Tag Archives: atheism

I’ve Been Called Out by an Atheist…And He’s Right

I’ve been engaged in an online discussion of my religious views on the blog site of a friend of mine, Nate, who happens to be an atheist.  The discussion was not with him, of course. He has (probably wisely) remained silent during most of the back-and-forth commentary.

No, my conversation has been with another—more hard-line if you will—non-believer.

‘Ark’, as I call him, short for his online handle Arkenanten, points up apparent fallacies within many traditionally held religious, primarily Christian, beliefs. He has done a ton of academic and statistical research and is well-versed in biblical and religious writings, and also in the historical, archaeological, and scientific research used to debunk most all of those religious writings. If you ever want a lively debate, my dear Christian, on any of your firmly-held beliefs or doctrines, Ark’s your guy. I respect his knowledge on the subject if not always his “comment-side” manner…but that’s nuance, and I digress.

Ark called me out on a couple points of my beliefs in a recent exchange, wanting to turn the conversation to more of an evidence-based discussion, even though on repeated occasions I’ve told him I’m not nor have I ever been a fan of apologetics. Some Christians are and I’m fine with that, but I’ve never been a fan of trying to “argue” someone into belief. But, in short order, that’s exactly where I ended up, and I got frustrated.

My last comment on Nate’s site was not something I was particularly proud of, yet with it I thought I’d let it go and move on.

But I went back. One last time. And Ark had answered my semi-tirade. And he asked some rather critical questions. And he pointed up some apparent hypocritical statements I had made, countering what I had said in previous comments to what I had posted (admittedly, four+ years ago) on my own blogsite.

And, most frustratingly, he was right.

His first question was, “If you don’t blog about Christianity to inform the world of your god belief and the command to proselytize, then why are you blogging about Christianity? Ego?”

That got me thinking.

I don’t think there can help but be a little ego involved in our online commentary—be they Facebook posts, comments, memes, or a host of any other tools we Christians use to get across our “point”.

I’m no different actually, and I’ve soon got an almost 200 page book coming out on my own faith journey and beliefs to prove it. I do it to clarify a few of the positions I hold to as a believer, positions that might differ from my Christian brothers and sisters, and I do it to answer why I write what I do in the fiction realm, and why some of my characters say things and act as they do. But, could there also be a bit of ego in it?

Without the added aspect of relationship in any kind of dialog, be it a FB post, a blog entry, or an entire manuscript, there probably is a certain amount of ego involved. Aren’t we all, to some extent, trying to prove a point? To “make our stand”? To point up where someone else might be “wrong” while we have the “right” answers? How differently are our conversations over a cup of coffee or a couple beers compared to what we feel emboldened to write across the relative anonymity of a computer screen?

Ark’s next question was: I am simply curious as to why someone who is so “in bed with god” would continue to visit an atheist site? Are you looking to challenge the views of a former fundamentalist turned atheist or are you not quite as sure about your position as you try to make out?

You know, I’m not sure. And I’m comfortable with that uncertainty. If we Christians are honest with ourselves, none of us can fully be sure. That’s why our belief in the Son of God is called “faith”, and not “certainty”, though we like to put up a good front that we are.

I’d also say that my visiting Nate’s and other atheists’ sites is for much the same reason that I appreciated his commentary on my own blog (which is actually where he and I first “met”). The topics I read there give me cause to do my own research and studying, furthering my understanding of this elusive Deity I’ve chosen to worship. And, though the conclusions I’ve come to are often differing to those of Nate, and Ark, and others, I still respect and appreciate their knowledge as well as their own conclusions. And I will continue to visit them from time to time.

Concerning a few of my conclusions Ark finished his comments with this: And I say you’re a hypocrite of the first order… your site is replete with Christian posturing and posts, including the self-effacing way in which you casually ”announce” you are also a Christian. Just what is that if not apologetics?

He then uses my own words “against” me when, during the running commentary I said:  “As far as my own views, I don’t put much stock in a literal hell but, as you know from my books…” and yet from my own “About Me” page Ark pulled this: “I believe in Hell. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, and no second chances. (Sorry, Mr. Bell)”

And Ark summed it up with these questions: You note your use of the capital H, I hope? Did I misquote you, Kent?

