I came across this website on the Facebook page of one of my sons' classmates. This reaffirms for me that I have absolutely nothing in common with these people (except for having a son the same age as his).
Since I'm having so much trouble actually re-reading the Bible, I subscribed to several religious blogs and Bible verse a day services, but they didn't motivate me. This week, I started watching the Open Yale Course Introduction to New Testament History and Literature. I wasn't sure I'd learn much from the course, but I thought it might inspire me to blog. Since I grew up in one of the slightly-more-rational denominations where we were encouraged to read, study, and learn as much about the Bible and our church as possible, I knew quite a bit about why decisions were made to include certain books in the Bible. However, I didn't know the details. The second video in the course, From Stories to Canon, reviews the decisions that were made. What books could be trusted? Which should be included? How did we end up with the Apocrypha? If you don't want to watch the video, the transcript is online as well.
I came across another Christian blog today where he explains in a circular way how we know that the Bible is the word of God. Thus he creates this fallacious argument: We know that the Bible is the word of God because it tells us so in the Bible. Sorry, dude, circular reasoning won't persuade a non-believer. The Christian tradition I came from required one to analyze the Bible to determine what God wanted from us. It's a short step from there to analyzing the Bible in a way that creates atheists. A true believer, reading the history of how different books were included in the Bible would conclude that God had inspired the selection of those books. In other words, a true believer can live with the inconsistencies because they choose to believe no matter what. A true believer doesn't need a Jesus Seminar to arrive at a theological consensus about the truth. A true believer selects the verses that support his/her position and ignores the rest. This is why atheists and true believers don't have a lot in common.
When I attended Sunday School, I scribbled a joke I'd found in my Bible: "Easter's been cancelled; they found the body."
I experienced a similar joy when I told the owner of the dog I'm taking care of that, when we walked past a nativity scene outside of a church, the dog inquisitively sniffed at all the animals in the nativity. "Silly dog," I told him. "Those are *plywood* animals." My friend replied, "Damn, I thought for a moment you were gonna tell me he pissed on Jesus. I was hopeful."
Yes, I found that *very* funny. The overwhelmingly negative experiences that we've had with Christians have made my friend and me wish for the denigration of a plywood statue (although the tacky nativity scene itself is a good advertisement against Christianity).
When I read articles like this one on Atheism Resource (Christians love you) it reminds me of the perverted "born again" Christian who roomed with my then boyfriend. We got into an argument one day, probably over the fact that he frequently scratched his genitalia with me in the room, and he screamed at me, "You are SO HARD TO LOVE!"
I smile every time I think of that encounter. Poor boy. He'd been instructed by his church to follow John 13:34 "Love one another" but he just couldn't do it when he met me. I always thought it was too bad that Jesus hadn't mentioned "Do not scratch yourself in front of your roommate's girlfriend"--that would have been a more useful injunction to me. The reality is that I didn't want him to "love" me, nor did I feel any compulsion to love him.
When you spend your formative years in a church, you end up knowing the Bible fairly well, and many phrases and verses become thoroughly integrated into your psyche.
Out of curiosity, I Googled "favorite Bible verses" to see what others regarded as favorites. Beliefnet has a page devoted to Ann Coulter's favorite verses, an aggressive set of prescriptions. She shares three verses from the most bizarre of books, Revelations, including this one: "But the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and fornicators and sorcerers and idolaters and all the false, their part will be in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death." Revelation 21:8
Ann Coulter actually believes in a physical hell. Silly woman.
The lists I read contain some *very* strange verses, like this one: "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship." Romans 12:1 What in heck is that all about? Why would anyone regard that as a favorite verse?
In fact, in this small sampling of lists, only one even had a verse that I'm fond of:
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Matthew 6:19-21
I think of that as the anti-hoarder's verse, or the de-clutterer's verse. As I work on a massive de-cluttering project, I think of that verse often.
