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.

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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!!

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.

Setting the Scene

By way of introduction, I want to lay out where I’ve been and where I am in terms of faith.

It’s almost Christmas in December 2014, and we’re coming up to 3 years since I began the journey of leaving my Christian faith. I’ll be 36 in a couple of weeks and that faith has been at the very core of “me” since I was, I reckon, about 9 years old. I was raised to be a Christian and encouraged to attend almost everything I could (in terms of church meetings) as I was growing up.

I was never a Christian who could recount the exact day and hour when I knelt and prayed to be saved. As I listened to testimony after testimony of those who could, I always felt a mixture of jealousy and disappointment. I wanted my special moment, but I just had to vaguely settle on “around the age of 9”. I have a sneaky suspicion I would have made a commitment before that time but I now hold that it was that age before I truly understood what it meant.

I lived my faith to the full. I prayed. I read. I learned. I defended. I argued. It maybe didn’t influence my behaviour very much during my early teens and there are plenty of things from that time that I look back on with shame. But as I matured, so did my faith.

I was never employed by a church or church-related organisation, but I’ve been a leader and been in charge of various groups, as a volunteer, since I was 16. Most of my life – outside of work – has had some sort of connection with church since that time. I’ll go into more detail about these subjects in later posts.

But things are very different for me these days. Whilst there has not been one, single occurrence which “flipped the switch” of faith for me, I believe I can pinpoint two particular experiences which started the ball rolling.

The Giant’s Causeway

I live in Northern Ireland. There’ll be much more about that later, too, but a few years ago we had a massive controversy about the narration system provided for attendees to the new Giant’s Causeway Visitor’s Centre. It featured a single line which hinted that Creationism was viewed by some as a viable explanation of how we had come to be. The scientific community and a large number of the general population were apoplectic over this and demanded it be removed to prevent any suggestion of Creationism being either scientific or viable.

For most of my Christian life, I was an ardent Creationist. I fully believed it had a solid scientific basis and I consumed the works of AiG and The Creation Institute in bulk to ensure I knew the evidence and could put it across well. I argued about this subject for years in discussions and on internet forums, trying to do so in with as much credibility as I could muster.

Whilst I think the episode with the Giant’s Causeway was frankly ridiculous and a little embarrassing, it did kick-start some serious thinking for me. I began to read more – and differently – around the Creation vs. Evolution subject and I began to slowly shift my views. I still clung on to many of my other Christian beliefs, and I spent a lot of time praying that I would continue to learn what I needed to so I could maintain my Creationist viewpoint. Or, at the very least, I could reconcile Christianity with some variation of evolution. But my “faith” in that explanation of our history as a world and as a people was beginning to wane.

The Bible in a Year

Almost 3 years ago, I realised that even though I had been a Christian for over 20 years, I had never actually read all of the Bible. I carried a bit of remorse about that, but I set out to rectify it as a New Year’s resolution, and one I was determined to stick to more than any ever before. From the perspective of being a Christian, it was one of the worst things I ever set out to do.

I followed a reading plan which meant I wasn’t just reading from start to finish – I was reading different parts every day. I was a firm believer in the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture and felt sure that this would grow my faith and bring me closer to understanding the person of God and allowing Him a bigger role in my life.

But instead of that, I began to come across things, for myself, that I had always put down to “haters gonna hate”. Contradictions. Repetitions. Inconsistencies. Scandalous passages presenting a God of apparent madness. Instructions which made no sense – then nor now. I occasionally look back on the notes I took and the passages I highlighted, and it’s interesting how few of them are taught from our pulpits, books or theology courses.

I had heard the arguments for how these things where in the Bible, but in my ignorance, I had taken them as “attacks of Satan” and always explained them away as people not understanding the nuances and holistic narrative of the Bible and how it was one big, joined up, sensible story rather than a series of individual written constructs. I began to think “Wait… what if there is more to these accusations than I have ever considered?”

I made it to mid-April following the reading plan before I made a conscious decision to stop for fear of where continuing would lead me.

A Sobering Thought

A conclusion I settled on from these particular episodes was that the vast, vast majority of the general population “know” things because they have been told what to think, not because they have any direct experience of it. We are all products of what we see and hear and we all have a tendency to surround ourselves with input and resources which tell us what we want.

Scientifically, there are barely any of us involved in experimentation of study to give us a truly accurate understanding of biological evolution and its components and predictions. So we rely on the words of others. For many, that will be the likes of news reports and articles or TV documentaries. In Christian circles, it’ll be what advocates of Creationism tell us, including all the straw men that have been the very core of the Creationist argument since it became mainstream. But we need to know both sides of the argument, review the evidence and try to make an informed decision about what is truth.

In theological terms, our knowledge comes from what is preached from our pulpits, and rarely from the depths of our own studies. I recall how I spent so much time reading around the Bible rather than actually reading it. I read books which interpreted Scripture for me and I attended services and listened to preachers who would confirm my beliefs and challenge me in ways I found acceptable.

I decided that I needed to make my own decisions about what I believed, and that meant becoming much more critical and cynical and thinking much more deeply about the things I professed; to understand how much basis they actually had and whether I could truly consider them factual and reliable. It meant being open to consume evidence from different sources. It meant really getting to the crux of things I had only scratched the surface of in the past (for fear of what I might find if I went any further).

And where has this brought me? In simple terms, I am no longer a Christian. I no longer believe that the Protestant, Christian Bible I once thought so much of has a basis in factual history. I do not believe that all of the stories recounted in it are true and the personalities presented in it are the personalities our theology has made them to be. I do not believe the God of Christianity is a character I’d want to be associated with and the “system”, described in the Bible, of this world and an after-world of either eternal pleasure or eternal torment makes no sense whatsoever.

I am an apostate. I am a de-convert. I am an ex-Christian. Call me what you will, but I am not who I used to be.