does not seem a likely candidate for a divine calling.

About Christians Losing the Culture War

I have recently encountered several articles in which Christian writers talk about losing the culture war. This post focuses on a prominent example: an article in Time by Mary Eberstadt titled “Regular Christians Are No Longer Welcome in American Culture.” Eberstadt is promoting her book and, as this post demonstrates, she peddles falsehoods to excite the persecution narrative and stimulate sales.

I felt that Eberstadt’s title started off a bit strangely. What, exactly, is a “regular Christian”? Her article said she was referring to “American Christians who lean in toward traditionalism,” and she immediately restated that as “Traditional American Christians.”

But what is “traditional”? The answer is, it depends. For example, according to History.com, Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams in 1636 as a religious sanctuary against “the orthodoxy of New England Puritanism.” It seems the Puritans were the original “traditional American Christians.” But a funny thing has happened since then: they have pretty much vanished, being remembered nowadays as just one source upon which other Christian denominations draw.

Today, Baptists and Catholics would surely be considered “traditional American Christians” — and yet these were actually among the nontraditional types rejected by the Puritans. In this regard, Eberstadt made the mistake, common in Christian writing, of ignoring the history of her own religion. What was traditional in the 1600s is gone now; what is traditional now will probably be gone some day. That’s how it works. We don’t speak Middle English anymore; we don’t live in log cabins. Times change. The Baptists and the Catholics found a place in New England precisely because someone spoke up for those who were not the traditional American Christians of that time and place — just as Jesus did for the outcasts of his day.

As just noted, Eberstadt implies that the “Traditional American Christian” is a person who “leans in toward traditionalism.” But that’s not necessarily true. The Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians — these are among today’s mainstream, traditional Christian denominations in the United States. But being a traditional American Christian in that sense does not necessarily make a person a traditionalist in daily life. Among the members of those denominations, you don’t see much interest in, say, a Mormon-style emphasis on modest, traditional clothing. Nor do the teachings of the mainstream denominations necessarily result in mainstream beliefs among their members. Churchgoers often say they listen to the sermon, but don’t necessarily agree with everything in it. Silver (2013) offers research on atheists who attend churches for reasons of family, social connections, and church-related activities. From the Lutherans to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christianity’s thousands (some say tens of thousands) of denominations and sects exist because of the fact dramatized in the “West Wing” TV show: people feel entitled to pick and choose Bible passages, emphasizing those they like, and ignoring (or inventing alternate interpretations for) those they dislike.

Eberstadt is herself an example of this nontraditionalism among people who might claim to be traditional Christians. According to Family Life (Rainey, 2002), Eberstadt’s role as a married woman is supposed to be as follows:

  1. Be a helper to your husband.
  2. Respect your husband.
  3. Love your husband.
  4. Submit to the leadership of your husband.

Supporting such conclusions, Family Life quotes numerous Bible passages, starting with Genesis 2:18, in which God’s stated purpose in creating woman was “to make a ‘helper suitable for'” the man. But that is a gentle way of putting it. Valerie Tarico cites the Bible as the foundation upon which traditional theologians described woman as “the devil’s gateway” (Tertullian) and “an instrument of death leading to all perdition” and that this is “why today she is placed below and that she bears within her ignominy and shame” (Calvin). Tarico further cites Bible passages stating that a wife is a man’s property; a daughter can be sold, and a raped daughter can be sold to her rapist; menstruating women are spiritually unclean; and so forth.

Eberstadt is no doubt a good person in many ways. But her concept of tradition depends on the selective, self-serving style of interpretation commonly taught in Bible study. One hopes that, somewhere in her writings, she has honestly admitted that, historically speaking, she is a liberal, not traditional at all — that, traditionally, she would not be voting, would not be telling men what to think, and would not have had an opportunity for higher education. She apparently wants to wrap herself in the mantle of tradition, without doing the hard work of actually returning to where tradition has historically kept women, in this country and elsewhere.

So I think what Eberstadt really means is not “traditional” but rather “conservative.” She doesn’t seem dedicated to a return to traditional ways. She just prefers a go-slow approach. And that is not necessarily bad. There will always be a tension between those who leap at opportunities and those who urge us to look before we leap. The leapers and the lookers can produce a beneficial balance. But this doesn’t make either superior. There are risks and advantages in both directions. Some people are rich or successful because they were careful; some are poor or unsuccessful for the same reason.

Conservatism is particularly interesting in Eberstadt’s “culture war” context. Let us be clear: Christians of her type are not suddenly losing a culture war. The more accurate statement is that they are always losing the culture war, because they are always fearfully clinging onto past ways, afraid of losing the advantages that they have enjoyed as established members of a dominant community, looking down on minorities and outsiders. Conservative churches are often depicted (and in many cases deserve to be depicted) as narrowminded, hypocritical, judgmental places where “our type” of people pat each other on the back for helping to preserve their own advantages and fantasies.

Slavery is an example. As conservatives — that is, usually following rather than leading social, political, and economic trends — Christians have a history of widely accepting and supporting slavery. As another example, for some reason, “Thou shalt not kill” has not resonated against the wars, murders, and other horrific crimes recorded in the Bible and practiced by Christians down through the centuries.

But, whoa, same-sex marriage! Now that is evil. More to the point, it is a new thing and, to a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, that tends to mean it’s probably bad. Again, it’s not that the knee-jerk conservative reaction is intrinsically wrong; it’s that many conservatives don’t seem to want to stop and think about their own habit of stopping and thinking. Let’s just pull the brakes on everything, and then be dragged into it anyway, kicking and screaming and feeling wronged. Consider the criteria by which Wheaton College decided who would be eligible to join its faculty in the 1920s (Cole, 2008, pp. 252-253):

To prospective instructors a questionnaire is submitted bearing such interrogations as . . . “Do you dance, play cards, attend theatres, attend movies, or associate with worldly people in other amusements such as are indicated above?”

We, today, might find this absolutely bizarre — that God forgot to put in the Bible that he did not want people to play solitaire or even watch movies about Jesus. And yet that was the conservative Christian mindset a hundred years ago — culminating in (among other things) the disastrous social experiment known as Prohibition. Not that anything was learned from that fiasco: conservatives needed to inflict it upon us again, once again at enormous cost to lives and nation, in the mindless War on Drugs. This is where conservatism becomes most dangerous: when it radically departs from tradition, in pursuit of a harsh and unrealistic dream.

Gay marriage is relatively new; we did not have it when the Constitution was written, 200+ years ago. But then, we did not have bicycles 200 years ago either. When the newfangled bicycle contraption did come into existence, it remained in the legal shadows: for seventy years, according to Wikipedia, cyclists were given “no legal right to use the roads or walkways.” In other words, the gay movement itself only started in the 1960s. We had gay people; we had marriage; we had gay people who wanted to marry. We just didn’t have a political environment in which that desire could be taken seriously. The question did not previously have political force. Now is the first time when it has become a real possibility on a national level. There is no golden past to go back to, other than the centuries when supposedly respectable Christians were comfortable with an arrangement in which gay people had to lie about who they were and what they wanted.

There is no legal right to force gays to endure a substandard existence. That’s what the courts have decided, now that the question has been squarely presented for consideration. But the more shocking fact is that there is no religious right to do that either. A growing number of mainline Christian denominations have concluded that the matter is not so simple. For one thing, if homosexuality were so terribly important, why would Jesus overlook it? In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said nary a word about homosexuality, but had strong words against adultery and divorce. Much the same is true throughout the Bible. So why aren’t Christians distinguishing themselves with a principled demand for laws forbidding adulterers or divorcees to remarry? Because that would be unpopular. Frankly speaking, it would cut too close to the collection plate.

Christianity purports to be following in Christ’s footsteps. But in fact it often does the opposite. Just like the Jews of Jesus’s time, so-called Christians like Eberstadt reject his concept of Messiah. In both cases, it was because he came as a savior, not as a conqueror. Specifically, Eberstadt wants victory in the cultural war. She cites abortion as an area in which Christians are losing. And yet what kind of “Christian” would be involved in such a struggle? Abortion was a reality in ancient Rome. Jesus himself was a survivor of Herod’s notorious Massacre of the Innocents. Jesus was eminently qualified and able to make abortion a big issue, if he considered it one. He didn’t. The abortion fight gets people upset and excited, but it doesn’t make them the least bit Christlike. Others have been trying to tell them this for the past forty years. But they just haven’t wanted to hear it. Being Christlike is not their priority; they would rather fight and attack people than seek the truth. And so we follow this twisted path to Eberstadt’s complaint about losing the culture war — to which the schoolyard retort is quite apt: if you can’t finish it, don’t start it. Stop inventing reasons to pick on people. Mind your own business. Or as Jesus put it, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

Eberstadt cites “school prayer” as another front on which today’s alleged Christians are losing the cultural war. Some want to force kids of all denominations to pray together in public schools. The underlying fantasy appears to be that most Americans are Christians and, as such, are apt to construe prayer in approximately the same way. If that fantasy had any truth to it, we would see those schoolkids’ Catholic and Protestant parents praying together in their churches. These people want to bully teachers and school administrators into achieving an ideal unity that they, themselves, do not even hope to achieve. And so Eberstadt would return us to the mindset of the Dark Ages: if you can’t persuade the Jews, Muslims, pagans, and agnostics through the strength of your ideas, then hammer them with the force of your laws. Forward to the Crusades!

Alternately, there is the quest for voluntary school prayer opportunities — “voluntary” in the sense that the kids will supposedly not be browbeaten into participating in it when, in point of fact, their parents are being forced to accept it. Once again, we have a muscular, coercive, conquering concept of Christian faith that involves shoving one’s beliefs down another person’s throat. It is more the mentality of the Spanish Inquisition than of the New Testament. People who are mindful of the religion’s history can plainly see that such efforts besmirch the name of the God who gets dragged into it. But people who are willing to see the religion’s history in that light are not likely to remain within it. The ones who are left seem, too often, to be those who don’t want to know the truth.

Eberstadt’s article contains a remarkable number of borderline and just plain false statements. An example of the latter: “Religious expression is under attack,” she says, because of recent events, “including the Supreme Court decision overruling Texas’ restrictions on abortion clinics.” That Supreme Court decision had nothing to do with religious expression. According to Fox News, conservatives criticized that decision on grounds that it “erodes States’ lawmaking authority to safeguard the health and safety of women and subjects more innocent life to being lost” (quoting Texas Governor Greg Abbott). There is not a single reference to “expression” in that Fox News writeup of the Supreme Court decision, nor in the writeup offered by the conservative Wall Street Journal.

Eberstadt complains that people like her can no longer count on receiving “civil criticism of people’s most-cherished beliefs.” That complaint is disingenuous. What are a Christian’s most-cherished beliefs? A search leads to such topics as the deity of Christ, his resurrection, and salvation by grace. Eberstadt’s article is not about anything of the sort. Instead, she offers the example of a teacher in New Jersey who was suspended for giving a student a Bible. She doesn’t mention that the act violated a school policy against distributing religious literature on school grounds. (If necessary, think “Koran” or “porn” or “hand grenade,” instead of “Bible,” to be reminded of why a school district might try to discourage teachers from creating unnecessary controversies involving middle-school students and their parents.) In other words, there are multiple problems with Eberstadt’s example: it’s not about uncivil remarks, nor about anyone’s “most-cherished beliefs”; it is not a deliberate suppression of Christianity (suspension would have been equally appropriate for an atheist teacher giving a student a leaflet attacking the Bible); and all of these facts are left unmentioned, in hopes of tricking Eberstadt’s reader into believing something that is not true.