I especially like these lyrics: I don't go in for ancient wisdom/ I don't believe just 'cause ideas are tenacious/ It means that they're worthy/ I get freaked out by churches/ Some of the hymns that they sing have nice chords/ But the lyrics are dodgy/ And yes I have all of the usual objections to the miseducation/ Of children who in tax-exempt institutions are taught to externalize blame/ And to feel ashamed and to judge things as plain right or wrong/ But I quite like the songs.
As one who attended church for years just to sing, long after I became an atheist, I agree that I quite like the songs. More about those dodgy lyrics later.
The dog I'm caring for and I were walking at 4:00 a.m. and found that many people seem to have enough money to leave their Christmas lights on all night. As we wandered past the partially-inflated Santas, snowmen, and reindeer, listening to machines expelling tiny portions of tinny Christmas songs, I thought about all the money wasted on this stuff. It made me think of this verse: Matthew 19:21 Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
Yeah, right. Or maybe you could just leave your Christmas lights on all night while other people in your town are cold.
At a meeting once, my atheism became a topic of conversation. One member of the meeting said, "Why don't you just call yourself an agnostic?"
One of my colleagues, a former minister, but still a believer, answered for me. "She says she's an atheist because she's *thought* about it and made a decision. To declare yourself agnostic means you're still trying to make up your mind."
He was right--I did think about it--religion--a lot--and rejected it.
It says "Season's Greetings" on the sign. There's a painted plywood nativity in the front yard and a plywood Santa Claus with his reindeer on the roof.
On Christmas Eve, our church had Santa Claus visit to give the kids Christmas canes and oranges (standard stocking fare in 1960). When I was 3 years old, my brother pointed out that Santa Claus was actually my dad, wearing a costume.
By the mid-1960s, we had a newer, more Biblical minister, and so the Christmas Eve service turned into a more religious affair and Santa Claus was banned, although the church was still decorated with a gigantic Christmas tree.
Season's Greetings was considered a wonderful greeting in 1960. Yet, now there are movements to "Keep Christ in Christmas"--e.g., this Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/pages/Keep-Christ-in-CHRISTmas/ Sorry, guys. In the good old USA, the issue of Christmas being all about Christ was decided decades ago. I made sure that my kids knew about the birth of Christ being celebrated on Christmas, but I also made sure that they knew that theologians generally believe that if Jesus existed, there's no reason to believe that he was born in December, and that the 25th has pagan origins. Somehow, by telling them the truth at all times, including that there was no Santa Claus, I managed to raise three rational atheists.
Bizarre", "weird": the adjectives reflect Myers's projection, not the "fluid and flexible and complex" phenomena he also sees in front of him. You could, of course, inquire further into the resilient, mysterious and clearly powerful rituals he is witnessing. But that would require his admission that there is much human conduct here he doesn't understand - instead of the assertion that it is religion and that he therefore knows all he needs to know about it.
Well, no, mysticism doesn't require apologists. Religion is inexplicable to the rational.
Generally, I find PZ Myers obnoxious, but in this case, when he says that Mexico is a weird place, he's making an understatement. Living in Mexico at the age of 14 had a profound impact on my life. I love the country. Experiencing such a different culture gave me a love of anthropology. As a lower-middle-class USian, encountering poverty for the first time reinforced my advocacy for human rights. Seeing fly-covered meat hanging in open-air markets helped turned me into a vegetarian. Experiencing Mexican mysticism first-hand helped confirm my atheism.
When one of my college-educated Mexican cousins chose to deny medical science a few months ago and instead raised funds from her yoga students so she could undergo psychic surgery in Brazil from this dude, I viewed her as a victim of her Mexican mysticism. Currently, she's living somewhere in the jungles of Peru, undergoing more worthless "native" treatments. Every time she makes it to a city with the Internet, she sends an update. One day, soon, I expect to hear that she is dead. Nope, not "passed away" to some mystic's paradise. Just gone.
So while PZ isn't being anthropologically correct in his description of religion in Mexico, as an educated atheist, he isn't wrong.
