Every organization needs leadership, and there are many ways that leadership can be oriented. To look at the way leadership works within the various Christian denominations, one thing that should stand out is the wide diversity in how leadership is manifested. Within some churches, there is an elected leadership council that guides the faithful. Some churches have no official leaders but instead simply have preachers who are respected by the faithful. At the other end of the spectrum, the Catholic church has one supreme leader, the Pope, whose word is supposed to be infallible under certain circumstances.
For centuries, the Roman Catholic Pope was one of the most powerful men in the world. His authority was unquestioned among the Catholic flock during the middle ages. In more recent centuries, Papal authority has waned considerably but the Catholic hierarchy is very much intact and there are over 1 billion Catholics in the world. Certainly many of these faithful have reasons to believe and observe Catholicism as they do, but few of them make significant efforts to challenge the traditional top down leadership of the church. One problem is that few Catholics know much about the horrendous corruption exhibited by the church leadership for centuries up to the present day. Few know of the tremendous suffering and injustice caused by selfish decisions made by past Popes and few take the time to critically look at the evidence of this happening in the present.
Supposedly, the infallibility of the Pope was granted by Jesus when he said to his apostle Peter that whatever he calls holy will be called holy in heaven, as reported in the Gospel. The argument is that since Peter ended up becoming the first bishop of Rome, which over time evolved into the Pope, that every Roman bishop is infallible. I strongly disagree with the common practice among Christians of believing that everything in the Bible must be true, but this is a topic for another blog posting. What is truly bewildering about this argument for Papal infallibility uses a line from the Bible to essentially argue that one guy's word is above all, including anything else that might be written in the Bible!
I grew up Catholic and I was indoctrinated with the usual Catholic stuff including the unquestionable supreme position for the Pope. Actually, though, in my experience I wasn't exactly taught to believe that he was infallible, only that he is very holy and does God's will and was personally chosen by God. I, like many other Catholics, thought that John Paul II was a very holy man, even though he had many flaws that I was oblivious to and many older people within the church should have been more aware of. He was hard line and uncompromising on many issues; despite the rapidly changing world he did not alter his views to reflect reality. He strongly opposed the teaching of liberation theology in which chronically poor people were taught how to use their religious beliefs to make a better life for themselves. John Paul II tried to stomp this out because he thought it was communist and that it encouraged faithful Catholics to challenge authority. He was far from the saint that many portrayed him to be.
So in summary, the top down, supreme leadership model employed by the Catholic church for centuries inevitably leads to selfish and corrupt leadership. There are many other churches that have better leadership models, such as the Baptists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, etc. that often either have an elected leadership council or that have no official leadership, but these churches have different problems: they seem to be completely certain that the Bible is the word of God and they are often completely uncritical of this assumption. I will address this phenomenon next week.
One of the world's most well known atheists is Richard Dawkins, author of the book “The God Delusion”. In this book, Dawkins challenges traditional religious beliefs and the power of religious institutions and makes a forceful case for atheism. Now, I actually will have to agree with a lot of what Dawkins has to say because I have a problem with many traditional religious beliefs as well and I also have a degree of contempt for the power of religious institutions in the modern world when I can see the damage that these institutions routinely cause to some people's lives. That being said, however, I strongly disagree with Dawkins seemingly hostile version of atheism. I am not by any means an atheist; I do in fact believe in a higher power through observation and reason, which makes me a Deist.
The aforementioned book “The God Delusion” contains the chapter “Why there almost certainly is no God” wherein Dawkins argues that it is quite improbable that any higher power could have created the universe. Dawkins calls this argument the “Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit”. The crux of this argument is that the idea of a God that designed the universe is highly improbable because, according to the laws of evolution and probability, such a God would have had to be more complex than the universe that it created. To illustrate this point, he asks the reader to imagine a scrap yard of airplane parts and then to imagine the likelihood that a storm coming over this scrap yard would spontaneously assemble a Boeing 747. The argument is that, according to the laws of probability, which partially derive from the laws of quantum mechanics and partially derive from simple happenstance of occurrences within the regular laws of nature, complex things evolve gradually over time. It is very, very unlikely for something as complex as an airplane to be spontaneously created in an instant, and by analogy it is extremely unlikely for a God that is complex enough to design the universe to simply come into existence out of nothing (Page 137).
