Crazy Justifications

I’ve just read this “Contradictions in the Resurrection Accounts?” post at the Saints and Sceptics blog. I have followed their apologetics ministry for a while and, to their credit, they do seem to set out to address the objections people will bring up when they consider the Christian faith.

But this post really brought home to me the extent of the mental gymnastics which must be performed to ignore and dismiss the inconsistencies and variations that are contained within Christian scriptures.

The Resurrection is the central concept of the Christian faith. It institutes the age of salvation and sets up Christ as the ultimate sacrifice. But, as is clear from the blog post above, the variation in how this absolutely essential doctrine is recorded in the 4 different gospels is – when you stop and truly, honestly analyse it – utterly staggering.

I am really mindful of how I would have reacted to this post maybe 2 years or so ago. I know that it would have eased my concerns over how this story can be so different in different place, yet so pivotal. It would have given me a confidence that I was OK with what I believed and that there was justification for it. And it would have reenforced my views that people who cited all the inconsistencies and contradictions in scripture were just misguided secularists with their own agenda.

But my goodness, things are very different now. On reading the content of that post, you can only admire the determination of the writer in setting out their stall and sticking with it to the bitter end.

And I know that David Glass has no doubts over the acceptability and accuracy of what he has written. I don’t believe it’s intended but there’s a haughty dismissiveness in the tone of the post which seems slightly ignorant of the subject matter and the raised eyebrows caused by reading it.

However, the logic and explanations contained just flabbergast me now. I can think of no other way of putting it.

What always strikes me when you get into this level of analysis over what are clear differences is the way people abandon any concern for the original writings or language. There is so much work required to get the English texts to make any sense that context and history generally disappears. And the fact that books were not written and structured as they are in our King James-driven editions nowadays.

Let’s do the courtesy of actually looking at the arguments put forward:

  1. Women at the tomb:
    “The Gospels differ in terms of the women who went to the tomb on the Sunday morning… A contradiction? Hardly.”“…provided we permit the authors to be selective, there’s really not much of a problem.”

    Really? If we’re being utterly semantic about the meaning of the word “contradiction”, perhaps we have something to stand on. OK then. The issue is the specifics of exactly who was there and why the gospel writers made their particular selections of reporting the different attendees. I cannot comprehend why the stories need to be different – why did God inspire the writers in such a way as to raise so many questions? How did the writers settle on the women they did? Only Mary Magdalene has any further role in any version of the story, so why include or exclude any of the others?

  2. Reaction of the visiting women:
    “Mark says they fled from the tomb and ‘said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid’… Apart from Mark there is agreement that the women go to tell the disciples. Does Mark contradict these accounts? No. It seems fairly clear that all he means is that they didn’t speak to anyone on the way because they were afraid…”“There certainly is a significant difference between John’s account… But it is hardly a contradiction. A plausible reconciliation…[word salad]”

    No. I’m sorry. Mark clearly contradicts the other accounts. Mark also records that the visitors were told by the angel to go and tell the disciples, but apparently they wouldn’t disobey that command. So Mark’s record contradicts itself never mind the other 3! Working this round to anything other than a contradiction is a true feat of linguistic acrobatics.

  3. Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances:
    This whole section is a long collection of ifs, buts and maybes. Luke’s records were always meant to be followed up by Chapter 2 (i.e. the book of Acts). But the book states quite clearly that Jesus did lots to prove He was alive, so that’s alright. Luke has simply been selective over what he has decided to include in his narrative.

I can’t force myself to buy these explanations. There is too much effort required to make the components add up.

But the most striking and worrying aspect is that these 3 points are simply the tip of the iceberg with regards to resurrection inconsistencies and a proverbial drop in the ocean with regards to similar problems within the whole of Scripture. Yes, I know there are many with proposals for answers from many experts and scholars much more qualified than I, but there is a consistent requirement for hard work to get to the required destination.

And I mean no disrespect to either Saints and Sceptics or David Glass in particular – reading this just caused enough of a irritation in me to feel the need to articulate my thoughts.

