My wife was watching a video on her new smart phone the other day and from a distance I heard some of its text. So I jokingly yelled at her: ‘you’re not watching evangelical propaganda are you?’ Much to my surprise she wasn’t. It was this video:
Every time I find atheist propaganda, I can’t but sigh and think of Dostoyevsky’s dictum: ‘When I discuss faith with an unbeliever, he’s talking about something else.’ Still, as the Dutch protestant theologist Miskotte said: ‘Atheists are our natural allies, because they ask the right questions’ and at least some questions posed in te video are worth answering. So here I go…
Dear believer, have you ever stopped to consider why you believe what you believe? Have you ever thought about why you chose the religion you chose? Why do you believe in Jesus Christ as the only means to eternal salvation and not in karma, or reincarnation? Why do you believe that Allah is the one true God and Mohammed is His prophet and not in the four noble truths of the Buddha? Why do you hold the Thorah as the only revealed word of God and not the Baghavat Gita?
I’m perfectly happy to explain to you why I married my wife. I’m also perfectly happy that I’ve never been required to explain why I did not marry the 3,5 billion other women in the world.
In fact I do not expect anyone to oblige me to explain my choices – of spouse, of profession, of breakfast cereal even – in terms of an exhaustive list of reasons for excluding every conceivable alternative.
No Samaritan should be required to explain his rejection of the Baghavat Gita and all other holy writs in favour of the Thorah, before being taken seriously. Nor should any Muslim be compelled to first convincingly reject Buddha and all other religious founders before his viewing Muhammad as Gods prophet can be discussed.
Flooding people with an exhaustive list of alternatives to tackle first is – at best – an obsessive deviation and – at worst – a dishonest trick. In my language there’s a proverb for this: ‘One fool can ask more questions than a thousand wise men can answer.’
Dear believer, do you ever wonder why your heaven resembles a utopian earth and is composed of same base elements found right here on this planet? Do you ever wonder why your dede governs within a power structure that resembles that of the specific time and place in which your holy text was written? Do you ever wonder why your God looks just like you, or the animals with whom you share the planet?
My heaven certainly does not resemble a utopian earth, just as my hell doesn’t resemble a distopian earth, for the simple reason that I have no idea what the afterlife, in whatever form, may look like. I don’t even know whether it can ‘look’ or be ‘like’ anything we know. The same goes for other concepts, like – just to name a random example – God who does not ‘look’, nor is ‘like’ anything. That idea is common to an alarmingly large number of believers of whatever denomination.
Dear believer, is the faith you practice the dominant one within your culture? Do you not find it at least a little suspicious that the overwhelming majority of all religious believers adopt the religion of the society into which they were born, yet remain convinced they’ve locked out or been divinely admitted into the one true faith? Does it not make you at least somewhat apprehensive that allmost every person of faith chooses belief, not because of its virtues, supporting evidence, moral codes or expression of worship, but rather because it was what they were born into? Why out of the abundance of faith choices available does almost every believer on the planet choose the faith that’s within arms reach? Are you a Christian because you were born in America or Europe? A Muslim because you were born in Saudi Arabia or Indonesia? A Buddhist because you were born in Japan or China? A Hindu because you were born in India? Can it be that faith is, in almost every case, just an accident of geography? Do you sincerely believe that had you been born in another country, you’d undoubdedly still be practicing the same faith you now embrace?
And did you know that a vast majority of lovers out of an abundance of choices of partner, choose a spouse from the same country that they were born in? Even if they live in another? Even worse: most of them choose a spouse that speaks the same language, practices the same religion, grew up in the same social class and enjoyed the same level of education. In short: they choose a spouse that is within arms reach. Yet they remain convinced they’ve been – for some of us more or less divinely – admitted into a true and unique relationship. Does it not make you at least somewhat apprehensive that love is – in almost every case – an accident of geography, linguistics, education and social class? Yet the majority of couples live complete and fulfilled lives without ever being sure they’ve chosen the best spouse for themselves.
Most people are born into a religion that they stick to for the rest of their lives, judging by mere labels that is. But during their lives they have to regularly make the choice of remaining in there or changing their faith. Most do change it because they grow up, become adults, gather new life experiences, grow old and gather even more. Changing your faith however hardly ever requires you to change your religion. It depends a bit on the religion: in the white Anglosaxon and protestant corner of the world every disagreement about an iota or comma requires founding a new church, in the Hindu corner of the world, and many others, anything goes.
