Tag Archives: Morality

Why did I ever (stop) believ(e/ing) in the first place?

Recently I was writing to someone who became an atheist while at our undergrad. They had asked me when I started doubting and why I went to seminary. I wrote an email in response explaining not only when I started doubting, but why I believed in the first place. I’ll reproduce that email in part later on.

Interesting though that a couple days later, perhaps even the next day, I talked with one of the foremost metaphysical philosophers in this country about faith and he, too, raised the question before me of why I started doubting. However, when I mentioned that I felt like for every intellectual argument for God there was a tantamount counter-argument, his insight to share was that there are no knock-down drag-out arguments in many spheres of life. Politics, for example. Thus he finds it strange that people get so worked up about these things in the area of religion. And that got me to ask myself the opposite question: If there aren’t any wholly convincing arguments for naturalism (or a closed universe or what have you), why bother leaving theism?

This doesn’t positively yield a reason to believe but may remove reason for having jumped ship to begin with. I know in “You are who you hang with”… I said I could see myself coming back to the faith. Actually, I think that verdict is out (again). If anything, I feel many more intellectual/emotional/spiritual moves are going to have to happen before I could call myself a Christian again.

The philosopher’s right that intellectual alternatives to faith probably are not necessarily superior: there are good arguments both ways. But what of the tensions I had had: A god that sanctifies me yet I seem to be getting worse? A god that “speaks” to his people but I hear nothing? These tensions are very real and seem easier answered/dealt with by rejecting the premise of god than anything else. But, then again, my assumptions about God’s sanctification, my moral dynamism, God’s communication, and my reception could and probably should be called into question (that is, if I want to make my Christian friends happy).

Again, we’ll see. Too much thinking/writing to do for the end of the year for now.

 

Excerpts from email to atheist fellow alum:

“I think I should start with why I ever believed (I’m writing for me prob’ly more than you now but I will answer your questions later – skip this if you want!). I believed because as a 10 year old thinking on my own about my grandmother’s death no coping resource was available to me but belief in a god. I had other issues – S.A.D., ridiculous amounts of HW, loneliness -then driving me to seek help beyond myself, beyond what I thought my parents could give. The idea to believe in God came from the church we attended I imagine. That summer I went to a summer camp which reinforced my new belief-choices; it was a positive experience from all I can recall. At that time I felt that I had or was experiencing God. I changed somehow between 10 and 11 and became more intentionally social and friendly; a lot of behavior issues went away.

“My faith interests continued and were nurtured by church through my middle school and high school days. Then my faith got really mixed in with depression, guilt, social anxiety late in high school. My faith didn’t diminish, and probably wasn’t completely the source of my depression, but I really languished as a person.

“Going to [college] I did the orientation program which I felt gave new life to my beliefs, and my self esteem. I “re-dedicated” my life to Jesus and started dealing with my depression more head-on ([the college]’s counseling center was crucial there). Experiences on [my orientation] made me think I was really seeing God at work in my life and the lives of others.

“Believing I was seeing God at work in my life and others’ continued through [college], probably with occasional lapses, certainly with occasional doubts. The real doubts started [later].

“___ died at [camp] in the summer of 2009, when I was working there. It was quite possibly a suicide; at best it was a tragic accident that would not have happened if he had been a little more stable.

“Though only an acquaintance, I had seen that things were not going well for ___. I had heard some stories. And I knew my own history of mental illnesses well enough to see myself in what he has going through that summer. Through the summer I prayed for ___, repeatedly. And with friends. I prayed specifically that God would protect him, and spare him from suffering. Suicide was included in those appeals, if only implicitly because I was afraid to speak the word.

“Well, the end of the summer comes and ___ is dead and I am thinking, “Wow – really pulled through for us there, God. Thanks a lot.” Those events really hurt my faith in God’s goodness, but it eventually rebounded after some time and recommended reading from a prof.

“More or less since that time though I have “felt” God’s presence very little. [Late summer 2012,] I started noticing how “sinful” my life was. I guess I don’t need to use quotes. Whether porn use and masturbation is sinful or not, hatred and lust and anger in my heart are certainly dark things. And all this while the Spirit was supposed to be alive, at work inside me?

