Tag Archives: atheism

When Does a Faith Become a Culture?

This morning on Fandango’s This, That, and the Other blog, I read a post of his called Share Your World — Coffee and Climate. He was responding to a Share Your World challenge on another blog.

One of the questions was If you drink coffee, how do you like it best? Hot, cold, iced, with cream, with sugar or black as black?, however it was Fandango’s answer to Global warming? Reality or myth? that I focused on. His answer was:

Global warming (aka, climate change) is reality. The Bible is myth.

He used the photo below to emphasize his point:

bible myth
Found at the “This, That, and the Other” blogspot – Photo credit unknown

I thought about his answer while I was getting ready for work, and then crafted this response:

Interesting that you brought the (Christian) Bible into the mix since the question had absolutely nothing to do with it. I can only assume that you deliberately were taking a shot a Christians just because you could.

Now I would never try to convince you regarding my belief system. You’re not interested, it would take too long, and adopting a faith in an all-powerful Creator is as much a metaphysical experience as it is anything else.

However, you probably didn’t think through the ramifications of your statement. I mentioned the “Christian” Bible before, but the first two-thirds of it, what Christians call the Old Testament, make up the Jewish Bible.

The writings in the Jewish Bible are the very basis for the existence of Israel and the Jewish people. I know liberal, secular Jews who would disagree with me, but given that my wife is Jewish and I’ve had extensive experience in both some churches and some synagogues (I know you might not believe this, but not all Christians and not all Jews are the same, and in fact, there are churches and synagogues, even here in red state Idaho, that are highly progressive), so my opinions are not entirely uninformed.

So in calling the Bible a myth (and that’s your right), you may well be invalidating every single observant Jewish person in the present and for the past 3500 years, as well as the Jewish people as a whole. I know you didn’t consider the implications of all this, but the Holocaust tried to do the same thing (and I’m absolutely not accusing you of being anti-Semitic or a Holocaust denier).

Yes, I’m going to extremes but to make a point. Whether you believe in something or not (speaking of Colin Kaepernick), it doesn’t mean those who do are invalid. The Bible, once you study it (and Bible studies are complicated) is an incredibly nuanced and complex document, and I’m the first to admit that most churches don’t even know how to study it (I’ve argued endlessly with many Christians on this point).

I am curious about your opinion of the Koran (it’s transliterated from Arabic, so it can be spelled different ways in English). Is it myth as well? Would you stay that on your blog if you know Muslims were reading it?

I know you made the comment casually, but words have power. As writers, we should be aware of that.

Oh, I take my coffee black, nothing else in it.

Now, I wasn’t the first reader of his to object, and his response to her was:

You’re right. I was expressing my opinion. The nature of the Share Your World prompt is to get people to share their opinions. And yes, Christians are entitled to believe whatever they want to believe. It was not my intention to mock and scorn. My philosophy is “whatever floats your boat,” and I wasn’t taking a dig at your beliefs as much as I was expressing my own, personal opinion in a post on my blog that the stories in the Bible are mythology. If you choose to believe in and accept that mythology as your religious truth, go for it.

As I was composing this missive, he did respond to me directly:

Whether the Bible (Old or New Testaments), the Koran, or any other religious text, they are all, in my opinion, myths. I assume at least some Muslims have stumbles across my blog, but perhaps not. So while I used the Bible as an illustration, I was not intending to limit my belief that all religions are base [sic] in mythology to Christianity.

Why did I bring it up at all? Just to offer a contrast between those who deny climate change and those who eagerly embrace religious mythology. I also don’t think you need to be religious in order to believe that the Holocaust happened and to be embarrassed by the inhumanity that humans perpetuate against one another in the name of their favorite god, for “ethnic cleansing,” or for the whatever religious beliefs to which they adhere. Is all that part of GOD’s infallible plan? That millions of people — his children — shall be killed and persecuted in his name?

I am not a religious person in any way and I believe that all religions are based on made-up bullshit. But I don’t deny that there is much to be learned by reading religious tracts and that if it helps people make it through their lives, then who am I to be critical of them? But that doesn’t make me believe that the Bible is any more true than Tolkien’s Middle Earth, for example,
or other fantasy tales. It’s great literature, but it’s mythology at its finest.

