Category Archives: Religion

The Fattened Calf and Cookies: Ruminations on Evangelicalism and Identification

One of the most fascinating and frustrating things about being a person is that you don’t get to compartmentalize your problems. If it were up to me, I’d order my personal and psychological issues into a bulleted list, rank them by severity and resources needed, and proceed to mend them in a structured and logical fashion. Also, if it were possible, I’d have on hand an infallible reference point; something I could check regularly and know without doubt if I was Doing It Right. Needles to say, I don’t get to do that. My problems often hover below my awareness, bleed into each other, and resurface long after I’m sure they were dead and done. This gets especially complex when questions of identity and change surface.

I’ve been very open lately about my issues with depression; but for a long time, the identity of Mental Health Patient was one I tried not to have. My long journey towards acceptance of my illness has occurred almost in perfect tandem with my explorations of faith, and what both of those factors in my life mean for me and the world around me. The process is often awkward and imperfect. One example is that until very recently, I was leery about identifying as a Feminist, as you can see in an older post. Apart from the embarrassment I feel about this now, what bothers me most is why. Why did it take me so long to openly identify with feminism? What part of my perceived identity felt threatened by the term?

 

It would be easy to blame my evangelical background for this, and point to the suspicion of “the feminist agenda” that is often found there. I’m certainly not the only post-evangelical woman that’s gone through this. But I don’t think the problem is that straightforward. Apart from the fact that I take full responsibility for myself, the religious influence on this and other civil rights issues is more nuanced. Christianity in general, and evangelicalism especially, values conversion experiences. The prodigal son, the lost sheep, the Damascus road. These are are pivotal, beloved stories in the evangelical community. In all of them, the prevailing message is some variant of: “You’re here/changed your mind? Let’s throw a party!”. Growing up, celebrating a shift in identity or acknowledgment of imperfection was a given. Not that it was ever that simple in practice, but the expectation was that the intention to change or to do good was all that mattered. I do think there is a kind of beauty in this. Forgiveness and acceptance can be wonderfully liberating, as is the idea of making a fresh start. But it does contribute to problems people have if they leave the identity of evangelical behind.

 

When I began hesitantly questioning my own faith and what form it had, it opened up a whole bunch f questions about civil rights and what I thought about them. I expected to be celebrated for wanting to do better. I thought the fact that I meant well and was trying was enough. My experience with Center For Inquiry was also liberating, and there were people there that welcomed me with open arms and without reservation. I’ve always been grateful for that. But there were others who quite reasonably hung back and waited for me to earn their respect and trust. Initially, I was hurt and confused by this. I may or may not have demanded ‘cookies’ from people (you’d have to ask them), but I certainly awarded a bunch to myself. In retrospect, I can appreciate how much the way I’ve grown has depended on the kindness and patience of those around me. They gave me room to be stupid and let me figure out that I was without pressure or judgment. If I am hesitant to use titles like Feminist, Humanist, or Egalitarian now, it’s because I can see that those are titles you have to earn.

 

If I could give any advice to people making a similar transition, I wouldn’t stop with the popular “don’t expect a cookie”. I’d say expect everything to be different than you thought it would. The world’s a lot bigger, scarier, and lovelier than any one of us ever knows, and you miss out on that if you’re preoccupied with your own moral goodness.

 

Religion

The Problem with Cherry-Picking

 

In my previous post, I attempted to clarify some confusion caused by differing views on biblical interpretation. Today, I’d like to address another subject that often complicates this further; Selective interpretation, otherwise known as cherry-picking. Here’s the thing about it in Christianity: everyone does it to some extent, but many of us are unaware of it. Most reasonable people will admit to points of confusion in their own attempts to interpret scripture, but others will become very defensive. Much like the assertion that “The bible is true” can mean several different things, “Cherry-picking” has its own problems associated with it in conversations about belief.

 

Here’s a personal story by way of explanation: As a teenager, I took biblical knowledge very seriously. I’d read the entire Bible multiple times; I competed in a competitive biblical study program; I could recite entire books verbatim in King James English. I prided myself on knowing scripture, and was more than willing to discuss my religious views. But if someone brought up cherry picking, my first response was to feel deeply insulted. The reason for this was that I was raised in a literalism tradition, and when someone asked about cherry-picking, what I heard was this:

“You haven’t read the Bible for yourself.” or “Why are you lying to me about your beliefs?”