Picking Your Fights

The Girls’ Brigade of Northern Ireland has hit the headlines round these parts this week because of this particular Belfast Telegraph news story. It has stirred a reasonable amount of debate on my Twitter feed which predominantly features ex-religious people and atheists. And whilst I can somewhat understand the outrage, there’s a slightly unpleasant taste in my mouth with this one.

To their credit, GBNI themselves have responded, but I’m not convinced their news release has had the effect they were hoping for. They also seem to miss the point that their “clarification” simply backs up the headline rather than challenges it. I think they may have rushed it a little, but were probably under pressure to do so.

I also can’t help thinking there’s a little bit of subterfuge in the reporting of the story – a bit of a tabloid sensationalism in play – but I genuinely don’t know the ins and outs so that could be a rash and unfair assertion. The ‘Tele’ has been getting a bit of a bad rap in the past week for what some have called very biased reporting of the Ashers/Equality Commission court case. This has the whiff of something they’ve decided to jump on and run with in the interests of redressing their perception of impartiality and fairness.

I don’t mean to argue the story is invalid, just that the Belfast Telegraph have gone for a particularly sensationalist “Oh my goodness! Isn’t this terrible!” angle which doesn’t actually contribute towards the discussion we need to be having.

What has struck me is the level of offence taken that a Christian-based organisation (regardless of their “interdenominational” stance) would teach a basic Christian doctrine. I get a slight sense that a number of the most vocal respondents have had to perform a few leaps through a few hoops to get to the conclusions they have.

I understand the Christian doctrine of “no degrees/hierarchy of sin”. It is intended very much as a positive, not a negative (but I genuinely think that’s because most people haven’t thought it through to it’s logical conclusion). It is intended as a sales pitch to people which enforces the idea that no matter what they’ve done they will not be turned away from the club. That said, most people really only live it from the teeth out. Whilst God may be able to excuse or forgive anything, we humans are much more fickle.

I just wonder at the veracity of the pursuit being carried out towards GBNI in this particular case. I would propose that the vast majority of organisations (youth and otherwise) in any way associated with evangelical fundamentalist congregations around this country will actively teach this doctrine of all sins being equal in the eyes of God. It will be preached from various pulpits with alarming regularity on Sunday mornings. It will be taught in Seniors groups, women’s groups, youth and children’s group. Because the job is salesmanship – it’s about making “salvation” attractive and appealing and removing any barriers to entry.

I am uncomfortable in the way GB has been singled out and chased down on this subject. I feel that one particular parent has taken a very particular viewpoint on the way this particular subject has been relayed on to their child, and they’ve every right to be deal with that as they see fit. But escalating it to the authorities in this manner and following on with the press? Seems like a strange step to me. Seems like a slightly self-serving and agenda driven step.

How the Church teaches

Knowing what I do about methods of teaching within the church – having witnessed and delivered it for many years – I would have to side with the way the GB have stated it in their rebuttal. I find it unlikely that the subject would have been broached in the way the Telegraph’s headline has suggested it, but more likely in line with how GBNI have said. Fine details, yes, but still important.

For clarity, I do not wish to belittle or understate the Christian approach to what it considers sin and how it equates two things which the non-religious consider to be un-equatable. I do not mean to play down the effect on people who feel they cannot change who they are – nor do they feel they should have to! – to fit in with some arbitrary and constructed system. But to me, this is not a GB issue, it is an issue of the Christian faith.

What the church intends as positive is very much a negative, and that is because the premise exists and thrives on guilt. We are meant to feel guilty about the “sin” in our lives and make whatever changes are necessary to remove it.

Yes, the Christian faith considers many behaviours to be sin, and considers them all on the same level. Socially, this is utter madness – that is why we have a justice system which assigns punishments based on the socially-driven seriousness of a crime (flawed as it may be in some regards) and why the idea of God’s one-size-fits-all punishment for even the most insignificant of misdemeanours melts our brains when we sit down to think about it.

Are we being fair here?