Okay, enough of this meandering response to your comment.

As if all Christians or people of faith are Luddites and don’t believe it’s possible for human beings to damage the global environment.

I suppose I should just drop it at this point, but then there’s my original intention in crafting this blog post, plus another concern Fandango’s most recent comment brought up. I’ll take the latter first.

I also don’t think you need to be religious in order to believe that the Holocaust happened and to be embarrassed by the inhumanity that humans perpetuate against one another in the name of their favorite god, for “ethnic cleansing,” or for the whatever religious beliefs to which they adhere. Is all that part of GOD’s infallible plan? That millions of people — his children — shall be killed and persecuted in his name?

Ah yes, the fallacy that people only kill other people, at least on a large-scale such as war, because of religion, and if there were no religions, we’d all love each other and there’d be peace forever.

Okay, I’m overstating the matter, but to make a point. John Lennon’s classic Imagine (YouTube video) makes this point as well, along with doing away with the concept of nations (sort of like Katy Perry’s more recent no borders comment). Lennon’s lyrics also suggested having personal possessions as a problem, so I suppose anyone agreeing with his “no religion” statement should advocate for dismantling all national borders and the laws pertaining to them (good luck with that), and should give away all of their possessions thus eliminating want and greed everywhere (I don’t see that happening either).

But I digress.

Blaming all forms of mass violence on religion denies the vicious acts of Stalin, Mao, and others who ran secular, atheist, totalitarian regimes. The only problem with an organized worship of God (or governments for that matter) is people. People have a tremendous capacity for twisting any institution to their own needs, so yes, in the name of God, millions have been enslaved, tortured, and murdered.  Whole cultures have been destroyed forever. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church and wider Christianity have been doing such to the Jewish people. The early Christian Crusaders murdered Muslims as well as Jews (which some say has led Islam to develop a fundamental hate of Christianity that persists to this day).

This also denies the tremendous good Judaism and Christianity have done across their respective histories. For instance, according to numerous sources including Bible Mesh, CNS News, and Breakpoint, the modern institution of the Hospital owes its existence to both Judaism and Christianity.

Beyond all that, I refer interested parties to William T. Cavanaugh’s book The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (84% of the reviews on Amazon are four and five-star if that sort of thing matters to you).

However, my main point has to do to my original response to Fandango. At what point does a body of faith become a culture?

It’s an interesting concept. Various aspects of Judaism or collective bodies of Jews are certainly cultural. While I don’t believe most reasonable people would object to differing groups of human beings behaving out of and celebrating their cultures, should they object to a culture based on that body having a covenant relationship with God? This is an especially poignant question given that during this week, millions of Jews all over the world are celebrating the festival of sukkot, many eating and sleeping in a sukkah, celebrating the protection of God over the Jewish people and nation.

Let’s use a specific example. I was once online friends with a person who was an atheist. We had a shared interest in the Linux operating system and performing charitable acts toward disadvantaged children. However, he posted a meme on Facebook several years ago ridiculing the practice among Orthodox Jews of having young boys wear Payot (click the following link to learn more about this and Upsherin) and even calling it a form of child abuse.

payot on yemeni boys
Source: Zio Mania

We “discussed” it, he was unrelenting, and this was the first and last straw for me as far as his opinions were concerned.

Is Christianity a culture? On first blush, it certainly doesn’t seem that way, though even among Jews, not all Jewish groups have uniform practices and beliefs (but at the end of the day, they’re still all Jews), particularly between the observant and the secular.

My last experience in a church taught me many things (one of them being that I don’t belong in a church), but one important realization was that the church had a sort of “culture,” a collection of ideations, beliefs, and practices that, however subtle, were unique to that group. Of course, I can’t make the same case for Christianity being a culture (and as a whole, I doubt it is) as I can for Judaism, so again, I digress.

I can understand that plenty of folks out there are atheist and believe anyone who is religious must be brain-damaged or incredibly superstitious. Having known plenty of Christians and observant Jews over the years, I can attest that isn’t true (for the most part…there are always outliers), but let’s roll with this. Okay, you believe an all-powerful, intelligent, creative being is impossible and even mythical. I really don’t mind. I don’t mind that you make your beliefs public. After all, your free speech rights are my free speech rights.