Image: From my Flickr page, the bell in the Taxco, Mexico cathedral.
Additional link: Science-Based Medicine blogged about John of God today. It seems that Oprah is now promoting his brand of hucksterism.
Yes, I've experienced many strange intuitive leaps which seem to go way beyond anything that can be explained rationally, but so what? Until science proves that ESP exists, I'm not inclined to believe that these are anything more than bizarre coincidences.
Last year, I read a brief line about mirror touch synesthesia (MTS) in an article about other interesting forms of synesthesia, many of which I have (e.g., grapheme-color-gender). I've read everything I can find about MTS since then, including reports on the research. I've corresponded with the main author of one of those studies. And thus, I finally believe that MTS exists. There is finally scientific research that supports something I've experienced any time someone touches themselves. I realize how little time I spend looking at other people. I try to block the sensations, even when I watch movies or TV. My mirror touch even extends to inanimate objects, which makes sense to me because I see all of them as being sentient.
Perhaps someday a scientist will prove ESP, and then I'll believe it as well, but until then I'll be in the limbo where I can say, "Yes, I have this but, as a rational human, I choose not to believe it."
I watched the Ted Talk he refers to shortly after it was posted, but I didn't find it interesting enough to recommend to friends, nor to listen to again. Ah, I'm listening to it again and this is the question that made me dismiss the talk a minute and a half in: "Why is it that we don't have ethical obligations towards rocks?"
Of course, in my bizarre worldview, I do have ethical obligations towards rocks.
Sean appears to have become hung up in the lack of logic at this same point, although for a different reason: "Let’s grant the factual nature of the claim that primates are exposed to a greater range of happiness and suffering than insects or rocks. So what? That doesn’t mean we should care about their suffering or happiness; it doesn’t imply anything at all about morality, how we ought to feel, or how to draw the line between right and wrong." Sean says that science doesn't really have anything to do with morality, and his points seem valid to me.
When I listened to the original talk, I realize that I thought that Sam Harris is like the rest of the world--he doesn't share my worldview. He has a Judeo-Christian-scientific view that doesn't match mine.Yes, I know. I'm weird.
In a Nightline "debate" (i.e., discussion), Does God have a future?, Sam Harris expressed what I feel about religion. Here is my transcript of what he said:
Well, I think as you've begun to hear, there are two very different kinds of conversations we could have here.
We can talk about religion as it is for most people, most of the time and we can talk about what religion could be or should be or perhaps what it is for the tiniest minority of people. And I just want you to be aware of the difference there because it could get lost.
It's true that some people define God as pure consciousness or as being synonymous with the laws of nature. But if we talk about consciousness and the laws of nature, we won't be talking about the God that most of our neighbors believe in, which is a personal God who hears our prayers and occasionally answers them.
So I just want you to be sensitive to this because if Michael or I say something derogatory about Islam or Christianity, which seems possible, the response from the other side shouldn't mention quantum mechanics and it shouldn't reference a notion of God that is so denuded of doctrine as to more or less be synonymous with pure mystery or pure information or pure energy or pure anything.
So I just wanted, I wanted to plant a flag there where you all can see it. Because the God that our neighbors believe in is essentially an invisible person. Is a creator deity who created the universe to have a relationship with one species of primate--lucky us. And he's got galaxy upon galaxy to attend to, but he's especially concerned with what we do. And he's especially concerned with what we do while naked. He almost certainly disapproves of homosexuality and he's created this cosmos as a vast laboratory in which to test our powers of credulity and the test is this: "Can you believe in this God on bad evidence?" which is to say, on faith. And if you can, you will win an eternity of happiness after you die. And it's precisely this sort of God and this sort of scheme that you must believe in if you're going to have any kind of future in politics in this country. No matter what your gifts. You could be an unprecedented genius, you could look like George Clooney, you could have a billion dollars, and you could have the social skills of Oprah, and you are going nowhere in politics in this country unless you believe in that sort of God. So we can talk about anything we want. I'm happy to talk about consciousness, but please notice that when we migrate away from the God that is really shaping human events, or the God talk that is really shaping human events in our world at this moment.