Why have I titled this post as I have? Because there’s something uneasy about this episode and I don’t feel GBNI is the right target for this particular “fight”. I am inclined to think that the energy being expended in chasing, challenging and accusing them would be better spent on something which could have a more wide ranging and positive impact.

Targeting GB might affect that organisation in terms of bad press, but it will be viewed by the wider Christian family as an assault on that organisation rather than a critique of the logic and impact of preaching the idea that all sins are equal to a loving God. The church will rally around GB (cf. Ashers). But the most important bit here is that the church is highly unlikely to change its teaching because the conservative arm of Christianity – far and away the most dominant arm in Northern Ireland – still considers the Bible to be clear on homosexuality and will not alter that on the basis of what it will see as the next wave of lobby-driven persecution.

I hope it’s clear I have no love for the Christian faith, regardless of how much time I spent in it whilst growing up. I hope that I’m not seen as defending the indefensible. But we who object to the ideas of Christianity (particularly in this part of the world) also have to be fair and rational in standing up to what we perceive as wrong. And I just don’t feel we are in this instance.

Finding the Flaws: Absolutes

In recent years, there has been a strong push for greater flexibility (some may apply the term ‘rights’ – who am I to argue!) in two particular areas that Christians of a certain persuasion find particularly difficult to stomach – marriage equality and abortion. Those are two very complex, impassioned subjects and I don’t really want to get into them directly at this stage, but the attitudes of those from a religious background can, I believe, be traced back to the doctrine of divine moral absolutism – the idea that God is the final, unwavering authority in any moral or ethical dilemma and he has provided us, through Scripture, the instructions for how these should be settled.

When faced with someone who has no religion, in my experience, a Christian will often turn to this argument very quickly. How can someone with no absolute reference point possibly have a definable set of morals or rules? Without a God and His commandments, how can people propose any rules or regulations which are anything but arbitrary?

Indeed, many will cite that the laws we, as citizens, live by are deeply rooted in a religious foundation. I don’t know anywhere near enough to pass an educated comment on that, but it’s one of those oft-repeated lines that Christians tend to trot out simply because of the implied credibility that comes with it.

Yes, atheists and the non-religious might say they can be moral people and that society can adequately decide what it thinks is acceptable and what isn’t, but when those rules are not framed and have no ultimate, final authority, how can they be considered anything other than whimsical? Add to that the doctrine of original sin where everyone is inherently evil (nay, depraved, according to Calvin) and you’ll begin to see why this view carries so much weight.

That’s the pro-religious perspective. I know this because it was mine. I had loads of discussions over the years where this particular topic came up, and I turned to it, because I believed it and it made perfect sense at the time.

On the other side of my own arguments

Nowadays, I find it interesting when I consider the things I used to say from the other side. I always considered myself empathetic and capable of walking in another’s shoes. But I guess I’ve never really considered how it feels to be on the end of the accusation that you’re inherently immoral and incapable of making non-arbitrary decisions about what is right and wrong. And it really is crude in the extreme.

What about this view of some higher-power framework being required for the development of meaningful morals and universally acceptable concepts of right and wrong? Well, I now see some flaws. I’m more questioning of the very idea of divine moral absolutism.

At its core, it implies that if God says something, it’s an unquestionable, fixed truth. And more to the point, it is not only acceptable but to be proactively encouraged. So, when God, through the writers of Scripture, gives us His word on any subject, it’s a definitive. By inference, those who claim to follow Him and obey Him will avow that anything He has said or done is thus acceptable.

History is littered with tales of weird and wonderful (read: perverse and twisted) interpretations of this doctrine. This is one of the core foundations of modern religious opposition on matters of equality and choice. Fundamentalists believe they are God’s representatives on this earth and, using His blueprint, they must ensure that society maintains its reliance on His laws and instructions, all – of course – for our own good.

The idea breaks down now, as I see it, for one simple reason – nothing is off limits. For the very reason that we, as a society, are meant to be protected from ourselves, we are actually exposed to the notions of the wrathful, vengeful deity.