But at what point does that become denigration, especially if you also value a diversity of human beings in your environment? Does diversity hit a brick wall when religion comes into play?

I may be chasing a cat up the wrong tree, so to speak, and my commentary is probably all for nothing, but when does a religious person get to say, “I respect you as a human being though you disagree with my beliefs, but when will you respect my humanity and worth as well?”

No, I absolutely don’t believe Fandango intended all of that. He was merely speaking his mind. But as I told him before, words have power. We know that for an absolute fact. This is why you don’t casually lace your speech and writing with racial or ethnic slurs. Because they can cause emotional pain. As people of faith, we are commanded to treat others, especially those who are not like us, with kindness and compassion. Being human though, we sometimes don’t obey that command, and in my experience, Christians can be pretty biased, both relative to secular people as well as to each other (you have never been in a contentious community until you’ve been involved in religious blogging).

I’ve been an atheist, so I know how that looks and feels, and I know religious people who have left the faith, so I know how strong their feelings and viewpoints are as well. However, if you have been a life-long atheist and never, ever have had a faith in anything outside of yourself, society, or some other human construct, then you can’t possibly imagine how or why an intelligent, competent, educated, and accomplished person could also have faith in God.

If you don’t understand us, try not to judge us. Chances are, you’ve only met the worst, and most “fringy” Christians. You don’t know the rest of us.

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When is “Winning” in Social Media Going Too Far?

reed sea

Then Moses and the Children of Israel chose to sing this song to Hashem, and they said the following: I shall sing to Hashem for He is exalted above the arrogant, having hurled horse with its rider into the sea.

Exodus 15:1 Stone Edition Chumash

Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took her drum in her hand and all the women went forth after her with drums and with dances. Miriam spoke up to them, “Sing to Hashem for He is exalted above the arrogant, having hurled horse with its rider into the sea.”

Exodus 15:20-21 ibid

“How can you sing when my people are dying?”

Talmud Sanhedrin, 39b

I quoted from today’s Torah Portion and from Talmud as much as a lesson to myself as for others. I’m not speaking so much about celebrating or cheering when our enemies (or people we just don’t like) die, even a very deserving demise. I’m addressing how we cheer when we think we’ve trounced some else’s opinion particularly in the realm of social media including the blogosphere.

Believe me, I’m as guilty of this as anyone else.

But it occurs to me that at some point, when we attempt to champion our own cause at the detriment of someone else’s, we are trying to harm the other person.

Recently on Facebook (clicking that link will take you to an image some would find offensive so choose wisely) I engaged another person, someone in my local community who I used to work with, over the matter of women dressing up in vagina costumes for the national Women’s March of a weekend or two ago. To me, it looked incredibly degrading and seemed to be communicating that these “progressive” and “liberated” women saw themselves as nothing more than their genitals.

I believe they were actually responding to a comment attributed to Donald Trump which he made some years back (and which was recorded) about grabbing women by their “p*ssies which I indeed do find highly offensive.

However, I’m not sure that responding by dressing up as the object of Trump’s interest (as suggested by his comment) is the best way to protest and I said so.

Of course, I was accused of misunderstanding the symbolism involved and maybe even somehow denying these women the right to choose their own symbols.

We went back and forth a few times and then I dropped it (not everyone else did) figuring I’d made my point and people were free to disagree with me.

Did he “win” and I “lose” because I didn’t continue the “battle?” More importantly, if I had continued the exchange and if he became silent, should I have celebrated his “defeat?”

Just so you don’t misunderstand me, I do believe in standing up for morality and I believe vagina costumes and some of the language used by the women and men (yes, some men dressed up for the occasion as well) involved was offensive.

Now I know I can be accused of supporting the “Patriarchy” for that comment, as if I, as a religious male, have some sort of right to control the behavior of women. No, it’s not about control. I don’t “control” the behavior or dress of my wife and daughter (they’d explode if I even tried) and only exercise some control over my granddaughter’s choice of apparel because she’s just two-and-a-half.