I was curious to watch this discussion in part because I've only encountered Deepak Chopra's writings at The Huffington Post (one of the many reasons I no longer subscribe to their full blog feed). I wanted to hear him speak. To have Michael Shermer and Sam Harris opposed by Deepak and Jean Houston seemed like a stacked deck against irrationality since Chopra and Houston were frequently incoherent. It might have been more interesting to see them debate a devout Christian, Jewish, or Islamic clergy.
Sam says that in the second video. All 12 parts of the "debate" are available at YouTube. Embedded below is the first video.
Maybe this won't be true once I get past the Nativity, but at least for this part of the New Testament, I associate every few verses with a song.
I read these verses and note Matthew's attempts to further link Jesus to obscure, seemingly unrelated passages from the Old Testament. For example, Matthew says that a prophet proclaims "Out of Egypt I will call my son." Matthew reminds me of those people who pick up the Bible, open a page at random, and seek wisdom from the verse they find. After all, in Hosea 11:1, the son God is referring to is the nation of Israel. Hosea 11:2 talks about Israel, the son, making sacrifices to idols such as Baal. Although the prophets tend to be cryptic in their prophecies, why would Matthew interpret this verse as referring to a coming Messiah?
The jealous Herod, fearing the birth of a new king and lacking the knowledge of the magi about exactly where he's located, orders that all boys two and under should be killed. Perhaps there's archaeological evidence of this massacre, or independent confirmations, but again, it seems that Matthew might be making up an event to fit with a prophecy from Jeremiah 31. Jeremiah is a prophet who exhorted the people of Israel to behave better during the time of the Babylonian exile. Matthew takes a verse to show that Jeremiah foretold the death of the infants--Rachel is weeping for her children and refuses to be comforted. It seems that only in the case of Biblical exegesis would anyone give credence to Matthew's attempt to link Jesus to Old Testament Messianic prophecy. At least, that's the way it seems to an atheist who rolls her eyes at yet another tenuous connection which proves nothing about Jesus's divinity.
I like the rendition below of The Coventry Carol by The Cambridge Singers even though this isn't the way I sing it. I think I'll learn the version below on guitar. If I start now, maybe I'll be able to play it by Christmas.
Lullay, thou little tiny child, by by lully lullay. Lullay, thou little tiny child, by by lully lullay.
O sisters, too, how may we do, for to preserve this day; This poor youngling for whom we sing, by by lully lullay.
Herod the king, in his raging, charged he hath this day; His men of might in his own sight, all children young to slay.
Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee, and ever morn and day. For thy parting, nor say nor sing, by by lully lullay.
I took an Old Testament History class a long time ago, which I ended up dropping because I already knew the topic well. The class was filled with Christians of various denominations who didn't know the Old Testament at all. They grew up in churches which emphasized the New Testament. Out of 20 class members, the instructor and I were the only ones who had read the Old Testament, and he was an ordained minister.
I thought at the time that it was odd that these devout believers could be so ignorant about the foundations of their own religion, but since then I've found it to be common.
I'm re-reading it to re-visit the seeds of my atheism; most Christians presumably read it because a) they're told to or b) they want to reaffirm their faith. They regard the Bible as a book with answers. I'm incapable of thinking about the Bible as a benign, enlightening, or uplifting book, but hey, maybe after I re-read it this time, I'll change my mind.
On Friday, we didn't have school but we had a Christian rock invasion. A local church sponsored a rock group. The only students hanging around school were the conservative Christian teens who helped the rockers set up.
Theoretically, the church brings in groups like this to convert new members of the church, but in practice the only ones who attend are already members, so they revert to talking about reaffirming one's faith and renewing their response to the call of Jesus.
Christian rock consists of love songs--but only about love songs about God and Jesus; and of covers of classic rock songs, with the lyrics rewritten to talk about the singer's relationship and love for God and Jesus. No one who loves music loves Christian rock.
