This is a long post. I would understand if some of you didn’t want to read it. However, I hope you do, and I hope it makes some sense to the reader. This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 1995 issue of The Skeptical Review magazine. I am reprinting it here to share with those who care and didn’t read the original printing.
“Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” These lyrics constitute one of my earliest memories of religious instruction or the concept of religion. They may formulate the base experience for many others as well.
Even if the song itself does not elucidate such a memory, the concept implied in these lyrics may. This may comprise the primary religious training of the preschool child, a training based on unqualified love directed from this brotherly figure, Jesus, to the lowly little child, a source of warmth and comfort, a contrast to the child’s own fragility. No matter where we go or what we do the rest of our lives, that image will remain in some part of our being. It may be the one feeling that is hardest to shake when we grow to question and doubt this religion called Christianity.
We next learn that God is the creator of all that we behold and all that we will never understand. He is the grandfather many of us never knew or an extension of the grandfather on whose knee we sat when young. We also become aware of God’s propensity for wrath, and we are told not to tempt him or displease him. Then we are introduced to the Holy Spirit and the unfathomable tale of the Trinity. That three can equal one is totally outside of our ability to understand. In fact, few, if any, adults can comprehend this one. The story continues to become more muddled and confusing, and yet we are told we must believe, and we oblige. Belief becomes a habit driven by fear of the unknown or the fear of rejection if we doubt or question, so our questions are internalized, and we begin to feel guilt.
We now learn a more rigid set of moral values. We learn that thinking a wrong thing is the same as committing the act. Our guilt grows, and our ability to deal with it overwhelms us. The feelings of inadequacy wash over us, challenging the depth and the coldness of the baptismal immersion. Thoreau said it well: “They think they love God! It is only his old clothes, of which they make scarecrows for the children. Where will they come nearer to God than in those very children?”
Theists base their belief on faith, belief based on emotion and culturalization. When reason and rationale challenge that faith, then the reason can have no value and the rationale must be incorrect. Faith is irrefutable and errorless because it must be in order to validate all in which they believe. They then raise their children into the habit of accepting absurdities, mysteries, convoluted thinking, and supplication. They do this while the children’s minds are supple and moldable. They know that the habits of thought thus formed stand a good chance of lasting a lifetime.
Belief existing in such a vacuum serves to alienate the faithful of each new generation from the world around them. They either live in judgment of anyone who does not believe as they do, or they begin to question their own values. The following poem by John Dryden may best express this phenomenon:
By education most have been misled;
So they believe, because they were so bred.
The priest continues what the nurse began,
And thus the child imposes on the man.
What I thought of as an honest and critical look at the religion I had embraced all of my life had gone on for years as a halfhearted effort. I wanted to find the truth, yet I wanted that truth to support that in which I had always believed. In other words, I was front-loading my search by trying to find corroborating evidences, not by searching for the real truth.
As I delved into the questions raised by rational thought, I increasingly found more questions. Each answer ended up raising dozens of other questions. I finally had to face the fact that the only way I would ever find the answers I sought would be to let the truth lead me to its destination. I then stumbled onto the following quotation. It is known as the Maxim of Freethought: “He who cannot reason is defenseless; he who fears to reason has a cowardly mind; he who will not reason is willing to be deceived and will deceive all who listen to him.” This struck home. I realized my cowardice and resolved to overcome it. I threw myself anew into research but with a new approach.
Biblical literalism and inerrancy appear to be enemies to the truth, and subsequent study on my part has led me to believe this to an absolute degree. Biblical literalism, as defined and interpreted by various denominations and individuals, has produced such things as the Amish shunning of modern lifestyles and snake handling to prove one’s faith and refusing medical treatment to oneself or one’s family. Biblical literalism has led to prejudicial actions against nonbelievers, including imprisonment, censure, torture, death, and even wars. Religion, says Feuerbach, is self-estrangement. There is the separation of the world into one spiritual and one earthly. Man sees himself, first, as an individual with limitations, then as a self without limits, empowered by his God.
A major purpose of fundamentalist religions is to supply a safe harbor for those who are insecure, fearful, lost or lonely, by justifying a way of life with narrow, defining principles and prejudices. The authority of the Bible is the final arbiter of any question. The inerrancy of the Bible is the final argument to justify or indemnify, becoming the central focus of such a life. The main philosophy of fundamentalists is one of constancy in which they find solace against an outside world filled with questions. They insulate themselves against such assaults by finding answers in these words and ideas, no matter how flawed they may prove to be.
To be human means we are doomed to explaining our world, not simply and directly, but only indirectly, through these interpretations. We dwell in our interpretations. In explicating a phenomenon, we always put it in terms limited by our ability to understand, always based in our own prejudices and preconceptions. This means that we will understand things partially and inadequately, through language rather than a godlike omniscience. Therefore, we internalize our belief structure, i.e., that which causes and enhances our beliefs. At the same time, we externalize its effects on our lives and that of those about us. This duality of nature does not lead us to understanding or knowledge but to faith. Faith in an improperly arrived at conclusion based on illconceived thought processes becomes so entrenched that it is often thought to be the truth even when it flies in the face of reality.
No reasonable person can believe that the guesses of preliterate man, upon which the myths of gods and the supernatural are based, were true. The beliefs of these primitives, however, were more reasonable in terms of their limited and insignificant knowledge, than the beliefs of today’s religionists who have masses of information available to them.
It is apparent that such faith is based upon emotion, rather than reason. Emotion needs no proof and rejects all questioning. Reason demands answers, questions conflicts, and objectively studies the issues from every available source and viewpoint. Reason is fearless thought, undeterred by legal, spiritual, or social penalties. Dissenting viewpoints do not alarm those who seek truth. The knowledge seeker who has a passion for truth fears nothing except error.
I have found the average skeptic to have a much broader knowledge of the Bible and theological issues than the average Christian. Whether led to skepticism by knowledge or led to the knowledge by their skepticism, the truth of the skeptic is that he is ultimately led by a search for truth.
Few Christians can delineate the reasons and evidences for their faith. Almost any attempt to elucidate qualitative responses on the subject elicit catch phrases and incoherent babbling. If one believes, based on naivety or innocence, it may appear charming or quaint, such as a child believing in Santa Claus. If one believes culturally, because he was raised to believe certain things, it can be understood, even if there is no other basis. If one believes as a result of erroneous information or faulty study, it is lamentable. When one defends, propounds, and propagates such error as fact and refuses to examine other information objectively, it is intellectually reprehensible, and I will challenge that type of belief every time.
Biblical literalism presents more questions than answers. It offers a god we cannot respect or understand, a god who changes vastly from passage to passage and event to event, a lack of consistency in what should be consistent if our faith is not to be shaken. What is impossible for our minds to believe our hearts cannot worship.