Yes I did note that, Ark. And, no, you didn’t misquote me. In fact, you are absolutely right.

Oh, I could say—and accurately so—that some (okay, quite a few) of my beliefs within the umbrella of Christianity have evolved over the years, but that truth doesn’t belie the fact that I was doing and being exactly what I’ve hated about the public perception of Christianity all along. Yeah, I was being a hypocrite. And yeah, a lot of it was ego-fueled.

Words are powerful. Especially written words, thrown up to the ethereal cloud of anonymity we like to call the internet. People are looking into the windows of our glass houses and seeing rampant inconsistency: Our saying one thing, and then later saying another; saying one thing and doing another; driving aggressively while proudly displaying our fish bumper stickers; yelling at our kids in the grocery store while wearing our cross necklaces.

Guys like Ark have a very valid argument. Yes, we’re going to have inconsistencies in our lives, and yes, it’s going to look a lot like hypocrisy. Whether it is or not really isn’t the point, Christians. We are being held to a different standard, a higher one, whether we want it or not, whether we deserve it or not, and whether we like it or not.

And, you will be called out on occasion, and rightfully so. How you react will either perpetuate that stereotype, or dispel it. And I think we’ve found the answer to the majority of ‘reactions’ written by Christians across any given Facebook page.

We can do better.

I can do better, and the first example that came to mind in this instance was admitting that I was wrong. Wrong in my approach. Wrong in my delivery. Wrong in my hypocrisy, if not wrong in my beliefs.

Yes, if you peruse my site you’ll probably run across posts and pages that I’ve written over the course of almost five years now which may no longer be an accurate representation of who I am, or what I believe. I’ll change a few of them. But some I’ll leave—as mile markers and sign posts if nothing else, of where I’ve been, where I’ve come from, and, hopefully, points along a trajectory of where I’m going.

So, for that Ark, I apologize, and I thank you. And, in the future, I’ll try to do better.

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Christianity, Faith & Atheism: A mega-post on The Fate of “Eternal Consequences”

eternal consequencesMy good friend Nate posted a couple comments as a reaction to my recent post “Is Progressive Christianity a Slow Path to Atheism?” (follow the link here)

I told him I was going to answer him in a separate post so we can have a broader discussion among some of you fellow readers. Here’s the comment thread and my answer below:

NATE: This is an issue I’ve thought about a lot, and I suppose it’s one of the reasons that I’m an atheist. I don’t think that progressive Christianity necessarily leads one to atheism, of course, but I definitely see how it serves as a path for some. For me, as I began peeling back those layers that McLaren mentioned, I simply saw no reason to continue believing in the Judeo-Christian god. How could I trust anything the Bible told me when the evidence kept piling up that the Bible was just a collection of commentaries by people who lived a long time ago?

 ME: You said, “How could I trust anything the Bible told me when the evidence kept piling up that the Bible was just a collection of commentaries by people who lived a long time ago?”, which is a great question. What if you were to assume for a moment the reality of a God, and yet held separate the various (human) commentaries, past or present, on Him or His works? Then, piece by piece, you began to put a faith back together (“Oh, this fits here. I see how this fits in. I don’t get this…yet, etc, etc) Why I ask is, the more I read, and learn, of scripture, the more I’m coming to understand the allegorical and “larger picture” teachings that a lot of  primarily the old testament was written to put forth. Obviously I don’t get it all, and quite possibly never will. But I’m coming to understand a greater depth of what all the Bible was MEANT to be, rather than what too many of us, as 21st century Westerners, are trying to make it into. This is in no way meant to say that anything in the bible is not relevant to us in today’s society, but that a lot of what we’ve tried to make of scripture, throughout recent history, simply doesn’t say what we’ve tried to form it into. Your experiences with the CoC is ample evidence of this, IMHO.