Dawkins makes it clear in his book that he is quite certain he has come up with an impenetrable argument against the belief in God. His arrogance is truly sickening because this argument is so poorly formulated and shortsighted that it pains me to even take it seriously. I shouldn’t expect Dawkins to understand why his argument is so obviously flawed, but for anyone who has heard this argument and thought that it was profound, I will debunk it here (in all fairness to Dawkins, he is a remarkable scientist and I believe that his work has shed much needed light on the irrationality and negative effects of blind religious faith).
This whole argument assumes that there are pre-existing laws of nature through which evolution and probability can operate. This argument does nothing to counter the fact that the best ultimate explanation is that a higher power that can be called God chose the laws of nature to be as they are and did so without any pre-existing laws. There are no laws that govern how God operates. There are no actions of God that are more or less likely than others. God did not have to evolve into a complex being. The best explanation is that God began as a complex being, but that the nature of this complexity is probably unknowable. It is not important, though, to understand God at that level of detail. Understanding the concept of God is important because is allows one to realize that everything comes from the same higher power, including all substances and all laws that govern how these substances come into existence and change over time.
What are your thoughts on this topic? To what extent do the "new atheism" writers speak the truth? Let your voice be heard in the forum.
You can also email the me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Many people who believe in God as the benevolent creator of the universe also happen to believe in an entity that can be thought of as the opposite of God in some ways. This entity can be known as the Devil, Satan, Lucifer, etc. The Devil is thought of as the embodiment of evil, a powerful demon that tries to assert influence over all souls and turn them to evil. While the belief in God is rational and indeed quite virtuous, the belief in an evil spirit such as Satan is really no better than pagan mythology.
When I was young, I was taught that the Devil and his henchmen were constantly trying to temp me and all other people into committing acts that range from selfish and indulgent to outright criminal and perverted. I suppose I believed that this worked by the Devil having some sort of telepathic ability to get into my brain and suggest that I commit sins. I was taught to resist evil temptations and to instead try to communicate with God and the saints and angels (see my post from last week on the Power of Prayer). A corollary to this is that when I or someone else committed a sin, I could put part of the blame on Satan. It was of course my fault for listening to Satan, but the act was Satan's idea. I believe I heard that people supposedly became more evil by listening to Satan repeatedly, and this is what lead some people to be rapists, murderers, greedy and heartless millionaires, and other unsavory characters. The best explanation that I had as a child was that the Devil had profound influence over many people and that he was seeking my soul as well.
In my youth, I guess I thought of God as being in a constant war with Satan, though I did hear the priest in Church saying that God was sure to win the war because he is all powerful. As I grew into adolescence, I put a lot more emphasis on God than on the Devil and I began to see the human cause of evil. There was overwhelming evidence that people can have evil tendencies in their own right. People can just decide to kill, rape, or ruin people's lives in other ways. I realized that there is a lot of evidence that negative experiences in life can sometimes cause people to become evil, and I also realized that mental illness can also sometimes be the cause. But also it was apparent to me, and it still is, that people simply have free will to act in a way that is good or evil or somewhere in between and that this can be understood quite well without considering any influence from an evil demon.
I also began to understand the history of the concept of the Devil. In Hebrew, “satan” simply means adversary or opponent. In ancient Israel, the folk myth was that there were evil spirits that were the opponents of God and of the Israelites and would try to make them give up on their faith and break them mentally. Sometimes, “satan” may have actually referred simply to regular people who were cynical naysayers. In the book of Job, Satan plays a major role, but this can be interpreted as either an evil spirit or a regular person. There are also parts of the Bible where it refers to a powerful dragon and in other times to an angel of death, called Azrael. There are also various other evil beasts and demons in the Bible. While pretty much all of these demons and beasts come from Semitic mythology, which predates Judaism, medieval Christians interpreted all of these as being the same thing as Satan, and so the myths surrounding this concept of the prince of darkness grew into a kind of anti-god.
With this all in mind, it should be clear that belief in the Devil is highly irrational. The universe was created by a benevolent higher power that can be called God, but there are no evil demons that are trying to corrupt our souls. Instead, evil comes from within us so we are to blame when we commit evil acts that harm others (I suppose to the extent that such acts cannot be largely attributed to profound mental illness). In light of this, we have no reason to fear evil, because we have the power to be free from it through our own free will.
I was raised Christian, and I believed most of what I was taught when I was young on through my childhood and into my young adult years. Over time, there slowly emerged certain points of contention that didn't seem to add up in my mind and which eventually led me to give up on Christianity in favor of Deism. One such point of contention was prayer.