Eberstadt wants to bemoan the disappearance of “civil criticism” among those who question her beliefs. Let me offer a clue: lying for the Lord is not going to promote the desired civility. She is jumping into combat on some of the nation’s most contentious issues; she is firing at the enemy — sometimes making statements that, as shown here, are downright nonsense — and then she is complaining that the enemy shoots back. If Eberstadt were to completely rewrite her piece in a spirit of Christian humility, with a visible commitment to be honest and fair in her remarks about her own beliefs and those of others, then (a) Time probably wouldn’t publish it, because it wouldn’t contain all this posturing on behalf of the self-styled righteous, and (b) on the other hand, readers not similarly minded might find it more difficult to dismiss her as one more phony self-congratulator.

Eberstadt admits the great difference between “the horrors of ISIS-led genocide against Christians in the Middle East and what Pope Francis calls the ‘polite persecution’ of believers in the West.” Regrettably, she goes on to muddle that with a complaint that “some American citizens are fearful of expressing their religious views.” Well, yes, and some people are fearful of leaving their bedrooms. The fact of fear does not demonstrate the existence of a genuine threat. When 63% of us are absolutely certain God exists and an overwhelming 77% describe themselves as religiously affiliated (to cite the numbers quoted in her article), it is doubtful that most American Christians experience anywhere near the persecution experienced by American atheists (~3% of Americans). Moreover, among Christians who do fear ridicule, some deserve it: to varying degrees Christians themselves ridicule others.

Simply put, Christian belief per se is not being widely persecuted, politely or otherwise. What Eberstadt characterizes as persecution seems, for the most part, to be just the logical elimination of theories that do not stand up to scrutiny. There certainly are reasons why an intelligent person would doubt Christianity. It has had its share of high-profile fakes and frauds. It makes excessive and false claims about itself. When your religion conflates its most solemn holy events with the Easter Bunny and with one of ancient Rome’s biggest party times, you can expect people to wonder whether it is for real.

Eberstadt offers a separate set of examples in support of her claim that “Some Christian institutions face pressure to conform to secularist ideology.” But that’s America. It is a secularist nation. We have never had a state religion. At times, the secular state and the religious preference are going to conflict. At those times, the secular state will tend to prevail, because the country does not exist to serve the religion. As a different example, some Jewish people treat the U.S. as if its purpose were to serve Israel. As with Eberstadt, their wish is not reality, nor should it be.

She offers the example of Gordon College, which came under fire for policies that seemed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. So, OK, let us review: you aren’t supposed to discriminate in America. We are all supposed to be equals here. Christians may not like it — they may want to shove the gays back into the dark — but fortunately their attitudes do not control the law of this land. Even so, on the particular issues in the Gordon case, a Christian lawyer’s analysis concludes that Gordon’s position has enjoyed the support of law, right up to the Supreme Court. That hardly points toward what Eberstadt decries as “an insidious intolerance for religion.” Another article suggests that, in fact, it is the school’s LGBT students “who feel they can’t say anything out of fear about what that will do to their college experience.”

In America, Christians have enjoyed virtually limitless opportunities to organize their practices, research their claims, market their views, and attack their opponents. After all that, if they still cannot achieve anything like the growing popularity of the first-century Christian movement that began with Jesus, it is fair to suggest that perhaps they are not really very much in touch with Jesus after all. In that case, Jesus made clear what he would say to such people: “I never knew you. Depart from me!” As the Matthew Henry commentary says about that,

Christ here shows that it will not be enough to own him for our Master, only in word and tongue. It is necessary to our happiness that we believe in Christ, that we repent of sin, that we live a holy life, that we love one another.

This article demonstrates the falsehood of arguments by which Mary Eberstadt tries to engage would-be Christians in fights that detract from the message of Christ. Replace people like Eberstadt with genuinely Christ-seeking writers who are committed to finding the truth, humble about what they know, and loving of others, and then let us revisit the questions of whether there is really a problem of religious intolerance in today’s America, and of whether followers of Christ should be jumping into a war to control the nation’s culture.

The Failure of Philosophy on the Big Questions

Philosophy is commonly associated with the big questions of life. For example, a Google search leads to a number of books, articles, and other materials linking philosophers with such questions. The question here is, does philosophy deserve that association?

What Are the Big Questions?

Granted, people may differ on what they consider most important at any moment. If your boat is sinking in the middle of the ocean, your big questions may include “Can we plug the hole?” and “Is there a life raft?” But under ordinary circumstances, lists of really grand questions in life tend to be short and similar, from one source to another. Here, for example, are the topics listed in the contents of a book by Solomon and Higgins (2013):

  • The meaning of life
  • God
  • The nature of reality
  • The search for the truth
  • Self
  • Freedom
  • Morality and the good life

Similarly, the table of contents from a book by Sample, Mills, and Sterba (2004) lists these as “the big questions”:

  • What can we know?
  • What can we know about the nature and existence of God?
  • Are we ever free?
  • Does our existence have a meaning or purpose?
  • How should we live?

Blackburn (2013) phrases similar concerns in somewhat different terms (and adds some that may be better answered by scientists than by philosophers):

  • Am I a ghost in a machine?
  • What is human nature?
  • Am I free?
  • What do we know?
  • Are we rational animals?
  • How can I lie to myself?
  • Is there such a thing as society?
  • Can we understand each other?
  • Can machines think?
  • Why be good?
  • Is it all relative?
  • Does time go by?
  • Why do things keep on keeping on?
  • Why is there something and not nothing?
  • What fills up space?
  • What is beauty?
  • Do we need God?
  • What is it all for?
  • What are my rights?
  • Is death to be feared?

There is not terribly much difference among those lists. A student, assigned to boil them down into the Top Ten Issues, might mention something like existence and nonexistence, reality and knowledge, consciousness and beauty, goodness and freedom, and God and the universe.

How Is Philosophy Doing on the Big Questions?

Imagine a world in which contemporary philosophers had arrived at answers to the big questions, and were effectively communicating those answers to the college students sitting in their classes. In such a world, the self-help sections in bookstores (and the self-help websites online) would probably be much fewer, smaller, and less popular. Religious nuts, spouting nonsense, would get nowhere with a public familiar with philosophy’s answers to the big questions. Politicians would be philosopher-kings, succeeding only to the extent that they could engage educated listeners with reasoned defenses of their preferred views on those questions.

Sad to say, the train went off the tracks somewhere. Self-help has long been a booming business. Religion and politics are the jokes that rule us. Hardly anybody thinks that philosophy, of the type taught in universities, has much relevance to the real world. Yes, a few times per century, some philosopher exerts far-reaching albeit gradual influence upon society; and yes, within other fields of knowledge, there is the occasional intellectual who understands philosophers’ insights, and applies them to his/her own work. But those are exceptions that prove the rule. There is an enormous contrast between what could be happening, as illustrated in those exceptions, and what is actually happening in the overwhelming bulk of philosophical study and writing.

As a practical matter, philosophers have long been pulling a bait-and-switch — holding out the promise of useful education, so as to get people to take their classes and buy their books, but then disappointing generation after generation of students with extremely complex texts that, very often, degenerate into hairsplitting trivia. Students can certainly pick up some ideas, and some familiarity with forms of intellectual debate, that may be useful in their future careers in other fields — although there are no guarantees, as philosophical discussion and reasoning can be very alien to the working world.

The point here is not that philosophy is a complete waste of time. It is that philosophy is a failure for purposes of providing answers to the big questions.

It is not that philosophers have not tried to answer the big questions. It is that, as we learn in philosophy class, every answer has its assumptions, its limits, its weaknesses. The real bait-and-switch is that, with few exceptions, those complex and trivial texts build to a single conclusion: there are not really any answers to the big questions. There are only unsatisfactory ways of attempting to provide such answers.

I do believe that that conclusion is correct — that the philosophers have not been lying to us, that for the most part there truly are no completely satisfactory answers to the big questions. Then again, that is precisely what someone like me would believe — someone who has followed the occasional philosophical debate far enough to arrive at the conclusions expressed in the preceding paragraph. With the aid of a bit of background reading, I, or someone like me, could probably poke holes in just about any big answer that someone might suggest. Persons with this kind of education tend to function as skeptics toward the very notion that there might actually be a useful answer to a big question.

Here’s an example. Take the first topic on the first of those three lists (above): the meaning of life. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “the meaning of life” says that that topic has interested philosophers since the time of Aristotle. But that entry also says that, somehow, “it is only in the last 30 years that debate with real depth has appeared.” How is that possible? Nor has that deeper contemporary debate led anywhere in particular. The encyclopedia entry suggests that — consistent with philosophy’s established track record — it has yielded, not answers, but rather more questions:

When the topic of the meaning of life comes up, people often pose one of two questions: “So, what is the meaning of life?” and “What are you talking about?”

The entry goes on to state that some people have debated the meaning of life’s “meaning” — but this, too, has not yielded definitive insight:

If talk about meaning in life is not by definition talk about happiness or rightness, then what is it about? There is as yet no consensus in the field.

In further discussion, the entry indicates that some philosophers ascribe meaning to life as it relates to God, while others prefer a sense of life’s meaning that relates in some way to one’s eternal soul. Still others focus on life’s meaning in non-supernatural terms, having to do with either the subjective individual perspective or something else, external to us, that confers meaning upon life regardless of subjective mental state. Finally, there are nihilist or pessimistic perspectives, in which “what would make a life meaningful either cannot obtain or as a matter of fact simply never does.”

So there you are. There, in a nutshell, is philosophy’s answer to the question of the meaning of life. The answer is, it depends on which philosopher you agree with. Very helpful. That and five dollars will get you a cup of coffee.

The true state of affairs is not that philosophy grapples with the big questions in a serious and responsible way. The true state of affairs is that, in the words of a New York Times article, philosophy suffers from “an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues.”

Certainly there are people who enjoy philosophizing for its own sake, sitting around and batting ideas back and forth. For that sort of person, big questions can actually be unrewarding, as they tend to involve messy combinations of fact and feeling. Indeed, most important questions in life are like that. When you have a real-life problem, you might entertain various abstract notions, but at the end of the day you need a practical answer.

Suppose, as a relatively simple example, that you’re trying to decide whether to adopt a child. That’s not one of the big questions. But it illustrates a kind of situation in which someone does have a burning need for an answer. It’s not something that you can futz around with for years, and in the end just shrug and say, “Well, I guess there are no absolutely right or wrong answers.” People who bring personal interest and immediate need to the big questions are not wanting someone to diddle them for a while. They are wanting workable conclusions to inform their lives. And the need can be urgent — in the case of someone who is losing his/her religion, for example; in the case of someone considering suicide, or struggling with deep personal loss.

Philosophy tends to provide everything except that sort of working conclusion. In that sense, the bait-and-switch description may not be quite right; perhaps the better characterization is that philosophy is a subterfuge, a means of identifying the people who are most likely to seek out and live by specific answers to big questions, and persuading them that it is silly or at least unrealistic to seek such answers. Philosophy is, indeed, a debilitating subterfuge, insofar as its study tends not even to equip the student with a sophisticated alternative. Most students will not clearly and permanently digest and remember what the philosophers have actually said on a specific question. Instead, what the students tend to retain is a general belief that there is probably some good reason why any attempted answer to such a question is flawed and should be ignored.

If the student ever does arrive at a point in life where s/he needs real answers to big questions, s/he is likely to be found in the self-help aisle, or looking into the words of various physical and social scientists or religious leaders — more or less as s/he would have done if s/he had never read a word of philosophy. In the works of those self-help, scientific, and religious writers, the student may encounter references to various philosophers, and may once again be reminded that philosophy claims to be at the root of the big questions; but for the most part such references will be historical in nature. They will be reminders that, if you want to pretend to wrestle with big questions, you should consider wasting a few years in philosophy classes.