 NATE: I think I understand what you’re saying. I don’t see it that way, especially if there really is any kind of eternal stakes involved. But I do understand why some people hold the view you’re suggesting, and I think it’s a far preferable view to fundamentalism.

MY LONGER ANSWER: Hmmm…I’m not sure you quite do understand what I’m saying, and I’m certainly not trying to be flippant here, but let me clarify…

To me, belief is a heart issue, not a knowledge issue. You can’t “knowledge” your way into anything without the heart to back it up. I know of several people who could run circles around me with their biblical knowledge yet I see little evidence that any of it has entered their heart in any meaningful way.

I kinda hate to keep coming back to this, buuuuuuuttttt, this too is one of the fundamental differences between the Eastern and Western mindset: when you’re talking about biblical scripture, you need to understand it from within the context and cultural for which it was written.

As I always say when I mention this Western/Eastern thing, trying to understand it within the context/culture/history of 1st century Jews does not in any way diminish the relevancy to us today in a 21st century Western culture…in fact, most often it enhances it.

And I know you’re probably going to ask why, in the 21st century, we have not been given the tools to understand scripture within the 1st century context and if these tools haven’t been passed down how are we to believe the bible is in any way “inspired”?

Well, I see the answer as something like this: There’s a marked difference, at least to me, between “inspiration” and “legacy”. We have been given an overall crappy legacy by our religious forefathers, with a scant few exceptions. Faith is not difficult. Belief is not difficult.

Religion is hard!

Jesus says, “Believe in me. Believe also in the one who sent me.”

Then came the disciples.

Then came Paul.

Then came the Catholic Church.

Then came the Inquisitions.

Then came the Reformation.

Then came the Protestants.

Then came the Calvinists.

Then came the Hobbesists.

Then came Uncle Jimmy’s First Cousin Bubba’s Best Friend Leon’s………….

Ad infinitum. Ad nauseam.

All of a sudden we’re many, many steps removed from the simplicity of what Jesus originally called us to do: Love God. Love others. Tell the “good news”. Make disciples.

And you can’t “knowledge” someone into discipleship either. You can only do this by giving them—showing them—something that they feel compelled to emulate, something they may or may not already have, something they simply may or may not have yet discovered within themselves.

We rush so quickly to glean the “knowledge” of a thing—in this case scriptural understanding—we miss the deeper subtleties that often lead to a deeper faith.

Take the missive, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Seems simple enough, but there are layers and layers of subtlety within those five words. What is love? How do I show love? Who do I show it to? Who is my neighbor? “What does it mean to love myself?

Discussion. Tension. Wrestling. Ultimately…growth.  Faith and belief are not static entities. They change, they grow, they refine.

The problem this represents for the Western mindset is that we are creatures of habit: we glean knowledge, we master it, we feel we “get” it, and therefore it can never change from what we’ve understood it to be. Ever!

EVEREVEREVER!!!

Any kind of change in perspective, especially when it comes with something involving “eternal consequences”, freaks us out!  (THOSE PEOPLE are not my neighbor!!)

Yet this often continual change of perspective is at the very heart of what the original writers of biblical texts were trying to accomplish. When you have someone, anyone, on either side of the discussion who refuses to budge in their perspective because they’re simply, “right, dammit!”, where is the growth? Where is the opportunity for true discussion? For the airing of differences?

For the gratitude of diversity?

Knowledge means nothing to God without the leading of the heart.

I originally typed “following of the heart” but that didn’t ring true to me. The heart needs to lead the knowledge. This is the beginning of discernment, and everything stems from an acceptance that there is, in fact, a God.

The path of understanding shouldn’t lead to God.

God should lead you on the path of understanding.

THIS is what I was saying.

Is Progressive Christianity a Slow Path to Atheism?

Photo by Courtney Perry
Photo by Courtney Perry

Recently, the author Brian McLaren was a guest on Rachel Held Evans blog site for a question and answer session. Right off the bat he was hit with a very hard-hitting question, and I was really struck by the depth of the question, and the honesty of McLaren’s response. Below is only the first third(ish) of his answer. You can find the rest of it, along with more of the session, on Rachel’s site (here). I’d love to get some of your thoughts and comments.

