2/05/2011 | Share this article: View CommentsBy RickO ~
One Saturday morning in 1987, when I was 25 years old, two men came to my door. They were elderly gentlemen; too old to be detectives, but that was only a momentary thought anyway because they identified themselves as elders of the local Alliance church. They asked if they could come in and talk to me. I agreed. While we made a little small talk, I wondered why they were here or how they happened to know me by name. They told me that certain people were deeply concerned about me, my soul, to be more specific and it was quickly apparent to me that my father had to be behind this (I later learned it was my grandfather and my father who had contacted this church in the city where I live and requested this mission). I should digress to say that my father was an Alliance minister and my entire family, devout Christians. I was, in their opinion, wayward and at risk of being lost, according to the vernacular of that culture.
It’s true that from the day I left home to enlist in the military, a mere few days after my 17th birthday, I never attended church but for a few exceptions, and did not live a Christian lifestyle, at least in the manner that would have been expected of me by my family. Granting them their perspective, they were right to be concerned.
The two men got down to business with one question: “If you were to die tonight and found yourself standing in the presence of God, and if God were to say to you, ‘Why should I let you into my Heaven’, what would you say?” I think my answer was, “Good question. I don’t know.” At that point in my life, I had never given such things much thought. In fact, as a child, I would never have expected such a challenge at the gate because I was certain of my salvation. I would have been on the good-and-faithful-servant list and not to be challenged by security, if you will. But, as an adult, who had supposedly drifted away, I was still straddling the abyss, my memory in one world, my life in another.
The elders worked me over a little bit, gently, yet deftly, pushing me into the philosophical corners and left me with a stern admonition. They asked, for the sake of those who loved me and who were so concerned, would I please commit to some serious soul searching. Because Saturday morning was rapidly passing, I said I would. The men left and I never saw them again.
Soul Searching. That would turn out to be a very important term. One thing we all learn in school, at work, in the military perhaps, is that assignments are not always clear, so the first step is to understand what it means. Soul searching means one thing. It means, “Think about it”. That’s all it can mean. But as a means to an end, it can take two different paths. Should I think about it until I see it your way or my own way? I know what your way is but I don’t know what my way is yet. I know what the elders wanted. I know what my father and grandfather wanted. They wanted it both ways. They wanted my way to be as their way. That is certainly the only way to be all in. I don’t know if they saw the risk in that because I’m sure they were convinced that if I thought about it, if I really thought about it, how could I possibly come to any other conclusion than to see it their way and return to the fold? The Lord would lead me, the prodigal son, home.
This is not something that you do over a cup of coffee one morning. Not if you are serious about it. And it became serious, not because I felt some obligation to carry out the orders of the two church elders, but because they had planted a seed. These guys were good. I give them credit for knowing their craft. But they rely on the fact that so many people simply take their word for it and then spend the rest of their lives seeking reinforcement amongst the pews, completely missing the central point. What if it’s all just bullshit? I’m sorry, but that’s a really important question. Until you can answer that question with certainty, you don’t know who you are or what your way is.
There is uncertainty in everything. In fact, the only laws of nature, a law being something of absolute certainty, are based on mathematics. Two plus two equals four in no uncertain terms. Emc^2, in no uncertain terms. Wait a minute, though. What we consider (and what is, so far) unshakable in classical physics is actually being challenged by quantum theory. That’s why relativity is still a theory despite being correct. It’s also why evolution is still called a theory despite being absolutely how life works. The point is, you can seek certainty knowing that there will be gaps and aberrations but those uncertainties are not automatically filled by, or confirmation of, the opposing viewpoint.
The process of soul searching is to seek certainty with the goal of convincing yourself of something. I decided to follow the best method I knew of: Evidence. It was really the only method I could think of besides simply taking it on faith, which would make the whole exercise of soul searching pointless. If I was to come out of this exercise with a sense of certainty that what I had been led to believe was indeed true, simply taking someone else's word for it was not enough.
Carl Sagan said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The claims made by religion are, indeed, extraordinary. In fact, there can be no more profoundly extraordinary claim than the existence of God himself. If that claim is false, then everything that derives from it is worthless. So how does one substantiate that claim? What I was taught as a child was that the bible was the definitive text from which all things are explained both in terms of the existence of God himself to the finest detail of how we should conduct ourselves as his creation. Further, one need not consider any other source. While I was not going to limit myself to the bible, it made sense to do something that I had never done, despite being the son of a minister, having attended Sunday school, church, bible study, summer camp and had simmered in Christianity for my entire life to that point. I decided to start by reading the bible. I mean really reading it--all of it—as if for the first time and without any preconceived notion. At first it seemed like an impossible task to be completely impartial, given my past, but I quickly found the bible to be as alien to me as the Koran.