Women are free to wear whatever they choose and to behave in any manner they desire (short of breaking the law or otherwise causing harm), but in this nation of free speech rights, I can choose to express my opinion on what I think is acceptable and unacceptable behavior from men and women based on my moral and ethical values. I would also object to men protesting while wearing “penis” hats (my friend said somewhere on Facebook that the Washington Monument is a giant penis symbol which I find kind of ridiculous since not everything that is taller than it is wide is a penis).

women's march 2018
Photo: Carolyn Cole, TNS – Found at Detroit Free Press

If I were a better person, I probably wouldn’t get into these debates at all since long and bitter experience has taught me that they do absolutely no good in changing anyone’s mind.

And yet, if no one objects to offensive and ludicrous imagery and symbolism, that amounts to tacit acceptance and agreement.

How far can we go in objecting before we find ourselves driven to metaphorically “kill” the person with whom we disagree?

For more, read Mrs. Lori Palatnik’s article When Evil Falls. It doesn’t directly address my point, but it is illuminating nonetheless.

When Christians Do Good

We are seriously getting love aimed at us by a little church nearby. Out of the blue, the pastor had contacted me wanting to know if some of their members could do anything for us and he wouldn’t take no for an answer unless it really was no.

Today some amazingly nice folks showed up and hauled off to the dump our junk too big for our own vehicle, in one of the guy’s large truck.

Meanwhile, the ladies scoot in to do some cleaning while visiting with Heidi.

And meanwhile another great guy is walking me around our deck, explaining to me how he is going to prep the bannister and then paint it for us.

And they’re coming back tomorrow!

-Joe Hendricks

I embarrass Joe and Heidi on my blog a lot so I’ll try not to do it again today, but I want to show you how the church isn’t evil.

Joe is a cancer survivor and Heidi has multiple organs that are cancer involved including her brain. I know compressing their struggle into a single sentence seems rather cold, but I’ve written other blog posts about them, and I want to show you another picture today.

In spite of their amazing and horrendous struggles, their faith remains absolutely steadfast in God. They aren’t (as far as I know) involved in a church on a regular basis but rather, take God with them wherever they go, which is often into the mountains and onto the hiking trails near their home in Washington’s Puget Sound area.

I was surprised, very pleasantly so, when Joe posted the above-quoted statement on his Facebook page. It came out of a clear blue sky, as the saying goes. I guess that’s how miracles happen.

Maybe I’m overstating the point. After all, aren’t Christians supposed to do good things for other people without it being miraculous or even unusual? Not according to some atheists and people from other religious and philosophical traditions. All of the evil in the world is typically blamed on religion in general and Christianity in particular. Everything from the Lindbergh kidnapping to global warming has been blamed on Christianity (well, maybe not exactly). Even though some other spiritual people who disagree with the validity of Christianity claim to “respect our path,” there is little respect in describing us at our worst as pagan worshiping, war-mongering, racists.

I have to admit that I don’t often trust the church myself. I find the church rather intimidating. Beneath the facade of friendliness and good fellowship, what judgmentalism and harsh opinions do they harbor about me, a Christian who doesn’t go to church, who is married to a Jewish wife, has Jewish children, and who (if given a choice) prefers a siddur to a hymnal? On my blog, religious though it is, I am “flamed” more often by Christians than by atheists or people adhering to less traditional spiritual philosophies (though that could just be a result of me being beneath the notice of these other philosophies).

But this is exactly why Joe’s recent statement on Facebook is so important. The church can be a force for good in the world. The church can express itself as warmth, compassion, caring, and love. The church, often accused as merely a house of prayer and bigotry, can actually do something to help other people, such as hauling away junk, cleaning a house, doing some painting, and continuing to be a presence in the lives of two wonderful people who need the presence of God’s servants in their lives and in their home.

I know Christianity’s detractors will say that this is only one instance (and a rare one at that) of Christians doing something good. Then, these detractors will cite numerous examples from the mainstream news of Christians doing harsh, bigoted, rotten, and evil things.

But what makes the six o’clock news, Christians going a kindness (I don’t think Joe saw any cameras from CNN at his place the other day) or the Westboro Baptist Church (who I don’t consider Christian at all) desecrating the name of Jesus by picketing the funeral of another fallen American warrior? So who do atheists and various spiritual people look to when they want to get an example of who a Christian is?

