Preview: Memoirs of an ex-Christian
Memoirs of an ex-Christian
Welcome! This blog covers my thoughts and struggles as an ex-Christian. If you like, read my introductory post. I've also written two "concluding" posts on why I no longer post here that often. Feel free to comment!
Last Build Date: Thu, 08 Sep 2016 04:32:40 +0000
Connecting the dots
Wed, 29 Aug 2012 19:40:00 +0000
Many years ago, a group of friends and I came across one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen. It was early morning in a school yard, and we stood in awe before a tree that was completely covered and surrounded by long fingers of ice that reached out in delicate and beautiful curves. The sight was enhanced by the early sunrise; the ice almost glowed in the orange light. One my friends looked in wonder at the tree and said: "God worked here last night".I fully appreciate my friend’s sentiment. In my Christian years, it was hard to stand before such natural beauty and not ascribe it in some way to the workings of a higher power. But now, many years later, I realise how much my thinking has changed.Was god involved in creating that ice tree, somehow? It was winter, and the temperature the night before had dropped below freezing. Under that specific tree, the school groundswoman had left the water sprayer on for a couple of hours during the night by accident. The conditions were just right for the spraying water to pattern itself as layers of ice onto the tree's leaves and branches. When you analyse the chain of cause and effect, when you connect the dots from 'tree with no ice' to 'tree with ice', there only seems to be natural processes involved.Rainbows, waterfalls, sunsets, snowflakes. We know, without having to appeal to the supernatural, how these things arise in nature. What reason would there be to invoke a god, then?Often, when eager Christians learn that I'm an atheist, one of the first things they often do - in some attempt to win me over - is to appeal to beautiful vistas in nature as evidence for god. They assert a dot called god, a supernatural link that somehow enables a 'tree with no ice' to turn into a 'tree with ice'. I'm often perplexed when I listen to them, left wondering if there is something that I'm constantly missing. How can I accept that a supernatural force is the cause of a rainbow when a person making that claim cannot demonstrate or tell me where in the process of 'rainbow formation' the supernatural is involved. Can you see why this seems like such a silly argument to me?I also stood in awe in front of that beautiful ice tree. But for me natural beauty is enhanced by understanding how something like that really comes into being. The god answer only cheapens the experience because with the god answer I learn nothing new; it doesn't act as a springboard for further understanding. Instead, I prefer to take the time and effort to connect the dots. The answers I arrive at are far more satisfying that way; the universe far more interesting.
What Christmas means to me
Sun, 25 Dec 2011 06:17:00 +0000
Get ready to role your eyeballs, as I have a confession to make.
I love Christmas.
I love the lights and the decorations, the endless replaying of Christmas carols in shopping centers, the nativity scenes, the Christmas trees, the malls overcrowded with shoppers, and the sound of ringing church bells echoing through the neighbourhood on Christmas morning. Some non-believers might raise an eyebrow at the fact that as an atheist, I treasure everything about Christmas, even some of the religious symbolism. Some Christians might sigh at the fact that I feel an affinity towards the rampant commercialisation that takes place over this period. But I don't care. I love it all.
I think it has to do with growing up: all the images, sounds, feelings, tastes and smells of childhood Christmas experiences cemented themselves into the foundations of my neural networks, intertwining with personal, positive experiences of the holiday.
What kind of positive experiences? The quiet, relaxed neighbourhood atmosphere of families sitting around braais in their gardens on Christmas day, children splashing around in swimming pools, the smell of freshly mowed grass, and the hot, bright African sunshine. I love all these aspects of Christmas as well. But most of all, I love the time when our extended family gets together on the day around a table to partake in a special, intimate meal. The laughter and chatter that occurs between family members, as we evaluate a year gone by and talk about the year that lies ahead, is the the most important aspect that has always defined Christmas for me.
I kind of approach Christmas in the same way many Americans might approach Halloween, another cultural holiday that is important to social cohesion, steeped in long held traditions shared by the community, such as trick-or-treating and dressing up in costumes. Halloween has significance for many American families, even though most Americans don't actually believe that real goblins and spirits roam the streets on the 31 October every year. Likewise with Christmas: I don't have to believe in the supernatural roots of the holiday in order to derive any significance from it. Christmas, including the religious aspects of it, is part of the culture in which I grew up, and as a result it is part of my identity as an individual.So instead of waging a "war on Christmas" (whatever that means) this atheist will spend the day with his feet up, sitting on a deck chair next to the swimming pool, sipping on a cider and chatting to family, while listening to the church bells ringing in the distance.For me, Christmas is about community. But most importantly, it is about family.
