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Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

Life and Death

The pastor of the church I grew up in died over the weekend. It’s sad. I really liked the guy. He was sincere and personable. He had been battling cancer for over a year. I would sometimes see their family’s updates on Facebook. Sometimes they would describe how he was getting some of the latest medical devices to shoot radiation into his brain, targeting the tumors. There was a string of bad news – they kept finding more tumors. The family would talk about how they needed to “fight the enemy”, by which they mean that this was a “spiritual war” against the devil who was attacking them. They had to keep praying for healing from God. The juxtaposition of modern medicine on one hand and the devil, prayer, and God on the other, seemed particularly bizarre. It was like the finest medicine of the 21st century meets a stone-age understanding of the world.

The notion of a “spiritual war” always seemed like an odd notion to me, since they believed in an all-powerful deity. How can you have a “war” when you have the ultimate trump card? At that point, it’s really just a “war” to convince God to arrive and do something.

Anyway, he died over the weekend. I listened to the eulogy that they posted online. The new pastor (who used to be the assistant pastor) said his last few days were painful – involving seizures and vomiting. When he died, they prayed over his body for God to bring him back to life. They called the new pastor on the phone, who had them put the phone the deceased pastor’s ear and prayed for God to revive him. It made me angry. I was angry that they are so deluded that they believed God would raise him from the dead. It made me angry that, despite praying for God to heal his cancer, despite praying for God to rescue him from his pain, seizures, and vomiting — none of which accomplished anything (which should’ve told them something about their God’s unwillingness to perform a miracle), they wanted to “bring him back” into this pain. I was shocked at their incredible level of self-delusion.

Then they said that he was in heaven now, happy and with God. Not only do I think that’s just another self-delusion, but I couldn’t help but think “if you really believe he’s in paradise right now, then why the hell did you pray over his body to try to bring him back into his painful life on earth?”

I’m still shaking my head over how delusional all of it is.

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A number of the girls I’ve dated have believed in what I’d call a “generic God”. I have to wonder how common this is, and how common this is becoming. It’s a belief that a God exists, created the universe, wants people to act morally, grants an afterlife, and has a timetable for when people die. But, this generic God isn’t necessarily associated with Christianity or any other religion and it isn’t dogmatic.

My current girlfriend actually has these beliefs. She was raised Catholic, and a number of months ago, she set out to read the Bible because she wanted to see what it was all about, and what so many Americans base their lives on. She managed to read through the New Testament, and the first six (or so) books of the Old Testament. She wasn’t that impressed. She’s surprised that people think the Bible is divinely inspired. She says many of the initial stories in the Old Testament have no real point – they are often strange and contain no lesson for the reader. She also said that the Old Testament God behaves “like a tyrant”. However, she believes in a kind of generic God. This generic God isn’t the same as the God of the Bible. I have to admit, it’s a slippery concept to actually debate or test. The generic God doesn’t have to answer for any of the actions of “God” in the Bible, nor is there any belief that Christianity is the only way to God.

She doesn’t necessarily believe that prayer has any effect on the world – which means that studies showing the non-effect of prayer doesn’t say anything about the existence of God. In fact, she thinks that if God has a plan for the world, then prayer must be ineffective because petitioning God to answer a prayer would necessarily be a deviation from God’s plan. If God thought that you should: be healed, get a new car, or whatever, then He would make it happen; prayer is irrelevant.

We haven’t really gotten into why God would allow atrocities – ranging from the holocaust to serial killers to Josef Fritzl. Or why God would permit disease to afflict humanity, and if disease was part of God’s plan, why humanity would be allowed to find cures.

At the heart of it is the fact that she likes to believe in a higher power. She said that if she lives her whole life believing in God, then dies and there is no God or afterlife, that it would still be a good thing to believe because it would be a happier life to believe in all those things. (My own view on that is that I would prefer to know the truth, even if it was a less-happy belief.) In this case, it comes down to an issue of the burden of proof. From my perspective, I don’t think there’s any good evidence for God, or a loving God in particular. The burden of proof is on the believer to show that God does exist, rather than the non-believer to prove God doesn’t exist – which isn’t even theoretically possible (at best, we can make God an entirely superfluous explanation). From her perspective, I can’t prove God doesn’t exist, or that there isn’t an afterlife. She wants to believe they do exist, and, as long as there is a window of possibility, she will believe it because she can and because it feels good. She’s also lived her whole life believing in God, and she misses some of the ritual of belief.

Now, there’s nothing about her belief that would cause her to do anything irrational like I see in fundamentalists (like fundamentalists who blindly support Israel because “it’s what God wants”, believe that God is directing them to a particular course of action, or claim that we don’t even need to think about global warming because only God can destroy the earth or avoid making decisions because ‘it’s in God’s hands’). As long as her beliefs don’t make her skirt personal responsibility or make irrational decisions, then I don’t need her to think exactly the same as I do.

One of the snags is that she wants children who believe in God like she does. She wants them to go to church – despite the fact that she doesn’t really believe in Christianity. She likes to pray because it gives her a minute to think about her friends and what their needs are (not because she believes God will actually answer prayers). She also started going to mass recently – not because the teaching is divine, but because the priest gives a little nugget of wisdom to think about. I’m not quite sure what to think about it exactly. I would feel silly sitting in church listening to a priest/preacher teach something that I know isn’t true, plus I often see them making factual errors. To me, most religious teachings just sound like a bunch of fiction that people made up because it feels good to believe it. At the same time, if we did have kids, I wouldn’t want to be that Dad that stays home when mom took the kids to church. I remember families like that when I was growing up, and I always hated that. Admittedly, I was a Christian at the time.