“This tension of “sinning but indwelt by God” became compounded by noticing the silence of God in my life. Wasn’t God supposed to communicate with God’s people? And I started discovering suitable intellectual alternatives to theism, in Freudian psychology, in historical-criticism, in Hitchen’s critiques, discoveries only added to by my Duke education. In the end it seemed more sensible to let go of the tensions and accept the alternatives. “Either God does not exist or I don’t have a relationship with him” was one of my last thoughts in the process. Hence my agnosticism.”

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Accepting homosexuality: Millstone? Freedom?

The issue of homosexuality has been a major stumbling block in my faith since coming here.

I’m coming from a background which has not historically accepted any physical-sexual practice outside of marriage between one man and one woman. I believed that tradition’s teaching and was comfortable with it. (Perhaps I believed it because I was comfortable with it?) I’ve entered a place where some of my peers are homosexual and in homosexual relationships and practicing Christians. Anymore I don’t know what I believe although I have to confess I’m not fully comfortable with Christian homosexuals (or non-Christian homosexuals). (But I still want to be friends!) I’m sure it’s part of my upbringing and preferences, just like I was verbally and non-verbally raised to avoid parts of downtown because there were “blacks” there, probably “with guns”. I won’t even completely pass the buck — I continue to entertain thought and affection patterns which reinforce my biases. If only I didn’t!

I am glad that it’s not up to me to solve this issue for everyone. But, it’s an ambiguity I may need to solve for myself before committing to any philosophy.

Jesus has heavy words for both those who would try to lighten his followers’ loads and those who would try to bog his followers down. Check it:

“… whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” –Matt. 18.6

“[The religious leaders] tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger…. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.”  — Matt. 23

Which side is right? Certainly none of us want either option, do we? We don’t want to be condoning something wicked in God’s eyes that could disrupt or jeopardize others’ relationships to God. Nor do we want to force someone to deny themselves in a soul-crushing way. More to the point, we don’t want a millstone tied around our necks and we don’t want the charge of wrongfully morally burdening others.

I hope this post hasn’t been insensitive (though with my luck it probably has). I just want to share one of the hang-ups I have when it comes to faith (or ethics pursued outside of faith). Can anyone relate? What words would you share?

Other questions: To what lengths will we go, and what “biblical/theological” means will we employ, to justify fulfilling our desires or stay in society’s good graces?
It’s been shown, by people like Peter Enns, that Israel’s laws were not particularly unique when compared to those of surrounding Ancient Near East cultures. For example, the Bible speaks to a context in which slavery was accepted; Israelites and early Christians happened to view it as God-ordained. In our world today we reject slavery. Should we also reject “traditional” (heterosexual — etc., etc.) romantic love as the only acceptable kind?

Ditching guilt

One of the best outcomes of my move from Christianity so far has been ditching guilt.

As a Christian I was constantly measuring myself up to some Christian superhero I thought I had to be. I was supposed to pray (briefly if necessary, but best on my knees and for a significant amount of time) and read my Bible (spending enough time with it to generate or receive some significant insight) every morning. I had to express my love to God somehow through worship too; this meant me thinking towards God “I love you! You are great!” I had to look at fewer persons lustfully than the day before and avoid touching myself. The list goes on.

I had concluded that feelings of spiritual inadequacy and guilt were feelings I was going to struggle with my whole life, because I indeed was spiritually inadequate. And I was resigned to this: everyone has his own cross to bear. I may continue to struggle with a notion of being inadequate or not good enough through my life, but for now I am so glad to be (relatively) guilt-free!

Some of my Christian friends celebrate with me my drop-kicking guilt to China (well, somewhere else, anyway). I know many good Christian people who want others to live guilt-free. I think it is possible to live mostly guilt-free as a Christian. I do not think I felt guilt because I viewed God as a Judge waiting for me to make a mistake. It is possible the guilt I felt (and may feel again) is more related to psychological issues (e.g. self-loathing).

Whatever the reason, since calling myself an agnostic I have not stressed about the following – praying, reading my Bible, worship, my sexuality, evangelism. And that has been great! It has been so freeing.

Questions: A) Here I have used “guilt-free” as an antonym for “guilt”. What opposite emotions/terms might you posit for guilt and why? B) If I still believe some acts I commit are wrong and believe god might exist, why do I feel so little guilt after my wrong-doing right now? C) Christianity could cause someone to feel more or less guilt than she currently does – how would you persuade a person to convert when she lives fairly guilt-free and has no wish to adopt a system which could add guilt to her life? D) Where do we draw the line between healthy guilt and unhealthy guilt in one’s life?

the Light of the World?