Here’s just the first question:

I want to ask him about an idea I’ve seen recently via a friend [Ryan Bell of the “Year Without God” project] who used to be a progressive Adventist pastor, but is now exploring atheism. Recently he posted that he thinks progressive Christianity is just a slower way to admit that there isn’t a God. It got a huge amount of response from others who agreed and said that had been their path to atheism. I guess that’s my question, and I’m sure he’s thought of this. How would he respond to that idea that progressive Christianity is just a slower path to non-theism altogether?

Daneen, get ready for a super-long answer. I couldn’t be briefer because this question is so big, important, and timely.

I think it’s worthwhile to note that when the early Christians favored God as revealed in Christ over the Roman pantheon, they were called atheists. The only gods that counted were the Roman gods, so anyone who didn’t believe in those gods was an atheist. Similarly, at the time of the Reformation, I can imagine Roman Catholics saying that Protestantism was a first step toward atheism … and then when Protestant intellectuals like David Hume and others more or less embraced atheism, Catholic warnings must have seemed prescient.

Both of these examples suggest that atheism often means “disbelief in the God of the establishment,” since those in power typically define the God who is supposed to be believed in. Every new conception of God necessarily requires doubting or rejecting the prevailing conception of God. So you could say that theism only evolves through atheism. I think there’s a kind of yin-yang between the two.

To put it starkly, Jesus must disbelieve in the God who loves our friends and hates our enemies in order to envision a God who manifests a compassionate perfection toward “the just and the unjust” as he does in the Sermon on the Mount.

Rachel’s first book and this remarkable blogspace she has created are surfacing what my work is also surfacing: there are lots of people who are losing faith in the gods of the establishments (of which there are many). For many, the process is like peeling an onion. First they lose faith in the 6-day creationist god, then in the bible-dictation god, then in the male-supremacy god, then in the european-supremacy/western-civilization/colonialist god, then in the anti-gay god, then in the pro-war god, then in the American-exceptionalism/manifest-destiny god, then in the anti-palestinian god, then in the controller-of-everything-that-happens god, then in the design-engineer god, then in the penal-substitutionary-atonement god, and so on. Of course the detail and order of events may vary, but eventually, every layer of the onion is peeled away and one is left with nothing … but maybe some tears.

The fear of being left with nothing leaves many people desperately afraid to question anything, which might be a good definition of fundamentalism. You mentioned Ryan Bell, whom I know and like a lot. I haven’t followed Ryan Bell’s blog as closely as I wish I could, but I check in when I can and I was impressed by this remark he made in passing recently: “For Christians, generally speaking, faith is the virtue that makes them impervious to new evidence.” I think that’s an accurate – and tragic – statement, generally speaking. But I especially agreed with what Ryan said next: “But none of us have anything to fear from the truth. And even when fear is an appropriate response, I would rather confront a fearful truth than be comforted by a lie.”

The establishment understandings of God are indeed under assault, and open-minded believers are forced to grapple with “new evidence” of unprecedented magnitude, as the recent photograph from the Hubble telescope made amazingly clear.

To believe in God as creator of a cosmos of billions of galaxies that have developed over 13.82 (or whatever) billion years requires disbelieving the God who was creator of one world in the center of one crystalline sphere that was made 6-10,000 years ago.

And of course, it’s not just cosmology. Neurobiology … anthropology … psychology … sociology … history … semiotics … nearly every field challenges the conventional packages of concepts that are associated with the word God, whoever is speaking it.

(The Answer continues on…You can find the complete transcript here)

Bible Contradictions, Discrepancies, Allegory & Fact

I’m in the midst of an excellent theological discussion with a friend of mine, who also happens to be a skeptic. One point he brought up revolves around the apparent discrepancies and contradictions in the bible…scripture that we, who call ourselves followers of God, believe is “God-breathed.”