Philosophy vs. Metaphilosophy

Philosophy used to be done by people like Plato and Aristotle, who would try to articulate relatively straightforward solutions to big questions. But then readers noticed problems with the way that Plato et al. formulated or answered such questions. Over time, it developed that reasoned approaches to grand philosophical questions were invariably problematic. There was always some devil lurking in the details. Thus philosophy became more of a historical affair, like the history of the Roman Empire or of ancient Christianity, in which the early deeds of great leaders gradually devolved into the baffled and increasingly ineffectual scrabblings of minor devotees. At a certain point, attempting to get an overview of all that material, you grasp that it is essentially a history lesson — and perhaps an unnecessarily complicated one at that — and you move on, in search of better alternatives.

We see, in other words, that philosophy as currently taught in college courses, and as conveyed in books about philosophy, is a largely bloodless affair, conducted by people with no skin in the game. Is there a God? Maybe, maybe not — but it’s not something that this sort of philosopher will lose any sleep over. It is an activity in which the dominant voice is that of the spectator, sitting back and watching what other people have tried to do, in their variously brilliant or foolish struggles with the big questions.

One could characterize such armchair philosophizing as “metaphilosophy.” Officially speaking, “meta” implies self-reference (i.e., about oneself). So — according to Wikipedia and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy — metaphilosophy is philosophizing about philosophy.

But the concept of metaphilosophy has drawn a lukewarm reception. Most philosophers seem to feel that meta questions (e.g., “what is the purpose of philosophy?”) are just a part of philosophy itself. And of course philosophers consider themselves qualified to decide what lies within the proper scope of their professional activities, as do other kinds of professionals (e.g., police officers, generals, prostitutes, politicians). Ironically, though, the claim to possess an accurate overall understanding of philosophy, sufficient to reject the label of metaphilosophy, is just what one would expect from a metaphilosopher.

It does not appear, in fact, that philosophers have a very good grasp of the proper scope of their profession. They have positioned themselves as experts in their field, but not as experts on public need. As experts within their own concept of expertise, they have presumed to dictate what the general public should find interesting, or what the general public should be able to understand. Such positioning amounts to elitism: we will speak to the more intelligent people (i.e., those who are more like us), and leave the others to fend for themselves. Certainly some concepts are difficult to understand. But leaving those unlike us to come up with their own beliefs is, in effect, leaving the door open to liars and quacks — and that, we have discovered, is a great way to undermine public support for philosophical inquiry.

While metaphilosophy is certainly not the ordinary word to describe philosophy professors’ everyday teaching and writing about philosophy, it does seem to be the appropriate word. There are real philosophers, who are motivated to resolve big questions with practicable answers that can make a difference in real lives; and then there are various historians, analysts, and teachers who are content to talk about what the real philosophers are trying to do. Traditionally, both groups are called “philosophers.” But that seems lame, for a profession so oriented toward detecting distinctions. We do not confuse football players with those who merely talk about football, or who record the history of its games. We do not confuse the people who study sex with the people who actually participate in it. Let us likewise cease to confuse philosophers with metaphilosophical teachers and historians.

This is not to deny that the garden-variety teacher of philosophy may consider him/herself — perhaps with good reason — to be a philosopher of the first rank, prevented by circumstance rather than lack of brilliance from changing the world with the things that s/he would publish, given time and funding. The line between direct philosophical practice and indirect metaphilosophizing may be vague, contested, and in flux. Nonetheless, there does seem to be the possibility of a useful distinction between the people, ideas, works, situations, or statements that seem to count as solution-focused engagements with the big questions, and those that do not.

In that light, one might look more carefully at the definition of philosophy. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary offers a contrast between, on one hand, “the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.” and, on the other hand, “a particular set of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.” or “a set of ideas about how to do something or how to live.” That contrast amounts to a difference between the general study of ideas offered by various philosophers down through the centuries, suitable for metaphilosophy, and the particular study of an identified set of ideas about a specific issue (e.g., a big question). The former is philosophizing about philosophy — adding the teacher’s or historian’s interpretation on top of what famous philosophers have said — while the latter is the actual practice thereof.

Reconceiving Philosophy as (Especially)
the Pursuit of Answers to Big Questions

It is possible to define teaching to include every instructive activity taken by every crow, dog, and human on the planet. But for purposes of people who are trying to educate small children, the definition of teaching quickly becomes much more narrowly conceived and closely monitored. The same is true of history: there is a difference between logging every random factoid (with or without commentary) and an attempt to provide a concise and readable explanation of what happened in, say, America’s war in Afghanistan. It is neither helpful nor appropriate to indulge the freedoms implied in the broad definition, when circumstances call for an outcome consistent with narrow application.

Likewise in the case of philosophy. The key question (above) is whether the putative philosopher is engaged in the particular study of an identified set of ideas about a big issue. As one moves away from that sort of thing, one appears increasingly likely to be engaged in metaphilosophy — in, that is, classical philosophy’s interminably indecisive dabbling in ideas about ideas, lacking commitment to delivery of working solutions within an appropriate timeframe.

One can belong to various groups; one can share interests with a wide variety of people. It will not be surprising, though, if a philosopher, vitally engaged in the study of a big question, has less in common with metaphilosophers in his/her university department, and more in common with poets, sociologists, and lawyers who have become engaged in some aspect of that same big question. In other words, “philosopher” will no doubt continue to be a term applied carelessly to anyone with a PhD in the field; but, again, for purposes of people seeking useful answers to big questions, there may be a world of difference between real philosophers and abstruse metaphilosophers.

If philosophy is reconceived as the focused pursuit of useful answers to big questions — spinning metaphilosophy off into, perhaps, a subgroup within the university’s departments of history or literature — then it immediately becomes somewhat less appropriate to adjudge philosophy, as a whole, to be a failure with respect to such questions. It also becomes clearer that it is OK if you have not mastered the classic philosophers. Instead, the question may be, how well is this or that contemporary philosopher doing, in his/her up-to-date struggles with the particular big question on which s/he is focused.

Assuming this reconceptualization of philosophy — along with a determined effort to present philosophical findings intelligibly — it could develop that, at some point in the future, philosophy will cease to be a failure with respect to the big questions. That is not to anticipate that philosophers will have all the answers, or that they will have magically ceased to reach conclusions rife with contradiction, error, and impracticality. It is just that, at such a time, their reconceptualized and more tightly focused discipline may at least have bridged part of the gap between what they do and what the world needs from them. Success in this regard may have arrived when the average person seeks guidance from a philosopher — rather than from a minister, astrologer, or self-appointed expert — because the philosopher’s guidance is more palpably based in a superior combination of science, experience, and reasoning, and less dependent upon random opinion.

Next Steps

This article has proposed a distinction between metaphilosophy (understood as the bloodless recounting or analysis of what various philosophers have said) and philosophy (understood as the immediate pursuit of conclusions on big questions within a realistic timeframe). That distinction does not imply that metaphilosophy is worthless. No doubt there are many purposes for which it is well suited. Among other things, the Internet offers tons of material on the history of philosophy, and of course there have been many books as well. Well-known examples include Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and Copleston’s History of Philosophy series.

Under the rubric of applied (a/k/a practical or popular) philosophy, one finds many (and potentially engaging) philosophical investigations of specific issues arising in the daily news. Such investigations span subjects ranging from health care to hate crimes. Here, again, such subjects can readily entail exploration of topics outside philosophy (e.g., law, in the case of hate crimes). One source distinguishes applied philosophy from accessible philosophy, where the latter consists of efforts to present the ideas and/or works of mainstream philosophers in more readily digested form. My own plain-English restatement of Plato’s Republic would be an example. Daniel Fincke and Brendan Myers offer related thoughts and materials. Philosophy Bites appears to be a recognized source of both applied and accessible philosophy.

Yet applied and accessible philosophy seem to be beside the point — the former, because it appears oriented toward small questions, not big ones; and the latter, because it appears to offer only a simplified route to understanding the ways in which philosophy has failed to reach useful conclusions on the big questions. In other words, the situation seems to be that (with or without accessible treatment) either we accept the rationality-based approach of western philosophy and its lack of convincing solutions, or we reject that approach and go with something else instead.

One rejectionist route is that of religion. Religious organizations and thinkers offer answers to big questions. These are not traditionally considered part of philosophy because they draw upon sources of alleged knowledge that are not open to rational analysis. For example, in Christianity, which has been the primary focus of debates on religion and philosophy in Western culture, key beliefs tend to require uncritical acceptance of unverifiable stories, presented in a scriptural book of mixed reliability.

Before turning to religion, the person seeking workable answers to big questions might consider adopting a single school of philosophy and making a go of it, warts and all — concluding (as one must also do in a religion) that the chosen philosophy has its difficulties and its quandaries, but is nonetheless time-tested and worthy for practical purposes. As a start in this direction, one might look at Wikipedia’s lists of Western and Eastern philosophical movements, along with Listverse’s list. Several of the items on those lists (e.g., existentialism, pragmatism, utilitarianism) appear capable of providing guiding principles sufficient to chart a course through many of the big questions. For instance, Koshal (2010, p. 105) construes Rorty’s pragmatism in these words: “[Pragmatism] maintains that unless we take something for granted we shall never settle any question . . . . The [propositions] we should rely on are those for which we have the most evidence for and little or none against.”

Where the chosen philosophy falls short, one might supplement it with eclectic selections from one or more other philosophies. A reasonable objective, in such an approach, might be, not to arrive at a single quasi-religious God’s-eye answer to all questions, but rather to develop conceptualizations that work and make sense for one’s own purposes. Unlike a religious approach, this objective would appear compatible with, and potentially open to, discussion with and learning from people who have adopted other philosophies.

As these suggestions imply, giving up on philosophy as a source of big answers does not necessarily entail giving up on philosophers as sources of good clues. Perhaps one’s personal philosophy is best developed inductively, starting with applied philosophical discussions of specific topics and allowing one’s reading and thinking to grow toward larger hunches and speculations.

It may turn out that there is not, and for the indefinite future there will not be, a single Bible-like compendium of definitive words, straightforwardly answering the big questions in terms satisfactory to a given reader. In that case, the point of this article might be that one need not therefore lurch to the opposite extreme. There may be strategies, oriented toward development of a working personal philosophy responsive to the big questions, that do not necessitate the undergraduate philosophy major’s bewildered stagger through a thicket of bickering eggheads. Ultimately, it is possible that a carefully reconceived profession of philosophy can succeed where today’s multifarious profession has failed.

An Inquiry into Open Source Religion

I was thinking about some things I had written on the subject of religion, and about other things I might write. I realized, of course, that much of what I would write had probably already been said by someone somewhere. As always, however, there was the problem of finding that material and, perhaps, of recognizing it when I did find it — because people sometimes conceptualize and express ideas in terms that other people find odd, until they come to understand the writer’s starting point.

Somewhere in this reverie, I thought of the phrase “open-source religion.” I wasn’t sure exactly what that would be about, or even if anyone had used the term. I think my general idea was that there might be something like a wiki, somewhere, where people would pitch in and contribute bits of information to build up a sort of religion-by-consensus. That seemed to be how open-source work had progressed in other areas, notably the development of software.

Some Open-Source Religion Websites

A search led to an impression that, in fact, people had divergent ideas of what open-source religion might be. First, a brief Wikipedia article seemed to indicate that there had been open-source efforts within specific religious traditions (e.g., Judaism, Wicca). Even within those relatively narrow boundaries, there appeared to be some divergence. For example, within the Jewish religion, the Open Siddur Project seemed to be oriented toward building a database of Jewish religious materials, while the Open Source Judaism initiative seemed to emphasize an open-ended approach to the questions of what Judaism was and what people might want to do with it, or how they might develop it.

