Thoughts on Christianity. (Part 1)

Or. Why I am not a Christian. I suppose that Bertrand Russell is past caring by now.

I’m not sure who, if anyone, will ever read this. If someone does see this who isn’t familiar with the Fighting Fundamental Forum then the names and some of the arguments in this series of posts will be unfamiliar. My apologies in advance.

As I said in my introduction, I’ve spent the last five years in the enemy’s citadel, the place known as the Fighting Fundamental Forums (the FFF). I began there following an appeal in an atheist forum by a poster looking for a bit of help and stayed there for well over 4000 posts, although latterly – over the last two years – I’ve not posted as much. My last post was nearly five months ago. I suppose that the main reason for giving up were the cynical attempts by the new owner to make the forum monetising-friendly, and his clumsy efforts to do this resulted in my being unable to post using Firefox. Although it’s possible to get round this it’s hardly worth the bother, and the forum breakage merely pushed me into something I should have done anyway.

As anyone who’s debated William Lane Craig will testify, it takes one second to make an unsubstantiated claim and a hundred minutes to rebut it. I’m also the type that doesn’t make an argument in a hundred words where a thousand will do. Hence, my posts were getting to be so long that it was difficult to maintain any sort of interest –  they were boring even me. Although there are over a hundred posters with a higher post count, few have as much content. This wouldn’t have been so bad if anyone  – I make an exceptions for the unfairly-derided ALAYMAN and Stasis Point, although he couldn’t stay on topic to save his life and had a talent for addressing what I didn’t say.

This post will be a bit long and will barely mention the FFF. However, it is part of a series in which the forum will come more to the fore. I need to put my own actions there into some context.I am not a religious person and have never been a believer. This puts me at a disadvantage when compared to the atheists on the forum who used to be Christians. However, it also puts them at a disadvantage and the best we can do is to try to learn from each other. Therefore the stage of doubt that ex-Christians have has been denied to me (almost). When I was young religion was never a subject at home. Some of my contemporaries went to Sunday School and I recall a vague feeling of missing out somewhat – I could have gone if I’d asked but I wasn’t desperate about it. But we did have religious education at school, of course. The notion of the existence or non-existence of any gods was not addressed but taken for granted along with the ideas that God / Jesus represented morality and therefore religious education was equivalent to moral education.

“Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”, say the Jesuits, and there is a lot of truth in that motto. Developmental psychology suggests that eight is a more appropriate age, on average, but until that time young children’s beliefs are not formed as much as given. There are good evolutionary benefits to this, of course, and most received beliefs are for our good. Concept-forming comes later in life but by this time in many cases it is too late to undo some beliefs that can cause damage, or just be wrong. Consequently it is hard for many people to reject what they learned at that sensitive age. Obviously this doesn’t apply to all religious people but there is unarguably a strong correlation between  the environment in which a child grows up and his or her religious adherence. The religious in general don’t seem to see anything particularly wrong with this, and equate inculcated knowledge of God with, say, inculcated knowledge that touching a live electric wire could get you killed. To say that this is grossly oversimplified is itself an oversimplification, as people throughout their lives continue to receive and incorporate ideas that support their pre-existing beliefs but it is still true that there is a general tendency to accept the earliest beliefs uncritically. In this sense there are good beliefs and bad beliefs, even though some good beliefs could be false and bad beliefs could be true. Anything that doesn’t have a rational and conceptual basis (and rational doesn’t simply mean a priori here) is a bad belief. Consequently, bad beliefs are disposable and therefore whatever I was told about God and Jesus at an early age was always disposable. I do, however, get the feeling that in many cases – perhaps a majority – that Christian converts yearn to return to their old certainties.