The bible is full of examples of God ordering or enacting what we can only consider to be some truly reprehensible things:

I could probably go on – others have spent much more time cataloging these things than I am ever likely to. These catalogues do produce a very intriguing listing.

A message often preached from church pulpits and central to Christian literature is that God’s authority trumps any law of mankind. If the two are ever in conflict, the Christian must side with God’s law and accept whatever the consequences may be – to them or to others. If that law denies someone else a right or freedom, then that’s just bad luck. If a Christian ever feels truly called or “ordered” by God to act or behave in a certain way, then they must follow – there is simply no choice in the matter. Because there is no questioning of the absolutes.

But I don’t accept those religious, holy book absolutes any more. There must be a much more viable way to make the world a better place for everyone in it. Adapting to our circumstances and ensuring that everyone can live without fear and with the freedom to be who they are without the need to hide or pretend. Of course we still need limits – we can’t simply allow anything and everything. We obviously need to form and maintain our laws and we – people – need to continue to make decisions over what we will tolerate and what is simply not acceptable. We have done so in the past, and it’s fairly much a given that we will continue. I do expect the influence of religion to wane further and further until it is only a bit-part factor – perhaps not in my lifetime, but certainly within a small number of generations. I’m more or less describing basic humanism, aren’t I? Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

Until very recently, even talking about God like this – in this finger-wagging style – would have been unthinkable. It definitely feels weird, but it’s a certain type of liberating! What Christians (and what I used to) excuse and overlook in terms of God’s action has truly begun to astound me. The contrast between this violent, megalomaniac of the Old Testament vs the God of love and grace we are taught to worship in the New Testament is particularly stark and adds a whole level of confusion. But it does now seem to highlight how scripture has been concocted and crafted to fit a series of political or social needs at particular times.

New Responsibilities

I have two young daughters. I and my wife have raised them as Christians and fully fledged members of our family church. They’ve gone to Sunday School, church, youth organisations, summer meetings; all the fun and games that have been available.

Over the last year, as my faith has waned further and further, I have had a lot of thoughts about how exactly I’m going to broach this subject with my kids – what I should say to them, how much I should explain to them, what effects my words will have on them. These are standard fare of any parent in raising their children, but for me the complication comes when you raise them up to believe one thing – and continue to believe it in the face of all opposition and challenge – and then become something different.

In the early days, I worried about being wrong about giving up on Christianity. What if I was making a mistake? What if God was real and that denying it exposes you to the risk of eternal damnation in whatever form that takes? Did I want that for my kids? No – obviously not. Being honest, though, my fears of that particular outcome are becoming less and less acute.

Both of my children have “made a profession of faith”. At the times they told their mother and me, we were delighted! This was what every Christian parent wanted for their child! Nothing else mattered. Nothing about who they are or become, what they do, how they behave or treat other people – the only thing that matters is that they give their life to the Lord and earn their place in Heaven after all is said and done in this “scene of time”.

I faced a real (and continuing) dilemma when I stopped going to church. For health reasons, my wife no longer attends our congregation’s weekly meetings either, so for quite some time I had been the one taking my kids along. But when I could no longer face that particular ordeal, they stopped going, too, and only went to our Sunday School (which takes places before the Sunday morning service). There hasn’t been a huge amount of objection to this, and one question in the early days from my younger daughter about why we no longer went to church. I dodged it. I just didn’t have all my thoughts in a straight enough line to actually articulate them, especially in an “explain it like I’m 5” way…

Over the past few months, my mind has regularly wandered into the realms of what I’m going to say or how I’m going to explain my new position to my children.

And it all somewhat came to a head this past weekend. My older daughter happened to say something in passing about how we shouldn’t pay that much attention to one of the more educational TV programmes she watches because it talks about “the Big Bang and stuff like that”. The conversation didn’t carry – most of the people in the room are aware of where I now stand on these things and the circumstances didn’t really lend themselves to a deep and meaningful debate about the subject. But I made a mental note to perhaps use it as an opportunity to open up a bit more.

