Thursday, June 28, 2007

Just God, Hold The Religion

One of the most frequent comments I have heard from believers regarding this blog (and my arguments in general) goes something like this: “Sure religions cause a lot of problems but it’s not God’s fault. There’s nothing wrong with believing in God. You should be arguing against religion, not God.” I have to scratch my head when people make such statements. Where do they think the concept of God comes from? What do they think religion is? The fact of the matter is that belief in God IS religion. God concepts are codified and perpetuated by organized religions. Left to themselves people would never come up with a consistent view of God if they did it at all. And organized religion is nothing more than groups of people who agree on a certain definition of God. The beliefs are their religion. The organization is secondary. The dogma that goes along with belief in God merely differentiates the groups.

It seems that a lot of people these days are noticing the hypocrisy, oppression, bigotry, intolerance, cruelty and greed associated with organized religion. But instead of questioning the core concept of God, they simply take their God with them and step away from the organization. (Julia Sweeney has recorded a great comedy routine where she talks about this) Some people are even raising their children with this God-only religion. They think this somehow makes them non-religious. And it is important to note that the God concept they take with them is almost invariably the one their religion gave them. When you ask them to describe God and what he wants or what he does, their answers usually sound just like the religion they left. If they were Christians, they usually keep Jesus and all the dogma of virgin birth, resurrection and salvation. They may be physically disassociated with the group but mentally they might as well be right back in church.

I can certainly see the attraction in this approach. You only have to give up what you don’t like. The great thing about this is that no one can question your beliefs because they aren’t tied to some label with all its ancient dogma, ritual and pageantry. It is appealing because it allows a person to modify their beliefs anytime they feel like it. You can say Jesus was gay if you want to because it’s no one’s business but yours. Too bad most of these people don’t change their beliefs noticeably. That seems rather pointless to me. For those who have the confidence to actually make a real change it turns out to be one of the first steps in becoming an atheist or agnostic. Whether consciously or not, what they have usually done is switch from thinking emotionally to thinking rationally. They have analyzed the claims of religion and cleared away a lot of unexplainable and incoherent nonsense. That is a good thing, but it’s only the beginning.

I think there are several reasons people hang onto God when they abandon organized religion.
  1. To let go of God is like saying goodbye to an old friend or a family member. They have normally grown up with this God as their ready companion or confidant or confessor. Even if they don’t always think about God, he has been a fixture in their lives - albeit an imaginary fixture.
  2. It’s built in. God concepts are part of human evolutionary development. It is a basic human instinct to anthropomorphize things like forces of nature and infinity that we don’t understand. But being a rational, civilized human means we have to overcome many of our natural instincts.
  3. The problems of religion are obviously the fault of people, not God. They think God is as much a victim of religion as they are. But if God does exist, who are they do decide this for him and if God doesn’t exist they are just keeping their imaginary friend.
  4. They are hedging their bets. According to many, the one truly unforgivable sin is to turn your back on God once you’ve known him. Leaving a church is bad enough but leaving God is like worshipping the devil. So they are covered if it turns out there is something to this God thing. These people probably aren’t very committed to it. They need to just fish or cut bait.
  5. They are worried about what their family would think if they were to announce that they had become atheists. That is a serious concern. Many families have disowned people for becoming atheist. I remember the story of a young man who told his mother he had something to tell her about himself that she wasn’t going to like. When he finally got to the point and said he was an atheist, she said she could have accepted it if he said he was gay or a pedophile or a gangster but he was no longer her son if he insisted on being an atheist. She would have rather found out he was terminally ill. In some parts of the world it is legal to kill your child if they deny God.
A person who leaves organized religion is usually a more observant, analytical person who likes to do their own thinking rather than blindly and obediently following ritual and custom. Either they are turned off by the hypocrisy and intolerance or they see the contradictions and circular thinking of religion and don’t want to be associated with obvious nonsense. But when you leave the realm of organized religion and start to analyze the things you know about God, you realize that you know absolutely nothing about it. God is completely unknowable. You may have imagined what God is like. It’s not as if there is such a thing as God that can be discovered. Usually all you have is the dogma you were taught or absorbed from your culture. A very thoughtful person will eventually realize that the concept of God is intellectually bankrupt and childish as Santa Claus. Leaving organized religion does not make you a non-religious person unless you rid yourself of the mystical magical nonsense called God.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Without a Prayer

I was raised from birth as a Christian and taught to believe in a God that cared about people. Naturally I believed it was true. Our culture was steeped in Christian beliefs and virtually no one questioned them. I had no reason to doubt the authority of my parents, relatives, pastors, and teachers. As a kid I just accepted it all without question. In my early teens I began trying to establish a personal relationship with God and Christ. Prayer was a huge part of this process. At that time, it was an integral part of life for our family. We said grace when we sat down to eat. We prayed for help when times were hard or when someone was ill. We also said bedtime prayers. It was part of our daily routine. In those days, we even said prayers in school.