I consider myself lucky that I escaped all that by the age of eight – I remember just where I was when I had my first atheistic doubts and the location was at a part of school that I attended at that age. So for that reason I say that I’ve never been a believer – that any acceptance I had was received before I had a chance, or the tools, to reject it. And when I rejected it, I rejected it without any fuss, any soul-searching, any bitterness, any rancour or any unhappiness. Even so, some of it was harder to discard. Perhaps subliminally, in our Anglican area, we were taught that Catholics were (a) treacherous and (b) wrong. We were told that, for example, that Martin Luther was the greatest human being that ever lived, in tones more appropriate to a statement such as “grass is green”. Despite being a non-believer, for many years I was still more sympathetic to the Protestant rather than the Catholic view – indeed, we were never told what the Catholic view even was. So while my teachers were doing their best to make us good little Christians they were also dismissing half of Christianity.

It was the Bible stories that did it. Three in particular. It’s well-known that primary schoolchildren in particular have an odd fascination with the gruesome, the grisly and the violent aspects of history. I can attest to this during my brief inglorious spell as a teacher, when regaling ten-year-olds of tales involving boiling oil and torture chambers. But no-one ever would suggest that these medieval punishments were good in themselves. Not so with the tale of Jericho (Joshua 6). The teacher told us about the waiting, the marching, the sun stopping and the walls falling down as if by magic! Obviously a powerful God. But then she said that the victorious Israelites entered the city and murdered every citizen, every man, woman and child and (worst of all) every animal. The city was destroyed but the Israelites took away any precious metals. The only inhabitant allowed to live was a woman of dubious morals who betrayed her own fellow-citizens. Today there is no good reason to think that this episode ever even happened but nevertheless the story was used to illustrate God’s greatness and righteousness – the massacre of the inhabitants was held to be a good thing. Now anyone who considers ethics, even the consideration of a seven-year-old, can see that, whatever the fascination of such an event, this is hardly an ethical message. And any apologetic message that the children end up in Heaven anyway only reinforces that point. The real message is that evil is permissible as long as it is divinely ordained. Incidentally, a little while ago I was perusing an edited children’s Bible in a book shop and noticed that the worst excesses had been excised. Other genocidal reports from the same part of the book had been cut altogether.

The wise idiot Greg Bahnsen said God has a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists.  This is, ostensibly at least, the subject of my FFF thread “JohnGill’s absurd view of morality” (Warning: stamina required). Essentially this view supports the idea from the story of Jericho and confirms that at heart Christianity has firstly no native moral theory and secondly can make no moral claims. But more of that later.

The second Bible story that gave me concern was the tale of Lot’s wife (Genesis 19). We were told that, contrary to the Bible account, Abraham and Sarah were with Lot and his wife as they fled Sodom. Furthermore, Lot was Abraham’s brother (actually Lot was Abraham’s nephew). Poor Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt for the crime of looking back at the devastation of her city. Never did a punishment less fit a crime (or never could such a thing even be described as a crime). Yet here we were again being told that one must do as God stipulates or risk the worst – with the strong implication that failing to obey was itself morally worse than the act. Lot’s wife  never even had a name, at least not in the Bible, which just made things worse. She was just an example to be used to make a moral point, which itself didn’t make any moral sense. We were spared the other details of Lot’s “righteous” life – his willingness to allow his virginal daughters to be raped to spare his guests and his unconscious incest. Even gullible and idea-receptive schoolboys would have had trouble taking those things in.

The third Bible story was the most perplexing of all – at least for a primary schoolboy. Abraham is commanded to God to sacrifice his son Isaac. (Genesis 22). At that time Isaac is his only child and he arrived only after a prolonged period of childlessness so is held to be even more precious than children would otherwise be. He doesn’t tell Isaac and allows him to accompany him to a sacrificial place under the impression that the sacrifice is to be a lamb that will mysteriously appear. He binds Isaac and is on the point of killing him when God through an angel stops him, telling him that his faith has been proved. Everyone lives happily ever after. But what sort of impression does that give? We were told that a righteous person is one that follows God’s instructions whatever the circumstances – nothing is more important than upholding God’s will. But it was God’s will that Isaac not be sacrificed. And therefore the lesson of the story is that the God of the Bible is not a god with whom the believer can reason. Not only that, the believer recognises this and is happy to go along with it. Obviously Abraham trusted God enough to comply with his wishes – and faith is often thought of as synonymous with trust by believers – but his trust was misplaced. It is the unquestioning obedience that we are taught to be a virtue. We can all think of occasion where something ostensibly immoral contributes to an overall morality – the means justifies the end. But this phrase (like “survival of the fittest”) is used pejoratively when in fact on its own it is neutral. In the case of Abraham and Isaac the means did not justify the end – the end being that Abraham passed a test. Why anyone would think that killing their own son would serve any moral purpose was certainly beyond me. It should have been beyond our educators, too. But I understand that this disturbing little tale is still being presented as an example of virtue on behalf of the putative murderer.