OK, it’s not a simple as that, but sometimes it seems to be. Sometimes it seems like people just don’t want to see the good that Christianity does. They only want to point to its flaws, both in the present and historically. People seem to want to define themselves and whatever philosophy they follow in terms of who they oppose and the church makes a convenient target to oppose.

But they are also, at their best, a reflection of what they were taught by Jesus Christ. Visit the sick. Feed the hungry. Comfort the grieving. Make peace between one person and another. And although it doesn’t say so in the Bible, clean someone’s house when they’re too sick to do it themselves. Haul away the garbage that is too big for someone else to haul away. Look around someone’s home, notice that their deck needs painting, and then paint it.

In other words, do whatever good that needs to be done if for no other reason than because God is good and it’s the right thing to do.

If you have something against Christianity, you can react two ways. You can complain about Christians, or you can do what the best of them do. You can help people who need help instead of elevating yourselves by pointing at what the worst of those who claim to be Christian (but by their actions, show themselves to be anything else but) are doing.

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. –Matthew 5:48 (ESV)

I don’t care who you are. If you want to be good, do good.

Struggling with the World, Part 1

I’m not arguing for either the superiority or the necessity of a covenantal orientation to life for the realization of human responsibility and dignity. In thinking about Judaism, I cannot ignore the fact that atheists act with moral dignity and compassion in the world. I believe, in contrast to many contemporary religious thinkers, that secular humanism is a viable and morally coherent position. What I am claiming is only that neither the critique of halakhic Judaism found in the Christian tradition nor the moral critique found in Spinoza is convincing. There are many different approaches to human life that encourage initiative, intellectual freedom, responsibility, and the sense of personal adequacy and dignity. I am not arguing that faith is necessary in order to have these values, but only that faith in a covenantal God of Judaism does not have to contradict or undermine them.

The God of Sinai does not merely hand over responsibility for the mitzvot to Israel and then take His leave. He also commits Himself to permanent involvement in the history of the community…

-Rabbi David Hartman
Chapter 8: “Rabbinic Responses to Suffering”
A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism

I hadn’t intended to turn this into a series, but I find myself continuing to compare the relative merits of the moral and ethical positions of Christianity and, if not atheism as such, progressive secular humanism, which is the predominant philosophy of modern western culture. My previous missives on this topic are Collision, which is my introduction into why atheism holds such animosity toward Christians and Repairing Life which suggests one possible response.

That should have been the end of my reflections on “Religion vs. Atheism,” and it was from a Christian point of view, but I neglected to discuss how Judaism considers this dynamic. As with many things, there’s no single Jewish viewpoint (and I’m probably not qualified to write about this but I will anyway) so I’ll try to offer two: one from Rabbi Hartman’s above-quoted book and the other from Rabbi Tzvi Freeman and Chabad.org.

Whenever someone asks me a question, I first have to think, “What kind of a box has this guy trapped me in?” Then I can deconstruct the box. If the box dissolves, there goes the question. If it doesn’t dissolve, I better listen up. The guy’s got a point.

Here comes one now:
“Rabbi, what was the Rebbe’s response to modernity?”

For at least two hundred years, Jews scrambled to find a response to modernity.

Today, there’s no longer much scrambling. Movements have stopped moving, firmly entrenched. But there was a time when Jewish creative genius generated a cacophony of responses to modernity: Reform, Orthodoxy, Zionism, Religious Zionism, Conservative, Ultra-Orthodoxy, Reconstructionism, Modern Orthodoxy, Renewal and more. Each movement had leaders who spent their years zealously articulating and re-articulating their particular response to the progressive, liberal, enlightened, modern world that came rushing down upon us, particularly after France beheaded its kings and smokestacks started belching into the sky.

Now, in Brooklyn sat a Jewish leader who built up a powerhouse movement that has transformed the face of Jewry worldwide. What was his response to modernity?

Gotcha. Neat little box. But it doesn’t work. What doesn’t work? The box: “Response.”

Again, as I mentioned in my other blog posts on this subject, I’m not trying to “prove” that religion is right and atheism is wrong or even to say that one group possesses an inherently greater moral response to life than the other (although from my point of view, religion should have the greater moral response).

I want to show that the issue can be as simple as how much or how little of themselves people choose to invest in their particular belief systems and and also demonstrate that these matters are far more complex than what we think of as mere “right and wrong.”