Judging from that Wikipedia article, other open-source religious efforts were not necessarily based upon any pre-existing tradition, but sought instead to develop religious materials and views through group participation and consensus. One such effort, calling itself Yoism, welcomed me to “the way of yo.” The name seemed like a bit of a joke — which, as I thought about it, would not necessarily be bad, except if it turned off people who wanted or needed something with some weight to it. The Yo webpages had an annoying habit of loading audio files that I didn’t want to hear, as I clicked around on my way to Yo’s “ten sacred principles” and “7 main beliefs” and “5 pillars.” What I saw, in these travels, was not an obviously open-source, wiki-style project: I just saw someone’s recitation of their ideas, with space to add comments but, on most pages, few comments actually added.

The other main open-source project identified in that Wikipedia article was OpenSourceReligion.net. The Community page within OpenSourceReligion’s website boasted over 1,200 members. The Forums page identified over 1,300 discussions, but these appeared to be aging with very little traffic.

There was another initiative on the well-known Wikia website called YouReligionWiki, stating that its contents included “476 articles about religions formed by our contributors.” In their Religions page, it appeared that some had posted materials on existing religions (e.g., Hinduism) while others had invented new religions. As an example of the latter, The Cult of the Mighty R! (selected more or less at random) was described as being focused on “the basic ideas of rebellion and revolution.” It seemed to be a somewhat frivolous enterprise; one of its “basic rules to live by” was “Thou shalt not judgeth another, unlesseth thy wisheth to be bitch-slappethed.” The prevailing concept of “open-source” applied in this website seemed to be, not that people were working together to develop religious beliefs or principles, but just that a workspace was being provided within which people could post whatever they liked and call it a religion.

Another effort, using another well-known website (in this case, Wikibooks), offered a start on an Open Religion book. It appeared to be the work of just one person, offering a skeletal introduction. It appeared to me, at this point, that a wikibook might be the sort of thing I was looking for. On closer examination, however, I had second thoughts. At the very early stages, with as few as one contributor, a wikibook would not enjoy the structured protections available in, for example, a Wikipedia article. There could be vandalism; there could be shoddy work; there could be arguments that the absence of a user base would leave unresolved. It tentatively seemed that a better approach would be to work up at least a skeleton text in a more controlled environment, and move it to a wikibook if a user base did form.

Hinduism and Open-Source Religion

I had noticed a blog post titled “Hinduism: An Open Source Religion.” That was an interesting concept. As I read the writer’s explanation, I wondered whether his/her interpretation of Hinduism conformed with established understandings. Wikipedia quoted the Supreme Court of India:

Unlike other religions in the World, the Hindu religion does not claim any one Prophet, it does not worship any one God, it does not believe in any one philosophic concept, it does not follow any one act of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not satisfy the traditional features of a religion or creed. It is a way of life and nothing more.

Elaborating somewhat on this, an About.com article said,

There is no “one Hinduism”, and so it lacks any unified system of beliefs and ideas. Hinduism is a conglomerate of diverse beliefs and traditions, in which the prominent themes include:

  • Dharma (ethics and duties)
  • Samsara (rebirth)
  • Karma (right action)
  • Moksha (liberation from the cycle of Samsara)

It also believes in truth, honesty, non-violence, celibacy, cleanliness, contentment, prayers, austerity, perseverance, penance, and pious company.

Now, as a reader of the daily news, I was of the opinion that India, and many of its Hindus, were not in fact very good at nonviolence and such. I appreciated that Hinduism might have potential as an illustration of how an open-source religion could develop over time, and I suspected that a Hindu upbringing could facilitate flexibility toward diverse religious beliefs. But I also felt that nobody is holy — that everybody, whatever their background, would be capable of bringing some benefits and also some detriments to the development of an open-source religion.

Moreover, as an American ex-Protestant trained in law and somewhat exposed to Jewish culture, I was inclined to think that an attempt at open-source religion would want to remain open to discussion, debate, and refinement of one’s positions in light of new ideas. In this sense, I thought, the “open” within “open-source” could have a double meaning. Not only would one’s source code be open to inspection and revision, but also one would want to practice an attitude of openness.

In that spirit, I appreciated that Hinduism could indeed be viewed as in some ways an open-source sort of religion. It occurred to me in passing that Christianity could too, if one took account of the great variety of beliefs expressed by Christians of various conservative and liberal persuasions. Possibly spreading and internally inconsistent claims would be a tendency within any sufficiently large and old religion.

Structuring an Open-Source Religion

I recalled, from my childhood, that religions might condense their core beliefs into a catechism, defined as a book presenting a summary of a religion’s fundamental principles or beliefs, often in question-and-answer form. A bit of searching led, quickly enough, to catechisms of various religions, including Luther’s Small Catechism, versions (1 and 2, possibly identical in content) of the Catholic catechism, versions (1 and 2) for Hinduism, and versions (1 and 2) for Islam. These examples would barely scratch the surface of the world’s assortment of catechisms, but they seemed adequate for starting purposes.

Needless to say, such catechisms would differ radically on various points. But I suspected they, or other comparably brief summaries of various religions, would also agree on numerous points. For example, one Hindu catechism defined sin as “any action which intentionally causes suffering and pain to another being directly or indirectly,” and the Lutheran catechism indicated that sin included violation of the Ten Commandments, which could have the same effect.

It appeared that a catechism of an open-source religion (OSR) could present a primary or consensus view on a particular issue, and could offer supplementary elaborations to capture nuances of interest to various subgroups of followers. In the case of sin, for example, one might begin with references to harmful actions, offer a few examples, and then leave it to various people to add footnotes as they saw fit.

A search, and further browsing, led to many sources claiming to identify the key elements of a religion. It seemed that these authorities would not overrule Hinduism, for example: it would continue to be a religion even if its catechism lacked something that some expert considered essential. But it did seem reasonable to consult experts on what a religion should include. For present purposes, I decided to draw upon the descriptions of religion offered by Wikipedia, the Free Dictionary, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, an apparently influential law review article on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which promised freedom of “religion”) by Choper (1982), and the practical current interpretation of First Amendment law offered by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in Internal Revenue Manual 4.76.6 & 7.25.3 and IRS Publication 557. (No doubt there would be many other documents to consider for purposes of actually creating a religious organization.)

Beginning at perhaps the most abstract level, the Stanford encyclopedia identified a number of topics in the philosophy of religion, involving especially the existence and nature of God but also including Hick’s effort to synthesize religions. Unfortunately, I did not find this material particularly useful for present purposes. The Free Dictionary was closer to the mark, in a bare-bones way, with its indications that religion was variously defined as including belief in, reverence for, worship of, and/or obedience to a supernatural power or powers, or involving the cause, nature, or purpose of the universe; a way of life (in e.g., a religious order); observation of sacred rites and ceremonies; a set of beliefs based on the teachings of a spiritual leader; a moral code; and/or a formal or institutionalized expression of, or the set of people involved in, such beliefs or behaviors.

The Wikipedia article noted that religion had many definitions. It offered Buddhism as an example that might illustrate the reference, in the previous paragraph, to the nature of the universe, without requiring any deity; it added the topic of life after death; it mentioned the role of religion as a pervasive shaper of societies, and offered a further definition of religion as the full cultural reality emerging from behaviors mentioned above; it cited William James for a more individual and psychological concept of religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men” in relation to their concept of the divine. Wikipedia suggested that, perhaps because of religion’s role as a sphere of so-called intensive valuing or ultimate concern within the life of the believer, its adherents were typically not very swayed by scientific and philosophical arguments.

Choper’s law review article attempted, not to define religion per se, but only to try to account for the approaches that American courts have taken, or might take, toward the interpretation of laws that could affect freedom of religion. Choper said that, with relatively few exceptions (primarily for compelling public interests), the Amendment prohibited governmental impositions on or discrimination in favor of or against religious belief, conduct, or speech, including the nonverbal symbolic speech of religious ritual. Choper offered the example of a case protecting a worker from losing state unemployment compensation benefits after being fired for disobeying an employer’s order to work on the worker’s sabbath. For religions not postulating anything like the Christian God, Choper cited Supreme Court language focusing on “whether a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God.” Choper argued, however, that the foregoing idea of issues of “ultimate concern” was too broad to support constitutional protection — that people consider all sorts of patently nonreligious matters to be issues of ultimate personal concern — and thus a better measure would have to do with whether the government is trying to impose upon religious behavior in ways that are believed to have “extratemporal” (i.e., post-death, e.g., eternal) consequences.

Finally, I came to the concepts of religion indulged by the IRS. The IRS cared about religion because of the tax-exempt status accorded to religious organizations. Publication 557 (2013, p. 29) stated that the IRS used two guidelines to determine whether an organization was religious. First, its religious beliefs had to be “truly and sincerely held.” Second, its religious practices and rituals could not be illegal or contrary to public policy. Without researching the question in detail, I guessed that a religious organization indulging homicidal doctrines would fail the “public policy” test. Internal Revenue Manual 4.76.6 indicated that the organization would have to be organized and operated exclusively for religious purposes. These would apparently exclude commercial or business purposes and political activities. (See also IRS Publication 1828. For religious (e.g., monastic) orders, see Revenue Procedure 91-20.) Consistent with Choper’s remarks (above), Internal Revenue Manual 7.25.3 adopted this definition of religion: “A sincere and meaningful belief which occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God of those admittedly qualifying for the [tax] exemption.” The document further noted that a belief in a supreme being was not necessary for this purpose. In a somewhat unclear reference to a Supreme Court decision involving a conscientious objector to military service, the Manual said that religious beliefs could be found “If an individual deeply and sincerely holds beliefs that are purely ethical or moral in source and content but that nevertheless impose upon him a duty of conscience to refrain from participating in any war at any time.”


This post briefly explores the concept of open-source religion, as it appears in various websites. The post observes that Hinduism has been described as, or analogized to, open-source religion, insofar as Hinduism apparently incorporates a rangy and potentially incompatible panoply of materials and beliefs.

It did not appear that general-purpose attempts to form open-source religions had achieved critical mass. I wondered what sorts of principles an open-source religion (indeed, any religion) might have to develop, in order to gain general acceptability as a religion. It seemed that catechisms from various faiths, supplemented by other ideas of what constitutes a religion, might help to answer that question. A brief look into various materials produced a collection of topics that one might take into account, for purposes of formulating the outline of a religion.

Armed with those materials, I decided to develop such an outline. The result will appear in a separate post.

Dominant Religions in the Best and Worst States in the U.S.

I was interested in differences between the best and worst American states. This post reports on one dimension of those differences, having to do with religion. (A companion post reports on race and ethnicity.)

First, to identify the states in question, I ran searches for best-run states, best governed or administered states, and simply best states. For 2013, these and related searches led me toward two widely cited rankings. One was the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. Its findings were based solely on self-reports by interviewed individuals. The other was the 24/7 Wall St. Index, which added survey and observational data going beyond the well-being focus of the Gallup-Healthways research.

The general drift of the Gallup-Healthways study is illustrated visually in this map, which depicts the results of another study, in which the Commonwealth Fund examined state healthcare systems:


Given the financial orientation of the 24/7 Wall St. Index, and divergent opinions on the importance of money, it seemed best to try to draw upon both the 24/7 Wall St. and the Gallup-Healthways state rankings. To do that, I listed the state-by-state rank numbers reported by each of these two sources, and then calculated the difference between them. Thus, as shown in the last column of the following table, 24/7 Wall St. and Gallup-Healthways did not differ at all regarding the relative rank of North Dakota, but they differed greatly in the case of California.