I was taught when I was young that through prayer, we can communicate with God and with saints and angels and plead for God to intercede in our lives or in the lives of others for the purpose of alleviating suffering or to provide us with some specific thing we either need or want. There were regular times where we prayed as a family and in church we prayed as a group quite often. In the Catholic tradition in which I was raised, praying usually involved reciting some prayer from memory or from a text. It was less common for us to pray in an ad-lib kind of way where we just say whatever comes to mind at the time. I was also told that praying in the mind is just as important as praying out lout and that we should all pray in our own mind every day.
There were regular prayers that we said at home and in church. One of the most common was the “Our Father”, prayed to God, another common one was “Hail Mary”, prayed to the mother of Jesus. There were several others prayed to God the father or to Jesus or to the Holy Spirit or to perhaps all three of these. It was common when someone was in need or sick or suffering or just had something bad happen to them for us to pray for them pleading for God to help this person. I guess I thought that if we prayed with enough sincerity and truly believed that God could help that God would possibly grant a miracle and this person would be healed or cured or given better circumstances. It was also common for this type of prayer to be extended to those who we didn't know, such as the poor people in third world countries who don't have enough food or if some disaster happened that killed a lot of people and made many more suffer we would pray that their lives would improve. I believed at the time that enough prayer could make right the chronic injustice in the world and lead towards a world where prosperity is universal for everyone who realizes the truth in Christianity.
It was actually uncommon in my family for us to pray for material things, but we did pray for good health and for my dad to get work so he could provide for us. When I was quite young we were actually poor, my dad was going to college and working in a butcher shop part time. When I was in elementary school my dad's business started being really successful and by the time I was in high school we were upper middle class. It seemed to make sense at the time that this was partially the result of all our prayers.
There was also one prayer directed towards Saint Michael, who I was told was a high ranking angel (archangel) who fights off evil spirits. I was told that there were invisible evil spirits hovering around and that praying to Saint Michael would summon him to fight off the evil spirits. I was made to understand that these evil spirits were working for the devil and that they were trying to influence our actions and lead us to evil. It was common for prayers to be printed on prayer cards with a painting of some artist's rendition of either Jesus or the saint or angel that the prayer is directed towards. The one for the prayer to Saint Michael showed a winged guy with battle armor and a sword fighting a scary looking dragon. I was told that this was actually happening when I said the prayer and I believe this when I was young. I'll say when I was around 13 I began to see this as symbolic instead of taking this literally and by the time I was 16 I largely forgot about the idea of praying to an angel to protect me from evil.
Probably the first thing that didn't make sense to me about this whole prayer thing is that it often didn't work. You could pray and pray and pray, and it didn't seem to have any significant effect most of the time. There were very sick people who prayed every day of their lives and had many people praying for them every day and they continued to suffer constantly until they finally died. The sincerity and the passion of the prayers were never in doubt. Also we often prayed for the poor people in Africa and South America and other places but over the years nothing really changed there. Bad things continued to happen to good people and good things often seemed to happen to bad people, like when rich and powerful people would get even richer and have more money to have power over the powerless.
Over time I came to see the power of knowledge and the power of careful and sound reasoning in persuading people to change their ways. I came to see the power in reasoning to provide foresight to prevent bad things from happening and to help alleviate suffering after bad things had happened. I relied less on prayer, and far more on learning how the world worked in order to find ways of working towards a more just world and to strive for ways to alleviate suffering and to prevent as much as possible the unfortunate events that cause us so much pain. I came to realize that prayer was really nothing more than a way of focusing one's own energy towards what they feel is important so that they can be motivated to do work in the real world for this cause, and also so that they can motivate others to work towards this cause as well.
I now understand that the prayer that I engaged in during my younger years was not actually a communication to any supernatural spirits, but it is clear that this prayer did help me to focus my energy towards causes that are important and in many cases causes that remain dear to my heart to this day.
In an earlier post I argued that duty ethics, the kind that the famous philosopher Immanuel Kant advocated, are neither objectively true nor perfectly rational, as Kant argued. It is simply not justifiable, the idea that it is simply one's duty to act a certain way because of how they came to realize this rather than from the actual consequences of one's actions or even the expected consequences of actions. I do admire Kant's categorical imperative, which says that people should not be treated as a mere means to an end and that we should act in a way that we would want everyone else to act, but I think that these general rules make sense because of the consequences of following such rules, not because they are perfectly rational and self-evident, and I also don't believe that these or any other moral rules can actually be objective knowledge in the same way that scientific knowledge is objective.