Yesterday, as I was leaving the house to do a favor for one of my sons' friends, a lady walked onto my property and tried to hand me a pamphlet about an upcoming "worldwide" meeting of some sort. My usual approach to Jehovah's Witnesses is to slam the door in their faces, but I met this single person in my driveway, where there was no door to slam, so I told her to go away, that I'm an atheist, and that's she's crazy to belong to a patriarchal organization which hates women. My son said I was overly harsh. I wonder why proselytizers feel it's okay to approach someone on private property. We have laws in our city against door-to-door salesmen. In what way is this different?
When we returned from running the errand, a strange car was parked in my driveway. We walked inside and saw an empty cooler. My son went into the kitchen to find the mother of one of his friends who was stowing leftover spaghetti and meatballs in my refrigerator. "I just came right in when no one answered," she said. "I didn't want this food to spoil."
Ah, yes, give the vegetarian left-over meat sauce spaghetti. Walk into my house uninvited. Witness my filthy kitchen. Of course, even though she's doing this out of a sense of Christian charity (she's a minister's wife), it's impossible to stay angry at this woman because she is a genuinely good person. "Well, I'm off to choir practice at the church." Have fun. Next time, call ahead. Next time, wait before you walk into my house. Next time, don't bring meat.
In Matthew 2:1-12, Jesus has been born and the magi are looking for him. Even though there's a large star that guides them, they drop by Herod's palace to ask him if he's heard of the baby. This story seems to establish that the importance of Jesus is acknowledged by 1) a star 2) three wise men who march in and out of history. It also is a way to let us know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, thereby fulfilling another Old Testament prophecy, this time from the book of Micah. It also sets us up for the manifestation of Herod's fear and jealousy when he learns that a new king has been born.
What interests me about Matthew 2:1-12 is the mythology that has arisen over these few verses. Some of that mythology is expressed in song. For example, in We Three Kings, the wise men are not only given names, the verses express the (made-up) meaning behind the gifts they give. Melchior gives gold to show that Jesus is a king forever; Gaspar gives frankincense because it shows his deity; and Balthazar gives myrrh to represent the tomb where Jesus is sealed after his crucifixion. In the last verse of the carol, Jesus arises. Those names aren't mentioned in the Bible and are part of a later tradition.* According to the Oxford Book of Christmas Carols, We Three Kings was written by Dr. J.H. Hopkins, a U.S. minister, around 1857.
I grew up in an independent Christian Church, an inheritor of the Stone Campbell Restoration Movement, where we were taught to base our beliefs only on what it says in the Bible; yet we sang this decidedly unbiblical song with names derived from Catholic tradition. That's what Christianity is like today--a hodgepodge of scripture, interpretation, legend, tradition, and nonsense.
Since I work at a school where seemingly no one hides their faith, but I am forced to hide my atheism, the question seems silly. I wish that more of my colleagues would hide their faith. At graduation last year, students led two prayers. The act meant something to everyone in the audience. To me, it meant that I was part of an oppressed, invisible minority. To them, it was probably profoundly meaningful in some way.
Jesus said in Matthew 6 that you're not supposed to be out there praying on street corners; prayer should be private. If you're a Christian, how could you possibly think it was right to pray at secular festivals such as graduations and football games? Why would you consider it necessary to proclaim your faith to nonbelievers.
Ah, yes, the begats. In the New International version, "Abraham begat Isaac" becomes the prosaic "Abraham was the father of Isaac."
I remember what they taught us in Sunday School about Matthew 1:1-17. It was designed to prove that Jesus was the Messiah because of a prophecy Samuel made about the Messiah being a descendant of David. Nah, I'm not going to look up the passage in Samuel. You can do that if you like. We were taught about the significance of the fourteen generations described in verse 17: "Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile in Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ." Since I've been searching for my lost great-grandmother for the last forty-some years, I've found it difficult to believe that they could lay out all those generations without making a mistake. The complete genealogy is not relevant to me. With that many generations, they could have filled in gaps with any names. Who could refute it?