State 24/7 Wall St. Rank Gallup-Healthways Rank Difference
ND 1 1 0
VT 6 6 0
NE 4 3 1
MI 35 37 2
MN 7 4 3
WA 12 9 3
NC 29 32 3
LA 44 41 3
NY 39 35 4
SC 42 38 4
MA 18 13 5
MD 24 18 6
IA 3 10 7
UT 5 12 7
SD 9 2 7
WI 21 14 7
GA 34 27 7
FL 37 30 7
AL 40 47 7
AK 8 16 8
OR 17 25 8
RI 47 39 8
KS 11 20 9
ID 20 29 9
PA 27 36 9
OK 33 42 9
VA 14 24 10
MT 15 5 10
CT 41 31 10
TX 10 21 11
KY 38 49 11
MS 36 48 12
AR 32 45 13
HI 22 8 14
NH 25 11 14
DE 13 28 15
MO 28 43 15
ME 30 15 15
NM 49 33 16
OH 26 46 20
NJ 43 23 20
NV 46 26 20
IN 19 40 21
CO 31 7 24
AZ 45 19 26
IL 48 22 26
WV 23 50 27
TN 16 44 28
WY 2 34 32
CA 50 17 33

That is, the Gallup-Healthways and 24/7 Wall St. research took very different views of the states at the bottom of that list. I was not going to research those states in detail, so as to arbitrate between these two sources. Instead, I decided to focus on the states where those two sources were in less extreme disagreement.

In the interests of getting a good representation of states that appeared at the high and low ends of both scales, and in various regions of the U.S., I went down the preceding list and drew the line at Nevada. That gave me a set of 42 states, rather than the original 50. For those 42 states, I calculated the average of the Gallup-Healthways and 24/7 Wall St. scores. Then I ranked those 42 states by that average score:

State 24/7 Wall St. Rank Gallup-Healthways Rank Average Rank
ND 1 1 1 1
NE 4 3 3.5 2
MN 7 4 5.5 3
SD 9 2 5.5 3
VT 6 6 6 5
IA 3 10 6.5 6
UT 5 12 8.5 7
MT 15 5 10 8
WA 12 9 10.5 9
AK 8 16 12 10
HI 22 8 15 11
MA 18 13 15.5 12
KS 11 20 15.5 12
TX 10 21 15.5 12
WI 21 14 17.5 15
NH 25 11 18 16
VA 14 24 19 17
DE 13 28 20.5 18
MD 24 18 21 19
OR 17 25 21 19
ME 30 15 22.5 21
ID 20 29 24.5 22
NC 29 32 30.5 23
GA 34 27 30.5 23
PA 27 36 31.5 25
NJ 43 23 33 26
FL 37 30 33.5 27
MO 28 43 35.5 28
MI 35 37 36 29
CT 41 31 36 29
OH 26 46 36 29
NV 46 26 36 29
NY 39 35 37 33
OK 33 42 37.5 34
AR 32 45 38.5 35
SC 42 38 40 36
NM 49 33 41 37
MS 36 48 42 38
LA 44 41 42.5 39
RI 47 39 43 40
AL 40 47 43.5 41
KY 38 49 43.5 41

Next, I compared this composite state ranking against dominant religion. From the immediately preceding table, I took the top 10 and the bottom 10 states and wrote their rank numbers onto this map from the 2010 U.S. Religion Census:

2010 U.S. Religion Census

For instance, there is a 41 on Alabama and a 41 on Kentucky because, of the 42 states shown on the immediately preceding table, they tied for last (i.e., 41st/42nd) place.

That enumerated map provoked several thoughts. First, it appeared that Mormonism had been good for Utah. This was not entirely clear: there was great disagreement, between those two data sources, as to the desirability of Wyoming, another heavily Mormon state, and the sources agreed that Idaho was in the middle of the pack. It was difficult to say more, because my sources were also in great disagreement as to California, Nevada, Colorado, and Arizona.

It also appeared that Catholicism was not necessarily a good predictor, given the good showings of Montana and Washington and the bad showings of much of the Northeast. Location may have been a confounding factor there: except for three small states in New England, no state on the East Coast achieved the top 40% of the composite ranking.

Probably the most visible aspect of the religion map (above) is the contrast between the Lutheran states of the upper Midwest and the Southern Baptist states. Every state in which the Evangelical Lutheran Church maintains a substantial presence falls into the top ten in the composite ranking, whereas not one of the states in which the Southern Baptist Convention maintains a substantial presence made it into the top ten. Indeed, except for Texas and Virginia — both of which display substantial non-Baptist influence — every Southern Baptist state landed in the bottom half of the list.

But perhaps that is merely coincidental. How important is religion, for inhabitants of these various states: what kind of influence do these denominations exert? A PewResearch study in 2008 indicated that, except for Utah, Southern Baptist states accounted for every state in which at least 50% of residents said they attended church at least once a week. By contrast, in the top-ranked north-central states, claimed attendance rates ranged from 47% in Nebraska down to 38% in Minnesota. The Pew study further found that, in most Southern Baptist states, between 66% and 82% of residents said that religion was very important in their lives, and that they prayed every day, whereas in the Lutheran states the percentages saying similar things ranged between 51% and 58%.

These findings suggested that the two different denominations might play different roles in believers’ lives. For one thing, there is the contradiction between New Testament passages emphasizing the continued importance of the Mosaic law and those indicating that believers are freed from that law. On that issue, Southern Baptists come down in favor of the law. Thus the South seems to be forever generating controversies involving the erection of Ten Commandment sculptures in public places. In other ways as well, Southern Baptist beliefs seem to emphasize control over individuals by authority figures: women are subordinate to men, and may not be ministers; God prohibits abortion, some forms of birth control, and many forms of sexual behavior; there is a need for an infallible written guidebook to life, and the Bible is it. By contrast, Evangelical Lutherans, like most mainstream Protestant denominations, take less simplistic and generally less condemnatory stances on a variety of issues.

There is also a potential difference between the Evangelical Lutherans and the Southern Baptists on the nature of piety. As suggested by personal experience and by the foregoing PewResearch findings, Southern Baptist belief tends to emphasize the constant immediacy of God’s presence and activity in the believer’s life. Given life’s persistent and recurrent reminders that, in fact, God does not seem to be doing very much along these lines, either for the individual believer or for the state in which s/he resides, this tends to be magical thinking. As an occasional lottery player, I sympathize with the never-say-die, hope-springs-eternal mindset in which God is always just around the corner, almost ready to play his hand. But the net result is debilitating. It substitutes a massive, unknowable divine plan for the personal believer’s disciplined focus and persistent effort to achieve desired outcomes. Leaving it in God’s hands, as Baptist-style fundamentalists often proclaim they are doing, can amount to mere laziness or defeatism. In other words, a claimed devotion to God in one’s daily life may not be that at all.

Those remarks raise, in turn, the problem of accountability. Magical thinking seems to entail the endless generation of excuses for the palpable contrast between a religion’s claims and its realities. In particular, as a search readily indicates, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has been plagued by hypocritical contrasts between the denomination’s rule-oriented claims and its rule-breaking behaviors. It is not just the high-profile cases, such as the supposedly taboo divorces among leading SBC preachers and the alleged frequency of sex abuse by SBC clergy; it is also the fact of bad behaviors among SBC believers — worse, sometimes, than among the supposedly ungodly general public — in such areas as divorce and premarital sex. It would be an understatement to observe that this denomination has been more driven by wishful thinking than by data — except in one area: membership. Confronted by the reality of a shrinking membership, in 1995 the SBC finally decided it was time to admit its historical role as a supporter of slavery, and to welcome blacks into the church.

This brief look suggests, in short, that perhaps it is not so much the fact of religion, as it is the form of religion, that influences whether a particular state will be among those going forward or backward. Some might suggest that this look at the matter is flawed by its reliance upon secular values prioritized by researchers, but it is not clear that the views of believers and researchers are terribly different, in such matters as life expectancy and criminal behavior; nor can one easily discount research based on participants’ own assessments of their personal well-being.

Religion and Politics: Further Ahead by Losing

One time, I was fighting traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel, heading into Manhattan.  I saw an opening and jumped into it.  Another driver felt that this move wronged him.  He pulled up next to me on my right side, yelling and threatening.  I pointed off to the right, past him.  He ignored my gesture and kept yelling.  I pointed again.  Eventually, he looked.  So finally he saw that the lane off to his right was completely clear.  He was so busy worrying about me that he had overlooked a wide-open opportunity.  Instead of being so eager to get stuck where I was, he could have been long gone.

That’s how it is, sometimes, when talking to people about religion and politics.  They get so concerned about winning every battle that they set themselves up to lose the war.  Everybody has to be right about everything, all the time.  But if that’s how it has to be, when are we going to get a chance to make some mistakes, so that we can learn something?

This question comes to mind when I think about evangelical Christians in American politics.  The classic example:  why does Mississippi vote Republican?  You’ve got a state full of people who are dependent on Medicare and other governmental programs, and they consistently vote for politicians who strive to reduce if not eliminate such programs.

The answer seems to be that the very religious voters of Mississippi see the Republican Party as the party of God, and they see it that way for social rather than economic reasons.  In their view, God does not worry about money nearly as much as he worries about abortion and gay rights.  Mississippi voters are going to save those fetuses.  That is the call of God.  Providing postnatal healthcare for them and their mothers is not.

Many consider this to be the kind of thinking that one should expect from the least literate state in the union.  The blunt word is “stupid.”  But I would emphasize a different word:  “proud.”  I would say this is the thinking of the arrogant.  The voters of Mississippi think they know a Truth that others cannot see.

That belief would be understandable if God had plainly said, in the Bible, “protect those fetuses” and “support the Republicans.”  He did not.  The preoccupations with fetuses and Republicanism are due entirely to interpretations that not all Bible readers share.  The illiterate are telling the literate how to construe a text.  Arrogance seems like a good word for this.

Of course, Mississippi’s preachers are not illiterate.  Ultimately, though, they are not the ones with the power.  It is the individuals in the pews who elect the politicians and choose the ministers.  It is they, relatively unskilled in textual interpretation, who know what they want the ministers to say.  We have, in other words, a tail wagging a dog.

The idea seems to be that God has revealed himself to the people of Mississippi, and that they can therefore disregard common sense.  It is no surprise that a state such as this would be dead last in health, poverty, and other social indicators.  There’s probably a story that would make that sound like the work of the God who gave his people a land of milk and honey, and there are may be many who are eager to believe such a tale.

It would be one thing if Mississippi had some rational basis for concluding that its eccentric path were the right one.  But when a state’s people reach the very bottom of the barrel, and respond by striving persistently to stay there, one must wonder whether the result is due to emotion rather than intellect.  It seems that it might be a situation in which a person makes a terrible mistake, and then tries to save face by pretending that this was exactly what s/he intended to do.

Sometimes, as in my Lincoln Tunnel story, people will become preoccupied with fighting, instead of being smart and moving ahead.  It could be embarrassing for Mississippi’s believers, and their ministers, to smell the coffee – to wake up and realize that they have been screwing themselves for decades.  It may be emotionally more tolerable to keep insisting that they were right all along, even as things keep getting worse.

The message to Mississippi is really a message to fundamentalists in every religion.  God has not spoken to you.  You may like to believe he has.  But we know you by your fruits – including those that you conceal or conveniently overlook.  You are as human as the rest of us – no more, no less.  You make mistakes as often as the rest of us do.  And in the case at hand, the people of Mississippi have made some serious mistakes in their mixing of religion and politics, just as the rest of us have done in various ways, at various times.

The question is not whether mistakes have been made.  The question is whether a person is going to learn from them.

In a sense, this post is about the ethical restraint of fundamentalist self-righteousness.  No cause or principle is a law unto itself.  Virtues tend to be counteracted by other virtues.  For instance, justice is important, but so is mercy.  Truth is important, but so is humility.