Today I want to take a look at another popular theory of ethics that was advocated by ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and this is called virtue ethics. This theory says that goodness is something that people are instead of something that people can do. So virtuous people are good, while non-virtuous people are bad. Virtues are desirable characteristics that the moral person embodies. The list of attributes considered virtuous often includes wisdom, well-being, justice, fortitude, and temperance, among others.
Proponents of virtue ethics, such as Aristotle, believe that people should aim to be virtuous and to act as virtuous people do. One problem I see with thinking of ethics in these terms is that it does not match how people conceive of goodness or evil. It appears that most people would think that virtues can only actually be good based on the consequences of having these attributes. A virtuous person only becomes good when they act good and an evil person is evil based on the evil acts they are responsible for.
Also, there is a problem when trying to universalize this list of virtues. While the aforementioned attributes have traditionally been considered virtues across many cultures, the belief that these attributes are virtuous and that other attributes such as ignorance, recklessness, vanity, cowardice, and indulgence are not virtuous is actually an arbitrary designation of what is virtuous. Perhaps one could say that attributes such as wisdom, fortitude, and temperance, among others help toward living a life of moderation and reason. But this invites the question of why moderation and reason are preferable. Ultimately all of these attributes, from wisdom to reason to ignorance and cowardice, are descriptions of something physical and one cannot objectively find virtue in any of them.
If one accepts that the designation of certain attributes as virtuous is ultimately arbitrary, then the definition of virtue is purely descriptive of a certain function of the physical world. On the other hand, if one insists that certain attributes have virtue not purely as a function of the physical world but at least partially in their own right, then this is a normative moral theory and it is necessary to analyze whether knowledge of this conception of right and wrong can be epistemically justified (the epistemological problem) and also what, if anything, beyond the physical world exists (the ontological problem).
There can be truth to judgments of virtue, but these would have to be largely based on subjective knowledge, such as the personal experience of right and wrong, which may have a nonphysical component. Also, virtue would probably have to be a derived from the good consequences of actions that the virtuous are likely to perform. So one can be virtuous, but only because they have a mental disposition that makes them likely to act in a way that is good. One can also be evil, but this would likewise be because they have a mental disposition that makes them likely to commit evil acts. And the judgment that some acts are good while others are evil cannot both be objectively true and anchored into the fabric of reality. If objectively true, it can be no better than arbitrary. However, if intersubjectively true, which means based on personal experience that is beyond science, then such judgments can possibly be anchored into the fabric of reality. The epistemological and ontological problems still remain. I will address these in a future posting.
I was raised a Christian and I was told that Christianity is the one true religion and that all other religions are false. More specifically, I was raised Catholic and I was told that all other Christian denominations broke off of the one true church, but for now I want to focus on the merits of Christianity as the one true religion and also how followers of other religions often think of their own religion in a very similar way.
I remember being told that Jesus was the messiah and that because Jesus died for us, we are saved as long as we believe in him. I was told that Jews rejected Jesus and are still foolishly waiting for the messiah to come, even though he came long ago. I was told that Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism are all pagan religions because they worship false gods. There is only one true religion, I was told, and it is the one Jesus created.
I didn't know many non-Christians when I was young. Nearly everyone I knew in elementary school and middle school were some form of Christians. There were no members of other religions in the rural Northern California community where I lived, as far as I recall. There was a small handful of atheists or non-believers, and this annoyed me. I thought that it was wrong that there was anyone who didn't acknowledge the one true religion and I thought their parents were horrible for not teaching their children the truth.
I thought that it was our duty as true believers to spread the word of God to these nonbelievers. I was young and introverted so I really didn't put much energy into proselytizing, but I did support it when other people did. I thought that it was best that our Christian nation spread the word to people of false faiths throughout the world.
As I entered adolescence and I learned about other faiths, I began to see how they had many important similarities to Christianity, so I then concluded that they must be somewhat right, but still somewhat wrong. Also I slowly began to realize that there are some traditional Christian beliefs that do not make sense in light of the evidence. So I no longer saw Christianity as the one true religion, but one that had some right and some wrong, which seems to be the case for all religions.
Eventually the weight of the evidence against Christian beliefs piled so high and the reasons for believing in God and humanist ethics on the basis of reason piled so high that I no longer saw a reason to believe in Christianity at all. But for a while, I was still a Christian but had a more pluralistic view of religion, which differed remarkably from the religious elitism of my upbringing. There are many people throughout the world of various religious persuasions who believe that their religion is the only true one and that all others are false. This fosters a sense of elitism and xenophobia amongst such believers, which is dangerous in the pluralistic world that we live in. This elitism is a threat to peace and stability.
