Sunday, March 2, 2008

On Hope and Faith

Keep the Faith.
Abandon Hope all ye who enter here.

You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm tellin you why..... You're gonna go to hell, and cook for eternity in ovens of burning brimstone......

Heh, heh, heh, heh....

Christians would have us all believe that the principles of Faith and Hope are the greatest possible gifts we could ever have been awarded by their god-head.
Neither of these ideas are conducive to living a fulfilled life, they are only ideas born of unmerited, wholesale fear.
Consider the word Hope. It conjures mental pictures of pleasantness, freedom from unhappiness, bliss. It represents the wish of every single person. However, contained within it, is the implied sinisterly opposite despair.
You cannot have one without the other. No Hope, No Despair (the words hope and despair are easily interchangeable with the words good and evil).
To illustrate what I mean, ask yourself the following question:
"Without evil, how would a person be able to distinguish good?".
If everything were good all the time (as is the example of heaven), how would a person be able to retain the exuberance of eternal pleasure, without ever growing numb to it's effects?
In order to fully experience anything, good or bad, the opposite of what you're experiencing has to exist and be known to you, or you'll never be aware of what you're experiencing. A person could never live in unending bliss because of this paradox. Eternal bliss is impossible because without it's opposite (torture) being somewhere in the mix of eternity, we would not recognize it as being bliss.
In the same way we would not know what cold felt like without the corresponding hot, we would also be unable to distinguish hard from soft, tall from short, good from evil or hope from despair. There is a spectrum of experience which we all are subject to. Without it, we would be automatons with no gamut of feelings.

Now let's consider the word Despair.
What does this word conjure? Thoughts of helplessness, inherent "badness", imprisonment in unhappiness. Now ask yourself in what ritualistic, weekly excercise a person might hear these words spoken. Christians, especially those hell-fire and damnation evangelicals that so wisely want to turn our country into an 18th century theocracy, love to spout out these threats of condemnation to human comfort every weekend (and sometimes during the week if a revival is in town) to the flocks of folk who are all-too eager to "repent" of their evil (there's that word again) ways and be safely returned to the fold, only to stray away as soon as the service is over.
If heaven is the object of hope for christians, then hell has to be the object of despair. As I said before, we can't do without despair, so hell has to exist if heaven exists. But imagine if we took the despair of hell out of the equation. We would be left with Hope on one side and nothing on the other. How then could the Hope of Heaven possibly exist? Actually, I should ask why then would anyone even care about a possible heaven? If no one feared death, or financial difficulties, or disease, or any other malady humanity is subject to, then would anyone even consider afterlife? Of course not, because an afterlife is a form of Hope, and without the form of despair (fear of death), an afterlife becomes pointless and redundant.
If we eliminate the idea of hell, then we needn't bother with the idea of heaven.

Contrary to what christians profess to the media, especially moderate ones, my thought is that the idea of hell is radically more important to their dogma than the idea of heaven is.
I submit that despair is always the initial deciding factor in whether someone believes in something or not. A person will consider whether their possible belief in an idea will offer them hope, but only because they need hope to counter a preexisting despair they may or may not already be aware of (this is one of the sad realities of evangelical churches, that they more often than not, instigate the feelings within their own congregations which lead said congregations to
"be saved"). Said another way, A person will choose to believe something if it offers them the chance at hope for the future, because the past has overwhelmingly offered them despair. This being the case, the idea of hope is always secondary. It is what is utilized to counter despair. Again, without the despair, why the hope? Despair, or the Fear of it, is without a doubt the absolute foundation of all the abrahamic religions. Fear of what will happen to us after we die is an idea that has led many a person to the altar.
Romans 6:23 says “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of god is eternal life through christ our lord”. This is a good example of how despair is offered first and then the promise of hope secondarily counters. I will concede that there have been people converted because of the hope offered by the salvation message; however, the hope would be meaningless if the converted-to-be didn't either already fear something, or didn't get led to believe they had something to fear. During altar calls (public admissions of guilt, to those of you who've never been to a protestant church service), people tend to attach themselves to the immediate benefit of their actions and at that time the benefits of converting usually outweigh the threat of not converting by a dramatic margin, which is, at best, a flimsy reason to convert. Indeed the very idea of death can terrify millions of people at any given moment, but it is also quite fleeting and easily forgotten in lue of what sounds good for dinner.