Thu, 06 Oct 2011 18:30:00 +0000
"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice."Steve Jobs, Commencement speech at Stanford University, 2005
Mourning the death of an idea (part 2)
Sat, 10 Sep 2011 07:40:00 +0000
Hebrews 10:24-2: The loss of a cohesive community The ideas advanced by the brand of Christianity I grew up with may have been very bad, but the Christians I knew were really good people. Although I no longer accept the claims made by Christianity, I have a high amount of respect – and I still look up to – many of the religious mentors and friends I knew and still know today. They are some of the most caring, thoughtful and wise people that I know and many of them hold the same values as I do.I will say it right now that I have no regrets growing up in the Christian groups I found myself in as a teenager and young adult (I've written about this before). I was lucky: as a shy 14 year-old, I joined the youth group of a local church and even now I consider that as was one of the best decisions I've ever made. Being part of a group that really cared for me, despite my social awkwardness, is something that changed me for the better. And I regard the stable Christian community of my youth as one of the things that successfully steered me through a turbulent adolescence.As an atheist, I sometimes miss this support structure. One's religious identification is far more than just a private matter: it has social consequences on whether you are accepted into a group or not, and whether you can easily take advantage of resources or networks within that group, let it be emotional, social, or otherwise. I often wonder if one of the consequences of living in a multicultural and multi-religious society is having to deal with the fragmentation of large support groups based on race, language or religion. No longer being religious, one has to concentrate on building other types of social support, through friends and family, for example.But the sheer size and single minded vision of the Christian network - which emphasises community, support and acceptance - is something that I sometimes still miss. The warm smiles greeting me at the church door, the reaffirming of beliefs by a large group of people during praise and worship, and the cozy background chatter of friendly voices around muffins and coffee after the Sunday service. I feel a sense of loss for these things; a sense of loss for the community I left behind.Next post: Psalm 139. The loss of fully being known.Click here to return to Part 1 of 'Mourning the death of an idea'
Mourning the death of an idea (part 1)
Fri, 17 Jun 2011 15:54:00 +0000
A feeling of loss
.That is all that remained from my walk away from faith. In the early years my struggle was dominated by anger, frustration, doubt and fear. But as the crumbling theist worldview that I grew up with completed its slide into the sea of metaphysical confusion - and as I started to build a new worldview of my own - fear, anger, frustration and doubt dissipated. In hindsight, even though these feelings were so vivid at the time, they were only temporary: brief bouts of flue that passed as I healed.But a feeling of loss has taken a lot longer to get over. It’s been nine years since I attended a church service as a committed Christian, but at odd moments I still catch myself missing some elements of my Christian life. It has gotten a lot better, especially over the last year, but it’s like a scar that never fully heals, a piece of my neural network that is so ingrained within my psyche that I will never be able to rid myself of it completely, even though leaving Christianity was one of the best decisions I ever made.What do I sometimes miss about my own Christian experience? A while back I was thinking about this and I came up with the following elements that contribute to my own sense of loss. In the coming weeks I will expand on each of these in the following posts:Part 2: Hebrews 10:24-25: The loss of a cohesive community. (click here) Part 3: Psalm 139: The loss of fully being known. Part 4: Jeremiah 29:11: The loss of certitude. Part 5: 1 Corinthians 15:54-57: The loss of immortality.Part 6: Conclusion (Proverbs 24:14).I welcome any thoughts or comments you might have.
Crying wolf . . . again
Sat, 21 May 2011 09:06:00 +0000
The rapture will take place today. That’s according to Harold Camping, a preacher from Oakland, California. His followers, from Family Radio Worldwide, have preached that the end times will take place this year, and they have spent huge amounts of money on extensive advertising campaigns, bus tours and thousands of billboards
src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/koEwE0WZsyU" allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="349" width="425">As usual, many mainstream Christians have responded by saying that this is all bunk, that “no one knows the exact hour or day” of Jesus' return. This response is quite strange to me, as I've known many Christians who believe that Jesus will come back in their own lifetimes. In fact, I once attended a youth summer camp where one speaker was convinced that we were the “Joshua generation” and that we would be the ones to witness Jesus’ return. If it is hubris to name the exact time and date of Jesus’ second coming, as Camping has done, isn’t it just as arrogant to name the decade or even the century?
But I wonder if all this Armageddon stuff isn't getting a bit old. For 2000 years Christians have been crying wolf, each generation believing - sometimes with absolute certainty - that they were the ones who would witness Jesus’ return before their deaths. In fact, Jesus himself seems to imply in Matthew 24:34 that the end times would happen within the lifetime of his disciples. But the reality is that, even after all these years, nothing has happened. It goes to show that no matter how certain you are about a specific belief, it doesn't mean that that belief is true.Life will just go on as usual tomorrow; there will be no rapture. Believers at Family Radio call people like me ‘scoffers’ for saying that, but the problem doesn't lie with me; the problem lies with reality: it has a way of not aligning itself to people's beliefs, no matter how certain those beliefs might be.
Why is there something rather than nothing?