 

In reality, what was usually being asked was: “To what degree are you a literalist?/Do you agree with the traditional interpretation of passage xyz?”

 

I won’t try to excuse my own defensiveness, it was the product of immaturity and arrogance. The reason I bring it up now is because my biblical knowledge actually made it harder to get over. Because I was well-versed in biblical literature, it was easy for me to dismiss alternative views. It took me a long time to realize that I, like everyone else, organize information according to my own agenda because I was swamped with information. I see similar things happen a lot among my fellow Christians. Some of the most hard-line literalists are also the most educated about he contents of scripture and its historical context. The problem of creating productive dialogues isn’t as simple as educating people.

 

I don’t believe that I have a final answer to this problem. At this point I’m very open to suggestions. Apart from that, the question I’d like to leave you with is this:

 

In your opinion, is there an equivalent to dogmatism in the secular community? If yes, what is an appropriate response?

 

Religion

Types of Biblical Literalism

One of the most interesting aspects of my own religion, for me at least, is the way different sub-groups address biblical and moral interpretation. I don’t simply mean the interpretations themselves, but the way different methods complicate cultural dialogues. As I mentioned in my introductory post, most non-theologians who adhere to Christianity often use phrases like: “I believe the Bible is true”, or “The Bible is the word of God.” But what is actually meant by this assertion varies widely. This leads to the spread of both Pluralistic Ignorance and False Consensus. These two psychological phenomena deserve a series of their own, but right now I’m concerned with the harm they cause.

I’ve often seen my fellow Christians hold back on voicing their actual beliefs when they believe they are in a minority. I’ve also seen them not bother to explain themselves when they assume everyone knows what they mean. As a result, many promising Transfaith dialogues can easily break down in early stages. I realize that a discussion of biblical interpretation can be uncomfortable for people like myself, who are aware of their own lack of expertise. It can also trigger a host of defense-mechanisms, especially for someone new to Transfaith dialogue. But as uncomfortable and difficult as the process may be, open discussions are crucial for building a more equal society; they are also crucial for personal growth. In an attempt to foster both, I’ve made a very brief list of degrees of Biblical Literalism below. The terms I’m using are my own, and the descriptions are based on how I perceive them to work on a cultural level, not as a theological treatise. My hope isn’t to persuade anyone of their respective validity, but to encourage more accurate and useful conversations for people engaged in these discussions.

 

Hardline Literalism: Everything described in the bible is not only completely factual, but a portrayal of the only proper social order. It is given directly from god, and has an objective meaning. Individual interpretation is merely a result of human fallibility, and is an obstacle to be overcome.

 

Historical Literalism: The bible is an inerrant historical account, dictated by god for the purpose of moral instruction. It also contains direct commands and revealed truth from god with an objective meaning. However, the words and actions of other biblical figures are open to criticism/interpretation.

 

Informed Literalism: The bible contains excellent historical insights about ancient culture. Some details may have degraded through time and linguistic interpretation, but the situations and people described were real. Individual interpretation is encouraged when based on careful study, but the words of god, especially those of Christ, must be treated with utmost respect.

 

Mythical Literalism: The actual events described in the bible may or may not have happened, but they portray real moral dilemmas, as well as intricacies of the human psyche; much like Greek mythology. Studying the bible aids self-knowledge and moral reasoning, but any claim to an objective meaning, or perfect understanding, is arrogant at best. Educated interpretation is the best anyone can do, but the life and words of Christ act the lens through which most of the interpretation happens.

 

Non-Literalism: This is sort of a free-for-all. Adherents may or may not accept the divinity of Christ, but generally use his life and words as the gold-standard for morality. The words attributed to God are usually seen as reflections of the age’s moral reasoning, rather than divine commands. The Biblical stories are interpreted more like literature than theology. This category encourages individual interpretation, and allows the most dissenting opinions on morality.