There is also the herd mentality which some might offer as a reason for prospective-converts to move out of their pew. If so many other people are doing it, they might either look bad in the eyes of someone in the church who knows them, or they might be simply hedging their bets, in the idea that if so many people are going down front maybe they should too. A superficial look at both of these reasonings will all-too-easily reveal their fundamental basis of fear. The herd mentality is itself a defense mechanism, designed to ward off attackers (representations of fears held by the herd). Christianity, Judaism and Islam were all founded on the principle of Fear. Look at the terms “Lord” and “God-fearing” for an easy illustration of this.
An example from the bible (the inerrant word of god mind you): Luke 12:5, “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after killing the body, has the power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” Now. I’m not completely sure if the author is referring to god or “the devil” here ,but that is beside the point. It is this foundation of fear that supports the pillars of Christianity.
Having this foundation, Christianity offers a way around this fear; Do what Jesus said. Believe he was the ticket to heaven as the son of god sent from above to pay the debt of all mankind. If you do, you can subvert the eternal damnation in store for you after you die and instead receive eternal comfort. It provides hope to counter the fear. In organized monotheistic religions, hope comes after fear, not before. Christians who truly believe they are saved, obviously don’t live in fear for their lives or souls, for the simple reason that they have chosen the path of eternal comfort, hope in Jesus' not being a crazy, lying lunatic. In their eyes, sinners (all the rest of us) have chosen the path of fear and despair, by recognizing jesus as being just another dude (who most certainly no longer abides ). My personal hope does not lie in this fantasy realm of Christianity, Islam or Judaism, because I reject the notion that my life is in any way subject to manmade hopes and fears. I no more hope for anything fantastic than I fear for anything cataclysmic. I do not center my life's philosophy around the fear of death or the loss of loved ones as one might suppose. That might seem improbable to many,but what I mean is although I would miss them beyond comprehension, I do not now fear for their deaths, because I of course recognize that everyone will die. I certainly do not wish for anything cataclysmic to happen to any of my loved ones, but I also understand that this wish is only a wish. It has no bearing on whether anything will ever happen to them or myself. At the same time that I don’t fear for their death, I also don’t hope to see them after they or I die. I spend my life with them and myself each day, because this life is what I know we are in possesion of. I no longer waste the time I have with them.
I actually think the principles of Christianity belittle the preciousness of life, rather that preserve it, as the term “sanctity of life”, which is thrown around like a hot potato by evangelicals these days, would imply. The very idea that my life now is less important than an unprovable afterlife is an idea that I find not only preposterous but also wildly arrogant on the part of both christians and their fictitious god.
For example: I ask someone to play monopoly right now, and they say no because they want to play a better game of monopoly after they die. This doesn’t make any sense but it’s the same as saying “ I’m not going to live my life now, because I’m going to have a better life after I die” My hope lies indeed in myself and my family. I am a thinking person who did not need to be created in order for me to be worth placing my own trust in.

Faith is unnecessary. Having faith in something rather than trying to find a real natural-born answer, is simply taking the lazy way out. It is the same as saying, "I don't know what this is about, so I'll just make up something and tell everyone I believe that". In that respect, what most christians do is even lazier, in that, most christians that I can remember from my days growing up in evangelical churches in the south, don't even bother to waste time thinking up something on their own. They simply latch on to what everybody around them has already said. Faith is the belief in something without the evidence to back it up. This is absurdity. If there is no evidence to show that a crime has been committed, then how do we know one actually was committed? Of course we don't, this is precisely why the courts don't allow hearsay evidence to be admitted as evidence. Better yet, why would anyone claim that their bank was robbed, if no money was missing and no employees witnessed a robber coming into the bank and sticking it up? Should we just have faith that the person saying there was a bank robbery is telling the truth? Should a jury convict the person he says robbed the bank without any evidence to support his claim? Of course not. An even more absurd notion is that christians somehow think that having faith is virtuous or noble. To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens,
“Christianity requires us to voluntarily relinquish our single greatest attribute, our ability to think critically.” Any institution that encourages us to not critically question the principles of its existence is not an institution worthy of subscription to. Blind faith is an excuse to gloss over the inconsistencies of outdated dogmas. To paraphrase another fellow rationalist, Sam Harris, “Religious moderates don’t ask the question of how they came to be moderate in the first place. At one point, all religions and religious people were fundamentalist. At what point did the fundamental side of religion give way to the moderate position and why did it do so? The answer is certainly not that the religions themselves evolved to be more “modern-thinking. It is that religious moderation is the result of centuries of rational freethinking individuals who have questioned the validity of fundamentally religious dogmas. Those dogmas simply could not stand up to the constant barrage of disbelief, and over time they melted into the sanguine christianity we see today". To now chastise religious fundamentalism, if you are a moderate, is to deny the very root of your own existence. Religious moderation provides a cover for fundamentalists who exact terrible events on the world by creating the ban associated with the questioning of religion. I speak of religion in the abrahamic sense, because hinduism, buddhism and other various eastern religions espouse the practice of not harming or causing suffering to other living beings, above all else . It is, by-and-large, off limits to question someone’s religious beliefs. Blind faith is, in the eyes of it's posessors not only virtuous but also impervious to disbelief. This should not be, and it is my hope to contribute in some way to the overturning of this menace of rationality. Life is worth living without faith in the preposterous, and we need not hope for anything outside of the ability to experience our life as long as we have it.


zac johnson said...