Sat, 23 Apr 2011 09:43:00 +0000
This question, related to the existence of the universe, is one that, as an atheist, I've been asked on more than one occasion. I have two responses. The first is: why not? And the second is: why God?Why not?There is a subtle, and almost hidden, premise here. The premise is that 'nothing', whatever that may be, is actually the default position, and that 'something' is the exception rather than the rule.I don't think that premise has much weight. Consider the following points:
- Nobody knows for sure what happened before the Big Bang. We don't know, with any certainty, if there was indeed 'nothing' before the current universe came into being, or if the universe came from some previous 'something'.
- What is the definition of 'nothing' in this case? If one speaks of 'nothing', are they referring to an absence of everything, including matter, time and space? It is claimed that God created these things, so I would assume that a theist is talking of a kind of 'pure' nothingness, an absence of everything that we understand to be the physical universe.
- Related to the point above: in all of human experience and history, nobody has experienced or demonstrated 'pure' nothingness. Even in a vacuum space and time exist. In other words, if we consider all our knowledge and all our experience, we can be pretty sure, with a high degree of certainty, that something exists. But the same cannot be said for 'nothing'.
In other words, the idea of nothingness is simply an abstraction. There is no reason to presume that a state of 'nothingness' is actually the default position, if it has even been the case, or even if it is possible. Why should we consider it at all, then?
Why God?It seems that apologists unwittingly trap themselves when they ask why is there something rather than nothing. Their basic premise is that it is impossible to get something from nothing, more from less. Thus, God has to be the missing link that explains how something came from nothing. But what about God? If the universe (which is something) requires an explanation, then doesn’t God (who is also something) require an explanation too? The question can thus be rephrased:
"Why is there a God (i.e., something) rather than nothing?"
I wonder if the apologist can provide a possible answer to this question.
Spare the rod, teach the child
Sun, 06 Feb 2011 07:01:00 +0000
Dale McGowan, editor and co-author of Parenting Beyond Belief, raised an interesting point in this Reasonable Doubts podcast when asked about the difficulties of teaching moral thinking to children in a non-religious household (time stamp: 54:00). McGowan states that his approach is to provide his children with the right to know the reasons for the rules, the right to ask why something is the case. For example, if he asks his children to go to bed at 8:00PM, they have the right to stand their ground and first ask “why”, and he must provide them with a reason. This method of moral teaching is in stark contrast to authoritarianism, where children should follow the rules because “dad says so”.According to McGowan, moral development research shows that thinking critically about rules creates far more powerful moral reasoners; kids are far more likely to generate better rules for themselves if they learn and understand the reasons behind why something is right or wrong, rather than by simply following orders.McGowan mentions a book by Samuel and Pearl Oliner, called The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. The Oliners conducted 700 interviews in order to answer an important question: why did some people (the 'rescuers') in Nazi Europe risk their lives to help Jews, while others (the 'non-rescuers') stood passively by, doing nothing?One of the fascinating conclusions of their study was that the person’s willingness to assist Jews in need was, among other reasons, determined by the type of moral upbringing they received from their parents. Rescuers were more likely to have had parents who depended on moral reasoning rather than physical punishment to teach concepts of right and wrong. Non-rescuers, however, were more likely to have grown up in households where authoritarianism was prominent.From page 179:Parents whose disciplinary techniques are benevolent, particularly those who rely on reasoning, are more likely to have kind and generous children, children who behave helpfully with respect to others . . . inductive reasoning is particularly conductive to altruism. Induction forces children’s attention on the consequences of their behaviors for others, drawing attention to other’s feelings, thoughts and welfare.A similar conclusion was reached in a separate, but similar study:Most rescuers had compassionate and loving families. Their parents taught them the difference between right and wrong through logic-based decision making rather than authoritatively forcing the decision on them.Studies like these highlight the importance of moral reasoning in developing kindness, generosity and alturism in children.[...]
Some thoughts on doubt and questioning my current beliefs
Sat, 27 Nov 2010 13:08:00 +0000
A Christian reader of my blog recently wrote to me in response to my Moving beyond ex-Christianity post. I wrote a lengthy response, but I thought I would include below two issues that I touched on in my email, as I thought they adequately captured elements of where I am in my journey.
The first point covers my thoughts on why I think so many Christians seem to struggle with doubt, and the second is my response to the reader's plea that I should put as much effort into questioning my current position as I did when I questioned Christianity.
Some Christians often struggle with their faith; I no longer have that burden. This is because I've come to a place of simply accepting nature at face value, without having to clutter my view of the world with invisible forces and beings that cannot be demonstrated or verified, but for which I'm told (by major religions) exist. I think many Christians struggle with doubt because they sometimes observe instances where the two worldviews that they hold within their minds - the natural for which they plainly see and experience around them, and the supernatural for which they cannot see or demonstrate - don't always fully gel with each other when it comes to understanding the nature of existence and our place in it. For me, the physical world won the painful battle of cognitive dissonance because I finally realised that if something is invisible and unverifiable, it is indistinguishable to something that does not exist.