The point is: those that ultimately do not change their religion discover their faiths virtues, supporting evidence, moral codes and expression of worship in the course of their lives. So it is not correct to say people choose their religion because they were born into it at the exclusion of its virtues, supporting evidence, moral codes and expression of worship. Both are important, decisive even, at varying points in life.
Dear believer, is the faith you practice that of your parents and their parents before them? Is it the first to which you were exposed? Did you know that nearly all religious devotees end up believing what they were taught to believe by their parents? Why is it that we scoff at the idea of labelling a young person a Republican child or a Marxist child or a Keynesian child, understanding he or she lacks the intellectual discrimination, life experience and wisdom to make such a complicated and nuanced decision, but we do not raise so much as an eyebrow when a youngster is referred to as a Christian child? Surely a choice no less complex. Could it be that there’s no such thing as a Muslim child, just a child of Muslim parents?
I could not possibly answer your first question, as the faith of my dad differed vastly from that of my mom and mine again differs a lot from both, although by mere denomination we’re are all three Roman Catholics. So no, even though we share the same label, I did not ‘end up’ believing what my parents taught me to believe and I happen to know neither did they, even though all four of my grandparents shared the same label.
Everyone’s faith changes though life because people – and the world – change: they grow up and grow old and meanwhile they gather the intellectual discrimination, life experience and wisdom that goes with their age – or so we hope – and faith cannot do anything else but change with that. It doesn’t ‘end up’, not if you look close enough, not if you look past the labels.
We scoff at the idea of calling a child Marxist or Keynesian because it is clearly nonsensical. Most of us get to know Marx and Keynes in our teenage years at the earliest, when our society thinks it’s time for our youngsters to learn about economical theory. But we get to know humanity – or the lack thereof – from the very first day of our lives, maybe even earlier. We get into contact with humanity though the filter that are our parents – in the first place – and our culture at large. Whether we like it or not, this is what defines us. So we rightly do not raise an eyebrow when a child is called Catholic or Muslim just as we do not mind calling it English, Arabic, Catalan or Kurdish or even ‘lower class’ or ‘nobility’.
Making choices with regards to faith is, in essence, as easy as dealing with other people. Adults do it, but kids do it too, both in their own way. It’s not like choosing a Marxist approach to economy, it’s more like choosing to smile. And that decision can be made as easy or as difficult as you want it to be.
Dear believer, you are supremely confident in your faith, you know it is the right one and all others are wrong. You are literally willing to bet your eternal soul on that very fact. And yet, have you ever stopped to consider that there are two dozen major religions and literally thousands of different faiths practiced on this planet? Did you know that within Christianity alone there are more than 45.000 different denominations, each claiming to understand ultimate truth better than all the others? Do you realise that each member of every faith practiced is just as devout, just as sincere and their conviction every bit as sure as yours? Did you know they too read infallible holy texts, have airtight apologetics, have experienced miracles, feel God’s presence, sense His still small voice, obediently follow His perfect will for their lives, love Him indescribably and can defend their belief with the same fervency as you do yours? (armed Israeli soldier pictured here) And yet, since every religion is mutually exclusive and contradicts the others in matters both large and small, they cannot all be right, right? You know, you just know, your faith is the exception and yet, if every member of every faith feels just as you do, what are the odds you’re right?
I am not supremely confident in my faith, nor do I think all other religions are wrong. Only a fundamentalist thinks like that and as everyone who reads a newspaper now and then knows, fundamentalists may be the group that manages to make the largest amount of fuzz, they are also a minority.
Among the 45.000 denominations in Christianity I know of a few that explicitly claim the very opposite of what you claim them to believe. And even on a larger scale you are quite wrong: Christianity – in whatever form – cannot consider Judaism ‘wrong’ by definition. It would undermine their own faith to do so. They can regard Judaism as incomplete, at most, but not as wrong. It’s even worse for Islam which cannot view either Judaism or Christianity as wrong, although here too ‘incomplete’ is an option.
Neither will you find that all Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and other monotheists reject Islam as wrong, and vice versa, for the simple reason that if you both believe in one God, it necessarily has to be the same One.
And with Islam we haven’t seen the end of this. Hinduism has a tendency towards syncretism to such an extent that my teacher of oriental history thought only one definition of a Hindu was valid: a Hindu was anyone who claimed to be a Hindu. Buddhism too turns out to be a religion that in some cases is perfectly compatible with other religions.
Then there are the ethnic religions of which there are many more than global ones. They have no missionary zeal whatsoever and lack any of the claims you describe: their religion is for their own group, and for nobody else. You couldn’t get in there even if you wanted to. They’re usually small and unknown and only get into the news when religious fanatics threaten their existence: Yezidi’s and Mandaeans for example.
