Thursday, January 24, 2013

Non-Belief, Pt. 10 - Reasonable Christianity

My other posts in this series (here) are mostly about religion in general, but this one is specifically about Christianity. Well, as I noted in my first post, I didn't know anyone who wasn't a Christian, as far as I knew, throughout my childhood.

And I guess, except for a handful of atheists who were raised Christian, I still don't. Well, I probably do without knowing it, since religion doesn't often come up in casual conversation. And I do 'know' a couple of Jews online (both of whom live in Israel), if that counts. But here in America, Christians are the overwhelming majority.

Now, I must admit that I'm dumbfounded at fundamentalist Christians who take the Bible literally. It's the 21st Century, but they still accept bronze age mythology as literally true? They might have smart-phones and computers, but they still believe in Adam and Eve in a literal Garden of Eden, talking snakes, Noah's floating zoo, Jonah living in a big fish, Moses parting the Red Sea,... all of it?

In one of the most technologically advanced nations on Earth, these people reject most of science - indeed, pretty much everything we've learned in the past 2,000 years or so. It wouldn't be any crazier to believe in a flat Earth resting on the back of a giant turtle. (Indeed, the Bible clearly indicates not just that the Earth is flat, but that it's fixed in place, with the Sun and the stars doing the moving.)

And I swear they're actually growing in number. These people would have been considered batshit crazy when I was a kid - certainly, I never even heard of Christians who believed such crazy things back then. The people I knew were modern Christians, reasonable Christians. They would have been the first to reject such idiocy, and been embarrassed that it made their whole religion look bad.

I mean, yes, Christian fundamentalists existed back then, I'm sure. But I never encountered any, and I would have been astonished if I had. Maybe they were common in the Deep South back then, I don't know. But here in Nebraska, it wasn't mainstream. They'd have been ridiculed by more "sophisticated" Christians, and today's fundamentalist politicians would have been laughed out of office. Or that's how it seemed to me, at least. (Admittedly, kids probably don't get the whole picture, huh?)

These days, they're just everywhere, or so it seems. And I am astonished by it. I wouldn't be any less astonished if you told me you thought that Mother Goose was real or that leprechauns lived in your garden. It's the 21st Century, after hundreds of years of scientific advancement, and you still believe in an actual talking snake?

You still believe that God created the entire universe several thousand years after the Babylonians learned to brew beer? You still believe that Noah filled a boat with every species on Earth, from kangaroos to Komodo dragons, llamas to polar bears, elephants to pocket gophers? You still think that Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden for eating an apple?

Well, not you, of course. You're a modern Christian, a reasonable Christian, a sophisticated Christian. You're not one of those home-schooled hillbillies, right? You accept science (some of it, at least). You know what a metaphor is. You understand that some of the Bible is literally true, but some is only... figuratively true - 'just so' stories from more primitive times.

And how do you tell which is which? Well, that's just common sense, right? (Of course, every Christian sect has different opinions on that, on what they select from the Bible as true and what's just metaphor or poetry, but we'll let that go, for now.)

The point is that, for all the focus on fundamentalist crazies in Christianity, they're not the majority. Most Christians accept that the universe is billions of years old. Most realize that the Garden of Eden wasn't a real place, that there wasn't a worldwide flood which killed off every human being and every animal on Earth, except for a handful on Noah's boat, that the story of Jonah was just a tall tale.

You people are reasonable Christians. You're rational Christians. You understand that your faith can co-exist with science and the modern world. What you don't seem to understand, though, is that this destroys the basic argument of Christianity, the whole idea that Jesus "died for our sins." If the Garden of Eden story is just a metaphor, then Jesus makes no sense. (Admittedly, Jesus doesn't make much sense in any case.)

Sometimes, I really wonder how much Christians know about their own religion. After all, the traditional narrative goes like this: God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden, where everything was wonderful. And it would still be wonderful to this day, if they hadn't disobeyed him and eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

This was the "original sin." This was the "fall of man." This didn't just get Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden, it made all of us guilty, too - guilty from birth. We inherited that guilt from Adam and Eve. Yeah, it was a really big thing. And God was really pissed.