Questioning my current beliefs
I've realised recently that questioning my current position isn't the same as giving the supernatural any kind of consideration. When I first deconverted, I would tell my friends that I was a seeker, and I did a lot of reading across the board, from atheist books to apologetics to Hindu writings. But there are thousands of gods, from Apollo to Vishnu to Yahweh to Zeus. Maybe one of these gods exist, but it would be near impossible to research every single one in the hope that I would find the truth. I then realised that it's not up to me to find God (if he/she exists); it is up to those who claim that a specific god exists to make a strong case. In other words, the burden is no longer on me to try and find something; the burden is on those making the claim of existence to show me that something is actually there.
US atheists know religion
Tue, 28 Sep 2010 08:54:00 +0000
I've heard the claim before that atheists and agnostics generally have more knowledge about a specific religion than the religion's actual followers, but this is the first time I've come across a formal study that suggests that this is the case.
Moving beyond ex-Christianity
Sat, 21 Aug 2010 20:56:00 +0000
A Christian friend of mine asked me recently how my faith struggle was going. The question took me a little off guard because it's been a while since I've thought of myself as being in some sort of struggle. As I thought of an answer, I realised that I no longer think about 'ex-Christianity' as often as I used to; I've spent much less time thinking about religion in general.
This, I think, is a good sign.
It is a sign of the fact that during the last year or so, I've finally reached a place of peace and stability in a new worldview, realising that a person can indeed live a moral, philosophical, and fulfilling life without belief in the supernatural. The metaphysical storm that engulfed me since I lost my faith has now all but gone.
As a result, the entire theme of my blog is becoming more out of sink with my current thinking. The issue, you see, is that the title of my blog is all about what I am not, rather than what I currently am. When I was in a place of struggle, labels of 'atheist' or 'ex-Christian' suited me fine because at the time I did not know anything except that which I had left behind.
I am an atheist, yes; but I am more than that. I've started thinking about my values; exploring what I do believe, rather than what I disbelieve; discovering what I stand for, rather than defining myself by that which I disagree with. In other words, I no longer care that much for the label of 'ex-Christian'; I'm ready let this go.
What does this mean for my blog? I don’t really know, to be honest. I suspect that I will still think and write about religion, although not as often as I used to. After all, I still live in a predominantly religious culture, so the next leg of my journey will involve trying to find an answer to the following question: how can I live out my values as honestly as I can, but still live in harmony with others who might not share the same values as I do (as a result of their religious upbringing)?
Letting go of ex-Christianity sounds strange, I know. But it makes perfect sense when you think about it. When I was a Christian, it was a big deal that God existed. When I became an atheist, it was a big deal that God didn't exist. Now, I'm entering a new stage of my life where God doesn't matter.
Maybe this is what it means to become truly secular.
What about the four?
Sat, 19 Jun 2010 15:43:00 +0000
In September last year a South African Airlink Jetstream 41 crashed just after take-off from Durban International Airport. The aircraft had the capacity to carry about 30 passengers, but this was a maintenance flight and all the seats were empty; there were only three crew members on board. The pilot managed to crash-land the plane in a school field without diving into any homes. As luck would have it, it was a public holiday, so the school was empty.I recall listening to the news report on the radio that day, and I remember the news reader saying that the accident could have been much worse, and added: "God was smiling on South Africa today." I guess, if I had any belief in the supernatural at all, that I could bring myself to accept the idea that God chose to guide the pilot's hands so as to avoid the homes; that God somehow tweaked the natural order of events so that there were no passengers on board; that God somehow arranged that this happened on a holiday, so that no children were injured.I could bring myself to accept all this, but for four problems . . .
God might have been smiling on South Africa, but was he smiling on these four, and their families? Some theists claim that God is all-loving and all-powerful, but if this is the case wouldn't he have used his omnipotence to help all parties involved by ensuring that this accident didn't occur at all?If a theist praises an all-loving god for only helping some and not others, are they not implicitly acknowledging a god who struggles, sometimes unsuccessfully, against suffering; a god who has the ability to help only a little, but is often beaten by forces greater than himself; a tinkerer of events, rather than the master helmsman? If I ever come to a point of believing in some sort of god again, this is the only concept of god that would make sense to me, considering what we observe in the world around us.
- Captain Alistair Freeman: he later died from his injuries.
- Co-pilot Sonya Birman: she sustained multiple fractures and broke both her ankles.
- Flight attendant Rodelle Oosthuizen: she sustained a fractured spine and facial injuries.
- Ebrahim Mthethwa: a municipal worker on the ground who was hit by the plane, and later rushed to hospital in a critical condition.