Not all religions use holy texts, in fact, the majority doesn’t. And those religions which do use holy texts, do not always hold them to be infallible. They are generally held to be sacred, true, inspired or inspiring, or any combination of those, but infallible holy texts are the hallmark of fundamentalists, again.
And last but not least: when will atheists finally learn that 99.99% of all believers worldwide have never seen a miracle, never felt Gods presence nor ever heard His voice. For the love of God, get over this obsession with the supernatural, will you?
Dear believer, I’ve often been told that my unbelief is a guarantee of missing out on heaven and ending up in hell, but who’s heaven, who’s hell? I’ve often been told that I should – just to be safe – accept God, after all, what have I got to lose? But whose God? Given so many options, aren’t I more likely to choose incorrectly? Might not I be better off wagering on no God rather than on the wrong God? You put it to me: what if you’re wrong? But what if you’re wrong? What if, rather than Jehovah, Allah is the one true God, or Shiva or Wu Tan, or some God on the other side of the planet you’ve never even heard of yet? The truth is, you already know what it’s like to be an atheist in regards to every other faith, but your own. It’s clear to you that adherents to other faiths are mistaken, deluded or deceived. But they think the same of you. The way you view them is exactly the way they view you. Every devout Hindu has embraced his faith for the exact same reasons you have embraced yours, yet you do not find his reasons compelling, nor do you lose sleep at night, fearing that if you die, you’ll wake up in his hell. Given this, is it so hard to see why some of us just take our atheism one God further?
This is an easy one. See, the point is – to complicate matters further – you don’t have to choose among the many available religions, you can come up with your own faith. In fact: you have no other choice. Because the answer to your question: ‘whose God?’ is: ‘your God’ and the same goes for heaven and hell. As long as you stick to that you cannot go wrong, even if you are. There must be things, principles, values in your life that you hold sacred, maybe not in a religious sense, but still: you hold them to be somehow sacrosanct. Without them life as you see it would be hell (but not in a religious sense necessarily), with them, it could become heaven (ditto). And they may not be arguable or supported by empirical evidence or battle proven, but still, you prefer them over anything else. They may be as simple and irrational as ‘always be kind’, ‘if in doubt, choose life’ or ‘as long as it liberates people, it’s ok’.
If that eventually means you’ll be an atheist, chapeau to you, because it is always preferable to be a good atheist than a bad Amish, or any of the other 45.000 denominations.
The only thing I hope you’ll not end up with, is thinking that all others are mistaken, deluded or deceived, because that’s not what believers think, it’s what a fundamentalist thinks, or Richard Dawkins.
Dear believer, I wonder if religions aren’t just ancient constructs in which early humans attempted to both explain and control the chaotic world around them. Though irrational in content, their emergence certainly isn’t. We do not blame our ancestors for inventing religion. There is no shame whatsoever in stumbling when you are blind or failing to properly construct a puzzle in the dark. But we no longer live in the dark. Science is ablaze in our world and illuminates our way, dissipating shadows and exposing even the deepest of crevasses. We no longer live in a cave, we have crossed the valley, scaled the mountains and have begun to make out the magnifcent vista on the other side. We no longer require comforting stories to make us feel safe or valued. Is it not time that our beliefs match our discoveries? Is it not time that our ideas reflect our new perspective? There is equal, if not greater awe in reality than there is in fantasy. Perhaps it is time to stop telling ourselves that we are the reason the universe was made, that our culture is somehow better than other cultures, that our tribe was chosen over all other tribes (pictures of orthodox Jews here). It is time to learn how the universe really is, even if that deflates our conceits, wounds our pride, humbles our point of view and forces us to admit that we do not have all the answers.
Some religions may have originated that way, specifically the ones we tend to label ‘pagan’. But – contrary to a widespread misunderstanding – early humans were smart enough to realise that they really were not capable to control the chaotic world around them by whatever means. It took a bit longer to discover that the explanation part was just as impossible, but still, we found that out too.
As a result, most of the major religions on the planet developed into beliefs that were anything but comforting and reassuring. It questioned our deepest religious convictions and practices. It introduced us to uncomfortable concepts like human inadequacy, guilt, obligations and prohibitions. It taught us annoying things like law and obedience and just when we had gotten the message and had settled into our new habit, it taught us to question the Lawgiver and the value of disobedience. It also taught us to question our ideas about superiority, of our tribe, of our religion, our culture, even of ourselves. Most of all, it taught us the rather unpleasant idea that we might still be living in the dark, despite all the mountaineering metaphores.