Then the passage loses me completely when they continue with verses 18-24 to explain that Joseph isn't Jesus's biological father. Since Joseph isn't Jesus's father, why should I care about his genealogy? It has nothing to do with Jesus.
An angel shows up in Joseph's dream and explains that Jesus was the product of the Holy Spirit getting it on with Mary. The angel convinces Joseph to marry Mary even though she isn't pregnant with his child. Joseph believes the angel's story that this baby is Immanuel. He sticks by her, and doesn't have sex with her until after Jesus is born. The King James version says "he knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son" and the New International is equally obscure, saying "he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son."
Why bother mentioning her virginity? The birth is a miracle. This isn't an ordinary baby. In Sunday School they probably mentioned another prophecy that the virgin birth fulfills.
Thus, I've only begun to re-read the New Testament, and Matthew 1:1-24 has already left me in the dust. First, they list the complete genealogy of an insignificant guy named Joseph. Yet, somehow someone knows that he is descended from David. Then they negate the important of the genealogy because Jesus isn't Joseph's biological child. To top it off, they add a story of a baby that wasn't conceived via messy insemination, and of an unusual step-dad who sticks by a woman 2010 years ago (roughly) because he's told by an angel in a dream that this baby is Immanuel.
Exactly what portion of Matthew 1:1-24 is believable? None of it. Then why do you expect me to believe?
I'm extremely fond of the Old Testament--all those gory battles, the vengeful God, the lists of rules and complex genealogy--but I'm going to start with the New Testament. My favorite Bible version has always been the King James. Nearly any verse in the Bible is more beautiful to me in King James English--perhaps less intelligible, but definitely more beautiful.
For example, here is Leviticus 14:17 from the King James version:
14: And if the burnt sacrifice for his offering to the Lord be of fowls, then he shall bring his offering of turledoves, or of young pigeons. 15: And the priest shall bring it unto the altar, and wring off his head, and burn it on the altar; and the blood thereof shall be wrung out at the side of the altar 16: And he shall pluck away his crop with his feathers, and cast it beside the altar on the east part, by the place of the ashes 17: And he shall cleave it with the wings thereof, but shall not divide it asunder: and the priest shall burn it upon the altar, upon the wood that is upon the fire: it is a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the Lord.
Here is the far less magical, less poetic, and less dramatic New International Version:
14 " 'If the offering to the LORD is a burnt offering of birds, he is to offer a dove or a young pigeon. 15 The priest shall bring it to the altar, wring off the head and burn it on the altar; its blood shall be drained out on the side of the altar. 16 He is to remove the crop with its contents and throw it to the east side of the altar, where the ashes are. 17 He shall tear it open by the wings, not severing it completely, and then the priest shall burn it on the wood that is on the fire on the altar. It is a burnt offering, an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the LORD.
Where is the poetry in "He shall tear it open by the wings, not severing it completely"? I much prefer "And he shall cleave it with the wings thereof, but shall not divide it asunder." It's especially effective if you read it aloud.
Even though I love the Old Testament more than the New and the King James version better than any other, I'm going to ignore those preferences and re-read the New Testament first in the New International version of the Bible. Why? I read the Old Testament more often. I don't want the beauty of the language to interfere with my understanding.
There's an excellent chance that if I'd lived in an earlier time or if I'd been raised in a different denomination, I wouldn't be an atheist. In an earlier time, say, before Gutenberg's invention, I wouldn't have read the Bible. I would have relied on priestly interpretations, and I might have bought the story unanalytically. In a different denomination, where Bible study and Bible reading weren't considered as important or emphasized as highly, again, I wouldn't have read the Bible as many times, and thus I might have been able to have faith.
Since Bible reading helped me becoming an atheist, it seems like a good idea to periodically revisit it. I can now do that in a public forum. Who might be interested? Perhaps other atheists; perhaps religious people who want to convert atheists; maybe just my friends; maybe just me.