Moreover, it also means that morality is independent of God. If it was not God’s will that Abraham kill Isaac then a refusal on Abraham’s part would have been following God’s will. But God’s will was more complex than that – it was that Abraham do as commanded, whether or not the act was good. Either God deliberately commanded Abraham to act immorally or morality was not the purpose of the exercise. A related – and equally disturbing – tale is the Book of Job, in which God again is complicit in the testing one of his subjects through a life which most of us would find unbearable, just as an exercise in belief. But as I recall we didn’t study that particular part of the Old Testament.

But if morality is independent of God then not only immoral acts such the stories described above are independent of him, but moral ones too. We were told the story of Jairus’ daughter – once again, a female is defined only in terms of who she’s related to – and that Jesus delayed his entry into Jairus’ house. Fair enough, it was to cure another anonymous old woman, but the story as presented was that Jesus allowed the daughter to die as yet another test of faith – this time for Jairus. Nevertheless, Jesus was in the bringing dead people back to life business, and who could complain about that?

The Good Samaritan is, I’m sure most everyone will agree, a worthwhile parable. There is absolutely nothing wrong with presenting moral instruction in this way, and the story has affected me, and countless others, for the better. Quite a few of the FFF members remind me of the priest and the Levite but I’m sure that that is an example of the particular culture in which they find themselves. But if morality and God are not necessarily connected then it follows that the parable of the Good Samaritan would relate a moral truth quite independently of who told it or how it was told.

So now we had Jesus the miracle-worker and Jesus the great moral teacher – although the morality of it all was articulated rather than theorised so his teaching could hardly be extended to great moral thought. In any case, as I’ve already related, the Good Samaritan was the exception rather than the rule. Religious education seemed more to do with obedience, or belief in the absence of evidence, than to do with any notion of goodness or how to live a moral life. Moreover, why would anyone think that believing in the absence of evidence was a virtue anyway?

One of the things we were told was that some part of us would survive our death and at that point we would be allocated a position in a place of either the greatest happiness – Heaven – or the greatest despair – Hell. Mercifully we were spared the details, albeit unsurprisingly as we have no eyewitness reports. We were just supposed to believe it anyway. Nowadays I regard the notion of Hell as just about the most evil doctrine perpetrated upon unsuspecting humans but in those late 1960’s days I had to conclude that the existence of Heaven and Hell was at best wishful thinking, and probably made up and repeated by people who didn’t know any better. We were forever being told, subliminally, that being good was subservient to being obedient, anyway, so that the purpose of religious instruction was more than anything about control. Today I don’t think that our teachers saw it in those terms explicitly, and they genuinely think that they are doing the right thing for their students – the fact that they are misguided reflects more than anything the reality that they themselves failed to escape what they learned in the days before they gained the tools to work it out for themselves.