One of the things I have always promised myself is that I’d be honest with my kids. I’ve always had some problems and difficulties with certain aspects of the Christian faith, and I promised I’d never teach them anything that I didn’t fully understand or believe myself. For a long time, Creationism didn’t fall into that category, but now it very much does.

When, later on in the evening, an opening presented itself to pick up on my daughter’s earlier comment. I asked her if she could explain why she had said it. She didn’t really know, but I’m fairly convinced that the truth is it’s all she has ever known and all anyone has every told her is the truth. We live in a rural setting and she attends a school closely linked to our church, the various groups within church itself that she has attended over the years, and of course her parents – how was she ever going to think anything else! I then explained, hopefully without patronising, that there’s just no way that particular record of events can be a realistic explanation of how we came to be given everything else we now know. I went on to tell her that I no longer go to church because I simply don’t believe the things I read in the bible any more. I didn’t major on it – I could tell she was uncomfortable and I wasn’t exactly at my easiest. But, at the age of 11, she’ll be transferring from primary to secondary level education later this year and I tried to warn her that things will be very different there. We’ve dropped this hint on as many occasions as we can recently. We simply want to minimise the inevitable culture shock effect of going from where she is now to a cosmopolitan “big school”.

She’s a mature girl, and I’m pretty sure she understood what I was saying, if not the significance. And she knows that she will be able to open up to us with anything whenever she feels it necessary… whether she will or not when the time comes is an entirely different scenario.

I do have worries over how the future looks for the relationships within our family. My wife remains a Christian, although she finds herself agreeing with me more that she’d probably like when I challenge things I used to believe so wholeheartedly. How will we decide what are acceptable boundaries when our thresholds perhaps differ quite significantly? What ground rules will we make and try to enforce to keep our kids safe yet let them grow, be wise yet make the mistakes we’ve all made. I know these are the questions pretty much every parent wrestles with, but the slightly conflicting religious stand-points add a layer of unwanted complexity.

It’s going to be tricky, but if the first few years of their lives are anything to go by, we’ll do our best to make it as much fun as possible!!

2015 can only be better…

It’s that traditional time of the year to look forward to the exciting unknown of a New Year and to reflect on positives of the year just past. Well, to be honest, I’d really rather forget the last 12 months, but I’ve got enough reminders day to day which simply prevent that from happening.

How would I sum up 2014? In a word, crap. I was diagnosed with Type II diabetes as my almost life-long obesity issues continued. A loved one received a “very little we can do” prognosis to chronic pain and faces a future of simply managing it rather than living. And I finally accepted my Christian faith had gone and that much of my life was not going to be the same from now on.

I appreciate I’m perhaps bordering on the melodramatic, but it was a year of change, and not much of it positive. All I can say is that I hope it has laid the foundations on which I hope 2015 will be built. My health and weight issues are not going to disappear overnight, but I have been studying a lot to try and find the best way of dealing with them. And differently, this year I’m relying on myself, not a deity. When you pray for things like personal behaviour and health, as I did for many years, you wonder what God has to lose by not helping the way you’re asking, nay begging, Him to! There’s an expectation that things you find difficult will somehow magically become possible if you ask with enough conviction.

Scripture has us covered, though, on why we don’t always get the help we want. Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians of how he asked God 3 times to remove his much debated “thorn in the flesh”. But since he was forced to live with it, he then exhorts the rest of us to take joy in our suffering and allow God’s strength to be revealed through our weaknesses. These days, I don’t get that theology at all, but there was a time when my failings and weaknesses made me feel super pious. I will admit I did find it difficult to thank God for them.

So I’m now acutely aware that my health is my problem. My weight and exercise goals are mine to set and achieve. There is a large body of knowledge I can look to for ideas and inspiration and a family I can turn to for support to help me along the way. I don’t believe that consulting or pleading with God to assist will make that much of a difference.