Rabbi Hartman’s position might be considered the more progressive of the two based on the quote I used to open this “extra meditation.” Rabbi Freeman represents the more conservative view. He suggests that historically, Judaism has responded to modernity by generating multiple variations of Judaism to adapt to the demands of progressiveness, but currently seems to be digging its heels in, so to speak, as representative of the Orthodox. But as we see from continuing to review Rabbi Freeman’s commentary, even this isn’t as two-dimensional as it appears.

Rabbi Freeman uses the dilemma of Children of Israel trapped between an advancing and vengeful Egyptian army and the uncrossable barrier of the Reed Sea (Exodus 14) as a metaphor for the struggle of Judaism to respond to liberal modernity.

The Children of Israel are stuck at the Sea of Reeds. The Egyptian army is closing in fast. The Jews divide into four parties—four opposing responses to one situation, perfectly summarizing the orthodox responses of the modern era: The Just-Go-Back-to-Egypt response, the I’d-Rather-Drown-Myself response, the Get-Up-And-Fight response and the Get-Down-And-Pray response.

Response Today
Self-Drowning Immerse in a ghetto of Torah, and pretend the world does not exist.
Back to Egypt Give up on the world, on the future, or on trying to change anything. Just do what you have to do because G‑d says so.
Fighting Prove that we are right and they are wrong.
Praying Rely on G‑d to bring Moshiach real soon.

G‑d’s response? You’re all wrong.

“Why are you crying out to me?” G‑d demands of Moses. “Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them to keep going forward!”

No response. No reaction. Proaction. Take charge. You have a purpose, you’re going somewhere. Keep going.

According to Rabbi Freeman, the response of Israel to the demands of progressionism is to progress. Of course, this doesn’t mean abandoning the covenant of Sinai and blending into the general cultural herd, which for a Jew would basically mean assimilation, but it doesn’t mean hiding or freezing in place, either. If the world moves, move with it, but don’t forget to take who you are with you and particularly, don’t forget to take God.

But the world of faith is always vulnerable, not just to tragedy and evil, but to how those elements of life are interpreted, and on some occasions, used against religious people by not only the atheists who blame all the world’s woes on religion (as if humanity weren’t capable of doing harm without a religious belief system to depend upon), but on our own doubts when “bad things happen to good people,” or when God is otherwise incomprehensible.

Rabbi Hartman continues on this point:

From the anthropological perspective on the problem of evil, therefore, the prime concern is not so much to defend the notions of divine justice and power. It is rather, as in other personal relationships, to determine what measure of continuity, stability, and predictability can enable the relationship with God to survive all shocks. It is to identify the cluster of beliefs that supports a person’s will to persist in the face of tragedy and suffering. If the world I live in requires that I become overly vigilant because of the threat of danger striking at any moment, then how can I sustain commitment to a way fo life predicated on God’s covenantal love and justice?

How do we respond to events that can call into question our whole identity as God’s relational partners?

An atheist can dismiss such questions by dismissing God. The presence of tragedy, suffering, and evil can be accepted as conditions of a natural world filled with imperfect human beings. It can also be a world that, while imperfect, is struggling to develop toward a higher moral and ethical reality as indeed, progressivism strongly believes. Human beings then, establish and revise the foundations of our own morality, sometimes radically, as time advances and the concepts of rightness, mercy, and justice continue to evolve in societal consciousness.

But what about the covenantal Jew? How does he resolve or at least address this problem? We’ll pursue the answer to that and other questions in Part 2.

Collision

Criticizing another person is not out of the question. It’s just that there are a few conditions to attend to before you start.

The first condition is to make sure this person is your close friend. Those are the only people worth criticizing—not just because they may actually listen, but also since you run a lower risk of making them into your sworn enemies.

If this person you feel an urge to criticize is not yet your close friend, you’ll need to spend some time with him. Find out everything that’s good about him, and go out of your way to help him out. Eventually, a real friendship will develop.

Also, you’ll need to ensure that this person has the same knowledge, understanding and perspective of right and wrong as you do before you can attack his decisions. If he doesn’t, you’ll need to spend some time learning and discussing together until you see each other’s point of view.