 

The above list is incomplete at best, and it’s not always possible to separate the examples I’ve given. Some denominations or other church communities have a preferred approach to interpretation, and others allow room for multiple methods. Some even employ different methods for different parts of scripture. This is part of the reason assertions of faith in the bible can be stumbling blocks in conversations. Since so much of this problem rests in perception, I don’t think a perfect solution exists, other than patience and hard work; but I would advise my fellow Christians not to take it for granted that other people understand all their terms. I’d also like to promote awareness in the secular community that uniform statements don’t always express uniform beliefs. Hopefully, this can lead to more productive conversations. To that end, here is this segment’s question, directed at my non-religious colleagues and commentors:

 

Given the problem with “The Bible is true”, do you see an equivalent problem with common expressions in the secular community? If so, what advice do you have for overcoming it?

 

Religion

New Series: Cherry-Picking, Projection, and Biblical Literalism*

 

Trans-faith dialogue is important, even imperative, to the progression of social equality. Open forums allow ideas to be discussed critically, and by their very existence strengthen attitudes of respect for individual rights. But creating and maintaining open dialogue isn’t easy; The cost of leaving your own ideas open for criticism is that you are always leaving yourself open too. Personal beliefs often have deep emotional resonance, and even the most level-headed of us can become defensive and anxious when confronted with our own knowledge gaps or imperfect reasoning. Another problem, is that clarity isn’t easy either. Most of the people most passionately engaged in cultural dialogues about belief are not formal theologians or philosophers, and while this isn’t a negative situation, it can create problems. Perceived community in particular, is a problem that I often run into myself. In terms of my own experience, I’ve frequently heard fellow Christians use identical phrases to express widely different beliefs; specifically, phrases like: “I believe the bible is true”. On the surface, this appears to have a very narrow meaning, but in reality it doesn’t. Phrases like this create a lot of confusion because of the perception of common meaning, both on behalf of the speaker and the audience.

 

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be addressing common stumbling-blocks such as the above example, from my own perspective as a religious individual. I’ll also conclude each section with asking my Skeptic colleagues and commentors if they believe there is a counterpart in non-theism, and their advice for that situation.

*My Thanks to Dan Linford for sparking this topic.

 

Religion

Christianity & Skepticism: Pardon Me While I Preach to the Choir

Being a religious individual, I know I don’t qualify as a Skeptic with a capitol “S”. While I fervently support skeptical inquiry, and work towards many of the same goals as the skeptic community, it would be misleading to call myself a Skeptic. However, I also feel that I am also misleading by describing myself as definitively not one.

Here’s an analogy to explain what I mean: I do not describe myself as a Feminist. I much prefer the term Egalitarian. My reason in abstaining from the Feminist label is not rooted in any objection to their goals, but because of the specific focus they have. Egalitarianism has a different, less specific focus, and while it overlaps with Feminism in significant ways, has its own approach to social ills.

 

I am not a Skeptic in the same way that I am not a Feminist. While I have the highest respect for both groups, it is still somewhat inaccurate to count myself as one of them. The reason for this ramble, is that just as Egalitarianism overlaps Feminism, I think there is an overlap between Christianity and Skepticism; at least, I think there should be. One of the most common criticisms I’ve heard in my life as a christian individual is that religion is inherently irrational and hostile towards open inquiry. It’s always difficult to hear this without becoming defensive; mostly because while I don’t think this in inherently true of religion, the reality of it often is.

 

Religion is not science. It deals specifically with subjective questions that do not have an objective solution. There are plenty of people who would disagree with this, but that’s a different topic altogether. The questions of whether or not God exists, or if people have a soul, are in my opinion fair game for logical examination, but beyond human ability to answer with finality. However, the implications of these questions usually land much closer to the realm of quantifiable properties. When life begins may be a controversial question, but the progression of life is observable. The psychological ramifications of prayer, and whether or not it effects reality, is also testable under the right circumstances.

 

Because of this, Skepticism is not only beneficial, but an invaluable tool for the religious; for exactly the same reason it’s invaluable for anyone. The fact that Christianity has inherently subjective questions at its core does not absolve us of the responsibilities of intellectual integrity or rational cohesion. If anything, it should give us a greater sense of responsibility to subject our ideas to logical examination. History is full of examples of what happens when we don’t. That’s not a history I want to repeat.

 

To that end, here are today’s questions:

 

In your opinion, what would a more skeptical approach to Christianity look like from within Christianity?

 

How does someone wanting to be a better Skeptic get started?

 

How do different ideological groups establish a truly open and equal discourse?