Sat, 19 Jun 2010 08:34:00 +0000
I've finally decided to freshen things up by changing and (hopefully) improving my blog's look and feel. I hope you like the new design :-)
I also want to let you know that I've turned on comment moderation. For the last couple of weeks a spammer has been making his/her presence known on the comment section. I don't like comment moderation at all, as it hinders the flow of discussion, but at least I will be able to root out any potential spam. This is only a temporary measure and in time I hope to return things back to normal. But please feel free to comment as per usual; I will try my best to approve any comments as quickly as I can.
Raising children in a atheist/Christian marriage?
Mon, 31 May 2010 14:55:00 +0000
As most of you know, I am an atheist who is married to a Christian; Cori and I have been together for almost five and a half years, and it's been great.
When people learn about our cross-faith marriage, they often ask us how we plan to present our beliefs to our children. Well, to begin with, Cori and I have not yet had children, and we are not planning to have any. This isn't because of our differing beliefs, but rather because we are not, at this time, interested in parenting.
But what if we decide one day to have children? Cori and I were talking about this the other day, and the conclusion we came up with was this: if both partners in a cross-faith relationship have some founding values that they both share, raising children shouldn't be that much of a problem.
What values do Cori and I share?
The important point above, for me at least, is exposing our children to different ways of thinking. I'm an atheist, but I will be very happy to send my children to church or Sunday School, simply because Christianity is an extremely important part of Western culture. How can my children understand much or art, literature or history if they are not exposed to Christianity?
- It is important to respect others.
- We believe that it is healthy to have relationships with those of differing cultures and worldviews.
- We believe that it is healthy to explore and grapple with different points of view and different beliefs, even with those that might make us feel uncomfortable or threatened.
But as parents, we will also be responsible for taking our kids on visits to Hindu temples, Mosques and Synagogues, and to introduce them to common problems with theistic thinking. We will encourage our children to make friends from different cultures and religions, so they can find beauty in variety, and learn that – despite the fact that there are many differing beliefs out there – we are all basically human. I hope that, as parents, our children will learn to respect others, critically assess ideas and beliefs, and not feel threatened by doubt.
After all of this, it will not bother me in the slightest if my children finally decide to become Christians, atheists, or anything else. What they become will eventually be their choice, and I think the goal as parents is to give them enough information so that they can make a choice that is well informed.
What do you think?
(See other posts on our cross-faith marriage)
Imposing our morality on God
Sat, 15 May 2010 15:01:00 +0000
A recent study at the University of Chicago suggests that people tend to use their own personal beliefs as a guide when thinking about what God might believe. Researchers asked a range of volunteers about their opinions on highly controversial issues, such as abortion, same-sex marriage, the death penalty, and affirmative action.
The subjects were asked three basic questions:
1. What are your beliefs regarding this specific issue?
2. What do you think other people believe regarding this issue?
3. What do you think God believes regarding this issue?
The results of several tests showed that the subjects' own beliefs matched what they thought God would believe, but were less constrained when thinking about other people's beliefs. In two tests, researches subtlety caused a change in the subjects' beliefs on a specific issue, and this in turn changed the subjects' own estimate of what they thought God believed.
The most interesting part of the study involved functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the neural activity of subjects as they reasoned through their answers to the three questions above. The scans showed that separate regions of the brain were activated when subjects answered question 1 (what I believe) in comparison to question 2 (what other people believe). However – and this is the interesting part – question 3 (what God believes) activated the same part of the brain that was activated when answering question 1, suggesting that we draw on our own personal beliefs when thinking about what God might believe.
This comes as no surprise to me. I've often wondered, if there is indeed an objective morality set out by the creator of the universe, why there is so much disagreement between theists on what this morality actually is. Does God think homosexuality is wrong? Does he condone the use of condoms? You will find different answers depending on the theist you talk to. Irrespective of whether God exists or not, the above study seems to suggest that people tend to colour what they think God's morality is according to their own beliefs.In other words, the type of God you believe in might tell us more about you than God.
(Download the full article here)
Apple butter on a biscuit
Sun, 25 Apr 2010 18:18:00 +0000
Have you ever come across an article, book, or video that resonates with you so deeply that it brings you close to tears, simply because it somehow manages to describe exactly how you feel or what you believe?
I've struggled so hard to describe on this blog, and so inadequately, my own beliefs regarding my place in this universe, and my reason for getting up in the morning despite not believing in a god. In just five minutes, the video below (I came across it here) does a far better job than I did in five years. It's a beautiful representation of how I view life.
If you watch this video, then you will gain some understanding of what it means to be a naturalist. But more than that, you will gain some understanding of the person named Kevin Parry.
Was Hitler an atheist?
Sun, 11 Apr 2010 07:12:00 +0000
I've heard a few Christians claim that Hitler was an atheist. I think this claim is made (see an example here, a comment on a previous post of mine) in an attempt to discredit atheism by associating it with something like the Holocaust.