Once the two of you are in the same space in Torah and observance of mitzvot, and he’s your good friend to boot, then it’s okay to criticize—if necessary. And if you can remember what there was to criticize.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
from How to Criticize and More on How to Criticize
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.”

-Benjamin Franklin

I was recently involved in a Facebook conversation started by a fellow who took exception to the King James Version of the Bible and, by inference, all of Christianity. He was very nice about it, but just because someone says “please” and kisses you on the cheek before punching you in the face doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.

OK, that’s a little unfair and he did say something about his motivation for “sharing” the photo criticizing the KJV Bible:

…if something can’t stand inquiry at every level, do we have any business basing huge belief systems on it?

I suppose that’s true and there are many people, both atheists and Christians, who spend a great deal of time examining the Bible and offering critical analyses of the text. I don’t mind serious scholars investigating the writings of Judaism and Christianity and providing illuminating and challenging questions, but at one point does the motivation of those who criticize people of faith become less than scholarly?

And then there’s reddit or more specifically, the sub-reddit on atheism. For those of you who don’t know, reddit is a social news website where the registered users submit content, in the form of either a link or a text “self” post. Other users then vote the submission “up” or “down”, which is used to rank the post and determine its position on the site’s pages and front page. (source: Wikipedia) Sub-reddits are pages within the larger whole that address specific topics of interest, such as music, movies, science, and atheism. However, the atheism sub-reddit isn’t defined so much by what atheists believe as by what they’re against which is, for the most part, Christianity (although the atheist sub-reddit page is probably doing it wrong).

I only bring up reddit because I read it daily and because they go out of their way to bash Christians daily. The fact that popular online social venues regularly criticize not only religious beliefs but religious believers shouldn’t exactly come as a shock. After all, atheism is probably the predominant “religion” in the west today (I say that last part somewhat ironically).

Besides, weren’t Christians told to expect this sort of behavior?

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. –Matthew 5:11 (ESV)

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. –James 1:2-4 (ESV)

However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t consider the other side of the coin. Just why is there so much criticism being directed at Christianity? There are a few reasons.

You can’t really be an atheist unless you are defining yourself against a theist, someone who believes in a god or gods of some sort. Since belief in a god or gods requires a belief in the supernatural, something you can’t examine objectively using the scientific method, atheists who are scientifically oriented define themselves in opposition to religious people who are considered irrational, superstitious, or just plain stupid.

Atheists who may or may not be scientifically oriented have another, wider motivation for not only refuting religion, but particularly being really angry at Christianity. Christians tend to be viewed (and not unjustly in many cases) as being pushy, self-righteous, opinionated, bigoted, hostile, narrow-minded, and generally “in-your-face” about what they believe.

The basis for some of this is “the great commission,” which we find in Matthew 28:19-20:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

In other words, Christians are commanded to carry the “Good News of Jesus Christ” to everybody who will listen. That’s fine as far as it goes. If someone is curious about me and my faith, I’ll be glad to explain to them why I believe what I believe and to suggest (if they’re still willing to listen) that a life lived in relation with our Creator has many benefits.

But it doesn’t stop there for many believers.

I mentioned before that atheists tend to define themselves in relation to who they’re against. So does Christianity. Christianity defines itself against sin, or so it says. Christians pursue this definition to the degree that they can be very outspoken (depending on the denomination and how conservative they are) against the values and people currently held in high esteem by popular western culture.

The current popular debates between Christianity often are not based on whether God exists or not, but on the so-called “culture wars” between what some consider Christian values and the more popular, progressive viewpoint. These topics tend to center around social issues such as the rights of women, people of color, and particularly (since it’s been in the news a lot lately) gay rights and what is referred to as “marriage equality.”  Each side accuses the other of heavy-handed tactics in promoting their agenda and attempting to manipulate the minds and beliefs of the next generation.

As an example, I’m presenting an interesting photo (no, not the one below, you’ll have to click the link) I found on the atheist sub-reddit page. Although there’s no explanation regarding the photo of this person’s facial bruise and his bumper sticker, since it is posted on the atheist sub-reddit page, I can only assume it’s meant to indicate that a person of faith, possibly a Christian, assaulted this man because the person of faith believed the man in the photo was gay.