I had no reason to believe in the existence of Heaven or Hell, and no reason to believe in most anything else we were told to believe on faith, either. We were told that, as Jesus’ sheep, he would be looking out for us. But he didn’t. He didn’t look out for the victims of the Moors Murderers, young children in the main around my age, senselessly killed and dumped in graves that have still not all been found. And just a couple of years later the Aberfan disaster happened. A huge tip of mining waste, dropped over the years on a hilltop containing many natural springs, subsided and collapsed on to a small Welsh mining village. The local school was right in the way of the collapse and bore the brunt of the disaster. The children were the same age as me, and I was familiar with the tips as I too was brought up in a mining area. Around half of the children and teachers died and because of my age and location I found it hard not to identify with them. Already a professed, though inarticulate, non-believer by this time, prayer seemed to me a complete waste of time. It was alright to wish for good outcomes, of course, but praying was more than that. We were not only asked to think certain thoughts, but to do it in a certain way, hands clasped and eyes closed. Bearing in mind that we were supposed to be asking a higher power for assistance, this posture, again, came across as one of obedience rather than contemplation. I recall that we were asked to pray for the victims of the Aberfan disaster, and when it emerged that around half of the children survived, as well as the head teacher, we were then told to rejoice that God had been so merciful. My memories are quite clear here – that what we were asked to do was nothing short of complete hypocrisy. I became a bit of a rebel – although I stayed silent there was no way that I would go through the hands together, eyes closed routine. So I just looked straight forward or around. Every now and again a teacher would gesture for me to get with the plan – I just carried on and no words were said.

God didn’t intervene in the world. Heaven and Hell were only promises and threats. Religion was merely a form of social control, put about by the convinced or the cynical. It was only a short step towards the realisation that none of it had any basis in reality. No Adam and Eve, no Great Flood, no parting of the Red Sea, no manna from Heaven, no virgin birth, no miracles, no resurrection. None of it made any sense at all. It was only stories. There is no God.

I don’t think I was that unusual. Growing up in a small Derbyshire town isn’t the same as growing up in Alabama or growing up in Riyadh. I didn’t know anybody that actually went to church, and I’ve never been myself outside of weddings, christenings and one Christmas Eve.  A recent report by the Pew Centre relates that just 17% of Britons declare that religion is “very important” in their lives and 20% consider that belief in God is necessary to be moral (this is close to the averages from similar European countries, but the corresponding US figures are 50% and 53% respectively). This is good news from my perspective – either that or teachers are actually emphasising morality above subservience these days. My guess is that people generally get their worldview from a variety of sources, more so these days, and formal education just isn’t as important in this respect as it was.

So religion had no importance and soon I had no need at all to think about it. on leaving primary school my religious education virtually ended. At my first secondary school we had an RE teacher who I was sure was the oldest person I have ever seen – she was probably in her fifties. She was useless and we learned nothing – her favourite lesson was to ask us to spend half an hour reading the Bible and then at the end randomly ask a few of us what we had learned. What we really did was pick something in the first minute in case we were asked and then settle down to half an hour of talking. Then I went to a higher school where RE was devoted to general social and moral issues like drugs and underage sex. God was forgotten.

I wasn’t keen myself on being told fairy stories as if they were true or meaningful, but if anyone else was happy with it then I had no issue with that as long as they left me out of it. They were wrong, but being wrong is something to which all us of have a right. Being aware that God couldn’t actually be disproved led me to call myself an agnostic right up until my twenties – it was only fair, after all. However, being a curious type, I never lost interest. I’ll relate the changes that caused me to get up and realise that religion poisons everything in a future post.

I want to emphasise that my thoughts about my thoughts have changed somewhat – the events which I describe are well over forty years in the past and there might be a few things that didn’t happen exactly as I recounted here. What I’m trying to articulate is the mind of an eight-year-old and obviously at that time I couldn’t put the words to the thoughts as I can now.

Should anyone from the FFF read this, then I can hear the complaints from 4,000 miles away. I “hate God”, “rebelled against your creator”, “suppressed your thoughts”, “are subject to presuppositions” yadda, yadda. The standard atheist response goes along the lines of “can’t hate something that doesn’t exist”. Both viewpoints are false. When anyone changes their mind, about anything, it is in response to something – it is not spontaneous. Furthermore it is possible to have emotional reaction to characters that don’t exist in real life – everyone likes Atticus Finch and hates Hannibal Lecter, for example, and no-one thinks that odd. I’m quite happy to admit that a distaste for the God of the Old Testament started me off the path I never wanted in the first place. But I’ll also address that later.

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