The very first words of the bible make a monumental assertion. Genesis 1:1 says “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”. It simply tells you to assume God exists. Everything beyond that is a derivative of that simple statement of unsubstantiated fact. What follows is a collection of stories, poetry, genealogy, dubious history, rants, a great deal of gore and a very clear picture of a malevolent monster deity who has little regard towards the suffering of his own creation. It’s so bad that this God’s own progeny has to appear as a human to try and save everybody from the bloodthirsty wrath of his father only to face that wrath himself by way an horrific execution. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Jesus dying words, Matthew 27:46). The central premise of the bible, and the religions that adhere to it, is that we must “fear” God. Be afraid. Be so completely afraid that you would do anything to avoid pissing off God. Be so rapt in terror of this creature that you would kill your own children, commit unspeakable atrocities, conduct crusades and inquisitions, even dress a certain way, build cathedrals, perform weird and grotesque rituals, and without hesitation, be ready to give your own life, not to save another person, but to save yourself.
But there’s an even more sinister inducement: Love. Despite the horror show contained in the bible’s pages, we are told that God loves his creation. In fact, one of the most widely quoted verses in the bible is also one of the most perverse. “For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The human mind responds the strongest to two things: fear and love. That single verse is one the most sadistic things I’ve ever read.
It’s difficult to estimate the total number of humans who’ve lived on earth, but the best estimates are around 106 billion going back about 50,000 years. That’s roughly 106 billion souls eligible for salvation. Roughly half of the total population has been born since the time of Christ. If you could boil the total number down to the subset of souls who have met the eligibility requirements for eternal life, how many may have escaped the fate of eternal damnation, compared to the numbers condemned simply by accident of birth, geography and access to information? It would be a safe assumption that a tiny fraction of people who’ve lived would have met the conditions for salvation as described in the bible leaving the vast majority to whatever the alternative is. In my upbringing, that alternative was Hell, a place of indescribable torment and pain, the tortures of the damned for eternity without end. According to the doctrines, Hell is a place reserved not just for those who have had the opportunity to avoid it and have rejected that overture in an exercise of so-called free will, but for all those, including most humans to ever walk the earth, or even to die in childbirth, whose only infraction is to never have gotten the memo. That’s how the bible expresses love.
While the bible may be a fascinating work of literature, it presents a logical conundrum. The bible is true because it says so in the bible, or so the reasoning goes. Those who accept that circular logic explain themselves by saying the bible is divinely inspired; it is God’s revealed word. How do they know that? It says so in the bible. What keeps them from seeing the absurdity in that logic? It’s the fear of defying God by questioning it. The fear instilled in them by the words in the bible. It’s a closed system with no apparent exit door.
The process of soul searching is to seek certainty with the goal of convincing yourself of something. I decided to follow the best method I knew of: Evidence. The other thing the bible fails to do is offer any evidence directly or give any clue as to how one might corroborate what it says. Further, to take the bible literally, it is necessary to suspend the laws of nature on numerous occasions. The bible is full of miracles and, in most cases; miracles are events that defy nature and physical laws. Parting the waters, turning water into wine, healing the sick, virgin birth and resurrection from the dead, are all accounts of events that simply cannot happen in the universe as we know it. The miracles are intended to prove, among other things, the omniscience of God and the divinity of Jesus. Without the miracles, particularly those attributed to Jesus, the whole thing falls apart. Yet, only in the bible itself are these events described and one must accept the circular logic as the sole provenance.
So the bible, while it may suit those willing to accept it solely on faith, offers no substance to one who is searching for certainty. In fact, the role of the bible can only really come into play once certainty is found, and only if it was found in favor of its essential assertion because, as I pointed out earlier, the first four words of the bible (In the beginning, God…) assume that it has.
I began what would become a lifelong interest in science. In particular, physics, cosmology and evolutionary biology. It seemed these were the sciences that got in the way of the biblical account of creation and also explained so much of what otherwise made God necessary to a demon-haunted bronze-age world.
I had to accept the fact that I had very little aptitude, or the attention span, required for the intensity of mathematics one needs to master in order to study science, particularly these fields. And even with an aptitude for higher math, it takes many years of study before the real meat of physics begins to make sense. Fortunately, science offers three benefits to the rest of us. First, it is subject to rigorous and often brutal peer review. In a career that demands one “publish or perish”, scientists must take tremendous care in their work and cannot simply make things up. It’s not unheard of but a hoax usually has a very short lifespan. The second benefit is that a lot of what is otherwise very technical and difficult to comprehend is translated into understandable terms by a broad range of highly respected scientists who write books intended to help people like me understand even the most complex topics. It is easy to find a book supporting the most absurd ideas, and just as easy to find books attempting to debunk established science, but it’s also not too difficult to discern between the garbage and the real stuff. All you need to do is consider the author. A respectable scientist is going to use the same degree of care writing a book in layman’s terms as he or she would writing a paper for submission to a journal. Their career depends on it. Finally, the third major benefit of science is that it is willing to change its mind. Not every theory turns out to be correct. Even Einstein was wrong on a few things. The constant process of course-correction is essential and beneficial. But in the end, science is science; math is math. It is the same no matter what language you speak, no matter where in the world you live or what kind of culture you live within.
