This post has nothing to do shōjo manga, manga, comics, or even Japan (per se), but, hey, it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want with it. Sorry.
I grew up, initially, in an “ordinarily” religious household, attending services weekly at the Lansdale Methodist Church in Pennsylvania. The head pastor at the time was the Reverend Dr. Burns Brodhead, an extremely intelligent, warm, and wryly funny man whom I have always held in the highest esteem, and who passed away last year at the age of 91, having lived a very full life. For reasons too messy to go into here, when I was about eleven years old, maybe twelve, my parents became “born again,” and switched to a “charismatic” church run by our neighbor in his basement. I do not believe he was an ordained minister.
His little church grew, and moved to increasingly large, yet always rented spaces. When I last attended, it was meeting in the gymnasium of a private religious school. At first I tried to go along with the changes, and prayed fervently to God. Yet the church, and particularly the “pastor,” made me extremely uncomfortable. I remember one time he had chosen a recent headline as the basis for a sermon. It seems there were patterns in the rings of Saturn that seemed anomalous. This self-ordained minister declared that God was intentionally defying his own laws of physics in order to show Man that Man could never understand His universe with Science alone. I remember looking around at the faces of the congregation and wondering if they could actually be taking such ravings seriously. Needless to say, the mystery of the rings was explained shortly afterwards as a result of previously undetected gravitational forces. And, needless to say, our pastor offered no correction nor admission of being wrong. At some point in my late teens, my parents switched churches again, this time to a much more mainstream, “normal” church, but by that time it was too late for me. I could not un-think all that I had thought in the interim. (I also learned that a few years after my parents left the charismatic church in question, the pastor was forced out by his own congregation. Presumably I was not the only one who thought the man was unhinged.)
As a child, I was always fascinated by science. I was also fascinated by pseudo-science, and went through a phase of believing in Bigfoot, ancient alien visitors, you name it. At about the time I grew out of that phase, I also came to have serious doubts about Christianity and the existence of God. I remember vividly my much older brother challenging me with this paradoxical question: Can an omnipotent God create a stone that he himself cannot lift? This question set me on the path to atheism. (Ironically, that same brother turned back to Christianity many years later.) By the time I was thirteen, I could no longer take seriously the notion of a God who listens to everyone’s prayers and watches over their every thought and deed.
I began studying Buddhism, which struck me as far more logical and requiring far fewer leaps of faith. But I never became a Buddhist, because I saw no reason to accept the notion of reincarnation, and I saw no need to “formalize” my acceptance of certain Buddhist principles. I am, perhaps, a scientist by birth. I simply cannot accept an idea–certainly not an idea as radical as that of an invisible sky wizard obsessed with what every human being does with his or her genitals–without empirical evidence.
Atheism is undergoing something of a surge in the U.S., to my surprise, but it’s not a surge with which I can be unconditionally thrilled. Every week brings some news of some little atheistic group somewhere doing their best to offend the religious and usually succeeding. Perhaps such people are recent “converts” to atheism, and still bear some profound grudge that makes them want to publicly give the finger to those who adhere to the faith that they themselves rejected. I have never had such an urge myself. Unfortunately, the actions of such people have inevitably resulted in a backlash, with similarly angry believers demonizing atheists and bemoaning a supposed war on religion.
Which brings me to the point of this post. A lot of people I admire are devout Christians. They are intelligent, well-educated people. And I have to wonder how an intelligent, well-educated person accepts on faith (quite literally) many ideas that seem to me to defy reason. Of course, it’s not easy to put such questions directly to the believer. If I was one of these pugnacious atheists who delights in offending and embarrassing, I might, but I am not. While the believer may feel duty-bound to convert the unbeliever, for the sake of the unbeliever’s immortal soul, I see no reason why the unbeliever should similarly evangelize.
You may believe that harm will come to me if I do not accept your beliefs, but I do not believe that harm will come to you or anyone else if you do not reject those beliefs. It is neither here nor there to me whether or not you believe in an invisible sky wizard.