 

Religion

Coming in March: Christianity & Skepticism

I couldn’t be happier with the lively discussion occurring in my most recent posts.  There’s a lot beings discussed there that I could write several more installments on, however, I’m forced to set it aside due to travel plans.  I’ll be absent for the next week and a half, then continue with the next part of this series in early March; hopefully, no later than than the 7th. I’ll be discussing points of intersection and conflict between Christianity and Skepticism, and whether or not they pose any benefit to each other.

Religion

The Non-Existent Spectrum Follow Up: Complicity and Moral Responsibility

I received a comment in response to my previous post by mechtheist. The comment raised multiple points, but the most important one is this:

“For me, any catholic, no matter how ‘moderate their beliefs and actions, by donating to the church puts them in the toxic category, they are complicit in the worst of the Pope’s barbaric efforts.”

No disrespect to mechtheist, to whom I’m grateful for responding to my post, but this is precisely the mode of thinking about ideological groups I’m arguing against. I could explain the problem of equating a leader to their followers (politicians, voters, and the use of tax money, for example), but that’s secondary. Do people have an ethical obligation to criticize people or elements in their social groups that are morally unsound? Yes. Do they have an obligation to fight the abuse of power, or the abuse of others by those in power? Yes. I’d argue, more so than those outside the given group, since they are to a certain extent, complicit in the actions the group as a whole takes. But this complicity is partial, not complete, since individual actions are undertaken by individual people. It’s the person who acts who has the primary moral responsibility. Not speaking out against them may be equally heinous, but it is a separate moral failing.

Furthermore, there are other ways of showing dissent than leaving. Some would argue that they have a moral responsibility to stay in a problematic group, since they are partially complicit in the group’s actions, and thus have a responsibility to change the group itself. This is a course of action wide open to criticism, but it can come from a sense of moral obligation just as much as dissociating from the group in question. The point being, that spectrums and categories don’t work for evaluating people. Criticize their ideas if you find them unsound, hold them accountable for their actions, fight them with everything you’ve got if they try to harm others; But make sure its their actions and ideas you’re addressing. Don’t assume that the most important thing about them is one (vaguely) descriptive term.

It’s necessary to address environmental factors leading to social problems, just as it’s necessary to address bad ideas and moral failings within groups. However, simplifying a person’s moral failings as merely indicative of their group absolves them of their individual responsibilities to themselves and others. Claiming that simply belonging to a group is indicative of a moral failing ignores the individual circumstances of the person in question, as well as their potential to effect change.

I’m interested in the opinion of anyone reading this, so here’s an extra question for you, which I’ll work into my next post.

 

If a group to which you belong behaves in a morally objectionable way, is it ethically preferable to leave the group, or attempt to change it? Does your answer change if the misbehavior occurs strictly in leadership, or strictly in the majority of the group’s members?

Religion

The Non-Existent Spectrum

Religion, and specifically Christianity, has been at the heart of numerous struggles over human rights in our history. In the present, it seems it’s almost impossible to discuss any social justice issue without some religious group taking an impassioned oppositional or supportive attitude towards it. It’s a situation that has made the fragmented nature of the Christian Church in this country painfully obvious. Additionally, it has contributed to a very destructive way of thinking about the Church, both from within and without. I’m speaking of the widespread tendency to look at Christianity as something that exists on a spectrum; The extremists on one end, and the liberal Christians on the other. There are several reasons this is an inaccurate assumption, but I’ve restricted the following discussion to the most important:

 1: The sheer number of Sub-groups

“Christian” is a term with an interesting phenomenon attached to it. Almost everyone believes they know what it means when they hear it, but very few agree on this meaning. The sheer number of denominations, sects, and other sub-groups of Christianity is overwhelming, and that doesn’t even address the discrepancies you can find in an individual church over even the most basic definition of what Christianity is. This is a problem C. S. Lewis addressed in his book “Mere Christianity”. To paraphrase, he encouraged his readers not to think less of their fellow Christians who belonged to other sub-groups than their own. This shows that the debate, or to be less polite, in-fighting among Christians is nothing new, and shows little sign of ceasing.

 2: The Ongoing Social & Theological Debates In All Groups

Going off the problem above, lets continue to use Lewis as an example. Many Christians see him as an excellent speaker for their beliefs; he’s considered essential reading by many theological communities, and definitely one of the better representatives* for what is now called conservative Christianity. However, Lewis was not the only theologian of his generation, and there were significant disparities even among Christian peers at Oxford. Compare his statement below to that of his colleague Dorothy L. Sayers.