So I began to read. I’ve read hundreds of books over the decades feeding a growing and unquenchable appetite. And the more I read, the more I upped the difficulty level. Not surprisingly, though, I have never seen so much as a shred of evidence to support even the most central and essential premises of the bible. It begs the question: Why, if God exists in any form, not just the way he is described in the bible, but in any form at all, is there not even a single fragment of evidence? Beyond the metaphysical questions, there is almost no evidence at all that any of the events described in the bible even took place. I say almost because some of the events do overlap actual history, but I’m talking about the events where the hand of God or the life of Jesus was involved. Even momentous historical accounts for which there should be mountains of physical evidence lack anything conclusive. For example: The Exodus.
According to the early part of the Old Testament, sometime around the 13th Century BC, a huge number of people left Egypt, en masse, and spent 40 years in the desert between Sinai and modern-day Palestine. This happened in a place we know of, during a period of time we are reasonably sure of (close enough at least) and during a time when written records were being kept by the advanced society in Egypt. In essence, the bible has given us an account of an event that includes an archaeological treasure map. We know exactly where to look and what to look for. Yet we find nothing. We do find evidence of human existence in that area before, during and after the time of the Exodus, but nothing that would begin to suggest an event of that magnitude. Nor is there any documentation from Egyptian text or hieroglyphics that the detailed account in the Old Testament ever occurred. The Exodus was a crucial event in the bible because it was where the delivery of the Ten Commandments was to have taken place (a couple of very important rocks that seem to have been lost). It was also the event during which God supposedly promised a certain tract of land to a certain chosen people forming the basis of the intractable conflict that rages today. If the Exodus, an event so well described, so physically possible, and so large it might have been visible from space, didn’t even happen, and we have no evidence to suggest it did, on what do we form the basis upon which to believe the accounts of things that defy physics itself?
Since I began my soul search, I’ve read volumes of science and history texts trying to find some credible evidence to support anything that might make me merely wonder if it’s even possible that anything I was led to believe as a child was true. Not only have I found no such thing, I have found a great deal to the contrary. I’ve also read a number of the apologetic books that attempt to make the case for God, either by presenting amateurishly hacked together evidence long since discarded by legitimate science, by pointing to gaps in science, by offering non-evidence as evidence (Okay smarty-pants, explain how Jesus could turn water into wine if he wasn’t divine), or simply going back to the bible.
One of the remaining arguments left to religious apologists, who’ve had no choice but to accept irrefutable scientific facts, is that even the science points to questions that require the existence of God in order to answer. Among the popularized ones are things like the supposedly irreducible complexities found in the “design” of living creatures and the cause of the big bang itself. But these gaps in our knowledge are continually being filled, not by God, but by science, every single time. The human brain, even the scientifically astute human brain, has difficulty conceptualizing infinity. This is another place where apologists can take a stand, suggesting that infinity can only equal God, but just like filling the gaps in the fossil record with ever more transitional fossils, theoretical physicists and mathematicians work tirelessly to eliminate the infinities that exist in their equations. That’s basically their job and they are quite productive. The last bastion of the apologist is the faith bailout. This is when you hear someone say that it doesn’t matter if all the evidence in the universe says otherwise, they choose to ignore it and simply believe what they are ultimately too afraid of not believing.
So here I am, decades later, at a place where I can find no reason to believe any of this stuff based on evidence or logic. I really have no desire that it be true based on what I read in the bible. I am sickened by the centuries of violence and human suffering in the world that is a direct result of belief. I see the way so-called Christians comport themselves and want no part of that lifestyle. So what could possibly be left that would lead my soul search to the conclusion that the elders and the deeply-concerned really wanted? Coercion.
What if I’m wrong? Am I willing to risk my eternal soul on such a wager? The reward for believing, so I’m told, is so magnificent: Eternal life of bliss and happiness. The penalty for getting it wrong, I am warned, is eternal torture in the fires of Hell. What this suggests is despite having no reason or desire to do so, I submit to it and play along simply to hedge my bet and God is cool with that? No. Of course not. I have to really believe. I have to want to believe. I have to have all-in faith. I have to submit completely and wholeheartedly. As Martin Luther said, I must pluck the eyes of my reason. That is the meaning of “whosoever believeth”. That is impossible.