I haven’t mentioned it up until now, and I’ll probably go into more detail at some stage, but I’ve had issues with depression in the recent past, and given the events of the past year, I’m finding it difficult to rouse any strong sense of optimism. Perhaps being more level-headed is a pragmatic stance to take. We’ll see over the coming weeks…

Finding the Flaws: Inerrancy

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…

2 Timothy 3:16

One of the most foundational aspects of conservative, fundamentalist Christianity is the absolute and total acceptance that what Protestants consider to be the Scriptures are – to a word – inspired by the Spirit of the one, true, living God. That everything we read and use as the basis of our sermons has been laid on the heart of the writer, and that the writer of each book is generally known and unquestioned.

In some parts of the country, there is a sub-group who insist that the 16th century King James Version is the only acceptable English version of the Holy Word. I was never a subscriber to that view because I knew that none of the original texts nor original spoken words would have been in the English of a particular age. But the idea that God had inspired the underlying story telling made a certain amount of sense to me growing up.

I was aware, however, that many, many people pointed at Scripture and proposed a not insignificant number of inconsistencies, contradictions and inaccuracies. I heard most of them, and I scoffed heartily. I argued that these were matters of a little noun here and a bit of meaningless verbage there and none of them had any major impact on the narrative of the Bible as a whole. These damaging accusations were simply the stirrings of the unenlightened who didn’t get the important nuances and, of course, hated Scripture and the Christian religion built upon it.

As I hinted in my opening post, my endeavours at reading the Scripture from start to finish were one of the things that loosened the stick that was preventing the rock of my faith from rolling away. And one of the stories that really sticks in my head is the story of Abimelech in Genesis.

You remember Abimelech, don’t you? The guy to whom Abraham pretended that Sarah was his sister to protect them? And God held it against Abimelech?

Well, I’ve obviously known this story for years. But as I was reading through this story this time in the context of reading the book of Genesis within a daily plan, I got a strange sensation of having come across it before. And do you know what I discovered? I discovered I was right! To cut a long story short, this Wikipedia article fleshes out the details of what I came to understand about these wife-sister narratives (i.e. there are 3 of them in Genesis alone).

But…but…but…

I’m not sure I can quite get across the impact of this “kick in the teeth”. On the surface, you might not consider this on its own as terribly significant. But, to me, it was. It was massive. I suddenly began to think there was perhaps more to what people had been saying for such a long time. There were other examples, but this is the one that sticks most clearly in my mind. It acted as a prod for me to begin looking more deeply into Biblical contradictions than I had in the past.

And I really, really didn’t like what I found. Not so much from the point of view of the clear issues with our English Scriptures – I can now see those for myself quite clearly – but more from the perspective of how the Bible came to be in any form. When it was written, who it was written by, and the original manuscripts which have been critiqued to give us what we have now. Not to mention anything of the Apocrypha!

I’m going to go ahead and assume that few of us are directly involved in textual criticism of original Scripture sources. Oh, some of us may know Greek or Hebrew. Some of us may be able to read some words or phrases of the original manuscripts. I can’t, so again, I rely on experts to tell me the truth. And in this particular sphere, you can find an expert to tell you almost any variation of “the truth” that you could possibly imagine. Consensus is rare – well, at least from my point of view. The theological community claims to have all the evidence to back their stance and the non-religious community seems utterly convinced the pro-theological position is poppycock.

How can we know?

Given this collective uncertainty, or perhaps the knowledge of where we should look to get the right answers, I simply feel you have to look at things from your own point of reference. I know there are significant dangers in applying experience to anything for which a definitive truth exists – it’s rare for us to have enough of such experience in an adequately diverse range of subjects to reach what you’d call an educated and well-informed conclusion. I appreciate this is something I need to address in the coming weeks and months by reading and try to understand more of the history and origins of Scripture and the techniques of criticism which has given us what we have today.

Thinking back over my personal history of reading the Bible and very, very Christian Bible studies, I realise how flawed, shallow and biased they were. I realise how much I selectively glossed over the problems with what I was reading and how much of the Bible I didn’t actually know because it doesn’t fit into these well-formed walk-throughs.

I know that many, many scholars around the world have answers for most of these challenges, but they just don’t carry for me any more. I have come to think of the idea of Scripture being anything other than a constructed, manipulated, political tool as one of the most monumental leaps of faith imaginable.