The truth is, though, is that it is not really clear if Hitler was in fact an atheist, or even a Christian. Richard Dawkins, in the God Delusion (pg 272-78), lists specific examples where Hitler seems to be anti-atheist and pro-Christian. In a speech in 1933 Hitler declared a fight against the atheistic movement, and claims to have stamped it out. In another speech in 1922 he repeats several times that he is a Christian. Then there is his famous quote from Mein Kampf:
Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.
However, there are other references (see here) where Hitler expresses anti-Christian sentiment. For example, during a private conversation on the 19th October 1941, Hitler was recorded to have said the following:
The reason why the ancient world was so pure, light and serene was that it knew nothing of the two great scourges: the pox and Christianity.
Moreover, Hitler heavily persecuted members of the Confessing Church; the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, was hanged in a concentration camp in April 1945.
So Hitler's religious beliefs are not as certain as some apologists, or even some atheists, would have us believe. My own view on the matter is the same as the one put forward in this article: that Hitler's 'god' was not the Christian god, but rather the German national identity. This is what he worshiped, and he persecuted anyone, atheist or theist alike, who did not do the same.
Atheists within the clergy
Thu, 08 Apr 2010 17:45:00 +0000
When I left the faith, I was extremely lucky. When it came to my social circle, my family and friends took the news mildly. My work didn't suffer, as I was starting a career outside the ministry. The only real struggle, other than my own inner turmoil, concerned my relationship with my wife, Cori, who was my girlfriend at the time, and who is a Christian. But we both managed to make our relationship work.
Other ex-Christians, however, find themselves in tougher circumstances. Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola, from Tufts University, recently published a paper on practicing preachers who are also atheists (see here). Five members of the clergy, from various denominations, were confidentially interviewed to explore their reasons for walking away from faith and why they still remain in the ministry.
Although the authors rightly stress that the sample is too small to make reliable generalisations, there were some common issues raised by all (if not most) of the five subjects.
It is easy to accuse these five, and many others who might be in the same situation, of hypocrisy. But when I remember how difficult my own faith struggle was, and when I consider the fact that I didn't have deal with the possible loss of a job, career, friends, or family, I feel a great deal of compassion for anyone who might be stuck in this position.
- As believers, the primary reason why the subjects joined the ministry was to help others.
- The road to doubt began during their years of study in seminary, when the 'truths' they were taught in Sunday School were suddenly challenged for the first time.
- All five have kept their unbelief secret from their congregation, friends and even their families, and have struggled with feelings of loneliness and isolation.
- One or two justify remaining in the ministry to encourage their congregation to think about ideals such as democracy and tolerance.
- The main reason cited for not leaving the ministry, despite their unbelief, is that they feel that they won't be able to start another career to financially support their families.
- There is a huge gulf between what is taught from the pulpit compared to what the clergy learn in seminary. The authors suggest that the clergy generally don't preach what they have learnt because they fear damaging their parishioners' beliefs.
Post rapture pet care service?
Sun, 04 Apr 2010 17:39:00 +0000
Are you a Christian? If so, have you ever given any thought to the welfare of your pets who will be left behind if the rapture occurs tomorrow?
My friend Cobus mentioned the following site to me during the weekend. It's called Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, and involves a group of animal loving atheists who will, for a small fee, look after your pets in the event of the rapture occurring.
Our network of animal activists are committed to step in when you step up to Jesus.
I don't know what to make of it: is it a joke, or is it serious? Gave me a good laugh though.
Monogamy is just one of many relationship models
Sun, 07 Mar 2010 12:27:00 +0000
There has been recent debate about the South African president, Jacob Zuma, over his open practice of polygamy. He has been married five times, and currently has three wives.When it comes to polygamy, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is an important cultural tradition for many; on the other hand, polygamy is primarily based on patriarchy.Polyamory, however, is one model of non-monogamy that seems to be more inclusive of both sexes. Also referred to as open marriage, polyamory (from the Greek word poly which means 'many', and the Latin word amor which means 'love') is the philosophical idea that it is possible to have more than one romantic relationship at a time, provided that these relationships take place with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.As this interesting Wikipedia article states:What distinguishes polyamory from traditional forms of non-monogamy (i.e. "cheating") is an ideology that openness, goodwill, intense communication, and ethical behavior should prevail among all the parties involved. The first major different to polygamy is that polyamorous relationships are not necessarily bound by an act of marriage. The second difference is that polyamory is not patriarchal. Rather, it is based on. . . such concepts as gender equality, self-determination, free choice for all involved, mutual trust, equal respect among partners, [and] the intrinsic value of love . . .From what I've read, polyamorists tend to stress responsible non-monogamy, placing importance on honesty, negotiation, respect, and the use of safe sex.In one Oprah poll, 7% of woman and 14% of men who responded indicated that they are in open marriages. There are families where the kids grow up with two dads and one mom in the house. In this article, the parents of one polyamorous family - consisting of a child, one father and two mothers - explain how they make it work.As a Christian, I grew up believing that the only valid model of romantic relationship was monogamy, but it is interesting to learn that there are many people out there who are practicing various forms of non-monogamy. And it seems as if many of them are making it work.[...]