Sure, we know about the beginning of the universe, but that does not help us to say sorry to our spouses. We can split an atom, but we cannot end a war. We can put a man on the moon, but we cannot end homelessness. And when our fellow man is dying, we are just as speechless and helpless as early humans were. For all our knowlegde and enlightenment, we still stumble as often as ancient man and we still suck at solving the puzzles life confronts us with.
Deflating our conceits, wounding our pride, humbling our point of view and forcing us to admit that we do not have all the answers; really, it was religion that got there first.
Believer, if you honestly value the truth of all things as you claim, as I truely know you do, you must confront these fundamental questions, ‘far better’, Carl Sagan said, ‘to embrace a hard truth than a reassuring fable.’
That, however, is not the choice: it’s between a reassuring truth and a hard fable. The faithful aim higher than mere reality.
Dear atheist, do you ever wonder why you get told by believers that you think like a fundamentalist? Do you not find it at least a little suspicious that this keeps popping up from people of various walks of faith? Because I know, I just know this has happened to you and if it didn’t, it should have.
In my answers above I’ve referred frequently to fundamentalists and I mentioned ‘white, Anglosaxon and Protestant’, because when listening from afar to your video I picked up texts that gave me these clues. The clues that at first made me think my wife was watching some televangelist.
In the way you adress us in your video, you sketch a picture of believers who hold their own ideas as the only correct ones, as the best possible understanding of the Truth at the exclusion of all other ways of understanding. You assume people of faith are supremely confident, would even bet their eternal souls on being right, and regard those who differ from them as mistaken, deluded or even deceived and destined for a rather unpleasant hereafter. You talk about the inerrant holy scriptures we have and the infallible truths we hold. But these are characteristics of just one tiny corner in the vast and caleidoscopic world of faith. It’s the corner roughly indicated by my clues I mentioned earlier: white, Anglosaxon, Protestant and fundamentalist.
Out there, in the real world, not all religions have gods or a God. Not all religions consider themselves revealed by the God or gods they believe in. Relatively few religions know a hereafter, let alone a heaven, even fewer know hell and those that do have a hell, don’t necessarily believe there’s anyone in it. Not all religions consider themselves infallible or their holy writ inerrant, if they even have a scripture. Only among white, Protestant fundamentalists will you find people who believe that their only true God condemns the souls of those who do not believe exactly what – according to them – is written in their inerrant holy scripture to an eternal stay in hell.
Outside of that cramped and noisy corner, you will find believers who are not so sure about their faith, who shrug at even thinking about the possibility that others might be barred from going to heaven for holding different convictions. Away from the bigots, wou will find Catholic parents who find peace with the conversion of their children, because it is better to be a good Muslim than a bad Catholic. You will find Muslims who’ll tell you they are Muslims, even though they do not believe the Koran, Protestant pastors that subscribe to atheism and are not barred from preaching in their churches. Away from the world that knows of no other shades than black and white, Hindu guru’s have no trouble preaching Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and even evangelical Christians still knock on wood.
Dear atheist, has it ever occured to you that your atheism is remarkably similar to your idea of what ‘faith’ is, with just one tiny difference: the word ‘not’? Might it be that you are actually – and maybe even for good reasons – criticising and rejecting a faith that is within your arms reach? Is the idea of religion you reject that of your parents? Have your dealings with believers been limited mainly to missionary televangelists, protestant fundamentalists or born-again Christians? Could it be that you idea of what faith is, was shaped by the outliers from the religious population?
Or do you find the world of faith away from where right is right and wrong is wrong too imprecise, too unclear, too blurred or fuzzy to have a meaningful discussion about it? Is grey too nuanced a shade for you to talk with those for whom black is never as dark as it can be, and white an unattainable form of purity? Because in the world of faith it is possible to find believers who are able to recogise thruth in a statement they consider wrong, and vice versa, people who – like the poet – manage to lie the truth. In the world of faith you’ll find paradoxes, contradictions and mysteries, people who’ll talk about their deepest thoughts not in terms of mathematical proofs, but in the stammer of people who are in love and basically incapable to express their feelings with the adequacy you seem to long for.
Dear atheist, all over the world you’ll be able to find believers who see that there’s more to be said for atheism even though they do not share your views completely. Believers who consider atheism a reasonable choice people can make, without seeing you as mistaken, deceived, deluded or hell-bound. Believers who still see you primarily as a fellow human being with whom they might have more in common that they’d expect.
It is those faithfull you might want to adress and listen too. As you so eloquently said: there’s a whole valley out there, beyond the cave.