Finding the Flaws: Prayer

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about what exactly I’ve come to believe and why. I want to look at some of the key tenets of Christianity – that I have lived by for much of my life – and consider why they have suddenly become a problem to me. And I want to start with the topic of prayer.

As with most such central doctrines, the quantity of books and articles about the subject of prayer is staggering. I’ve read but a few of them. But I always looked for different literature in the hope of understanding why I struggled with the idea of prayer for a very, very long time. I have just never quite grasped how the omniscient, almighty, sovereign God could be influenced by the requests and pleadings of ignorant, selfish, narrow individuals.

Yes, No or Wait

I persevered with the idea, nonetheless. It was, after all, one of the things we had to do, if we wanted to call ourselves Christian. And there were rules about being reverent and thankful and not just treating God as a cosmic Santa Claus.

I brought the “requests of my heart” to Him in a way I understood to be the right way. I prayed with faith, always seeking to serve what I thought would be His will. And I waited on the answer. When things panned out as I had asked, I considered it that my request had been met with a “Yes”. When I got a “No”, well that was OK, too – I was obviously off-track with my requests and God was keeping me in line. When I couldn’t quite figure out whether I had an answer of any sort, I treated that as a “Wait”.

When I first started losing my faith, I repeatedly thought back to a number of occasions in my life where I had received what I thought at the time were reasonably stern “No!” answers from the Lord. At those times, it seemed like He knew His “plan for my life” better than I did and would take me there regardless of how much I resisted or misunderstood. They usually worked out quite positive for me, but I only ever realised this in hindsight. It’s interesting how much the Christian experience relies on this particular view of things to make sense of what’s going on and what has happened to get here.

I felt that if I could convince myself that these were real faith experiences and that God was truly in control, mapping it all out, that I’d be able to resist the urge to give it all up. It stopped me from beginning to call myself an atheist for a while, but it never managed to pull me back in to mindset I had held.

Theological Acrobatics

But here’s the thing… Prayer falls in the middle of some other key theological doctrines. We have the two book ends of free will and pre-destination. Now, I’m no theologian, but my (truly superficial) understanding of these things is that free will suggests things are open ended and an individual may decide his course – and, by implication, the course of others – by choosing whether or not to follow the spiritual influences he encounters. On the other hand, pre-destination suggests that God has the entirety of history and the future mapped out from start to finish, knowing what people will do, when and the consequences of all these things.

And I have never been able to reconcile where prayer sits in this dichotomy. If prayer is effective, pre-destination does not make sense because how can our words make any difference to something entirely mapped out. In this light, for us to even utter the words was a pre-determined action. So the prayer itself is meaningless. God knows everything; He knows the sequence of things and where they will lead on to next.

If, however, free will applies and we get to make decisions on the fly based on current circumstances, God cannot be omniscient. Or perhaps I misunderstand what that means. The argument would be that even if God knows what’s going to happen – what we’re going to ask for, how we want things to pan out – He doesn’t necessarily make it happen (I think). That’s murky. And surely my free will impacts others. My choices can change the direction of people besides myself? Again, if God doesn’t control this, how can He do anything with our prayers?

More to it than theology?

I wonder if there’s more to prayer than the Christian experience. All religions pray. Most forms of spiritualism throughout the world involve something that can be likened to prayer or meditation. I’ve read some things over the years which suggest that this kind of time-out mechanism is extremely beneficial to us. Perhaps that’s why Christians hold onto prayer so much. The personal benefits they get from actually praying mean more than the outcome of those prayers? That because of how it makes them feel, they look for confirmations and reasons to keep doing it, so they justify it that their prayers are always answered one way or another?

Again, I’ve no experience of this neurological realm either, but there must be something in it.

I look back on my times of praying with a little bit of disdain these days. Even though I struggled with it the whole way through my Christian life, it really makes so little sense now. I have come to firmly believe that the only thing affected by any form of prayer is the mental (or physical) state of the pray-er and that pleading for anything to any god is an exercise in utter futility.