The cost of wonder
Sun, 21 Feb 2010 12:56:00 +0000
I often describe my walk away from Christianity as a failed exercise in puzzle building. Growing up, we all struggle to build a puzzle of understanding about life, the universe, and the nature of existence. I think my Christian faith started to take strain when I began to realise that the puzzle forming in my mind – each piece representing a new insight gained by understanding or experience – was starting to look less and less like the box cover Christianity had given me, a box cover that claimed to have all the answers.In an attempt to match the Christian paradigm, I tried unsuccessfully for a while to force pieces together that didn't fit. I gave up in the end, finally deciding to throw the box away, as it was unsatisfying in meeting the demands imposed by my thirst for understanding.This image of the Puzzle of Life came back to me when reading an essay written by J.L. Schellenberg, Professor of Philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University in Canada, in the book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. Schellenberg, an atheist himself, describes his own journey away from faith, and argues that his sense of wonder was a major cause. On page 28:Plato says that philosophy begins in wonder. What he doesn't tell you is that many things end in wonder too. One of the things that ended for me as I sought to conform my life to the ever-expanding sense of the world’s wonderful complexity was religious belief.His essay resonates with me, probably because I can identify with his sense of wonder, but also because I can relate to his story. At a young age, Schellenberg channelled his wonder through religion, but as he started to learn about himself and the world around him, he slowly realised that – when it came to the complexities of the universe, history, and the human condition – the answers provided by the type of Christianity he had grown up with were far too simplistic and shallow (pg 28):What I swiftly discovered was that my Christianity had sought to confine the world within a rather small package. The world could not be thus confined! Carefully smoothed into a Christian shape, it kept bursting free. And I discovered that, even without God or Christ, wonder remained.Schellenberg describes his sense of loss after leaving the faith (pg 30): It hurts to have your neat picture of the world torn to shreds, your emotions left jangling. But no one said that a commitment to live in wonder, straining for real insights and understanding, comes without cost.I like that phrase: a commitment to live in wonder. I think that if there is any phrase that describes the basis of my current worldview and the reason why I get up in the morning, that would be it. But I also realise that a commitment to live in wonder can come with a difficult cost: the cost of changing one's mind about things when learning something new, of leaving behind cherished beliefs when you suddenly accept things for what they are, not for what you want or hope them to be.[...]
Moving towards a postconventional morality
Sat, 09 Jan 2010 08:06:00 +0000
In the sci-fi Christian movie, Time Changer, a professor in 1890 – who wants to publish a book advocating non-religious morality – is sent 100 years into the future to witness first hand how society degenerates when it separates morality from Christian teaching. The professor walks around modern day Los Angeles, shocked at all the blasphemy and rebelliousness. At one point a little girl steals his hotdog, and when he reprimands her, saying that stealing is a sin, she replies, "Says who?" and runs off, leaving him flabbergasted.Time Changer, along with many conservative theists, advocates an autocratic paradigm of morality, that morality only has meaning if there is something or someone telling us what is right and wrong. The assumption is also often made that this is the only way in which morality can be understood. However, child psychologists who have worked on moral development – most notably Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg – have shown that there are different moral paradigms, and that we move through these as we age.Kohlberg, for example (see here and here), outlines three broad levels of moral development, which he further divides into six stages. The broad levels are:Preconventional morality (Level 1): An egotistic form of morality, generally exhibited by young children, who judge right and wrong according to physical consequences. An action is wrong if you get punished for it; an action is right if it advances your own interests. "It's all about me!"Conventional morality (Level 2): Generally exhibited by adolescents and young adults, who judge actions according to the norms and beliefs of their social group, culture or society. "It must be wrong because dad/the Bible/the law says so."Postconventional morality (Level 3): Right and wrong are determined through negotiation. Rules are viewed as changeable mechanisms that maintain social order but at the same time protect the rights of individuals. "How can we best advance social justice and human dignity?"The important thing about Kohlberg's theory is that not everyone reaches Level 3. Many adults remain at Level 2 their entire lives. I would think that those entrenched in Level 2 are those who ask the question "Who says so?" when told to do something they don't want to do. If you remove their source of authority, then – for many of these individuals – you remove their ability to distinguish right and wrong. I wonder if Level 2 individuals are those who are inclined to throw themselves into destructive lifestyles when they leave their parents for the first time, or decide that God no longer exists. Apologists have argued, and this forms the premise of Time Changer, that without God anything is permitted.The apologists are absolutely right, but only within the confines of Level 2 thinking. If we move to Level 3, then the premise of Time Changer no longer holds, because the emphasis is no longer on authority. Rather, concepts of right and wrong arise from a space of negotiation that unfolds between individuals and society.I sometimes imagine, if the plot of Time Changer occurred in a world where a postconventional moral outlook was dominant, what question the little girl would ask when reprimanded? I don't think she would ask "Who says it is wrong?" but rather "Why is it wrong?" Asking 'why' allows for reason to enter the moral dialogue, allowing for societal negotiation, discussion and agreement on what the ethical and moral rules should be.[...]