Virtues do strive for supremacy.  The person preoccupied with truth may think that nothing else matters.  Ironically, such a belief tends to be false.  The reason is that life is complex.  There are always many things going on, on multiple levels.  It is tempting to get on a roll – to treat one virtue as supreme, and to flatter oneself on one’s superiority in that regard.  For instance, a person might like to believe that s/he is more honest than others.  That is the path of arrogance and, at the same time, of ignorance.  Even in that one virtue, we are usually not as admirable as we may wish to believe.  We are less likely to go astray, with an overemphasis on one virtue, when we keep other virtues in mind.

The point is not that virtues overrule the text of the Bible.  They probably do, for people who entertain reasonable doubts.  But even the Bible-believing Christian must recognize the attention given, in that text, to competing virtues.  Jesus provides a number of examples in his complex remarks about law and gospel.  The Bible contains many calls to prioritize competing virtues.  Do this, but also do that.

A crusade that glorifies one principle above all others is very likely to conflict with biblical guidance in multiple ways.  Crusades can be emotionally gratifying, but they tend to result in a great deal of non-Christlike behavior and unanticipated collateral damage.

The people of Mississippi would benefit from greater humility about what they know, and what they do not know.  I recommend curiosity, including a willingness to question what people tell us on either side of an issue.  That is not always the right path.  But it tends to reduce the urge to proclaim one’s rightness in every battle, to the point of precluding actual learning.

Life and The Afterlife

Apparently the purpose of life is to perpetuate life.

At first, that may not seem like much of a purpose.  It becomes more interesting when you dress it up.  Living things don’t just want to live.  Once they’ve achieved that toehold, they want more.  The “life” that living things (humans, in particular) want to perpetuate comes to include not only food, water, shelter, sleep, and reproduction, but also good sex, love, fine food, righteousness, and double-pane insulating windows.

In fact, the “life” that people want to perpetuate can become conditioned by experience.  If survival is all you’ve ever had, you’ll probably settle for perpetuating that.  But if you’ve experienced fantastic circumstances, and are then rudely pared back to loneliness, pointlessness, rejection, or other adverse mental states, you may be tempted to kill yourself, and some actually will – even if they still enjoy food, shelter, and other basic needs far above the average.

People generally want to stay alive as long as their present experience is at least as good as what they had before.  Not everybody believes in progress, and not everyone who believes in it can have it.  Moreover, what looks like progress may not really be.  Just holding your own, breaking even, can be good enough.  Not fantastic, possibly disappointing, but tolerable.  The life that people perpetuate can be like a seed:  just keeping on, without much change, for years and even centuries – but always being ready to burst forth into much more, when circumstances permit.

The other side of it, just noted, is that signs of weakness in this life project can trigger harsh internal and external forces designed to get you out of the way.  Along with your own self-critical and possibly self-destructive responses to failure, others who see you as a loser will often exclude you or drive you away, or will ridicule or otherwise try to get you to remove yourself.  At best, if you are not in the mainstream of the drive forward, you are likely to be ignored.  Such outcomes may not unfold within all families, neighborhoods, or cultures; but the larger trend over time favors those who succeed – who stay attractive, relevant, and on top.

The purpose of life is to perpetuate life, then, where “life” is defined as status quo plus.  You’ve got to at least hold it together, and if you really want to be protected against the harsher elements of life you may also need to be moving forward.  In some settings you hardly dare to slip at all; in others, you can halfway fall apart, before someone or something catches you and gobbles you up.  Sometimes “slipping” itself consists of not moving forward fast enough, but you get the basic idea.

So when I say that life is defined as status quo plus, I mean that half of the picture is the seedlike propensity for self-preservation and potential growth; the other half is this efficient elimination of unproductive resources, so as to focus the life project on the most promising candidates.  Most get to experience at least a bit of the upside; all eventually experience the downside.

You could say that death is status quo minus.  Just as the consummate life experience is to have everything going your way, to be enjoying the best that life can offer, so also the consummate death experience is to reach the complete opposite, the cessation of anything resembling life.  At any given moment, some physical or nonphysical parts of you are growing, toward a more perfect form of life, while others have died or are becoming more dead.  In this sense, life and death are processes, engaged in a constant give-and-take.

Death is essentially life’s partner in the process of distinguishing what’s working from what’s not.  A person, a part of a person, a way of thinking – all of these things are constantly susceptible to change, be it net improvement or deterioration.  Death is a way of keeping things tidy.  It helps life to shift resources toward those most able to use them.  Debilitation and death for some facilitate life and growth for others.

Death is life’s antithesis, in the limited sense of pulling in the opposite direction.  But at least life and death are on the same page.  They interact, as just described; they make sense because of one another.  You have to have life in order to have death.  On a different level, however, there is something opposite to both life and death:  nonexistence, or barrenness, where something never did live in the first place.  An example would be the children of a girl who died at the age of seven:  such children could never die because they were never born.  In sporting terms, the difference between death and barrenness is that death is the opposing team, from which life’s team is trying to capture territory on the playing field, while barrenness is the universe outside of the playing field.

Many people talk about life after death, but that is a confusing concept.  Few seriously believe in any such thing:  they fight against death as determinedly as anyone else, they mourn their dead the same as everyone else, they seem to have only a dim idea of what a life without death would be like.  They are not clear on whether the person who would experience this afterlife would be me at age 15, or age 40, or age 85 – would I get to choose a self that I prefer, or will I have to accept what they give me? – or what would happen to those who died on their first day of life, or whose brains were never properly formed or that were injured or became diseased during life.

People who speculate about an afterlife may be able to imagine things that would keep them busy in such an existence for ten years, or 50, or even 500.  But human experience suggests that no pleasure is going to endure forever – that people will eventually want to break out and do some traveling, even from Heaven.  No matter how vast it is, at some point they will find the border and want to cross it.  That is the very nature of life:  to keep striving, growing, grasping.  If crossing the border is not possible, then many people in the afterlife may eventually wish to go to sleep, indeed to be unconscious, for centuries on end.  No matter what the vision may be, a million years of any experiences are likely to get boring.

The force of life – to keep growing and thriving – makes us want to believe that its energies can continue forever.  It inclines us to believe in an afterlife, where we can live forever and can enjoy the best of life.  Dogs dream of things that are not; even the cockroach indulges the hope that I will not switch on the light and catch him in the wrong place.  The inclination to invent an afterlife does not prove it is false.  There may be such an existence; in fact, the force of life may itself be designed to point us toward it.  But there are certainly grounds for doubt.

In this life, the afterlife is little more than a rumor.  That hasn’t prevented its believers from killing those who deny it.  To stop the killing, we would need for the afterlife to become more like Kansas:  maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but indisputably there.  We don’t have that kind of knowledge, and apparently never will, not in this lifetime.  If there is an afterlife, it is evidently so alien that word from there cannot reach us – or, to the same effect, maybe it reaches us constantly, but in a form we cannot perceive.  Or perhaps the gods who created it, or the people who have gone there before us, have their own reasons for declining to communicate with us about it.

In our ignorance of the afterlife, we have been left with religions that make extraordinary decisions about life and people.  More than one religion has decided, for example, that horrible people with odd beliefs will fare better, in the afterlife, than wonderful, honest, sensible people.  Some are quite certain that animals with personalities and character qualities superior to those of some humans will be excluded.  As in other regards, religions are inclined to invent stories about such things, and to insist on their truth, even when such stories go beyond nonsense to hatred and horror.

The invention and/or embellishment of an afterlife tends to suffer from a key defect:  people are tempted to extrapolate from the known to the unknown.  We have a life; therefore, whatever comes next must be something like it.  We will have inequality, as some fare better than others; we will have punishments and pain, and rewards and pleasures; we will have God or gods or other beings as our rulers and subordinates.  This apparent extrapolation does not prove that the afterlife is not as promised.  But, again, without Kansas-like reality, this tends to look like nothing more than an arbitrary compilation of interpretations from preferred passages within scriptures that cannot and do not possess, or even claim, divine authority.

There is the possibility that the afterlife is not an invention based on this life, but rather that this life is a copy, possibly corrupt, of what comes afterwards.  Either way, though, it seems odd to guess that the gods or other forces creating and shaping these two realms, before and after death, would tend to make them similar.  Death seems, to the contrary, to be a wall firmly dividing them.  Our bodies go away; all traces of us eventually vanish.  What, within this reality, would support a hypothesis that this life and the afterlife are similar?

The more likely view is that, if there is an afterlife, it must be extraordinarily different from this life.  Indeed, it probably entails a substantial rejection of what this life is about.  It would have to, or else it would make no sense unless it had its own form of death, separating it from yet another afterlife.

That becomes clearer when you think about what life is.  With all due regard to those who occupy privileged or protected conditions, life is overwhelmingly not a placid, sweet state that could be simply amplified into a lovely afterlife.  To the contrary, life is a restless, struggling force.  It does not know when to quit.  People to whom life grants an excess of money, social support, power, or other resources tend to keep right on going — acquiring more, spreading their tentacles, corrupting and killing to suit their whims, becoming ever uglier as they age.  Growth promotes growths; the healthy cell becomes a cancer.

To the extent that life is beautiful, what keeps it that way is death, that trimming force that ultimately excises even the most horrendous malignancy.  Death helps life to pose as a sphere of glorious, positive achievements.  The observer, taken in by the charade, naturally wishes that such things could continue forever, becoming ever more splendid versions of themselves. We want, eternally, to enjoy the thrill of overcoming our limits and defeating our adversaries, to rear children and grandchildren to the nth degree, to sleep blissful sleep, to enjoy perfect afternoons without end.

Yet humans are not equipped to handle an eternal life with enormous resources.  The closest we can get may be fantasy (e.g., book- or computer-generated) experiences that provide a sense of the possibilities without too much attention to the implications.  Heaven becomes less winsome if we visualize it as a place overrun with disgusting growths spurting endlessly from grotesquely undisciplined life forms.

It seems, in other words, that life after death must also be life after life:  it must be very unlike life as we know it.  By definition, it lacks a disciplining struggle against death.  We seem to be talking, rather, of something opposed to living existence, right down to the level of forgetting or dismissing the things that seem important in this world.  Using the former analogy, this story cannot develop on the playing field, but must rather unfold up in the bleachers of nonexistence, with the infinitely many things that have never been.  What that means – if it can mean anything at all – is a mystery, and apparently it shall so remain, for us, at least until our dying breath.

The afterlife, particularly in the Christian sense, is a fairly obvious counterpart to the old notions of the Earth as the center of the universe, surrounded by a sphere in which the stars moved.  The demise of this discredited cosmology takes, with it, the notion of ourselves as the main attraction in an afterlife.  We may simply cease to exist forever, at death, or we may go into some unknown form of existence, awareness, or participation in something larger.  Again, either way, we are perhaps well advised to expect something other than a simpleminded perpetuation of life in its best forms, shorn of its worst.  This point becomes more compelling as one considers in more detail what life is.

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As always, if you find this post interesting, please comment and/or click the “like” button.  Note that this post consolidates 1 2 3 4 5 earlier posts in another blog.

How I Came to Be an Ex-Christian


The End Times
Lying for the Lord
A Christian College
A Crisis of Faith
Give Away All That You Possess



I was raised and confirmed in the conservative Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in northern Indiana. This is not to say I was an exceptionally good child. I was probably more profane than most, got in more trouble than many, and fought many a Sunday morning battle with Mom over whether I had to go to church, the equivalent of a city block away from our rural home. Religion was not a subject a person would ordinarily talk about. It felt awkward.

In the summer of 1971, after my sophomore year of high school, I started reading the Psalms in the Bible, and continued into the book of Proverbs. I’m not sure why. I had heard of Jesus Christ Superstar, but I don’t recall being particularly oriented toward that sort of thing. Maybe I was just curious. Psalms and Proverbs would have been relatively safe for me: they didn’t have the overly religious feel of the familiar old stories about Moses and Jesus and such.