One point I brought up to him regarding these discrepancies was that some gospel accounts, to use that example, were written for a particular audience and would have been readily understood by the intended reader within the cultural and historical context of the 1st century. We–those of us with a 21st century, Western mindset–would do well to understand this context, and that this context in no way diminishes the impact of the intended gospel message for today.

For instance, when Mark describes the crucifixion of Jesus, the events he details, and the sequence he writes, perfectly mirror the ascension of a Roman emperor onto the throne. A parallel that Mark’s intended reader would have picked up on instantly—he’s telling us that Jesus’ death was, in fact, His ascension onto the throne of heaven!

My friend asked a very relevant question of me (and my answer follows)…

I’m curious, how would you have answered?

The question…

What about the contradictions that can’t be understood that way?

My answer…

Herein, I think, is the fundamental difference between the beliefs that you and I hold. The obvious answer to your question is that I don’t know enough about the Bible to accurately or thoroughly answer many of the specific scriptural question(s) that you or other skeptics rightly pose. However, the key difference is that I hold out hope that, in my unfolding understanding of scripture, these answers will be revealed to me in time; maybe not to anyone else’s satisfaction, but at least to mine. And if in my quest for knowledge not everything becomes clear to me, which I realistically don’t think will happen, I will still be satisfied in my belief of what I am able to discern. All I know is the quest will be ongoing until I pass on.

In other words, I’m okay with what I don’t know; because either, a) at some point it will become clearer to me, or; b) it’s not a big enough rock in my path to cause me to stumble.

Which isn’t to say I’ve never doubted, or questioned, or raged, but I can look back on each of those times that I have (and still do, at times) and see that eventually the resolution has driven me closer to God, and sharpened my understanding and acceptance of the gospel…every time.

Just to be sure, I looked up the Merriam Webster definition of ‘inerrant’, which is “free from error”. Do I feel the bible is free from error? Yes, I do. Do I feel there are discrepancies and apparent contradictions within the bible? Yes, I do.

But consider this, and I maybe I have brought this up before: If you and I were asked to write individual narratives of our theological discussions over the past two years, for example, I firmly believe we’d come up with two very differing accounts—facts and details aside. There would be some details that would line up just fine, and some aspects would possibly (probably) vary in timing or specifics and, in fact, some may even conflict. Then there would be the things that you’d come up with that I’d have forgotten about and vice versa.

Does that make either account wrong? Does that nullify the entire narrative? Does that mean the events never actually happened? And what if my intended audience for these narratives was fellow Christian believers and yours were fellow skeptics? Could the entire tone therefore be different? Would some aspects be highlighted and some neglected…purposely, due to the intended audience?? Does that mean neither of us was ‘inspired’ in some way to write what we wrote?

I guess it comes down to how we choose to define God’s inspiration: What was he inspiring the writer to pen? And, what is he inspiring the writer’s intended readership to hear? Those two questions alone are ripe for personal interpretation!

I’ve heard several explanations for various discrepancies; some wildly speculative, and some quite plausible. Personally, on several accounts, I’m okay with plausible. And, I accept that some people aren’t. When I hear something like Mark’s retelling of Christ’s crucifixion as paralleling a Roman emperor’s ascension because that’s what his audience would have immediately connected, I’m willing to accept the plausibility of that, despite discrepancies with other gospel accounts, each of whom may have had differing audiences they were speaking to. Again, I’m conveying my own understanding of Christianity and the scriptures and not with the intention of a blanket explanation of theology.

I’m always extremely hesitant to engage in specific interpretations of scripture, as you well know, because I think each person comes to understanding in their own way, by various means and through varying timing. And, though a person may not understand or agree with a particular interpretation at the moment, this does not mean that over time and with increased revelation they won’t reach a similar understanding on their own. In other words, something may be said that at the time makes no sense or has no present bearing to a person’s question, but down the road the person will uncover some research that causes them to look back and go, “Ohhh, that’s what this meant; that’s how this part ties to that part”, etc., etc. This is what has happened to me on more than a few occasions, and continues today. That’s why I keep using the term ‘unfolding understanding’. The onus is solely on the person’s willingness to do their own due diligence and be open to an alternative point of view.