I’m not looking for sympathy here but I had a pretty rough childhood. Sometime during my youth, I began to think of prayer as a way to try to escape my problems. We were poor and times were hard. My parents fought a lot. Dad drank too much and was abusive. Also, I was not popular as a kid. I had a weight problem and kids picked on me. Dad was a marine and we moved a lot. I had very few friends. And none of my friends were girls although I began thinking romantically about girls at an early age. I didn’t fit into most groups because I wasn’t athletic and I didn’t follow the fads. I drew pictures, read books and wrote poetry or short stories. I was a daydreamer and not really very interested in the real world most of the time. I usually lived in a fantasy world.

Religion was much like the other fantasy worlds I created in my mind. It was exciting because it was full of emotion, stories and camaraderie. I could feel accepted there. It was magical. One could have the power to change the world. I believed what Jesus said in Matthew 17:20 "For verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you." I recall several times when I prayed for specific things in my youth. Praying gave me confidence because I thought God was on my side. I prayed to get out of trouble. I prayed for a girlfriend. I prayed to succeed in sports. When these things eventually happened I believed that my prayers were answered. I prayed that my Dad would survive Viet Nam and he did. Lots of people survived Viet Nam but, in true Christian fashion, I considered this an answer to my prayers.

Looking back on it I can see that it was having confidence that enabled me to make some things happen. If people had been teaching me how to build self-confidence and how to believe in myself as a child, I wouldn’t have needed religion. I don’t need it now. Other than what I made happen myself, what happened was pure chance. My prayers were na├»ve. I trusted God to be there for me and I was shaken when I began to realize that it wasn’t really so. When prayer failed, I was confused. I prayed for God to help my parents resolve their problems and stay together. But they got divorced. I prayed for my baby brother to get well. But he died before he was a year old. I didn’t see the difference between the prayers that I believed were answered and those that were not answered. I knew that the things I was asking for were good things. I didn’t ask for riches or fame. I wasn’t trying to test God.

I had not yet learned the rationalization that God sometimes says “No” to prayers. It wouldn’t have made sense to me even then because I had read the scriptures that made it clear that God would give you whatever you asked for in faith and righteousness. These and many more scriptures say it in no uncertain terms.
Matthew 7: 7-8; “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened”
Mark 11:24;"Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them."
John 14:12-14 "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it."

I believed that then. For God to refuse such a request made no sense. How could God say “No” when I asked for my baby brother to get better? I had no idea why God would want him to die. What conceivable plan could God have in letting an infant die? And if everything is going to happen the way God wants it to happen, what’s the point of prayer?

These questions haunted me for a very long time. However, I didn’t give up on God. I thought it would make sense some day when I learned more. I was told; “God works in mysterious ways.” And everyone else seemed to accept it as normal. I continued to be faithful and even felt that I had received a call to the Baptist ministry when I was fifteen. Looking back on it I am sure that I was responding to suggestions in the pastor’s sermons but then I attributed it to a call from God. I eventually got ordained. However, it was in a different religion. My questions about religious dogma had caused me to switch religions a couple of times by then. I was never a pastor because I entered the military under a different specialty but I did work as a lay minister for several years. I taught classes, counseled people and helped with the services. All this time I read the Bible and the scriptures of other religions. I read apologetics and religious discourses. And, of course, I prayed. I wanted to be sure I was doing what God wanted and serving the right church.

I struggled on with my questions and growing doubts for many years. The more I thought about the results of prayer, the more I realized that it just didn’t seem to make any difference. People were always praying and these prayers were about as effective as wishing on a star. I had thought that God would answer the prayers of those who were truly faithful and sincerely believed. What I began to see was that people could rationalize anything into an answer for a prayer. I talked to a lot of people about prayer and they all had different ways of looking at it. But their experiences were all the same no matter what their faith. When they prayed, whatever happened was the same thing that would have happened by sheer chance. Statistically speaking, there wasn’t any difference.