(All of this makes me think about the Christians who claim that atheism is just something people believe because it’s the easy way to do what we want. Well, atheism is not the easy way when it comes to relationships and living in a predominantly theist nation.)

The whole thing has caught me a little off-guard. Assuming we got married and had kids, we could end up going to church. She would believe in God, but not really in Christianity. I wouldn’t believe in God or religion. Yet, we’d be showing up to church every Sunday? Are there other people like that? I understand that there are probably some “Christians” who go to church as part of a program to “climb the social ladder”. I also realize there are churches that aren’t Christian (so “church” doesn’t necessarily mean “Christian”). A friend of mine who is Buddhist goes to a church which has a series of speakers from different religions. I’m probably less opposed to that – if for no other reason than the fact that I like to hear what people believe. Although, I would probably still be irritated by the stream of feel-good fiction supported by zero evidence, which exists in all religions.

Personally, I don’t really have a need for feel-good fiction. Some people do. I have to wonder about the ability of atheism and agnosticism to really make much headway with people who hold beliefs in a generic God and enjoy believing it. At least these people are unlikely to stand in the way of science (say, in the evolution-creation debate) or dogmatically assert that homosexuality is wrong and we need to support Israel or invade a country because “God told me”. I can’t help but wonder how much “generic religion” is on the rise in the US, whether people continue to practice religious ritual because it feels good and gives people a community, and whether people are showing up to Christian churches out of belief in a generic God.

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My Week in Review

The last seven days have been interesting. Last weekend, I was hanging out with friends. There was one girl (Sarah) who I’ve liked for years. I had asked her out years ago, but she turned me down. I occasionally made off-hand comments indicating that I was still interested, but not to the point of awkwardness. Well, last weekend, she suddenly grabbed me and started kissing me. It was very unexpected. She said that it’s been building up for a long time. Great. Like I said, I’ve liked her for years. She came home with me that night (not that anything happened). The next morning, she sheepishly admitted that she had a date that night with another guy she’s been seeing.

I talked to her on Sunday about making plans for the this weekend. She said she wasn’t going to do anything on Good Friday. Um – she doesn’t have plans yet, or she’s not going to make plans because it’s “Good Friday”? She says she’s not going to make plans. Hmmm. I had no idea she was so religious. Being an atheist and dating is hard when the majority of people believe in God. I’ll have to think about this situation, and avoid the subject of religion for the time-being. I guess that explains why she’s still a virgin at 29 years old (at least, that’s what I’ve heard from our mutual friends).

Yesterday, I brought a shirt to a local tailor. A short Greek woman with a heavy accent. She owns a tiny little shop that’s easy to overlook between other businesses. I walk in and she’s smoking a cigarette. I had to smile – as of a few years ago, there is a city-wide ban on smoking in businesses. I assume she’s simply ignoring the ban. She takes my shirt, and we discuss modifying it. She’s a foot shorter than me, in her sixties, and round. She asks me if I bought the shirt on sale in a tone that says, “all clothes these days are overpriced, so I’d better answer yes”. I’m in my thirties, but I stammer around and say something about buying the shirt a while ago and I don’t remember. Of course, that’s a lie. I remember exactly how much I bought it for less than a month ago, and it wasn’t on sale. Somehow, it felt like less of a lie than “yeah, I bought it on sale”. I hate lying, and I’m bad at it. Now I know what it feels like to have a mother from the Old World. I can’t help but smile at the roles we’ve fallen into. She tells me to come back on Friday. “You’re open on Good Friday?” I ask, just making sure since this is obviously a one-person business. She says she’s Greek Orthodox – Easter isn’t for another month, she says with a wink. (Huh. I had no idea the Greek Orthodox had a different calendar.)

Tonight, I’m at a local coffeeshop when suddenly, I see Sarah walk in. There was a brief moment of confusion that happens whenever you see someone in a totally different place than you’d expect. She lives in the suburbs. I live downtown – at least 15 miles away. Sarah’s with a guy. Hmm. On “Good Friday”? I smile and look at her. It takes her a good half a minute to notice me. Not going out on Friday, huh? Maybe she’s not as religious as she said. And isn’t lying a sin? She occasionally looks over to me, trying to avoid tipping off the guy. I can’t figure out exactly what she’s thinking, but my expression is a mixture of “strange seeing you here” and an amused “I think you’ve just been busted going out on ‘Good Friday'”. They get their drinks and quickly leave. Of course, I knew she was seeing some other guy, so that isn’t completely a surprise, but going out on “Good Friday” when she said she wasn’t going to? Heh. At best, maybe he talked her into going out on Friday, since I was seeing her on Saturday. (I’m still skeptical that she was being completely honest, but there was really no reason for her to lie, since she had already told me about him.) Seeing her in the coffeeshop was a bizarre coincidence, though. There were thousands of places she could’ve gone, but she ended up in the coffeeshop where I was. In all the years I’ve known her, I’ve never run into her unexpectedly. But, it happens on the very night she’s out with some other guy, on the night when she says she’s not going out. I’ll have to give her crap about this tomorrow.

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