By: Gary Conway & Brett Geisel
This regularly-occurring series trades on the notion topics of religion, especially in a theist vs. atheist context, are interesting. For those who grew up in the church and have left or happily remain immersed, the following dialogue will at some point elicit a strong response. Good. This series also intends to dispel the myth often held by textbook atheists that people who believe in God are naive, dumb, and defenseless. And, for the theists, to show not all atheists are bitter, had a bad experience in church, or are in a stage they just need to grow out of.
Many self-proclaimed intellectual atheists and genuine ones, too, are able to hold their own in arguments championing the absurdity of religion and spirituality. And many self-proclaimed theist intellectuals and genuine ones, too, are able to defend their faith using thoughtful, robust arguments. The Spectator Tribune will only narrate this conversation and ensure both parties play by one rule: No fisticuffs.
This week I would like to talk about the nature of religious texts and whether or not they still have meaning today. I would suggest that while there are many excellent lessons to be learned from many religious texts, they are also full of ridiculous and outrageously immoral concepts, as well; anti-homosexual sentiments, etc. As I cannot in good conscience listen to and trust a person who is racist, I also cannot believe in or trust a document that, in my opinion, spouts hate. I was wondering how you deal with such a concept, and also how you justify believing in the Bible over the Koran or the Tao Te Ching?
A superb choice! To ask if religious texts still possess meaning today is to ask if any ancient texts possess meaning in the present, from the Bible and the Tao Te Ching to Confucius and Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, or Virgil. I am a firm believer that our time is, despite significant technological changes, similar to that of the past. Humanity remains largely the same in its basic flaws and social, cultural and political challenges, even if the form of these has morphed in a variety of directions. Accordingly, the wisdom of those who already faced these challenges is crucial for our efforts in both positive-what we can appropriate, and negative-what not to do, forms. Accordingly, I fundamentally insist that our religious texts, as ancient text analogous to other philosophical, poetic, political and literary texts, are deserving of our attention as we face the challenges of our time. They must be read as documents of their time, with an appropriate understanding of their historical and cultural situation, but as a religious person, also as documents that attest to the actions and voice of God mediated through that very flawed human cultural and historical context. Despite protest by many fundamentalists of all religious types, all religious traditions read their respective texts from their current place in history. This seems to me a fact that is obviously undeniable in our own place in history were we recognize we are historically and culturally conditioned.
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I therefore accept, for example, the Bible’s authority precisely because of the fundamental humanness of its content from war and murder to hatred and homophobia. How could we hear the voice of God in anything less. The Bible’s primarily narrative framework, where even such aphoristic, ethical and philosophical books as Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, or the letters of Paul are placed, gives it a concreteness that I find convincing. I find a philosophical universalism unconvincing, and it must be said, a historically conditioned western philosophical approach to being human. That is not to say that I accept all of the Bible’s content as universal for all time, just as I do not wholesale reject Plato for his promotion of slavery or the American Constitution because it had to be amended to abolish slavery, or the Canadian legal system which only recently legalized same sex marriage. I also recognize that at least part of my acceptance of the Bible over other sacred texts is due to my historical placement in the ‘Christian’ west, in the home of a former evangelical pastor were I was raised with it like food. With all probability, if born in Thailand I would be Buddhist, if in Iran, Muslim, just as your education in a largely secular Canadian system at this point in time has allowed for the relatively young humanist ideology. Geography can never be discounted. Or at least that is how I read you at this point. The challenge of a faith founded on a textual tradition is the tension created between life in the present and your tradition. A tension that involves the development of a prophetic criticism of both. I actually believe that it is only with the dissemination of our variety of religious traditions through our nations that any peace may be possible in our authoritarian, patriotic nation state realty. As Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and others pressure their political leaders not to kill their sisters and brothers in other nation states, accepting their religious faith as primary over their national identity; although I recognize we are a long way from that place. What is the foundation of your psychological humanism that enables you to make your moral judgements?