This Bible reading may have predisposed me to be interested when my friend Neal told me (probably while we were hanging out outside the church building rather than submit to the deadly tedium of another Sunday service) about the so-called coffeehouse, the Adam’s Apple, run by Calvary Temple, in Fort Wayne. I went with Neal to Adam’s Apple for the first time that October. It quickly became a habit: for much of the next two years, I attended the Apple frequently and Calvary Temple occasionally, to my parents’ dismay. It was not their brand of religion. Dad, in particular, felt that Calvary Temple was run by a fraud.

Adam’s Apple put a whole new face on Christian belief. In stark contrast to the stiff religiosity on display in the pews of Zion Lutheran Church, people at the Apple would hug each other. There (and sometimes at other places in the vicinity), a young audience would sit on the floor and listen, laugh, clap, and pray while regular musicians like John Lloyd and Nancy Henigbaum (“Honeytree”), and guests like Phil Keaggy and Larry Norman, would play. I’ve posted a video that captures some of the sounds from that place.


Pentecostalism can be pretty heady: speaking in tongues; saving souls for the Lord; believing that the Devil is constantly trying to snare you; telling my high school composition teacher that I was not going to college because the world was going to end soon. I could not waste time on flawed human knowledge when there was so much important work to do for the Lord in those End Times. I was street-witnessing (i.e., stopping passers-by to ask if they had found Jesus), not only in nearby towns, but also as far away as Dayton, Ohio (with the Adam’s Apple group), Indianapolis (with Campus Crusade for Christ), and the Warren Dunes in Michigan (on a church youth group camping trip). I had my Dake Bible; I read it from cover to cover a half-dozen times, and investigated countless cross-references among Bible passages; I memorized several of the shorter New Testament books verbatim. They called me Preacher Ray, there at DeKalb High School.

The End Times

These things were unfolding in the context of something called the Jesus Movement. Many of our leaders, in that movement, had been the long-haired “hippie freak” type. When they turned to the Lord, they became known as “Jesus freaks” or “Jesus people.” As a younger brother of two older siblings who had been more directly involved with the ’60s counterculture, I very much looked up to these colorful, interesting people and influences. The Jesus movement had an influence on the larger culture – in, for instance, the Doobie Brothers’ song, “Jesus Is Just Alright” and the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

Reach Out New Testament_Page_1

Of course, the movement was also influenced by that larger culture. We had our rock and (more commonly) folk musicians singing our songs, just like our secular classmates did; our graphic artists were using Peter Max-type psychedelia; we had the “One Way” hand sign (an index finger pointing toward heaven) as a response to the two-fingered, V-shaped “peace” sign of those times. (The “one way” concept derived from a Bible passage, John 14:6, in which Jesus said that he provided the only way to God the Father. We knew that the two-fingered peace sign was Satanic, since we were (incorrectly) told it was based on the upside-down cross on which St. Peter was crucified.)

Other than that investigation of Psalms and Proverbs, I had never done much Bible reading. But now I discovered the book of Revelation and, wow, that was exotic. It had been pretty much ignored, in my Lutheran upbringing, and that seemed wrong. I found it very moving. A friend got a recording of a New York preacher, David Wilkerson, delivering a sermon on what God had told him, as later recorded in his book The Vision (1974, pp. 11, 28, 75-76):

A second vision came to me this summer [1973]. It is a vision of five tragic calamities coming upon the earth. . . . Never again in the history of the world will there be a time of complete confidence and trust in world economies. . . . I see a time coming when nearly all evangelical missionary projects, all religious radio and TV programming, and all incorporated missionary societies will be so closely monitored, questioned, and badgered that they will be cautious of expanding in any area.

The passage of 40 years has made clear that what Rev. Wilkerson predicted would occur “soon” did not, in fact, occur. Anyone who has lived through these four decades since 1973 – who has seen the Dow Jones Industrial Average keep hitting higher and higher peaks, who has witnessed presidential elections being heavily influenced by the Christian Coalition, who has observed the rise of the megachurch – may be inclined to question Wilkerson’s claim that God showed him the future. This certainly was not someone who zeroed right in on exactly what was happening, as one would expect from a prophet of God.

At the time, though, Wilkerson and other eschatological predictions convinced me that it would be foolish to invest years in college or otherwise to build a career, a home, or a future, when Jesus was going to be coming back very soon. Notwithstanding this impact on me, Wilkerson was better known for The Cross and the Switchblade, about the positive impact of the gospel on the life of former New York gang member and heroin addict Nicky Cruz. I met Nicky Cruz, when his touring took him through Indiana, and found it very exciting that the Lord was changing lives like his.

There were other dramatic developments in the Christian press around that time. The most electrifying story of doing battle with the Devil emerged in Mike Warnke’s Satan Seller. Warnke told of his extraordinary experiences as a Satanic high priest in southern California, before he found Jesus. He described how the Devil gave him power to cause buildings to burn by putting a hex on them (pp. 74-75), and to order demons to torment people and cause car accidents (pp. 105-106); he said that he had even witnessed astral travel (i.e., the instantaneous transfer of a woman into his living room, and then away again) (p. 87).

Lying for the Lord

Warnke’s fraud would finally be exposed, many years later, by Christian journalists. But at the time, stories like his and Wilkerson’s fed both my commitment to God and also, over time, a subtext of uncertainty. There did seem to be a dramatic difference between their experiences and mine – a difference that I was unable to surmount despite enormous efforts in Bible study, self-scrutiny, prayer, and fasting. For some reason, I was just not having out-of-body experiences, seeing visions, or otherwise encountering firsthand the incredible supernatural power that people kept telling me about.

I did, however, have a different type of experience reminiscent of Wilkerson and Warnke. One time, years later, in a discussion with my co-workers in a Mormon-owned photocopy shop on upper Broadway in New York, I heard a very apt phrase. It was not one that we evangelicals had used, but it did speak to the problem. That phrase was “lying for the Lord.” I knew the experience well enough. As I discuss further in another post, we who tried to persuade people to join our religion would often make claims that weren’t true, or would advance arguments that did not jibe with our own beliefs and our actual experiences.

For instance, we would tell people that they could place their burdens on God, that Jesus would give them clarity and peace. But if they did take our advice and ask Jesus to enter their hearts and lives, they would soon find themselves transitioning into a Christian lifestyle of complexity, struggle, and anxiety. No peace for you! There was the Devil to worry about, as just noted, and the End Times developments in the daily newspaper to speculate upon; there was the Bible to read and interpret and apply, and assorted faith-related interpersonal complexities to deal with, and temptations to fight, and things to pray for, and anti-Christian schemes to detect, and so on ad infinitum. You would seriously not believe the number (and the astounding, frequently preposterous range) of things that seemed to be going on in the heads of myself and (even now) my Bible-believing Christian friends.

Of course, there are all kinds of people in this world. There are calm people in every profession, every religion. Generally, though, our worldview was not a path to Bob Marley-type mellowness. Yet we went right on speaking as though our lives did prominently feature an idyllic peace – and, adding to the stress, we expected ourselves to be enjoying that sort of thing, even when there was no reasonable prospect of it, given the many things we had to worry about. And yet, on the occasions when we did happen to experience a bit of it, we saw it as proof that we were on the right track.

Part of the explanation, I think, was that we were not allowed to doubt, and as a result we did not tend to critique our own upbeat claims about faith. This meant that, in the spirit of Wilkerson and Warnke, and perhaps as an unwitting invitation to habitual liars, we really didn’t have many constraints on telling people whatever might sound good. It was supposed to be like that for us; it was going to be like that for us; we just hadn’t quite gotten there yet.


Despite these shortcomings, let me emphasize that being a born-again Christian teenager was a fantastic experience — not in every way, but definitely in some important ways. I have never experienced fellowship like that which I experienced in our high school prayer group. Some of it was definitely mixed up with naivete and virginity; it was probably more fun for me than for some, given my status as an informal leader; maybe it resonated for me particularly, as an echo of the insular community of my childhood; but, still and all, it was special, and most of us seemed to be together in it.

On that foundation, temporary though it was (with many of us pairing off into couples, approaching graduation, and otherwise eventually drifting away from the shared group experience), we had some really great social and spiritual times. For starters, when I stopped going to my exploratory teaching gig in a nearby elementary school (in a profound fit of senioritis that the high school’s administrators never did detect), I discovered that I was left with a 100-minute lunch period. The other members of our prayer group would cycle in and out of the cafeteria, according to their individual schedules; but I was there the whole time, anchoring our group’s table and getting to see virtually every other member of our fellowship on a daily basis. Talk about redeeming the time! My expanded lunch break did not seem to irritate any teachers, as I had done when Mr. Stackhouse discovered that my midafternoon independent study hour was functioning as naptime in the library. In all regards, this extended luncheon opportunity provided an edifying social addition to my high school experience, and of course I must enthusiastically recommend it to future high schoolers.

It was also really special to have a life of semi-mystical experiences — looking up at the nighttime sky and thinking about God and eternity, believing that shooting stars signified love between me and the preacher’s daughter (don’t ask me where I got that connection), finding meaning in the sunsets and the trees and the waters. Everything was so rich. Sometimes even the secular song lyrics were like words directly from God: “Are you reeling in the years / Storing away the time.” Admittedly, some of the most intense experiences were on the dark and spooky side, involving the power and presence of Satan that many believers seemed so preoccupied with. Was I really alone, late on a snowy, moonlit winter’s night, as I warmed myself in our darkened kitchen?

In all this fellowship, I had experiences I have not had since, like when four of us guys got together, all with guitars, and spent a night singing and praying, talking and thinking, in an empty church lit only by a candle. There was another unchaperoned all-nighter, sponsored by a local church for the benefit of a couple dozen Lutheran high schoolers; but this time our adventures ran the gamut from solitary prayer in the sanctuary to rambunctious physical games (not limited to hide-and-seek) around the church grounds. Somebody probably caught hell for letting us tear the place up like that. And yet, on another level, this stuff pretty much kept me out of trouble. Of the three country boys I was hanging out with before I got the Jesus fever in my junior year, one is dead, one suffered serious brain injury in a suicide attempt, and the other nearly died in, and is profoundly impaired due to, an alcohol-related automobile crash. I might have survived anyway, without the Christ-oriented lifestyle, but then again I might not.

A Christian College

So those were some aspects of my experience as a born-again believer. Meanwhile, for better and worse, life went on. After graduating from high school in May 1973, I took a job, running a drill press in a local factory. In my free time, I was dinking around on my guitar, reading the Bible, and hanging out with fellow Christians. My parents were afraid that I was not going to get a proper education. Finally, in August 1973, Mom told me that they would pay the tuition if I would attend a Lutheran college.

Some months earlier, I had visited what was then Concordia Lutheran Junior College in Ann Arbor, Michigan; but, as noted above, I had decided not to apply. But in late July, the union organizer at the factory demanded a decision on whether I was going to pay the membership fee and join the union. I thought about it and finally said no. Despite enjoying the occasional horseplay, I was a very diligent and productive worker, and that did not seem to impress the stolid union members who had been standing at those machines for years. It was not the place for me. I was going to have to find a new job, or something. So now, as other recent grads started to peel off for their various campuses, it seemed I had probably better rethink this college thing. With just a few weeks of summer left, I applied, was accepted, and entered Concordia’s pre-ministerial program.

Concordia was certainly a religious place, but it was not pentecostal. I don’t remember exactly how that struck me. I will have to try to reconstruct the situation sometime. I think I must have been transitioning to a more thoughtful kind of belief, perhaps in reaction against the more dubious aspects of the Jesus movement. For whatever reason, I suddenly rediscovered an interest in being a good student, after years of a public school mental hiatus since leaving the one-room schoolhouse. Being at college, or perhaps being able to study religion, motivated me to take extra courses and also to test out of a couple of classes. Through such efforts, I completed most of the coursework required for the two-year degree in that one year. So there was no point staying around for a second year, accumulating credits that would not move me closer to a bachelor’s degree. Several years later, I sent Concordia a transcript from elsewhere; they granted some transfer credits; and on that basis they awarded my associate’s degree.

