Sunday, April 08, 2012

What's the Point?: Thoughts on Easter and Religious Criticism

This morning I woke up with my fiance as she was preparing to go to work around eight o'clock. I sent my younger brother a birthday text message and idly pondered the coincidence of his birthday shared not only with the death of Kurt Cobain, but also, at least this year, the commemorative resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I made some coffee and came into my office to do some writing. Immediately (and unsurprisingly) I noticed the many religious accolades of my believing friends via social media. I lightheartedly made a few comments of my own ("He is risen!" I said to myself in the mirror) and took note of the "heathen" atheists walking their dogs and exercising outside my office window on this glorious Easter morning. For reasons unknown to me I put on Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska and was struck by the poignancy of this line from "Atlantic City:"

"Everything dies, baby, that's a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back."

Despite my enduring dissent from religion in general and Christianity in particular, I still find the idea of redemption compelling and beautiful. Hardly the explicit domain of Christianity, this idea has likely always been present in us. Most experts agree that religion first evolved as a response to the quickening of our mortality. Our first pre-religious rituals involve the burial of the dead and the rituals, themselves, generally centered around the idea of surviving death. This is indisputably a hallmark of the world's modern religions as well.

However, there is a secular language we have adopted since the advent of modern science that I find just as beautiful, if not more so. We've learned in the last several hundred years that the makeup of all matter is virtually the same. On a small level we have learned that we, as human beings, share DNA not only with our closest relatives like chimps and bonobos but also with distant cousins like whales and birds and even plants and trees. On a larger level we have learned that all organic matter containing carbon was produced in stars. As the late Carl Sagan famously quipped:

"We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We're made of star stuff."

We are programmed to live and yet everything dies. This is a sobering realization for all of us, no matter where we fall on the spectrum of belief. The story of Christ, and particularly, the story of Christ's resurrection, is a pivotal balm when contemplating the sad state of dying things for the Christian. For within the resurrection of Christ my believing friends see also the promise of their own resurrections and the resurrections of those dear to them. The atheist has no such comfort and, in regards to the specific matter of coping with death, I am sympathetic to the beliefs of my peers although I cannot, myself, assent to them.

Well, that's all good and well isn't it? So, the question is often asked of me, why do I constantly make a hobby of criticizing religion? If I am sympathetic to it's most dearly held predication (the fear of death) and I am able to regard it reasonably if not respectfully then why not leave well enough alone?

This question is only a good one superficially. Let me explain to you why.

Christianity is fundamentally an evangelical religion with explicit admonitions to proselytize the world. The Great Commission recorded in the final verses of Matthew have Jesus saying,

"Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you."

First of all, I am quite happy that modern Christians largely consider the Old Testament to be not only irrelevant but often times diametrically opposed to their more tolerant, love everyone version of Christianity. Back in the days of Moses dissent from the God of the Jews was dealt with swiftly by stoning the guilty parties to death. To the chagrin of my believing friends, one does not have to step far back to wade in the blood of those who dissented only several hundred years ago and were burned as heretics or dipped in oil as witches or beheaded as atheists. I'm fond of acknowledging the Catholic church's 350 year late apology to Galileo after threatening him with death for stating the now undisputed fact of a heliocentric universe.

I digress.

Though I am not in any immediate danger of being murdered for disagreeing with my Christian comrades, I am, unfortunately, a victim of their constant proselytizing. Christians, in my experience, aren't content to hold their beliefs privately. They must judge the world. Just the other day a thoughtful believing friend of mine quoted a dense theologian he no doubt respected who, having the courage (read:audacity) of judgment I simply do not possess, deemed all non-believers to be "headed towards the void" and "alienated from themselves." My response to the theologian?

You don't even know me, motherfucker. And even that is much more time by way of response this cretin deserves.

Being told by strangers that I am unhappy and incomplete is but a mild irritation compared to the truly incredible indictment that I am going to suffer in hell for all eternity. That's right. I am going to suffer in hell for ALL OF ETERNITY because I believe in different things about the world than you do. This is made more startling when considering how many versions of Christianity exist in the world (Protestantism boasts 33,000 denominations). Which one buys you a ticket to heaven? One of them? Some of them? None of them?

Sadly, no one is an authority on this question. Myself included.

The difference is, while I criticize the more evil aspects that come with religion (and many of my thoughtful religious friends agree with these criticisms), I don't proselytize and I certainly do not threaten dissenters with eternal suffering.

Until the religious thinkers of the world treat me with the same respect I am bound to chip away at their crass dogmas. Remember, everyone has the right to believe in whatever they want to. But what they do not have is the right to not be criticized or offended. That goes for you and for me, dear reader. Only, I'm much less likely to knock on your door.

In Reason.

Clint Wells


Steve Hardy said...

Well said my friend. Happy zombie god day!

leslie t. said...


Robert said...

Christianity is fundamentally an evangelical religion with explicit admonitions to proselytize the world.

Did you ascertain this assumption from your observation of evangelical culture or reading of scripture?

Clint Wells said...

Well, I did quote Jesus' words as recorded in Matthew.

The truth is that both culturally and Scripturally (at least the New Testament) Christianity is an evangelical religion.

Or am I suddenly to believe that Christ's admonition to "make disciples" was some sort of metaphorical way of saying leave the unsaved alone?

Robert said...


I'd argue that this particular criticism of evangelicalism is accurate, if we we're to assume to proposition that Yahweh's primary objective of His church is solely individual discipleship of unbelieving men. But, I would argue that this is a massive error in the mainstream "evangelical" community. Perhaps your evangelical friends feel that your rejection of their faith is somehow their responsibility?

(Re Sagan's comment) The notion and emphasis that our material composition (the whole being from a logical positivist point of view) is ontologically the same as the rest of the universe, rings of startling similarity to the transcendental religions of the far east. Specifically, that we can be in "it" and of "it" and with "it" through our pursuit of knowledge of "it". I'm sure you agree that the parts that make up the whole don't define it. How many songs do you write with an G chord in them? The fact that a song contains particular components tells us nothing about its meaning. This is a not a "scientific" statement on his part, its religious rhetoric.

The point, I argue, is that the resurrection is really the anti-type for the thing you usually observe to be progress. Of course, it seems fair to say that you believe that living things exist to die. Whereas, I believe living things were made to exist forever and die as a result of the ethical sanctions of man who was put in dominion over them. This is a very different cosmology. Therefore, we have very different views of progress.

Clint Wells said...

Robert -

1. I'm not making any statements about God's "primary objective." I'm simply observing that, fundamentally, Christianity, as a religion, involves participating in evangelicalism. In the gospels the admonition to "spread the good news" is used over fifty times. The book of Acts is filled with descriptions of this very thing.I cannot speak for others, but I doubt they feel my rejection is their responsibility. I would posit they feel that, whether I accept or reject their claims, their only responsibility is to make them known and, as Peter says, "be prepared to give a reason...."

2. In no way is Carl Sagan implying an Eastern oneness with the Universe. He is simply saying that we are made of the same stuff, not that we have lost our unique material identities. It is a poetic secular language to shape the pre-historic need human beings have for a coping mechanism for death. Saying that we are a way for the Universe to know itself is strictly poetic. It's like saying the sun rises and the sun sets when we all know that, as a matter of fact, it is the Earth that moves, not the sun.

3. As a matter of fact, everything dies. As a matter of your particular faith, you believe not only that things have the potential to live forever, but that they were especially created to do so. Respectfully, this gets us nowhere and the burden of proof is on you to substantiate such a claim.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Theologians, don't know nothin', about my soul.