Christians since the Patristics have claimed that the moral superiority of Christians demonstrates the truth of Christianity. This idea partly stems from the teachings of Jesus that his followers were the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He says “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5.16).

I do not aim to correct Jesus or refute this teaching. It is possible that the behavior of some people who claim to be Christians convinces some non-Christians to worship the Christian God. Instead, I aim to examine how Christians’ beliefs and practices often undermine their morality. I argue that Christians do not demonstrate the ethics of Jesus better than other people overall, and thus Christians cannot claim their supposed moral superiority proves the truth of Christianity.

This post will be the first of perhaps a few on the subject. In this post, I consider how belief in original sin and the practice of prayer can allow Christians to shirk moral responsibility.

In god is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens relates a story in which a Catholic priest in a religious debate asks his atheist opponent “If you don’t believe in God, why do you not practice illicit sex? If there is no objective moral code, you have no reason to behave morally!” (paraphrase). Hitchens notes at least two problems with this: One is, in spite of denying an objective moral law, many atheists in fact do behave morally, and more so than many Christians. The second is that this priest is suggesting that he himself would become a lecher if he stopped being a Christian. He in effect says “(Because of original sin) The only thing keeping me from living licentiously is my moral code”. Many Christians share this belief: I did, anyway.

Belief in original sin seems to hurt the moral overtures of many Christians. In my experience as a Christian I would frequently find myself doing something naughty or outright wrong and then repeat to myself the words of John Newton: “What a sinner I am! But what a Savior my God is!” (paraphrase). Humility concerning moral capacity is a strength. But accompanying that humility was an excuse, this more hidden thought: “O, well. I can’t expect too much from myself — I’m only a sinner tainted by original sin”. And this subconsciously becomes “If I have done this once, I can’t blame myself for letting it happen again”. What happens is that I, and probably other Christians, start using original sin as a not-so-original excuse for being morally lax. If I am fundamentally prone to evil, I should expect evil.

The end result of this logic is that many people who deny original sin probably behave better than those who affirm it; original sin becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because deniers of original sin do not provide themselves that metaphysical excuse, they often strive to be better than Christians who make allowance for evil rooted in their lives.

Prayer also can show Christians shirking moral responsibility. James warns that if you see a fellow Christian in need and wish her well without providing what she needs then your faith is dead, but Christians still offer prayer first and service later, if at all (James 2.15-17). Instead of doing something of material benefit for a person or friend in need, we promise to request some material (or immaterial) benefit for that person (a promise probably more often forgotten than acted on). Prayer may actually be effective. Sometimes, probably rarely, it may be all we can offer. But Christians tend to use prayer as a psychological crutch — “I can pray that God would help this person”. As with the thoughts under-girding original sin this mutates into “I can help this person more by praying for them than materially assisting them” and eventually “I will pray for people instead of materially help them”. If faith does not have works, James asserts, it is dead (James 2. 17): Millennia later, dead faith lives on.

People who do not believe in prayer have no one to rely on when they or others need help but themselves. Some might casually wish others well. But many take ownership of their duty in the situation. I think this morally distinguishes many non-Christians over Christians.

Suggestions: I would recommend we choose to believe people both inherit some tendency towards evil but also — and mainly — are socialized into evil habits. I think believing you are morally flawed is helpful but you should believe that the wrong you do regularly or rarely is because of habits you have been taught or adopted. Observing our world, there is a strong case for this argument for nurture over-and-against nature as the reason for widespread wrongdoing. I would say people should believe like Augustine (emphasizing original sin and the need for grace) but live like Pelagius (emphasizing the power we do have/have been given to live morally).

I would encourage something similar when it comes to helping others. Hudson Taylor, missionary to China, was said to urge Christians to pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on them. I think this would be better than avoiding physically helping others by merely leaving matters to God.

Questions: A) Am I right that Christians are no more moral than other groups? B) Do Christian compassion efforts — e.g. following Katrina and other catastrophes, for the unborn, for the poor — complicate my claim and distinguish Christians over-and-against other groups; how? C) Are there any groups which distinguish themselves morally? How? Does this say something about the truth of that group’s metaphysical claims; if so, what?