And yet, my life is influenced, often in quantifiably negative ways, by the place of religion in the public life of the United States. As a child, I was dragged to church without regard for my own inclinations. I was forced five days a week to repeat a pledge of allegiance that was revised during the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s to include the phrase “under God.” I am forced to used currency that tells me “In God We Trust.” I am not represented in my government, because a majority of voters would prefer to vote for just about anyone other than an avowed atheist. I am forced to endure countless little humiliations, because atheists are seen as second-class citizens, and too few believers are willing to really stand up for freedom from religion.
And so I pose some serious questions to thinking, educated Christians. These questions are not intended to be snarky. They are not rhetorical questions. I am not interested in setting up straw men. I ask the questions in the sincere hope of receiving intelligent, reasoned responses, from Christians. I ask that Christians respond. Non-Christians may respond (respectfully) to the responses of Christians, but there’s really no point in me sitting here talking with non-Christians about questions I pose to Christians. Snarky, hostile comments, from either believers or unbelievers, will be deleted. There are plenty of places on the Internet for people to engage in flame wars about religion. Here, I will tolerate only reasoned, respectful discourse. Nonetheless, you should be prepared to defend your position. I will respond to your arguments with arguments of my own. Perhaps we won’t change each other’s minds (and, as I said, I’m not really interested in changing your mind), but perhaps one or both of us will move another reader in one direction or the other.
I will post my questions one at a time. Depending on the response I get, and how busy or inspired I am, I may post a new question once or day, once a week, or once a month. And feel free to pose questions to me. I ask only that you refrain from engaging in “fallacies of interrogation” (the famous example being, “Do you still beat your wife?”). And please try to avoid circular reasoning. Christians often point to scripture as “evidence,” but please do not forget that it only counts as evidence to those who accept scripture as “true.” And to say that the Bible is true because the Bible says it’s true…Well, that’s the very definition of circular reasoning, isn’t it? That is not to say that I don’t want you to refer to scripture. On the contrary, too many Christians make unsupported declarations about “God’s will” as if God sat down and told them his will in person. By all means, please reference scripture so that we know you are speaking for Christianity and not simply expressing your own personal philosophy. (Unless you are expressing your own personal philosophy, which is great; just let me know when that’s what you’re doing.) Let’s try to keep the conversation logical, civil, and pleasant, shall we?
Let’s begin with certain facts that educated people should be able to accept without debate. (Feel free to add others, if you believe they are relevant and you can corroborate them with evidence.) Here are a few. The universe as we know it is between 13.713 and 13.831 billion years old. The universe extends no less than 46 billion light years in any direction from the Earth. (The seeming discrepancy between the age of the universe and the size of the observable universe is explained by the expansion of space.) Our Milky Way is roughly 100,000 light years in diameter, and there are believed to be no fewer than 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. No one knows how many planets there are in the universe, but as of December 2012, Hubble alone has found “18,406 potential transiting planet signals” in our own galactic neighborhood alone, so it’s reasonable to assume that there are “lots and lots,” and that at least a few of those are not unlike our own Earth. The Earth is some 4.54 billion years old. Life, as we understand it, first appeared on Earth between 3.9 and 3.5 billion years ago. Life is apparently tenacious and resourceful, and capable of surviving in extreme conditions. Life on Earth changes through the process of evolution. Homo sapiens, the only surviving member of the genus homo, took on its current physical form some 200,000 years ago, and began to exhibit what is called “behavioral modernity” some 50,000 years ago.
Now, if you do not accept these facts as true, there is probably no way for us to have the kind of discussion I am hoping for, because you reject scientific consensus, and I have no interest in arguing with people who make up their own facts.
So finally I come to my first question. Always keeping in mind all of the shared facts listed above, please explain to me why God needs to be “worshipped,” and what exactly it means to “worship.”
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