On the Necessity of Apostasy
On one of the “atheists vs. Christians” Facebook pages that I occasionally haunt, one of the contributors recently raised an earnest question that deserves a sincere, considered response. I’ll begin by quoting him:
“You are asking this generation of Believers to put aside their beliefs in their Savior, after 2,000+ years of dedication Believers gave their lives to pass the legacy to each generation, per the Christ’s request?”
Garbled though it may be, this is one of the better questions I’ve seen raised in that forum. Without making it crystal clear, he seems to have broached two issues, one of which I responded to briefly with an observation about “throwing good money after bad” but now would like to address at slightly greater length: Yes, it’s true that the history of Christianity is strewn with martyrs who died for their convictions. And on some level, I’ll admit that’s impressive – just as it’s impressive when a Muslim fanatic dies for his beliefs, whether he’s put to death by the zealous defender of a rival faith or blows himself up in a crowded marketplace imagining it to be the will of Allah. But that doesn’t make his religion true, any more than being martyred for the Christian faith makes that religion true. All it means is that some people are willing to die for their opinions, and that others are willing to kill those who hold what they imagine to be the wrong opinions. No matter how many people die for a faith, the faith is not thereby validated.
Consider the violent end of that unfortunate first-century Palestinian prophet around whom the Christian religion is built. For the sake of argument, I’ll assume that such a figure as Jesus of Nazareth actually existed and was put to death by the Roman Procurator for inciting rebellion. That doesn’t make him the Son of God: it makes him the victim – one of many such victims – of an empire that wasn’t keen on having its prerogatives questioned. It happens all the time, and doesn’t make Jesus or any other martyr divine. For that matter, it doesn’t even place the stamp of validity on his message: his message – assuming we can find it somewhere within the opacities of the Gospels – stands or falls on its own merits.
I mourn for those who, like Jesus, are executed unfairly. I mourn the unjust death of Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethyl Rosenberg, Joe Hill and Mohandas Gandhi for the same reason. But that martyrdom doesn’t make them special: their lives made them special. Like Jesus, the five martyrs I named died for causes that I can get behind, but the thing that makes their message “true” and their causes worth fighting for is not the martyrdom of the messengers.
Now, to the more important question that the participant raised – albeit by suggestion rather than outright statement – a question that I actually do spend a lot of time with and sometimes agonize over. It’s the question of apostasy and the role I seek to play in it. For the benefit of any reader who’s not yet made my acquaintance, I will declare myself: I’m an apostate; I have “fallen away” from “the faith once delivered to the saints,” to quote the Blessed Old Leather-Bound Bible. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I believed in the same God that all Christians believe in, and imagined the BOLBB to be his inerrant Word. I believed it so strongly that I dropped out of college after my fourth semester to attend the Missionary Baptist Seminary (a hiatus that later cost me dear, professionally-speaking), and served as pastor to two different churches in my early- to mid-twenties. I followed a path somewhat parallel to Matt Dillahunty’s (with no arrogant comparison of stature intended): I married ‘em, buried ‘em, and preached the Gospel with a zeal that you can perhaps imagine if you think of this essay as a kind of photographic negative. I was every bit as “saved” as anyone you can name. So when I talk about apostasy, I know what the hell I’m talkin’ about.
The poster’s question has to do with my apparent attempt to encourage others to apostasize. In answering it, I find that I can either address his question as I believe he understands it or my paraphrased version of it, and they’re not quite the same thing. My version of the question – one that actually hits quite close to home – is: “Why would you want to destroy the faith of people who find in that faith the strength to get through their days?” Of course, I don’t think that’s exactly the way my questioner sees it, but I paraphrased what I take to be his meaning it in a way that really does exercise me personally: as I said, I sometimes agonize over it. I’ll return to this in a moment.
But first I need to digress for one short paragraph, to explore an often unexamined dimension of apostasy itself. Just consider the following, which I will address directly to any believers who happen to read this: every one of you who is now a Christian is so either because you fell away from some other faith and embraced Christianity, or had forebears who did that. Apostasy lies somewhere in the history of every family, and yours is no exception. This is self-evident: in its earliest years, all Christians were converts from some other faith. And that has remained largely true throughout the two Christian millennia, although at some point birth rates and childhood indoctrination obviated the need of conversions to keep the game going. But please take my point: whoever it was in your family who first converted to Christianity – whether you or one of your antecedents however remote in time – did so by falling away from some other faith. Don’t you know that was the occasion of much anguish on the part of the convert’s family? Don’t you know that the same kinds of questions crossed their minds that the poster I’m referring to has expressed? Don’t you suppose that their questions were just as valid as his?
Now, to return to my Facebook friend’s question as I believe he might have framed it had he wished to be more explicit: that question pertains to the risk that I may be encouraging believers to take, and it’s not the risk of the loss of comfort and perhaps the goodwill of one’s family and friends that he has in mind: it’s the risk of eternal damnation in exchange for a little clarity, the ultimate Faustian bargain. My best answer to the question as now framed is: if I believed for a moment that there’s the slightest chance the creator of a hundred billion galaxies would consign someone to eternal torment for not believing the right things, of course I wouldn’t try to lure people off the narrow way that leads to eternal life, as Jesus is said to have put it. Why on Earth would I want to tempt people into hell? What kind of monster would that make me?