This plays into the reputation Christians have in the secular world relative to gays (even though the Bible doesn’t specifically command a Christian to give a gay man a black eye). To say that this particular (assumed) example of “Christian hostility” is unfair and possibly inaccurate is obvious, but to be fair, we have been rather oppressive at times in our treatment not only of gay people, but of any person who doesn’t measure up to the particular standards of the church, however those standards are understood.

In other words, religious people and non-religious people are capable of being unfair and critical. Religious people and non-religious people are easily offended and need to strike back against the person or organization that offered the offense. Religious people and non-religious people believe their particular system of beliefs are right, correct, represent basic reality, and are not only fact but truth.

What do religious people and non-religious people have in common.

They’re all people.

It’s important to remember (curb your dogma for a second) that we all operate inside of systems. Having a particular religious orientation means you are operating within that system and are subject to all of the conditions imposed by that system. Having an orientation toward atheism means you are operating within that system and are subject to all of the conditions imposed by that system. Sure, religion tends to believe that it is a container for truth while atheism tends to believe that it is a container for fact, but both are systems and the people within them will go to great lengths to defend their beliefs including attacking people who hold differing beliefs.

If you’re a Christian and an atheist says or does something that offends you, hurts your feelings, or makes you angry, that happens because you are human. Your faith is important to you and when it’s attacked, it’s like someone has just jabbed you in the eye with a sharp stick. If you’re an atheist and a Christian says or does something that offends you, hurts your feelings, or makes you angry, that happens because you are human. Your beliefs are important to you and when they’re attacked, it’s like someone has just jabbed you in the eye with a sharp stick.

I’m not here to “prove” that Christianity is right or wrong or that atheism is right or wrong. I’m here to say that we are spending a tremendous amount of time defining ourselves by who and what we are against and going out of our way…all of us, to hurt as many people as we can in the process, whether we think that’s our motivation or not.

Since atheism has no formal moral or ethical code attached to it, I can’t hold atheists to any standard of right or wrong. If an atheist wants to go out of his or her way to hurt a Christian, Jew, Muslim, I can’t blame them too much. After all, they are only acting according to human nature.

However, Christianity does come with a formal moral and ethical code (which varies a bit depending on denomination) and I can (and will) hold Christians to a moral and ethical standard. If you’re a Christian and you’re going out of your way to hurt someone just because you can, I’m going call you on it. That’s not “church bashing,” that’s calling believers to return to behaving as we were taught by Jesus and his example.

As I recall, when Jesus became angry, he was usually criticizing the religious authorities around him, not unbelievers and sinners. He used to hang out with sinners, eat with them, talk with them, and provide charity for them. If he defined himself at all, it was in comparison to the standards of the One who sent him, not against the people around him.

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. –John 5:19 (ESV)

No one is born a Christian. Unlike Judaism, we don’t have a biological, genetic, inheritance from our “fathers.” We each come to know God through the example of our Master and teacher at some point in our existence. Then we spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out what that means by acting out of our understanding and Christ’s example. We don’t always do such a great job of it, unfortunately.

But since no one is born a Christian, that means anyone who isn’t a Christian might come to faith one day. If we are obligated to share our “good news” with everyone else, we need to make sure we are really sharing good news and not criticism, judgmentalism, hostility, and bigotry. We must remember that we have been taught to share the good news by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned, and there are penalties against us when we fail to do so. (Matthew 25:31-46)

Rabbi Freeman said, The first condition is to make sure this person is your close friend. Those are the only people worth criticizing—not just because they may actually listen, but also since you run a lower risk of making them into your sworn enemies. In other words, all of the time we (believer, atheist, whatever) spend on the web criticizing other people and their beliefs isn’t going to change anything. No one will listen let alone change their minds just because someone they’ve never met thinks they’re either godless or superstitious.

I have no hope of changing anyone as a result of today’s “morning meditation,” either. But who knows? Maybe by advocating that all parties put down their guns, knives, and boxing gloves, maybe we can temporarily arrive at an uneasy truce. In the end, we all want to know the same things.

Who am I and what am I doing here? Is this all there is, or is there something more?

I’m pretty sure bashing people who don’t share our belief system won’t answer those questions.

This is the first part of a series that continues in Repairing Life.