A Kinder and Gentler Yahweh?

When freethinkers critique Christianity by pointing out the relentless cruelty, violence and mayhem in the Pentateuch, Christians will often respond like this:  “Oh, well that’s the OLD Testament.   That doesn’t apply to us any more.  I base my religion on the God of the New Testament.”    I’ve often heard that sentiment expressed even from people who are not particularly religious.  The conventional wisdom is that God went through an anger management program in between the two testaments, and we ended up with a kinder and gentler Yahweh the latter portion of the Bible.  But is that really the case?

  • The concept of Hell as place of  torment for the damned is pretty much absent from the Old Testament.  Eternal punishment is a New Testament concept, apparently enthusiastically embraced by Jesus. (Mark 9:47-48, Matthew 28:41)
  • On the issue of slavery, the New Testament shows absolutely no moral progress over the Old.   Jesus assumes that the beating of slaves is a social norm and does not criticize it. (Luke 12:47-48)  And Paul’s letters support the institution of slavery as well. (Ephesians 6:5-7, Colossians 3:18)  In fact, one of of the shortest books of the New Testament, Philemon, is a letter sent to the owner of a runaway slave, asking him to take the slave back.
  • The New Testament is not any better on the rights of women.  Passages like Ephesians 5:22, Colossians 3:18, and 1 Timothy 2:11-15, have been used for centuries to justify denying gender equality–both inside the church and in society at large.
  • In a story clearly intended to extract more contributions from members of the early church, a husband and wife both drop dead when it is exposed that they’ve been holding out on their offerings.(Acts 5)
  • In the last book of the New Testament, human history comes to an end with a cataclysmic battle of cosmic proportions which makes the wars of the  Old Testament seem like minor skirmishes. (Revelation 17-19)

Of course this is not an exhaustive list, but I think it suffices to make the point.  The biblical text simply does not support the idea that the God of the New Testament is  nicer version of Yahweh.  In fact, in some ways he’s more horrific.

A Progressive Pope?

Apparently Pope Francis recently said that even non-believers were redeemed by Christ and suggested that they too would go to heaven if they did good works.  Despite the fact that most atheists and agnostics probably do not really care what the Pope thinks about their chances of salvation, Francis’ remarks are interesting on several levels.

The traditional Catholic teaching on this issue has been extra ecclesiam nulla salus–outside the Church there is no salvation.  Recognizing that this doctrine would leave an awful lot of humanity outside the realm of salvation, some modern Catholic theologians have searched for wiggle room, trying to find ways to expand the salvific circle while retaining the gist of the doctrine.  Karl Rahner, for instance, coined the controversial term “Anonymous Christian” for people who had not heard the Christian gospel but might still somehow be saved by Christ.  Until now, however, that opinion has been pretty much confined to liberal Catholic theologians and not emphasized at all in official pronouncements.  One cannot imagine Pope Benedict suggesting that Atheists can go to heaven.

(A side note:  How can two consecutive Vicars of Christ–both still alive–hold differing views on such a fundamental teaching?  Is the hotline to heaven at the Vatican not working properly?)

Another intriguing thing about the Pope’s comments is that he actually has some scriptural basis for what he said.  The apostle Paul, at times, leans towards a kind of universalism in his epistles. “For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ”, he wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:22. (See also Romans 5:8)  In general, these verses have made Christians uncomfortable and they have never really dealt with them.  Evangelical Christians in particular have taken great pains to explain how these verses do NOT imply anything like universal salvation.

So what is prompting the Pope to say this now?  Probably marketing more than anything else.  With Mass attendance and donations plummeting in Western nations, the Church is clearly in crisis.  Anybody who has visited Europe has seen the empty churches.  This might simply be an attempt to create a kinder and gentler face for Catholicism in hopes of bringing people back.

But the attempt could also backfire.  By tying salvation to good works without regard to faith in Christ, why bother with Christianity?  (This position actually comes close to an ancient church heresy called Pelagianism.)  Francis’ comments also undercut the whole rationale for the Mass, which is supposed to be a perpetual and propitiatory sacrifice, offered for the living and the dead,  which reconciles humanity to God. But if the ritual sacrifice is not necessary for salvation, why bother going to Mass?  What’s the point?