 Lewis: “I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast. I believe that if we had not fallen, …patriarchal monarchy would be the sole lawful government.”(The Weight of Glory)

 Sayers: “Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man…who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female.”(Are Women Human?)

It would be easy to look at these statements and label Lewis as a “conservative” Christian, and Sayers as a “liberal” one. This would be a glaring mistake, revealing an ignorance of both author’s body of work, and the way Christianity works in society. Lewis and Sayers, like all human beings, do not fit easily into categories. There were subjects both took conservative and liberal views on (by modern definitions), and many points on which they disagreed strongly. The reason they could disagree wasn’t that one was a “severe” christian and the other “mild”, but that they pursued differing philosophical traditions within the church. Far from existing on a spectrum, these two theologians illustrate the complexity and diversity of even relatively close theological traditions.

 3: The Nature of Extremism

The most important reason that the “spectrum” definition doesn’t work, is the nature of extremism itself. Christian extremists don’t all belong to some secret club, they exist mostly in small, isolated, and exclusive social groups. Many of these small groups hold the rest of the entire world, including any other Christian group, as thoroughly evil. The fact that many of them profess similar beliefs, or least significant overlap, is partially responsible for people erroneously lumping them all into one category. These groups don’t exist on the end of a spectrum, they each are an example of what any group can become when they outlaw dissent; and while it is a problem commonly found in Christianity, it isn’t specific to it. Extremism is its own unique problem, and needs to be addressed as such, not solely as a product of the Christian Church**

 Why it Happens:

I do believe that Christians themselves often contribute to “spectrum” thinking. We do this because humans have a tendency to use Heuristics, or short-cuts for complex problems. Often, this strategy is criticized for the way in which it can lead someone to form or justify erroneous definitions of other groups. But it’s not always examined how we can use Heuristics on ourselves and our own social groups. It’s just as easy to oversimplify the goals and intentions of your own group, thus avoiding exhaustive research on your own history or knowledge gaps.

Once again, we can use Sayers and Lewis as examples of this. Many different Christian groups, with wildly opposing beliefs, claim either as their champion. You can see this especially with Lewis, since he’s more well-known. Simply try a Google search and you’ll see how different groups simplify his life and work and pair it with their own goals. This gets further complicated by Evangelicalism. Since Evangelicals see it as their responsibility to persuade others of their point of view, many different sub-groups employ similar arguments and tactics. This creates a false sense, both for Evangelicals and their conversational partners, that they are all essentially the same, when in fact wide disparities exist that can’t be explained simply in terms of severity.

This is precisely why free-thought and open forums are necessary for social progress. Open discussion prevents not only those of a specific group from simplifying outsiders, it prevents them from simplifying themselves. Engaging people with different backgrounds or experiences, whether it’s through debates, discussion, or purely social interactions, heightens awareness of our own self-definition. It makes us aware of the things we take for granted; specifically,what it is that we think sets us apart from others, and what we believe connects us to them. It’s hardly ever what we think it is, but we can’t find that out by cloistering ourselves.

To the purpose of self-examination and critical inquiry, the question I’d like to leave you with is this:

What is the difference between using skepticism/skeptical inquiry, and being a Skeptic?

 

* In terms of how often he is used, not his actual beliefs.

** Although the Christian Church often contributes to this, and is often ineffectual in it’s response.

Religion

New Series: Christianity, Skepticism, and the Non-Existent Spectrum

Beginning on the 16th, I’ll be starting a new series on a very common misconception about Christianity. Don’t worry, it doesn’t involve proselytization. What I’ll be looking at is the tendency, both in and outside of the Church, to assume Christianity exists on a spectrum of mild to severe, and the problems caused as a result. I’ll also be exploring points of compatibility and conflict between Christianity and Skepticism. The reason I’m making this announcement, instead of just writing the first installment, is that I plan to incorporate as much reader participation as possible. With each installment, I’ll end with a question, and use the responses as a spring-board for the next segment. Here is the initial question, which I’ll address on the 16th:

In terms of the Christian Church, what is the essential difference between an extremist and a non-extremist, if any?