Books that I'm reading
Fri, 25 Dec 2009 10:46:00 +0000
In between body surfing in the Indian Ocean, jogging along the beach and spending time with family, I've also taken time out these holidays to throw myself into a couple of books. These are the ones that I'm presently working through:Timothy Keller – The Reason for GodThe founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan argues that both secularism and religious belief are on the rise in the world today. In order for proper dialogue to occur between believers and sceptics, both sides should take a new, fresh look at the concept of doubt. This book is divided into two parts: the first provides answers to common questions that sceptics have about Christianity, and the second outlines reasons for believing in the Christian message.Patrick Glynn – God: The EvidenceAn atheist turned Christian shares his story of how he found faith, and outlines three lines of evidence for the existence of God: (1) the apparent fine tuning of universal constants, (2) out of body experiences, and (3) the role that religion plays in mental and physical health.Russel Blackford & Udo Schüklenk – 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists A collection of 50 essays from academics, writers and scientists who share their reasons why they don't believe in gods. Although most of the writers are from the industrialized West, which is common in a book of this sort, it's refreshing to also read contributions from Africa, South America and India.Jacob Klapwijk - Purpose in the Living WorldI haven't yet started this one, but I'm looking forward to it. This is the first time I've come across a book from a theistic evolutionist. The Professor Emeritus of the Department of Philosophy in Free University in Amsterdam provides a philosophical analysis of the relation of evolutionary biology to religion. Not only does he criticise creationism and intelligent design, but also reductive naturalism. He attempts to bridge the gap between the opposing poles of the evolution-creationism debate.These books are inspiring my thinking and I am looking forward to writing up my thoughts in future blog posts.Happy holidays, everyone![...]
Art of Soul
Mon, 14 Dec 2009 05:32:00 +0000
No philosopher can be an island. You can read a lot and think a lot by yourself, but you can only truly measure the value of ideas when you bounce them off other people. I've been extremely lucky this year to have people who have been willing to challenge my ideas and inspire my thinking. So if you have commented on this blog, sent me emails, or have met with me over cups of coffee sometime during 2009, I want to thank you. Your willingness to discuss ideas has been extremely valuable to me.
But most of all I want to thank a great group of friends from Art of Soul, a film and literature discussion group that Cori and I belong to. Meeting one evening a month, the group discusses spiritual and philosophical aspects of popular films and books. I want to thank Barbara, Curtis and Melanie (the three founding members of the group), as well as Jacomien, Salomè, Futhi, Sylvia and others for fascinating discussions on topics ranging from violence, peace narratives, the Holocaust, atheism, the meaning of religious belief, and white South African guilt. Some of the ideas I've posted over the last year can be directly attributed to you guys, especially the posts Where is the virtue in martyrdom and Is a person moral if they simply obey the law.
So thank you for your willingness to share, but more importantly, thank you for your willingness to listen.
(image) The Art of Soul crowd at Pappas in Duncan Yard, Pretoria
Where is the virtue in martyrdom?
Sun, 06 Dec 2009 08:32:00 +0000
I've always been uncomfortable with the idea that it is virtuous to die for one's beliefs. I remember, as a young Christian, listening to stories of brave missionaries, often in totalitarian states, who were forced to renounce Christ or be killed, and then were martyred for choosing the latter. Even then I could not help thinking how silly these missionaries were, for surely one's life is more important than a few words.
In Jill Paton Walsh's fictional novel, Knowledge of Angels, set in medieval Europe, an atheist, named Palinor, is marooned on a Christian island. Throughout the story he refuses to proclaim belief in God, to the point of being tortured and burnt at the stake by the island's inhabitants. I don't know if I would have done the same; if someone threatened to kill me if I didn't renounce my atheism, I would without hesitation proclaim belief in God. Because, again, I believe that one's life is more important than a couple of words, especially words said without conviction.
After all, what value can one add to the world if one is dead? The Christian who willingly dies for her beliefs renders her beliefs valueless, in a sense that she can no longer turn those beliefs into actual, positive change in the world. The missionary who renounces Jesus lives to see another day, and is granted with the opportunity to continue helping those around her who are in need.
The whole concept of martyrdom seems to be rooted in the idea that standing up for one's beliefs is more important than the value of human life. And this worries me because those who are prepared to die for their beliefs are often prepared to kill for them, too.
So I don't see any virtue in dying for what I believe. In order to add value to my own life and to the lives of those around me, I find it far better to live for my beliefs instead.