While I am not a fan of religion, I must admit it is nice to see a religious leader who is not going around condemning people to eternal damnation.  It seems like some progress.  My guess is, that the Pope’s remarks won’t have much of an impact on stemming the rising tide of secularism.  They might even accelerate the spread of unbelief.

Not an “Atheist Church”

A couple days ago the Religion News Service did a couple stories on Houston Oasis that were picked up by Huffington PostThe Washington Post and several other news organizations.


Many of the comments posted in response to the article reflect some misconceptions about Houston Oasis, so I wanted to take a moment today to clarify a few things about the purpose of our community.

First:  We are not a “church,” much less an “atheist church.”   We are a secular humanist community that functions as kind of alternative to church. Although most of the attenders are atheist or agnostic, we welcome all people who want to be a part of a community committed to exploring life through the lens of reason.

Second:  We do not “worship” anything.  Several comments from religious people have suggested that if we are not worshiping God in our weekly gatherings, then we must be worshiping something.  And the suggestions have ranged from Satan to materialism.   Worship of any kind is certainly not a part of what we do, and we make a point of using the term “gatherings” instead of “services” to describe our meetings.   Our music coordinator, TC Smythe, has aptly described it as “a TED talk with live music.”  We gather together to learn something new about the world, to draw strength from the power of human community, and to engage in service projects for the betterment of the human condition.  But we make no references to metaphysics or mystical ideas of any kind.  There is no prayer, no meditation, no strange quasi-religious rituals–unless you count crowding around the coffee urn as a ritual.

Third:  We gather on Sunday because it is pragmatic to do so.  A few atheists have suggested they find our habit of meeting on Sunday distasteful because it sounds too much like church.  The reality is, however, that most people do not work on Sunday morning.  It was simply the time when most of the people in our community were available for a weekly get-together.  Another response I occasionally hear from atheists goes something this:  “Well, I prefer to have my fellowship with other atheists at the bar on Friday nights.” Nothing wrong with that!  In fact we do some of that too.  But we are building  a community that includes all age groups.  So we need a family-friendly environment for our large group get-togethers.

I hope that gives everybody a little clearer sense of what Houston Oasis is about.  If you have more questions, please send them my way.

What’s In a Name?

I haven’t been a part of the free-thought movement very long, so I may not be qualified to make these observations.  I am fascinated, however, by the amount of space taken up on various forums and discussion groups over issues of nomenclature.  I have personally grown used to the idea of being an “atheist,” and I’ve actually come to like the term quit a lot.  Other free-thinkers prefer to be known as “agnostic.”   Some atheists disparage the term agnostic and consider it a cop-out.  I’ve also heard people use other terms to describe their perspective such as “agnostic-atheist” or “militant agnostic.”   Deists, it seems to me, would also qualify as non-theists.   They might grant the possibility that some greater intelligence was involved in creating the world as we know it. (And Michael Shermer has certainly explored this possibility in a couple of his books.)  Yet Deists still believe that no supreme being is actively involved in manipulating the day-to-day operations of the universe.  Heck, I even know Christians who would qualify as functional atheists.

Is the hair-splitting among terms like atheist, agnostic, freethinker, and skeptic similar to a believer’s need to differentiate between Pentecostals and Neo-Calvinists?  Is this just another manifestation of the inveterate human need to judge and categorize “the other?”

Anyway–just thinking out loud late at night…. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts on this.

Believers and the Bible

The Christian Century recently picked up the following article from the Religion News Service confirming a suspicion I’ve had for a long time:  Church-goers don’t read the Bible–at all. http://www.christiancentury.org/article/%252Fnews-title

The Bible is the most-bought, least-read book in the world.   And Bible reading is another aspect of religion that often becomes a mild source of guilt for believers.  I can’t tell you the number of times over the years I’ve head people say, “I really SHOULD read the Bible more.”  They say it the same way they would say, “I really should exercise more” and “I really should eat more vegetables.”   Yet most Christians do not even have a tenuous grasp of the biblical narrative trajectory.  That’s not a criticism, just an observation.