So now that I was finishing that first year at Concordia, there was the question of where to continue my education. I decided to transfer to Indiana University (IU), where I would qualify for in-state tuition rates. There, I continued in my ministry-oriented studies: I enrolled in second-year courses in German and ancient Greek, started Hebrew, and also took a couple of philosophy courses and a course on the New Testament.

A Crisis of Faith

That New Testament course at IU would play a pivotal role. As I discovered, people did not necessarily take an evangelical view of the Gospel in that big, secular university. I suddenly found myself as the stereotypical Bible-thumper, raising my hand to explain to the religion professor (Dr. Sampley, as I recall) how he did not have the proper view of Jesus and the biblical text. He was an agreeable guy, ready to listen to what I had to say. After class, on a couple of occasions, I gave him fundamentalist tracts and other materials to read, so that he would understand where he was mistaken; and then, after the next class session, he would explain to me why my materials seemed to be leaving questions unanswered.

The reasonableness of his approach threw me off balance. By midway in that fall semester, it was beginning to seem pretty obvious that I had taken a lot of things for granted. I had just accepted the Bible as being straightforward and obvious, and was now discovering that people who did not come from my religious background might not share that impression at all.

That was extremely disconcerting. I did understand the professor’s reservations. So it was not, as I had imagined or had wanted to believe, a simple matter of introducing people to God and letting the Holy Spirit work magic in their hearts. There were also these intellectual issues. And I did not have answers for them. I had not been certain how my pre-ministerial education was going to play out anyway; now it began to appear that it might not play out at all, certainly not until I could get past these barriers to faith.

Meanwhile, the previous summer, I’d had an experience that threw another wrench into my college education. I had taken the Greyhound bus to suburban Los Angeles, and had stayed with my older sister and her husband — along with my older brother, who had moved out there to join them some months earlier. That had been a lot of fun. So now, as the Indiana skies turned literally and spiritually gray and cold for me, it seemed that I might as well do my spiritual rethinking in sunny southern California. With a considerable sense of academic failure, I decided to drop out. When I told the religion professor of this decision, on my last day in his class, he looked at me and said just one word: “Courage.” His way of wishing me luck. A cool dude, all around.

So I left Bloomington and caught a train for the coast. But life is never simple. In L.A., it develops that my sister is letting two godforsaken Jehovah’s Witness ladies visit her living room on a weekly basis, and I am therefore obliged to argue Bible passages with them. Of all the irritants found in weird cults and heathen religions, I felt, this was perhaps the most annoying of all: that people didn’t have enough common sense and decency to recognize when their beliefs were just ridiculous, and were thus unable to straighten themselves out. These weren’t intelligent religion professors with compelling questions; these were just heretics who, in my view, were obviously misusing the scriptures. It was absurd that these people actually claimed that *I* was the one in error. My arguments didn’t have the least effect on them. So I got exposure to a different kind of reaction to the Bible: that not everybody who reads it is going to be a rocket scientist, and that some of the rocket scientists who do study it extensively will come up with unexpected and incompatible interpretations that their followers will cling to tenaciously.

I shouldn’t convey an impression that these occasional interactions were the sole source of doubt for me. Doubt was an inevitable thread throughout those years. It had been convenient enough, back in high school, to dismiss the doubters and the heretics, the songs like “Spirit in the Sky” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Tull’s “Hymn 43.” The music was good, but the message was flawed; and besides, as I say, it wasn’t as stimulating as the more directly Satanic stuff, like the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman” and (so we imagined) almost anything by a group that would dare to call itself Black Sabbath. For me, the surreptitious, truly evil nature of doubt was captured especially well in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. And yet, despite the romantic energy of these stimuli, over time the more corrosive kind of doubt was that of the everyday American life, out there in what I considered “the so-called real world.” People out there didn’t seem to have much interest in this stuff. For some reason, the Lord was simply not smiting any Sodom and Gomorrahs. I wasn’t seeing plagues; nobody was even coming down with the pox. It was as though L.A.’s endless strip malls and McDonald’s restaurants might have a better grip on reality than I did.


Just in case, I did in fact get a job at a Mickey D’s, right there in my neighborhood. I also got a partial tuition refund from IU, slept on the floor in a utility room at my sister’s house, and saved my pennies for a flight to Switzerland. That next step occurred in February 1975. Switzerland was where an evangelical minister and thinker named Francis Schaeffer had set up shop, creating a Christian commune called L’Abri (French for “the shelter”), in Huemoz, a village up in the Swiss Alps. I had been reading Schaeffer’s book, True Spirituality, and I had come up with a long list of questions for him. So now I flew over to meet him.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t there. It seems that, if you are raised in the middle class, with experienced travelers to ask (or, nowadays, if you have an Internet), you learn that you are supposed to arrange these things in advance. So now I know this. At the time, however, the only people I knew who had ever been to Europe were World War II veterans and one local farmer who had been in the Army in the 1960s. They hadn’t needed to make reservations. So I just figured I was going to Schaeffer’s place; he would be there; and I would ask him my questions.

What happened instead was that I got to harass his assistant pastors, nice evangelical ministers who no doubt found me bothersome. My questions were apparently not easy to answer and, in fact, neither they nor the accumulated Francis Schaeffer materials in the L’Abri library (such as it was) seemed to have even begun to grapple with most of the things I was asking about. I was perplexed that these questions, some of which now seemed obvious, had apparently never even crossed the minds of these people who were supposedly advising thoughtful Christians from around the world.

After hanging around L’Abri for a while, mostly living on bread and jelly (and tripe, my new discovery, which tasted good at first, after a couple of weeks without much real food, but didn’t taste so good when I bought another can of it), I finally got admitted into L’Abri’s program of study, which I could have waltzed right into if I’d made reservations like the American Christians who had done this properly. But they still had to pay as much to live in one of the L’Abri buildings as I was paying in my humble hostel a few blocks away, and they also had to slave in the communal garden. Since there did not seem to be any prospect of getting answers to the questions that had taken me there, it seemed time to move on.

One of the other Americans was also leaving town, heading back to his mom’s home in a fishing village called Looe, on the English Channel, in Cornwall. I invited myself along with this guy, name of Ron, and that was the end of L’Abri for me. As it turned out, Ron’s brother was named Randy; Randy spent all his time in his room with his guitar and a huge tape recorder, trying to prepare an album for a record company up in London; and a couple years later, one day in New York, I turned on the radio and heard Randy VanWarmer singing “You Left Me (Just When I Needed You Most).” Ron later told me it hit No. 3 on the pop charts. Eventually, Randy even had a Greatest Hits album. So, you know, good for him.

Give Away All That You Possess

After several weeks of thinking, hiking along Cornwall’s craggy cliffs, and debating, alone and with Ron, I landed back in Chicago with about $10 in my pocket. I took the South Shore railroad as far as I could, and then hitchhiked and walked all night to make it to my folks’ place north of Fort Wayne. Before flying to Switzerland, back in February, I had driven from L.A. to the folks’ place; but then, too caffeinated to sleep, I had decided to drive over and see a friend. That was not a judicious decision. I fell asleep on the way and hit a tree. Kind of a close shave: awoke at the last second and cranked the wheel, thereby shearing off a fender instead of my head. So now I had to repair the VW and head back to L.A.

When I did get back to Los Angeles, my sister’s husband wasn’t terribly eager to have my brother and me stay there anymore. It was time for us to find our own places. Maybe I could have done better than my new job at another McDonald’s, or at least I could have worked two jobs to afford an apartment. But I was still concerned about spending eternity in hell for my doubt, and was thus still devoting a huge amount of time to Bible reading and agonizing over the logical inconsistencies I was finding in the Bible and in the commentaries of Christian writers. I was still attending various churches from time to time, hoping that maybe I was overlooking something; maybe somebody would have answers that would clear up everything and prevent my concept of Christianity from being simply false.

In a bid to make more than minimum wage, I bought a couple of run-down VWs and gradually fixed them up to resell. My finances would basically cover rent for a garage on Cherry Avenue in North Long Beach, where I could do autobody repairs on one car indoors while leaving the other outdoors. The indoor car kindly shared space with me. I had a couch in there, one that Bob (a fortyish Volkswagen mechanic) and I had rescued from the alley behind his house, and I slept on that. I had a board propped up on some crates; I used that as my desk. There was a bathroom at the Douglas Burger down the street, not to mention a cute redheaded employee whom I was too shy to approach. Once in a while, my brother, living downtown, would let me use his bathtub.

For about three months, I lived in that garage. I spent many hours rereading and rethinking Bible passages. I wrote out my thoughts, hoping that seeing them in black and white would make things clearer.

I kept trying to figure out a solution, but eventually realized there just wasn’t one. As detailed in another post, I was trying to make the Bible into something that it wasn’t, something that it didn’t even claim. Like many fundamentalists, my faith was more in the Bible than in God. Behaving like the religious experts that Jesus warned against, we had converted the writings of ancient writers into legalistic texts, adding chapter and verse numbers that God had apparently forgotten to include. And we used that revised text to place burdens on people that they could not bear, like those described in this post — burdens that intelligent, goodhearted people would appropriately reject.


We went through all kinds of mental gymnastics to try to persuade ourselves that the Bible, a patently flawed book, was perfect. We did that because that’s what we wanted, not because of any specific instructions from God. We held to this approach even though it required us to ignore the Bible’s obviously imperfect processes of formation, transmission, and translation. We basically decided to accuse God of something inconsistent with his supposedly perfect nature. It was like the police charging a man with a crime when everyone could see that he was nowhere near the scene. In the end, we made God look like an idiot, and we took pride in behaving likewise. If there was a God, then this was blasphemy; it was just plain wrong.

What I concluded was this: it was impossible for an intelligent individual to have an honest belief that the Bible was the literal Word of God. As a fundamentalist, I had essentially been telling people that God would put you in Hell for all eternity if you earnestly sought the truth and faced up to the problems that I had encountered. In the end, I concluded, that was not right. There might have been a god behind that sort of threat; but if there was, it was not a good one. If anything, it seemed that we, in our pride and arrogance, had decided we were smarter than the Prince of Darkness; that we had been completely fooled; and that we were doing all this hard work just to make things worse. We wouldn’t listen to reason, and that made us the perfect patsies for whatever nonsense might come trundling down the pike.

As described above, I had been trying to find a way out of this for quite a while, and I was continuing to devote a lot of time to it. But at a certain point, I just couldn’t afford to do that anymore. Along with the ongoing emotional and intellectual turmoil, my financial situation was desperate. I got a nudge on Christmas Day, 1975. I got sick, maybe because of the autobody chemicals, and the Douglas Burger was closed. I found myself barfing in the alley back of the garage. It was a moment of clarity.

More than four years had passed since my first visit to the Adam’s Apple. During those years, I had experienced excitement and fellowship, and also theological study and religious disputation. During the past year especially, I had confronted and endured emotional upset: a fear of losing both my eternal salvation and all those marvelous experiences and beliefs. The trip to L’Abri had been an extraordinary yet failing effort to obtain answers that a divinely inspired scripture would have made plain — and now the encounter with L’Abri itself was nearly a year in the past.

The essential facts were before me. I did not seem to be overlooking anything significant. It was time to decide how to proceed. And after that Christmas Day experience, I did proceed. Within a few weeks, I returned to full-time college student status, at California State University, Long Beach – once again taking philosophy and German courses, but this time without religion. Ultimately, my religious beliefs coalesced into agnostic polytheistic fundamentalism.


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