I believe that ideally, the best way to promote peace would be for more people to realize that Deism provides the best way to know God through reason and provides followers with a sense of humility in the face of people who have different beliefs. But making Deism mainstream is something that can only come in steps. A step that can be realized more easily is for more religious believers throughout the world to realize that their religion has flaws and that there is likely some truth to other religions. If more religious believers realize that there is no one true religion, then this is a good first step towards a more peaceful future.
I want to give an update regarding the status of my efforts to get my book published and the new strategy I am taking. In a post last December, I outlined the plans I had at the time for publishing my book. It seemed like the best way to go was to convince a large or medium-sized publisher to take on the responsibility of publishing my book and handling most of the related tasks, including marketing and distribution. There are of course many companies that specialize in this sort of thing and they are frequently putting out new books so I naturally thought this was the best option.
After some researched I learned that these publishers are not exactly in the business of talent scouting. They usually do not go out and look for new books and authors directly. They instead tend to have literary agents do that work for them. The literary agent is the one that scouts for talent and potentially successful new books and authors and then they try to convince publishers to invest in these opportunities. So when I learned this I turned my attention to getting an agent. I learned that this is not exactly an easy task since there are many, many authors out there, so I thought that if I could show that my writings could be successful on my website in getting readers then this would help.
I have been somewhat successful in getting visitors to this site and many visitors come back regularly. But after talking with some experts in the publishing industry, they took a close look at the subject matter of my work and advised me to find a different strategy to publish my book. The way that literary agents work is that you have to convince them that your book will sell with 2 or 3 paragraphs. They get so many letters that they only have time for this. I believe I wrote a great letter that explained why many people would be interested in reading my book, but the problem is that the subject matter is quite different than what is currently on the market.
My book is about finding a worldview that incorporates spirituality, humanist ethics, and Deism. My book is critical of traditional religion, but is also critical of outright atheism. My book tries to rely on observation and reason for all arguments, though with a slightly different understanding of what constitutes observation than many scientists would accept. My book is critical of basing one's beliefs on blind faith.
There have been many successful books extolling the virtues of traditional faith-based religion. There have also been some recent bestselling books that argue that religion is harmful to people and to society. There have also been quite a few successful books that describe a fringe science that involve things such as healing with crystals and auras and using inner energy fields to affect things physically. What these fringe science books talk about is completely unjustified.
My book is none of these and this, apparently, is the problem. My book is between the polar opposites of the traditional religion camp on one side and the anti-religion camp on the other. I try to argue in favor of spirituality on the basis of a new understanding of observation that applies to a personal experience of consciousness, but this seems to put me in the same boat as the fringe science books because modern mainstream science doesn't seem to agree with my approach, so to those who are unfamiliar, my book might seem like fringe science.
In truth, my book is not fringe science and it would be very helpful if people stopped thinking in terms of polar opposites and explored the possibility that the truth might lie somewhere between the position of traditional religion and that of staunch atheism. It seems like a book like mine would be helpful to people, but right now I cannot convince anyone that it would sell because there are really not any similar books out there that have had significant success. There are some books on the market that are in some ways similar. For example, Bob Johnson's book “Deism: A Revolution in Religion, a Revolution in You” is on the market, but has not sold enough copies for me to convince an agent or a publisher that a book on Deism would be successful.
I'm pretty sure Johnson self published his book, and I think this is the best way for me to go as well. There have been many successful self-published books in history, and I believe that “Seeking a More Enlightened Worldview” can be successful as well. I don't right now have the resources to publish, market, and distribute this book, but I know I will eventually. Actually right now the book is still being reviewed by people and I am in the process of making revisions. In a few months I will probably have the resources to start the process of taking it to publication, and the manuscript will probably be ready at this time as well. I don't know how long the publication process will take, but my estimate is that this book will be available for purchase in early 2011. I'm pretty sure it will be less than a year from now when the whole process is completed. In the meantime, I will still be writing blog postings and if you have any questions of comments, please email me at email@example.com or post to the forum within this site.
Thanks for the interest in my book and I look forward to hearing from you.
A while back I wrote about the difficulty of trying to formulate a theory of ethics that is objective. I argued that this is not possible for normative ethics. In other words, if ethics are supposed to be true regardless of anyone's point of view and not purely as a function of human instincts or societal norms but instead at least partially based on a true sense of morality, then it is not possible for such ethics to be objective, but they can still be intersubjective. This distinction only means that morality cannot be fully understood scientifically, but it is nonetheless a very real phenomenon.
Many of you are probably familiar with the work of Immanuel Kant, who lived in the 18th century. He came up with a theory of ethics that is based on one's natural duty, as opposed to other ethical theories that are based on the consequences of actions or based on the concept of virtue. Also called Deontological ethics, this ethical theory focuses on the rightness or wrongness of actions based on how well they conform to the rules that govern one’s duty. Kant proposed the most influential ethical theory of this type, which claimed was based on pure reason. According to Kant, the expected consequences of one’s actions are not what give them moral value. Rather, Kant said, one’s actions are morally right or wrong based on the rationality of good will, expressed as recognition of moral duty.
Kant believed that universal moral duty must be disconnected from the physical details surrounding a moral decision and must be applicable to any rational being. According to Kant, this leads to the first formulation of the categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Kant explained that to apply this rule, one must look at whether a particular moral maxim can be universalized without leading to a contradiction. For example, Kant said that it is always wrong to lie according to this categorical imperative because to universalize lying entails that everyone would be lying all the time. Since in this situation nobody would believe anyone, making lying a universal law becomes self-contradictory and hence lying fails the categorical imperative test.
Kant also believed that the free will of an agent is the source of all rational action. He believed that it would contradict the first categorical imperative if an agent could be used as a mere means to an end, instead of an end in itself. From this, Kant derived the second categorical imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.” For example, according to this it is always wrong to enslave other human beings because they then become a mere means to an end instead of ends in themselves.
This system of ethics has been influential since its inception, and many people will defend this today, but there are many problems here. Kant argued that detaching the consequences of an action from their moral worth was the only way of making morality objective. As I argued in an earlier post, it is actually impossible for morality to be completely objective, so this is a pointless exercise. It simply does not follow from anything that can be known objectively, which includes all scientific knowledge, that it is best for one to act in a way that can be universalized without contradiction.
Probably if one's intent is to act in a way that everyone else could act because of a believe that everyone has equal moral worth, then something close to this might make sense. But this concept of equal moral worth is actually connected with the expected consequences of actions. Saying that an action is bad because it treats some people better than others is a moral judgment that is based on the consequences of the actions, not on anyone's duty to act certain ways. Likewise if I think it is wrong to treat others as mere means to an end because this dehumanizes others, then this moral judgment is also based on the consequences of dehumanizing people, not on some duty that is supposed to be objective.
So Kant's justification for deontological ethics is not epistemically justified. It is not objective, as He said. It is actually just an arbitrary way of constructing a theory of ethics. It makes far more sense to judge the moral worth of actions based on the expected consequences such actions have on others.
Categories: Freethinking Awakenings, History of Religion
Today I continue the Freethinking Awakenings series with a look at different theories for how Christianity became popular and stays popular today. As I mentioned last week, Freethinking awakenings is a series of blog postings that describe the events and thought processes I had in life that led me to think more freely about religious matters instead of simply accepting what I had been told uncritically. This series is supposed to include beliefs of mine that changed to be more based on reason and observation, but are still compatible with religion overall. On the specific topic of how Christianity became popular, one should be able to believe in the tenets of Christianity or not believe in them and still be able to have multiple theories for what made Christianity become popular and stay popular because this is not in the Bible.
It is always best to begin this kind of a post with some personal background info that is relevant to the topic at hand. As I have mentioned before, I was raised Catholic. So growing up in this environment, one is kind of in a culture bubble. That is, one is in such a bubble before they have reached the age where they hear about some entirely different experiences of others and is mature enough to try to envision what this might be like.
It was during this time that I though that Christianity was the only true religion and that all non-Catholic versions of Christianity had broken off of the one Church that is sanctioned by God, but that these other churches were still part of the one true religion. I saw that Christianity seemed to be ubiquitous, and in my culture bubble, who could blame me. Nearly all people where I lived were Christians of one form or another, after all.
I was taught the Biblical stories about Jesus' birth and his life on earth healing people, performing miracles, and making speeches, and his death and resurrection. I was also taught Biblical stories about the foundation of the first Christian churches and how small the Christian community was shortly after Jesus' death and the struggles of the early Christians. When I compared this to the present day, I saw that Christianity has spread to all corners of the world and that it was the most popular religion in the world. The tremendous success of Christianity deserved an explanation.
In my culture bubble, I reasoned that the fact that such an overwhelming number of people were Christians meant that this must be the one true religion. The fact that nearly everyone celebrates Christmas every year with such merry joy had to mean that there had to be something truly special about the birth of Christ and that this event was more special that almost any other event in history. The fact that nearly everyone celebrates Easter had to mean that Jesus most certainly resurrected from the dead and that this event is hugely important for our salvation.
I reasoned that Christianity had become increasingly popular in the centuries after Jesus' death because God had wanted it that way. I heard about the history of Christianity, how it had spread throughout Europe and then to the Americas, Africa, Australia, etc. as the manifestation of the will of God. God wanted all of those people to convert and this is why it spread so fast and so many people believed in the Bible and in Jesus. I figured that as Christianity spread to places and became the predominant religion, that acts of evil greatly decreased.
I looked at a map of the world that showed the distribution of the major world religions and I saw that Christianity was the main religion in all areas except the Middle East, India, and Far East Asia. I then figured that this was only the case because Christianity had not been brought there yet and that it was God's will to bring the one true religion to these places so that Christianity can be the main religion in every region of the world and that evil can be vanquished. I figured that it was the calling of the faithful, such as myself and those who I knew, to bring Christianity to the areas where other false religions still dominate and where there is still large amounts of evil.
As I grew into adolescence, I became more aware of many facts about the world and slowly my conception of how Christianity became popular and its affect on people changed to better reflect reality. I recall when I was around 13 years old and I learned about the Islamic religion and how it was in some ways similar to Christianity. I thought that it was possible that this religion could be sanctioned, to some extent, by God. I didn't think that it could be as good as Christianity, but I thought it was certainly better than Hinduism. Years later, I realized what a horrible religion Islam really is (what I mean by this is the Qur'an advocates xenophobia, violence, and other immoral acts, but many Muslims are well intentioned people who live in a culture bubble therefore cannot be judged).
I also learned a lot about the history of how Christianity was spread. Often times, conversions were forced and the pagan people who were supposed to be saved by these conversions were often horribly mistreated or killed. I learned that the early church within the Roman Empire was oppressed greatly, but that it didn't become ubiquitous in Europe until it was officially sanctioned by the empire. I learned a lot about the political nature of the church in the centuries that followed its legalization and how corrupt the church had become. I learned about the petty squabbles that led to the Orthodox Church separating from the Catholic Church. Though I had been told that the Orthodox Church separated from the one true church, the truth is that the Roman Catholic Church chose to separate itself and that neither church was right nor sanctioned by God. I learned a lot about the protestant reformation and how horribly corrupt the Catholic Church was. Eventually I realized that the Catholic Church never stopped being corrupt.
For a while I was spending a lot of time with protestant groups, but in time I came to realize that they had just a more simplistic worldview than Catholicism and they were unjustifiably more fervent in their believe in the Bible and had an obsession with Jesus. In time I came to realize that the Bible had many falsehoods and that Jesus was no more or less than a human being just like all of us.
But what was truly a freethinking awakening that was still compatible with Christianity is my realization that this religion became popular largely because of encouragement from political powers and from the sometimes brutal and chauvinistic missionary work of those who brought this religion to all corners of the world. An important realization that I made is that people who believe in Christianity are no less likely to be evil and are no more likely to be good than any non-believers. This fact should be apparent to anyone who does not live in a culture bubble of Christianity.
Today I am starting a new series called “Freethinking Awakenings”. In this series, I will describe the events in my life and internal thought processes that led me to become more freethinking. I had a strict religious upbringing and so many things about life were explained to me as just-so by my elders and I was taught to simply believe what they said without question or critical examination. I was taught to have blind faith in the Bible and the dogma of the Catholic Church.
For those unfamiliar with the term, “freethinking” and “freethought” refer to a philosophical viewpoint that opinions are best formed on the basis of observation, reason, and critical thinking. It is the opposite of freethought to have one's beliefs largely influenced by authority, tradition, and religious dogma. So this series is intended to explain how I came to slowly realize that I could much better find the truth through personal exploration and reasoning and that the previously unquestioned authorities of my early years often were wrong.
This series differs from my other series “Why I am not a Christian” because that series details the events that led to my realization that I could not square my beliefs with that of Christianity. This series, however, details how my beliefs changed in a way that was more open than what had previously been told to me, but that nonetheless seem to still be compatible with Christianity for the most part. So if I add up all of my freethinking experiences, they would probably not push me over the edge away from Christianity. The other series is for those experiences.