Let me first say that this comment will not be the most thorough or clear expression of the ideas I will try to express; I do not think i will be able to completely and concisely present my ideas on this topic for some time. Let me also say as a disclaimer that I do not claim to be an expert in the fields that this discussion is most clearly related to.

I have read a few of your posts over the last few weeks or months, and I get sense that you identify with the likes of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. This is something that I can relate to, as i spent the better part of my high school career as, you might say, a "disciple" of such "evangelical atheists" as well. Over the past year, however, I have began to feel that what these guys preach is not only incomplete, but also potentially harmful to the very cause they are trying to promote.

I think it is important to remember that when Dawkins and Harris speak of God, and by relation heaven, hell, and other such components of Abrahamic religion, they are speaking about a very particular idea of God. That idea of god, i gather, is the anthropomorphic God of fundamentalists. On this front, I would say i support their outright rejection of the idea. One thing they seem to forget, or, as I like to hope, forget to mention, is the fact that this is not the only idea of God that exists in the minds of "believers" or "people of faith".

John Shelby Spong, among others, has identified that many of the fundamentalist understandings of Christian teaching results not from what Dawkins and Harris purport to be the inherently evil and dogmatic sources of religious teachings, but from the fact that the details of the creation of the gospels have been forgotten (see Liberating the Gospels). Contrary to the idea you've quoted from Sam Harris, the gospels were, Spong contends, products of a centuries old Jewish Midrashic tradition. As a saying i have seen quoted numerous times goes (and I am paraphrasing) :

"We put wine into bottles to keep the wine fresh. When it comes time to drink the wine, we separate the wine from the bottle, not mistaking the bottle for the wine. In the same way, we use stories as a way to describe certain truths, and when it comes time to experience these truths, we must be able to separate the story from the truth."

I would contend, in the spirit of Spong's theory, that it is the responsibility of those of us who see the error in fundamentalist dogma not to throw out the truth with the story. We should separate the the truth from the story, and assist others in doing so.

When we do this, we can begin to see (admittedly, after what often amounts to enormous amounts of study) that Christianity really only attempts to experience Reality as it is, and to avoid suffering. This truth, however, is often lost among terms such as God, Heaven, Hell, etc. I think it is important for those of us that have retained our critical thinking skills to help those who seem to have lost them see such truths in the same way. This is much more likely to be successful in creating a more peaceful world, as I like to think Dawkins and Harris intend, rather than creating more conflict.

I feel that I should add that Sam Harris is not entirely closed to this idea. Harris has argued (somewhat hypocritically it seems to me) that Buddhists should do away with the supernatural elements of Buddhism in favor of the ultimate truths offered in Buddhist teachings. So, i have to ask, Why not do the same for Christianity?

Understand this is not meant to be an attack on your ideas. Rather, i see the ideas put forth in this blog to be the first step, rather than the Way. I agree with these ideas when they are presented in response to an anthropomorphic dogmatic and often cruel God, but I think that as long as this is as far as the thought goes, we are just as guilty as fundamentalists in missing the point of Religion.

All that said, I hope the family is doing well and that great music-playing opportunities continue to come your way.


GardenScrapper said...

"In order to fully experience anything, good or bad, the opposite of what you're experiencing has to exist and be known to you, or you'll never be aware of what you're experiencing."

Very poignant!

"A person will consider whether their possible belief in an idea will offer them hope, but only because they need hope to counter a preexisting despair..."

It's funny that when a Christian found out I am a non-believer, one of the first questions he asked was: "What bad thing happened to you in your past that made you disbelieve in God?" Given that fear most likely compelled him (or propelled him?) to his beliefs, I could have come right back and ask the same thing of him (not to mention "Why would you assume I don't believe in god just b/c I'm not a Christian? There are other gods to choose from, don't ya know.")

"...this life is what I know we are in possession of..."
"I actually think the principles of Christianity belittle the preciousness of life"

I wholeheartedly agree!! We should stop focusing on if-y future events and look at the here-and-now; it's all that we have -- ALL that we have, all that we KNOW we have!