I would have to admit that the foundation for my “psychological humanism” is rooted in Christian doctrine – geography, as you said, can never be discounted. I was raised going to church regularly and considered myself quite devout for most of my childhood and early adolescence. I took many lessons learned there and developed my own philosophy. Of course, my parents had a profound impact on my moral code as well. As I got older and began to question elements of the bible, I had a more and more difficult time justifying my belief. I cannot seem to separate parts of biblical moral teachings that I agree with and parts that I find the height of douchebaggery. In the end after experience and personal tragedy and finding no solace in religion I gave up and went my own way – psychological humanism, as you would have it. It is there, in the belief in the power of self reliance and acceptance in being alone that I found succor, much as a religious person finds solace in scripture. Rejection of an entity other than ourselves who influences our lives felt to me so true, so fundamentally correct, that I have been unable to look back.
I understand reading a text to glean what is valuable in a historical and cultural context. I have difficulty believing that an omnipotent being would allow for hate to be injected into its primary written doctrine without it being some sort of test. An idea that I would consider cruel and unusual, and any deity conceiving of it would be uniquely not deserving of my attention. Similarly I reject the story of Job, even though I understand what it is attempting to teach and find the concept of absolute trust and faith beautiful. So I am going to reduce the Bible to one single story, one I assume you find inspiring and valuable, and ask how you justify God’s actions within it. Is it okay for a deity to act capriciously and succumb to schoolyard antics, or is there a deeper meaning that I am missing?
I must begin by offering my condolences for your suffering, and understand how suffering that accompanies personal tragedy can justify your philosophy! However, I do not believe that it must, and so we turn to Job, which is a great example of reading ancient texts I espoused in my last paragraph. The idea at the heart of the book is a denial of a particularly pernicious theology that is able to survive in a purely secular environment or form- do good and God will bless you, do evil and God will curse you. This position is ancient and persistent, surviving today in Christianity as the ‘health, wealth and prosperity gospel,’ and in popular culture as a misappropriated concept of karma-see the sitcom ‘My Name Is Earl’ for a funny but misguided example. One would think that a cursory glance at the world would undermine any belief in a one to one correspondence between right action and blessing or evil and suffering. If we learn nothing else from the cross of Jesus, it is that right action is likely to lead to suffering. In the time of ‘Job’ the idea that God/gods where arbitrary was common currency in Greece, Rome, and the Ancient Near East. but this is not the God we meet in Job, whose bet with Satan in the opening chapters is designed to attest to the character of Job, who for the argument of the book must be righteous in God’s eyes, but also suffer. God’s actions are, therefore, precisely not arbitrary but necessary to the story being told- that good people suffer. The key to the argument is found in Job’s insistence that he is innocent of sin against his friends who argue that he suffers so he must have sinned, in other words deserve to suffer. After a lengthy back and forth in which Job shakes his fist at God as both the source and redeemer of his situation, God intervenes to affirm Job’s position as righteous and condemn the idea of a one to one relationship between sin/suffering and righteousness/blessing. However, Job is never able to understand his suffering, something that would require God’s perspective, of which he is incapable, and so it remains a mystery.
I find the idea that evil and suffering are a mystery at the heart of creation/being convincing. The problem of evil is as much a problem for the atheist as for the theist, unless the atheist is a thorough going nihilist. Job, therefore, offers an alternative to your very reasonable philosophical response to suffering and evil- to shake your fist and scream for justification. Granted, we will not likely receive justification from God in this life, or understand it. Faith, in my view, is the recognition of this mystery, while protesting by this very shaking and screaming with the hope that somehow, at the ground of being, my suffering is taken up, redeemed, and given meaning, even if I cannot understand it. Otherwise I find myself screaming into the void. God is the ground of my very resistance and protest of evil and suffering, just as God was for Job. Earlier we agreed that at some level we both live by faith, neither the theist nor atheist faith being empirically verifiable. I chose to resist evil, to raise my voice against suffering, to shake my fist, but without at least the idea of God, I can not see how my resistance is anything more than spitting into the wind.
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Brett Geisel is Winnipeg writer, father and, perhaps, atheist zealot (we’re not sure yet).
Gary Conway is a Winnipeg-based writer, theologian, and a fun guy to share a pint with.