I will begin this series with a very controversial topic: Darwinian evolution versus intelligent design. For some background, I was from an early age taught the Biblical story of creation. I was taught that God created the world in seven days, that he first created Adam and then he created all of the animals and then, because Adam wanted a better companion than any animal, God created Eve from Adam's rib. And so on with the story that I'm sure you all have heard including the tree and the snake and the fruit, etc.
This story made some degree of sense to me when I was five years old and still made sense when I was ten years old. It was when I was around ten that I first heard of the theory of evolution. I was enraged to hear that some people were trying to avoid the need for a creator by saying that humans came from apes. The idea that we humans could be related to any animal was absurd. I was told that this was clearly a wild attempt at coming up with an explanation for life that did not involve role for an intelligent designer. I was very upset that scientists were going with this idea as if it were just as much of a fact as things like gravity and force.
When I heard of this guy Darwin who had come up with all of this I was certain that he was just an evil atheist. My mother bought a book from catalog she got at church that was supposed to debunk the theory of evolution. The book was called “The Evolution Hoax Exposed” and it made the case that the theory of evolution was a communist plot to make all of the children atheists so that they would not have a higher power or meaning in life and would then fall into line with the communists.
When I was in the sixth grade, I remember seeing a speaker at a school assembly trying to make the case that whales had descended from land mammals. I was upset that this kind of teaching was allowed at the school. Later, in ninth grade, I remember an assignment we had was to write our own theories for what killed the dinosaurs. I didn't at all doubt that dinosaurs had lived, but I was upset that the official line from the teachers and the textbooks was that they lived 65 million years ago. I thought for sure that nothing could be that old. God, after all, created the earth only 6,000 years ago! And Adam lived before any animals after all. I wrote in my paper that I thought that neanderthal man had killed the last of the dinosaurs. My teacher wrote on my paper that I should think critically and do some research. I was surprised to read this, because I thought that she and the other evolutionists were the ones with closed minds. After all, they were unwilling to accept that God created the world.
When I got into tenth grade everything changed. This year I took a full year of biology and at the beginning of the year I knew that there would be a large section on evolution and that I was going to have to protest this teaching when the time came. When it came time to begin this section, my teacher gave a speech that would change the way I think about things forever. He started by saying that he was a believing Christian and that he also believed in evolution. How could this be possible, I wondered? I figured the two had to be completely incompatible.
He explained the mindset that scientists have and how they go about their work. They try not to start with any assumptions and they just gather data and try to make sense of it. He explained that Charles Darwin was also a Christian who formulated the theory of evolution on the basis of empirical evidence. He also pointed out that the Bible passages that creationists point to are actually inconsistent in several important areas and can also be interpreted in many ways. I didn't until then realize that there are actually two incompatible creation stories in the bible and that my understanding of creation was actually a mixture of the two. In one, earth was created in seven days and man was created on the sixth day. In the other, no days are mentioned but Adam is created first, then the animals, then Eve. My teacher also pointed out that the seven days mentioned in the Bible could be symbolic for a much longer time period, like millions of years.
The most important part of his speech is when he explained that religion deals with spiritual matters, while science deals with physical matters. I had always heard that people have a body and a soul, and that the soul inhabits the body but lives on after the body dies. My teacher used this idea of dualism that is inherent to Christianity and other religions such as Judaism to make the case that evolution is compatible with religion. He said that it should be seen as possible by all of us students that the human body evolved through the process of natural selection over millions of years, but that God put in place our souls. So then the Bible would be an description of the history of the soul, while science tells us the history of the how the body came about. For anyone who is not sold on evolution and does not believe that it can be compatible with Christianity, I recommend the book “Finding Darwin's God” by Kenneth Miller.
My teacher was very careful with his words to not actually be teaching anything religious, he was just mentioning possible religious and philosophical theories in order to get the students to open up to the idea of evolution. For me it worked. From this point on, I looked for other ways in which what I had been taught to believe on faith could be tweaked to better reflect what modern science tells us. Starting then for the next several years, I was under the mindset that science would only confirm what the bible says, provided one knows how to interpret the Bible. Of course, in my college years I came to see that the Bible must be false in many areas and I eventually gave up on Christianity in favor of Deism. I still to this day see evolution and intelligent design as compatible. As I see it, God designed the universe, including the laws of nature through which life forms evolved to eventually create humans, the first self-aware life forms and the first and still the only life forms that have the capacity to have a soul.