Friday, April 3, 2009

The Dichotomy of Religion

I remember the day not quite as if it were yesterday, but I do remember it. I was in fifth grade, ten years old, maybe nearly eleven. Father Ryan had come into our classroom at my parochial elementary school in Hoquiam, Washington, to talk about our catechism lesson, as he did regularly. At some point, we had learned about original sin, baptism, and one "fact" that caught my attention: if babies died before being baptized they would end up in a limbo-like state in purgatory, since they had not been absolved of mortal sin through baptism and therefore could not enter heaven.

I’d been struggling with faith for some time, as I was a child who had to have logical reasons for everything. (Nothing much has changed in the ensuing sixty-seven years!) At my first opportunity, I questioned Father Ryan. I don’t remember the exact wording, of course, but it was probably something like this: “If a mother goes to heaven when she dies, how could she ever be happy knowing she would never be joined by her baby, who is in purgatory?” “If God is looking after us, looking down on us at all times, why does he let bad things happen to people?” “If God exists, it would seem that either he doesn’t care or he can’t do anything to stop these things from happening – like the war. So that would mean he’s not all-knowing and all-powerful, wouldn't it?” “There must be a lot of people praying for the war to be over and for their sons to be home safe. Why isn’t he answering all of those prayers?”

I think it was after only one of these sessions with Father Ryan that I was assigned to go to help the altar boys practice their Latin responses during catechism class. I always wondered why, but I think I know now.

My questions have never been answered satisfactorily. The unbaptised baby going to purgatory issue was resolved, however, when the Vatican decided in 2007 that unbaptised babies can go to heaven instead of getting stuck somewhere between heaven and hell. I’m beyond this questioning now, of course,, but I wonder if there isn’t a fifth grade child somewhere who wonders, “If limbo doesn’t exist, what’s happening to everyone who supposedly has been there for years and years.”

In fact, I’ve added many more questions to my list. As a teenager, however, I finally chose to abandon trying to believe in God and the religion I found to be hypocritical rather than to blame God for abandoning people. My main concern these days is how religion has become so entwined with the politics of our country, how a candidate must profess to be a Christian in order to have a chance to be elected, and how religions continue to fracture our world.

In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris, an avowed atheist, cites, Mahavira, the Jain patriarch, saying, “ ...(he) surpassed the Christian Bible in terms of morality with one sentence: “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.” Straightforward and to the point, no if’s ands or buts.

Just today I heard on a brief news clip that Afghani President Karzai in his quest for re-election has proclaimed that an Afghani woman may not leave her home without express permission from an adult male family member, as well as "she can no longer refuse her husband sexual relations," thus apparently condoning marital rape, and I don’t know what other assault against her humanity in the name of Islamic law.

I reread parts of Harris’ small but powerful book this week. His withering attack on Christianity in the form of an open letter is stronger than I would make. I call myself an agnostic or humanist, as I believe it impossible to know, the existence of God cannot be proved one way or another. That’s why it is called “faith,” I guess.

“According to a recent Gallup poll, only 12 per cent of Americans believe that life on earth has evolved through a natural process, without the interference of a deity. Thirty-one percent believe that evolution has been “guided by God.” If our worldview were put to a vote, notions of “intelligent design” would defeat the science of biology by nearly three to one. This is troubling, as nature offers no compelling evidence for an intelligent designer and countless examples of unintelligent design….The same Gallup poll revealed that 53 per cent of Americans are actually creationists. This means that despite a full century of scientific insights attesting to the antiquity of life and the greater antiquity of the earth, more than half of our neighbors believe that the entire cosmos was created six thousand years ago. This is, incidentally, about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue. Those with the power to elect our presidents and congressmen – and many who themselves get elected – believe that dinosaurs lived two by two upon Noah’s ark, that light from distant galaxies was created en route to the earth, and that the first members of our species were fashioned out of dirt and divine breath, in a garden with a talking snake, by the hand of an invisible God.” (Letters to a Christian Nation)

I find the whole religion dichotomy frightening. Religion may have served some useful purpose, and still does, in forming social groupings; churches certainly provide a place to belong and do much good work. But it is frightening to me that a significant percentage of the American population would not see a mushroom cloud over the United States as a horrific thing, but as the return of Christ – a glorious thing. It might be the prophesied single event – the Rapture. It is frightening to me that a significant percentage of the world believes on the basis of religious doctrine that suicide is not just legitimate, but highly commendable when undertaken for reasons of jihad (holy war). Going into war knowing with the certainty that one will die, they argue, is not suicide but martyrdom, a much praised form of self-sacrifice in the path of God, a way to win the eternal affection of God in Paradise.

There have over the years been several movies and books written about the
Rapture, including Daniel J. Gansle’s book, Rapture Redux: Living with Hope and Purpose in the Last Days (Infinity Publishing 2007), which tackles the contentious question of whether dispensationalist Evangelicals have gone too far in supporting war in the Middle East (Iraq in particular) in order to hasten the Rapture and the return of Christ. It provides a fictional look into the post-Rapture world, and how the Rapture doctrine is believed by some Christians today, some of whom may be or have been leading our country.

The very idea that our elected officials must profess their belief in any religion, let alone one that by extremists looks forward to the apocalypse, in order to be considered electable, I find offensive and frightening! That our candidate for the highest office of the land and one who would be leader of the free world should have to believe, that is, have faith that something is true that is beyond all logic and scientific evidence to the contrary, based on a book filled with contradiction after inconsistency, seems frightening to me, Like Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, “I dare you to read this book.”

Some reviews of Letters to a Christian Nation:

“Sam Harris’s elegant little book is most refreshing and a wonderful source of ammunition for those who, like me, hold to no religious doctrine. Yet I have some sympathy also with those who might be worried by his uncompromising stance. Read it and from your own view, but do not ignore its message.” –Sir Roger Penrose, emeritus professor of mathematics, Oxford University, author of The Road to Reality“

Reading Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation was like sitting ring side, cheering the champion, yelling ‘Yes!’ at every jab. For those of us who feel depressed by this country’s ever increasing unification of church and state, and the ever decreasing support for the sciences that deliver knowledge and reduce ignorance, ... “I dare you to read this will not leave you unchanged. Read it if it is the last thing you do.” —Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion

“It’s a shame that not everyone in this country will read Sam Harris’ marvelous little book Letter to a Christian Nation. They won’t but they should.” —Leonard Susskind, Felix Bloch Professor in theoretical physics, Stanford University