Actually, I wish more people would read their Bibles.  Studying the Bible probably sowed the seeds for my own journey towards reason and free-thought.  Even a superficial reading of the Bible reveals contradictions and exaggerations too numerous to mention.   Back when I was a Christian, I tried to like the Bible.  I really did.  And there are a few gems in the book.  I still like the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.  (The question of whether or not Jesus actually told these tales is up for grabs.)  But for the most part, the Bible is filled with absolutely horrific stories.  Even the standard Old Testament stories taught to Sunday School students have terrifying aspects to them.  Abraham:  If God wants to test your faith,  he might ask you to stage a mock execution of a child.  Noah:  God committed the first genocide, therefore genocide must sometimes be okay. Jonah:  if you don’t do what God wants you to, he might have you swallowed by a large fish.  Hardly innocuous stuff.

So, if believers think that this book somehow contains God’s word–why are they not constantly immersed in it and fascinated by it?  I am truly puzzled by this.  I’d like to hear your thoughts on the question.

Oh Hell!

A mega-church in my city advertises the pastor’s weekly sermon message on a gigantic sign along the interstate.  A couple weeks ago this was the title: “Confidence in Hell”–part of a sermon series on a number of biblical doctrines in which believers can have “confidence.”

And that got me to wondering why the doctrine of hell still retains such appeal for so many believers, mainly Christian and Muslim.  Public opinion surveys continue to show that most Americans believe in a heaven, and most Americans believe they are going there.  Most Americans also believe in the existence of hell.  But hardly anybody believes that they or anybody they know will be going there.  Maybe hell represents some kind of perverse desire for vindication, a kind of theological Schadenfreude that will rejoice in the punishment of godless liberal heathens.

Even when I was a Christian, the doctrine of Hell puzzled and terrified me. How could a God, who allegedly loved humanity, consign the overwhelming majority of all humans who ever lived to a destiny of eternal torture?  And what, exactly, would be the purpose of eternal torture anyway?  It didn’t make sense.  So, as a liberal Christian preacher, I spent a lot of time trying to explain away the harsher parts of the Bible.  I said things like, “Well, hell is really a metaphor for separation from God, but it’s not literally a place of torment.”  The problem, however, is that the biblical text doesn’t really justify the metaphorical approach.

I’ve met many people who say that they find the God of the Old Testament distasteful, but they really resonate with the “loving” God of Jesus and the New Testament.   Yet the Old Testament mentions nothing about a place of  eternal torment after death.   Hell is strictly a New Testament thing.  I realize there is a lot of controversy about what Jesus did and didn’t say, but there is a pretty strong scholarly consensus that–if Jesus really did exist–he was most likely a hard-core, apocalyptic teacher who said things like this: “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell where their worm never dies and the fire is not quenched.” (Mark 9:47-48)  I think it was Mark Twain who said, “Go to Heaven for the climate; Hell for the company.”  I’ll take good company any day.



Revelation and Reason

On the Sunday morning news programs this week Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, said that the Catholic Church should be more welcoming to gays and lesbians,  but he did not advocate any change on the church’s teaching that sexual activity is intended only for a man and a woman in marriage, “where children can come about naturally.”  He basically said it was OK for gays and lesbians to be really good friends with each other, but it can’t go farther than that.  How welcoming.

And why won’t the church consider changing its teaching?  Here’s the archbishop’s response:  “I think we can’t tamper with what God has revealed.”  I really wished George Stephanopoulos and Bob Schieffer had pushed him on this one because “revealed” is the operative word here.   That, my friends, is what all religion ultimately boils down to–“revelation.”   What is “revelation?” Revelation happens when one person can convince other people that he or she had a special insight about the will of God that others are not privy to.   Jesus had a revelation.  So did Paul, Mohammed, Joseph Smith, David Koresh, Oral Roberts, and countless others who have duped their followers into believing the cult leader had special access to heaven.

Revelation is perhaps the most dangerous concept ever devised by humans. For centuries upon centuries revelation has been used to control, intimidate, terrify, oppress and manipulate people.   There is no way to verify a revelation.  No longitudinal, double-blind study would work.  We simply have to take the word of the person who received the revelation.   Revelation is make-believe, pure and simple.

We don’t use revelation as a guide to knowledge in any other area of human  endeavor.  We don’t rely on revelation to build bridges, design airplanes, develop new medicines or predict the weather.   So why on earth would somebody’s claim to a “revelation” EVER influence public policy on social issues like marriage or reproductive rights?

The only antidote to revelation is reason.  I, for one, sincerely hope that the whole meme of revelation will die a well-deserved death very soon.  Revelation has done enough damage.  The planet’s salvation depends upon the use of reason, not revelation.