But you see, I don’t think for a moment that that’s true. In fact, I’ll just put it bluntly: it can’t possibly be true. The idea that the creator of a hundred billion galaxies would toss sentient beings into an eternal lake of fire to endure unspeakable torments forever for any sin imaginable is so preposterous that it can only be described as “batshit crazy.”
So I will return to my paraphrase of the question and answer that version (which for me has much greater meaning); and I will admit to a degree of dividedness when it comes to it. I certainly have no wish to make people unhappy: there’s overwhelming unhappiness already in the world, without my contributing to it. In this, I agree with my fellow atheist Kurt Vonnegut, who opined that for many people, the best thing they could possibly do is join a church. There are people who simply need the consolations of faith, and I have no desire to cheat them out of those consolations. I would also echo something that Woody Allen said: life is pretty much a manifest of horrors, and if there’s any way that you can wring a little joy from it as you wend your way through it, provided you’re not hurting someone else in the process, go for it! If that means believing in God, you have my unsought blessing.
In other words, it’s not so much your faith I want to talk you out of, as your batshit-crazy beliefs.
Faith writ large, and beliefs writ particular, are two different things. It’s one thing to believe that behind all the perplexity and misery of life there stands a loving God who will with open arms welcome you into his kingdom when you die, and quite another to imagine that the universe is 6,000 years old, evolution is a lie from the pit of hell and global warming is a hoax. If you take comfort in the former, be my guest. I have no wish to disabuse you of that notion however erroneous I may imagine it to be (while acknowledging that, for all I know, it might even turn out to be true). But when you deny evolution and anthropogenic climate change, you’ve crossed a line: you’re part of a very large problem, and your beliefs have an enemy in me. Let’s examine these errors one at a time.
If you deny evolution, you cannot apprehend your kinship with all the other animals on this planet. If you can’t understand that kinship, then you can’t understand that the natural laws that apply to other animals – that limit, say, their geographical range and the size of their populations – also apply to our species. If you deny evolution, you can easily imagine that extinction poses no threat to you or your progeny, and to other people’s kids, and you can go right on squeezing out babies to beat the band and consuming to your heart’s content without – as Jesus is said to have put it – having any thought for the morrow. If you deny evolution, you imagine yourself to be a special creation who’s been put in charge of all the other species, as Genesis 1 suggests. On that view, you have every right to plunder the planet – to “have dominion over it.” That warped notion blinds you to the realities of the world, some of which are grim indeed and require the urgent attention of all of us rather than navel-gazing and Rapture-expectation. That way lies madness and ruin: the evidence is all around you.
And if you deny the most well-attested theory in all of the sciences (that is, evolution), it’s easy for you to reject any other “inconvenient truth” while you’re at it. For you, science has become “whatever agrees with the tenets of my faith.” You are thus free to reject all the rest as “science falsely so-called” (again, quoting the Best Book Ever Written). My senior Senator, the most vociferous climate-change denier in Congress, put it this way: “Last time I checked, God is still in control.” As long as Jim Inhofe is in office, the debate is going nowhere, even as our species barrels toward extinction.
Some of you probably think I’m overdrawing the picture. I’m not: if you think that, you need to do further research. It’s at this point that your belief is not only batshit crazy: it’s dangerous to the human race. It’s dangerous to MY CHILD! That belief must be fought, and as long as you hold it, I’m damn well going to fight it. I’ll ridicule it every chance I get, even at the risk of hurting your feelings, because beliefs like that don’t stop at the end of your nose: they have real-world consequences for all of us.
Needless to say, everything I just said also applies to such fundamentalist notions as the sinfulness of homosexuality and the subservient position of women. Those are real and present evils that lead to intolerable inequities, just as the slaveholders’ Bible-based argument for the ownership of dark-skinned people was a real and present evil in their day: just as wicked, just as unworthy of thinking human beings, just as null and void.
Now, I wouldn’t claim to know with certainty without popping the question, whether any particular fundamentalist denies climate science or not; but I know what the polls say, and in the polls, creationism and climate-change denialism track so closely that I suspect those beliefs are held by one and the same population. My personal experience also bears this out.
As P.Z. Myers said, “There are roughly four million minds born every year in the United States. And whether they’ll be encouraged to develop and be trained to understand science depends to a remarkably high degree on precisely where they are born, what color their skin is, and how much money their parents make. And that is a deep injustice.” I would add a fourth item to his list: whether those children are encouraged to develop and be trained to understand science also depends on the religiosity or lack thereof of their parents. Those born into fundamentalist households never have a chance, because they’re taught from day one that science is the enemy of their faith (that is, their tenets of faith) – as indeed it is and ought to be.
So Christians, for the sake of your children, don’t indoctrinate them in horseshit. If you need faith to get through your days, well and good: do your kids a favor, leave that whoop ‘n’ holler church that’s teaching them lies and join the Unitarian Universalists. That way you can have your cake and eat it too: you can be a person of faith who also enjoys a clear conscience. As a bonus, you can stop feeding that nasty persecution complex that runs like a black thread through the history of Christianity, because no atheist will ever again laugh at you.
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