Archive for ‘History’

January 25, 2012

Saved by grace through faith

As a child my church would run summer holiday camps. These were daytime events kind of like Sunday school all week. I recall one in particular that focused heavily on the following variation on Ephesians 2:8.

“For you are saved by grace through faith, not by works lest any man should boast”

I recall sitting in a large tent in the local school playing field learning this verse and repeating it over and over. It was quoted at the start and end of each session. As I look back on it a question raises its head.

Grace I get. We’re nothing compared to God, sinners lost in iniquity, entirely unable to put things right on our own. But why faith? It’s central to Christianity, to the “Christian faith”. But what is it and why is it important? The dictionary gives two different definitions for the word faith.


  1. Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
  2. Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.

When I read the bible it appears that many (though not all) of the references are using faith and particularly faithfulness in the first form. It’s about having confidence and trust in a person, someone you know and have met. Today however we take religious faith to be exclusively the second definition — belief without proof. And this is supported, even encouraged by biblical teaching.

“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:21.

What I have not ever understood though is why is it good to believe without evidence? We are rational beings. The scientific method was not developed by accident, it is a formalized version of the process by which we learn all things. Using trial and error, hypotheses, tests, evidence and results. So why is faith, blind trust, a requirement for salvation? Why would a God create a race of rational beings that make decisions based on evidence and then require that the single most important decision they can make should be made on entirely different grounds? Is it just an arbitrary hurdle to cut down the numbers?

Then there’s the issue that throughout the Old and New Testaments God performed all kinds of signs and wonders. God communicated directly with people in unambiguous ways. He appeared and spoke to people. Prophets performed miracles as did Jesus. Today however we have to take it on faith, faith that increasingly contradicts what the evidence is telling us. Does not morality require fairness? How is this in any way fair?

This presents for me a contradiction. A contradiction that’s easily resolved if we consider the Bible to be just another religious text containing a creation myth and associated stories. However a contradiction for which I have yet to find an alternative satisfying explanation.

December 29, 2011

The same yesterday, today and forever

At the front of the church where I grew up, in big letters were written the words “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today and forever” (a quote from Hebrews 13:8). I spent hours and hours staring at those words. They speak to both a power of religion and to a major flaw. It is, I think, one of the main reasons why conservatives in this country are so religious. Religion provides at least the illusion of constancy, permanence and certainty in the turmoil of an evolving world. However therein lies a fundamental problem.

The reality is that Christianity as practiced today, apart from being so variable as to really be thousands of separate religions that happen to share a name, is almost entirely unrelated to that practiced at its birth. The beliefs and practices of Christians have changed enormously. Only the patina of permanence remains and for many that means hanging on to rules and dogmas as they were taught (one might say indoctrinated) as children.

The result of this is that through the ages Christianity has been on the wrong side of moral and ethical progress. I know that some will claim the Old Testament’s proclamations on slavery and tithing were progressive. But if you actually read the instructions and injunctions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy they’re nothing short of barbaric by today’s standards — and therein lies my point. Our standards today are entirely different from those of iron-age people, which speaks to their human, rather than divine, origin.

Even by Jesus’ time the Old Testament standards were showing their age.

Matthew 5:38-41
“You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well;  and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you”

An unchanging God saying “don’t do what I told you before, do this instead.”. Yet even so slavery, misogyny and homophobia continued to be accepted, even condoned through the New Testament. The fight to end slavery and for women’s suffrage required fighting against organized religion.

Here’s part of the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement of racial reconciliation in 1995:

“WHEREAS, Our relationship to African-Americans has been hindered from the beginning by the role that slavery played in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention; and
“WHEREAS, Many of our Southern Baptist forbears defended the right to own slaves, and either participated in, supported, or acquiesced in the particularly inhumane nature of American slavery; and
“WHEREAS, In later years Southern Baptists failed, in many cases, to support, and in some cases opposed, legitimate initiatives to secure the civil rights of African-Americans; “

Today in America we’re seeing the same thing being played out in the fight for gay rights and gay marriage. Christians today are as behind the times, clinging to their unchangeable morality as they were when they founded the Southern Baptists because the Northern Baptists were anti-slavery.

Ultimately Christianity will evolve. Christians will change their position on gay rights just as they have through the centuries. But until then many will fight against those rights on the grounds that they go against god’s absolute, unchangeable truth.

When I look back through history and see the evolution of human rights and how that has moved beyond the biblical teachings I cannot help but be convinced that the bible is the work of men not god.

December 27, 2011

It’s the solstice stupid

The signs going on about how Jesus is the real reason for the season have been really bugging me this year. I don’t have a problem with people calling it Christmas. If that’s what they celebrate at this time of year that’s fine. But at least be respectful of other people’s beliefs.

As a Christian holiday Christmas has had a very checquered past. It was banned at many times for being a rowdy, drunken, violent pagan holiday. In Massachusetts, for example, it was banned by law in the 1600s.

“Whosoever shall be found observing Christmas, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, every such person shall pay as a fine five shillings to the county.”

So, Christians, feel free to celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus. But recognize that the holiday predates Christianity and as such has been coopted by multiple religions.

The real reason for the season is the winter solstice. It’s been celebrated for millenia so get over it already.

December 24, 2011

Losing my religion

Despite the corniness of the title that REM song resonates with me. My departure from christianity has been a long and complicated journey. It has involved many steps and stages. Though many slip into, or out of, religion with apparent ease for me it is a topic that has consumed a lot of my time and involved a lot of consideration. I guess I’m not really capable of just hoping it’ll all turn out right in the end and so need to figure out what’s true and what isn’t, what adds up and what doesn’t. At this point I think it’s pretty safe to say that I’m a solidly convinced atheist. The difficulty with that word is that, like saying one is a christian, it means different things to different people.

I use it in what I believe is an accurate form. I mean that I am pretty certain that there is no god. I say “pretty certain” deliberately. Over the years I’ve come to realize that there can be no absolute certainties in life. I am flawed and error prone. Thus while I have a greater or lesser degree of confidence in a variety of beliefs any one of them can be proven to be wrong. To believe otherwise would be to presume inerrance (or perfection) at least in some limited sphere. Thus while I’m pretty certain there is no god, as in all things, I could be wrong.

With that said, and having reached a position on which I am confident, I still find myself pondering questions of religion and morality. Questions such as why so many people are absolutely convinced that there is a god when it’s clear to me there is no good evidence for it. Why they believe that of the thousands of gods in which people believe or have believed theirs is the one true god. Why they believe that without a god there can be no morality.

I’ve been looking for a place to write my thoughts on these topics. Not because I believe I will provide any great insight. I’m no scholar, philosopher, historian or theologian, but because writing about them may help me sort through what I think about them. What has been holding me back from writing is that my family runs the gamut of christian beliefs from all out atheist, through agnostic, liberal christian to fundamentalist evangelical christian. In writing about these things it’s possible that I will anger some branches of my family tree. The more closed-minded may even wish to shield their children from me and these writings.

What particularly may upset is that over the past years I’ve become increasingly sure that religion is not just wrong but harmful. This stems from my experience that misinformation and mistaken beliefs lead to poor decisions and poor outcomes. It is exceedingly rare that a mistaken understanding leads to a positive outcome, especially when compared to that from a correct understanding. Thus I see incorrect understanding of the world around us and how it works due to the beliefs of primitive tribes being applied to the 21st century leading to bad outcomes of all kinds. There are so many examples of this, both past and present, that I’m sure some will come up if I write further.

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