Now, back then, gods - including 'God' - enjoyed blood sacrifices. The sweet smell of burnt offerings soothed him, and for lesser transgressions, that might have worked to get his forgiveness. But original sin was just too big for that. Animal sacrifices, even human sacrifices, didn't have enough magical power to overcome his anger. (After all, he killed off pretty much the entire world during the Flood, and that didn't slake his thirst for revenge.) No, it would take a much bigger sacrifice for that.

It would, in fact, take a god's blood. Sacrificing a god, well, that would be big. That would be big enough to counter such a huge sin. Back then, for ordinary sins, you could just magically transfer them to an animal, then sacrifice the animal. Scapegoats were literal in those days. But for original sin, you needed a god as a scapegoat.

Thus, Jesus. Jesus was God's son, and thus a god himself (or even 'God,' himself). So Jesus could be sent as a sacrifice, as a literal scapegoat, thus appeasing God and letting human beings enter Heaven, despite original sin. It was magic, but big magic - the biggest, in fact.

Of course, to modern sensibilities, there's a great deal about this which seems... bizarre, don't you think? Primitive, in fact? Even if you accept the literal account in Genesis, even if you believe in Adam and Eve and the talking snake and all the rest of it,... we just don't think like that these days.

We don't think that people inherit guilt from their ancestors. What your distant ancestor might have done - heck, what your father might have done - is not your fault. It's not moral to think like that. And we don't consider it fair to punish a person who didn't do anything wrong, who might not even have been born when the crime took place.

Furthermore, we don't think of scapegoats as being a good thing. Actually, we don't think of literal scapegoats at all, since that would be just unbelievably primitive. If you commit a crime, you can't magically transfer your guilt to a goat, then slaughter the goat. You might as well argue for deciding guilt or innocence by peering at a goat's intestines, it's that primitive.

Of course, the whole thing makes no sense. 'God' made the rules, so if he wanted to forgive people, he could. Who would stop him, after all? And they're his own rules! Why would he have to sacrifice himself to himself in order to convince himself to create a loophole in rules he himself created and he himself has decided to enforce?

Jesus supposedly said "turn the other cheek," and God could have done that at any time. If God wanted to forgive us, he could forgive us, even assuming that there was something to forgive (do you really inherit guilt from your ancestors?). There was no need for any kind of blood sacrifice. Heck, if God likes blood, he could whip some up at any time, right? Even god blood? Isn't he supposed to be omniscient and omnipotent? (And omnibenevolent, too, though that's really hard to buy, don't you think?)

So believing that the Bible is literally true doesn't help at all. It's still batshit crazy. But believing that the Garden of Eden is just a story... well, that completely destroys the whole point of Jesus. As crazy as the idea was, that was the idea. If there wasn't an "original sin," there was no point to the crucifixion of Jesus, none at all. So how "reasonable" is your Christian faith, even if you're a "modern" Christian?

As I said earlier, I have to wonder how much Christians know about their own religion. How can any of this make sense? I know it's crazy to believe that the most primitive fairy tales of the Bible actually happened, but when you pull on one thread, the whole fabric unravels. So is your belief any less crazy?

Now, I know that believers can rationalize away almost anything. When you really want to believe, you'll find a way to justify it to yourself. Many Christians have no problem abandoning pretty much the entire Bible, except for a few phrases here and there. Some have abandoned the whole idea of Hell, for example, because that doesn't sound like something a loving god would do (which is true, of course, but kind of misses the point).

Faith is just believing what you want to believe. Almost always, that's based on what you were taught as a child, but with freedom of religion, you can easily adjust those beliefs, as needed (as wanted). You can stay a "Christian," but believe almost anything you want, since Christian sects disagree on pretty much everything. And if you don't find one you like, you can create your own.

But how does that make any sense? It doesn't, does it? Furthermore, it might be a pleasant fantasy, but you have no reason to believe that it's actually true, do you? None of this sounds "reasonable" to me, and it never has. I just don't get it.

Note: The rest of this series is here.

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