When I talked to people about what they experienced as answers to prayers, some people said they heard a voice in their head. Others said they felt a warm feeling in their chest or other part of their body. Some people just said they felt calm. I had never experienced that kind of answer. I wondered if there was something wrong with me. When I prayed, I just talked to God silently or vocally but never got any response. The only way I ever had to determine if a prayer was answered was by the results. And I could see that was no help. When I told people this they sometimes said that I wasn’t faithful enough or that I needed to pray for God’s will to be done. As for the faith part, I knew that I had at least started out with unquestioning faith. And to pray for God’s will to be done seemed pointless. If no one ever prayed, wouldn’t God manifest his will anyway? There seemed to be no end of suggestions for rationalizing away the failure of prayer.

One of the most common things people said that confirmed prayer to them was the miraculous remission of disease they had actually seen as the result of prayer. Well my family and I had often prayed over sick people and the recovery rate for all diseases in my experience is precisely the same with prayer as it is for the disease normally. People died from the diseases that were fatal and they recovered from those that weren’t. I never saw a miraculous cure. People have said they believe in the power of prayer because one of their friends or family members recovered from something like cancer when the odds were 1000 to 1 against it. But that doesn’t prove anything because if a disease is not 100% fatal, some people will survive. It might seem miraculous but it is just that some people will recover even given terrible odds. That’s just the way it works.

A lot of people have told me of experiences where they or their loved ones were destitute and prayed for help. Lo and behold someone just came to the door or stepped up to them and gave them money or some other kind of aid. They always say it was just out of the blue and that no one had any reason to help them out. They say; “it must have been from God.” I guess they lived in a vacuum and no one had any idea they were poor. But I’ve been on both sides of this kind of situation. When we were poor there were times when people just showed up with food or money. And since I’ve become relatively successful in my life, I’ve done the same thing for others. People know who the poor people are. There are many groups who take up collections for the poor and, if they don’t already have someone in mind, they find them by checking with welfare organizations or churches or they just drive around until they see someone in need. It’s not a miracle. It is just people caring for people.

Some say that since most of this aid comes from churches, that makes religion a good thing. They say that in effect it is God who is helping. I applaud the humanitarian works of churches especially when there are no strings attached. But I don’t think it takes religion for this to happen. It would be hard to determine the difference in the amount of humanitarian work done by non-religious people and religious people. But since more than 90% of the people in this country believe in God, no one can use the fact that most aid is given by churches as an indicator of anything. For example, if 90% of the people are religious and they provide 75% of the aid, then the 10% who are non-religious people are providing 25% of the aid. That would mean non-religious people are more generous and would not look good for religion. Even if we could determine the exact amount of humanitarian aid provided by churches, it is not clear whether the people who contribute are themselves believers. Many non-religious people donate to religious charities. There are also secular sources of humanitarian aid and we cannot know whether religious belief motivates those who donate to those charities. Anyway, who cares about the source of aid provided when you are in desperate need? The point is that good people care about others and that is who is providing the help. It doesn’t matter if they believe in God. To attribute humanitarian work to God is gratuitously crediting God for what people do.

The Bible and the scriptures of other religions make it clear that those who follow a religion other than the “true religion” will not receive help from God. In fact they are reviled. They are sinful unbelievers. Their prayers will fall on deaf ears. Christians are told in the Bible by Jesus to hate even their family members who don’t follow him (Consider Matthew 10:35-37 and Luke 12:51-53). Even so, the efficacy of prayer is the same no matter the religion of the person praying. If there was a true religion then the followers of that religion should benefit more from their supplications. But there is no difference. So there is no one true religion and it is quite obvious that they can’t all be right.

Recently there has been a lot of buzz among people of faith about studies that supposedly show the efficacy of prayer in helping people overcome disease. I’ve seen many an article by the likes of Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto touting 1,200 studies at research centers around the world that show a correlation between faith, prayer and recovery from illness. While Siemon-Netto has a Ph.D, it should not surprise anyone to find out that it is a theology degree. That’s like being a doctor of astrology. I don’t know why people can get a doctorate in a field that is based completely on superstition. But this is getting to be a long article and I’ll save that for another day. What I’m saying is that there is no scientific evidence of the efficacy of prayer. The studies people refer to and that you may have read about in the news are not scientific. They are not double-blind studies that can achieve meaningful results (even when they claim to be). I’ve read as many as I can find and even the most hopeful ones have a margin of error that makes them statistically insignificant. They also totally ignore the placebo effect. For more on this see:
Straight Dope about Prayer Studies

For those of you who are tempted to say that God should not be tested I refer you to the Bible: Malachi 3:10 "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this," says the LORD of hosts, "if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows."

God doesn’t appear to have a problem being tested.

For more in-depth discussion of the failure of prayer see: