Today I came upon a set of commentaries that I think everyone should probably read. One is Why intellectuals don't take religious believers seriously, and the other was, not surprisingly, Why religious believers don't take intellectuals seriously. The one about the religionists honestly only applies to the more fundamentalist religions. Most mainstream religionists probably don't believe that the earth is literally 6000 years old. It's still a very good commentary on religious beliefs in general and the more outrageous ones in particular. The one about the intellectuals is limited to that subset of intellectuals that is ignorant of all things religious and refuses to try to understand where the religionists are coming from. I can't help but imagine a person from each category getting into an argument. What a train wreck!
I think I know why the religionists in my life don't take me seriously, in any case. It's because I don't believe what they believe. Bottom line. As long as anything I say contradicts their beliefs in any way, they will dismiss it out of hand. My sister has a sign posted prominently on her kitchen wall over the phone which says (I'm paraphrasing slightly), “Don't believe what you see with your eyes, what you hear with your ears, or what you feel with your hands. Only believe what God says.” I find that terrifying. Who decides what god says? And how will you know if they are telling you the truth or just using you for their own ends if you have ABSOLUTELY NO MEANS of testing it? You can't even believe what you see with your own eyes or hear with your own ears? Of course, they will say that they do have a means of testing it: the bible. Except that the bible is a confusing, cryptic, contradictory set of myths, history, stories and parables which you could use, if you were so inclined, to justify virtually anything, including murdering children, lying, having sex with your father, you name it. If you want to take it literally, you can't just pick and choose which parts to pay attention to.
I was raised in the Assemblies of God. The things I learned in Sunday school as a child, I still believe (or rather, I believe again, but that's a story for another day). In Sunday School, we learned that god wants us to treat other people as we would like to be treated. We learned to pray for our enemies, to return kindness when confronted with hostility. We were also taught to give of ourselves and be good stewards of our time, talent, and money. The message in the church changed somewhere around 1980. I don't know if it's because I moved out of the children's classes or whether there was an actual shift in the focus of the teachings. Regardless, everything changed. Life was no longer about loving your neighbor, being charitable, working hard, being a good steward and eventually dying and going to heaven. The message became darker, scarier. We are in the end times. God is mad at us. Armagedon is near. Eventually, things degenerated to the point where the purpose of life became: vote republican (the democrats were of the devil), fight the godless commies by sending money and supplies to the Contras in Nicaragua, and pray for Tom Landry (because, you knew if the Cowboys lost, it was because the devil was out to get Tom Landry because he was such a good Christian and all). I probably don't have to tell you that I found this shift quite jarring, and eventually ludicrous and insane.
I went through an exceedingly unpleasant experience which I may recount some day which was finally the last straw and I severed my ties with the church. I was actually kind of kicked out. They thought I was posessed by demons. Long story.
I saw an excellent movie recently that I highly recommend to anyone who is going through or has gone through this same type of situation. It's told from the perspective of a gay man who was raised Southern Baptist. It applies to a much broader spectrum of people than just gays, however — any of us who were ostracized, ridiculed, told point blank that we were on our way to hell (or posessed by demons) for being different or for asking too many questions.
It's called, “Lost in the Pershing Point Hotel,” starring Leslie Jordan. He also played in “Sordid Lives,” which I also recommend. It doesn't have anything much to do with religion, but if you come from the rural south, you will laugh your ass off and then be depressed for days. You'll see what I mean if you watch it. You can get them both on netflix.
By the way, I still don't believe in God. I don't think, if such a being did exist, that someone intelligent enough and powerful enough to create an entire universe would be petty and small-minded enough to be upset over whether the little people believe in him or not. I don't know that, of course. A being that intelligent and advanced would undoubtedly have motives and thoughts and even beliefs that were completely alien to me in every respect.
But, I suspect that if such a being did exist and really cared about us and the future of our planet, he would be less concerned about whether or not we believed in him and more concerned about the concrete consequences of our various belief systems. Clearly, merely believing in God (and “accepting Jesus as your personal savior”) does not, in and of itself, give us the ability to know the right thing to do in every situation and the courage to always do it. And, just as clearly, not believing in God does not, in and of itself, cause people to become reprobates with no moral compass. So, what practical difference does it make (assuming a healthy belief system completely unlike the one I grew up with)?
It's always possible, of course, that the God of this planet IS petty and mean-spirited and ready to toss us all into an eternal lake of fire at the slightest provocation; that he's sitting up there playing a game of chess with our lives, watching us move inexorably toward our own destruction (armageddon, the tribulation, whatever) without having any desire to put a stop to it (even though he obviously could if he wanted to. He's god, after all). If he is like that, however, that kind of messes up the whole concept of good and evil. Because, if being petty and mean-spirited is good (by definition, everything god does is good), then … would the opposite of that be evil? The opposite concepts would be generosity and kindness. Or is he one of the, “do as I say and not as I do,” sort of gods? That would fit in with the whole petty and mean-spirited thing.
I don't know. I just can't rationalize a supreme being that created the whole universe and still has a personal interest in each and every creature that crawled out of the muck (including whether or not those creatures win their football games). I can see such a being having an intellectual interest in our planet, much like a child with an ant farm. I can even see this being manipulate things every now and then, “just to see how they'll adapt,” not out of meanness or spite, but out of intellectual curiosity. That possibility at least seems logical. That we could turn out to be some experiment put together for a young supreme being's school science project is actually quite a comforting thought for me. I've always believed in supporting research.