Christianity and Islam in the Pursuit of Pain

The greatest threat to the modern world can be found in the revival of a belief from the Middle Ages: the pursuit of pain is a good thing. As Stephen Greenblatt points out in his recent book The Swerve, once upon a time there was a notion that inflicting pain upon our sinful bodies was a holy pursuit.   To mimic the kind of pain that the Savior experienced on the road to Golgotha would allow us to share the sanctity of His suffering, so it was not unusual in those benighted times to wear a hairshirt, or to find groups of flagellants publically flogging themselves with iron-pointed whips, or monks beating each other with rods, all in an effort to imitate Christ.

Common sense would dictate that this is a bad idea. It calls to mind that unfortunate group of young people today who are cutting themselves in order to feel the pain.   Any parent who finds their child has sunk into this practice will get that child to a therapist as quickly as possible.   Homo sapiens is programmed to  pursue the pleasures of life, not the pains, but in the Middle Ages a powerful force overrode this basic instinct. That force was belief in the afterlife.

Yes, the afterlife… The Great Beyond… The Happy Hunting Ground– or the Not-So-Happy if you have been a sinner and failed to get right with God before the end. As Greenblatt reminds us, Sir Thomas More’s 16th century book Utopia which was so progressive in many of its policies (sharing the wealth, universal health care, freedom of religion) drew a hard line in the sands of that fabled island: if you did not believe in the rewards and punishments of a heaven and hell, you would be executed immediately. Rejection of an afterlife was dangerous in Utopia, because without the fear of hell, More felt that people will always try to lie, cheat, and murder their way into greater wealth and power.    We only need jails and punishments in the here and now because people don’t believe in the punishments of the hereafter.

Sir Thomas may have been right about the power of the fear of God.   Certainly there is no sign since the Enlightenment began increasing the ranks of the atheists that we’ve created a Utopia anywhere, though Scandinavia may be getting close. But More was beyond a doubt wrong about making the afterlife the foundation of his belief system. Under radical Islam, that belief is what is causing so much senseless death and destruction every day, coupled as it is with a revival and glorification of the medieval pursuit of pain.   Who would ever have believed that this cult of death would take root in the 21st century, a cult where suicide bombers and martyrdom become the highest form of community service, where men and women are encouraged to undertake “missions” that they know will lead to their painful deaths, all for a misguided idea that a reward awaits you in Paradise?

Some might argue that it’s not belief in an afterlife per se that is the problem, but rather, the particular afterlife that is being peddled to these would-be heroes.  But the problem here is that, if you are a rational creature, you would like some evidence of which afterlife that’s being offered by the religions of the world is the genuine article and not some knock-off fakery.    How would you talk a suicide bomber out of his belief that the koranic Paradise is really there, just waiting for him if he blows himself up in the right spot? By offering him an alternative view? Christ on the cross? Abraham’s bosom? Angels hosanna-ing?

What would therapy be for a deluded young person whose greatest aspiration is to be a martyr? Perhaps if we do in fact need the fear of God to keep the world from disintegrating it should be the God of Compassion–focused on making this life as pleasant as possible for as many as possible without reference to what happens when we cross that unknowable Divide.


Jimmy Carter Edits the Bible

An astonishing bit of news from former President Jimmy Carter on behalf of a group called the Elders:

“The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”

In short: don’t believe everything you read in the Bible.   What’s more, because the Southern Baptist Convention does in fact find the discrimination of women “acceptable” (i.e., biblical, so just do it) Carter has ended his association with that influential group. Let me remind you that the Southern Baptists are  15 million strong—second in size only to Catholics in the USA.

The astonishing part is the reason Carter gives for deeming this practice of discrimination unacceptable:

“The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.”

Wow.   President Carter rejects certain verses because they can’t be direct orders from a divine Being despite the fact that they are in a holy book. Why can’t they? Because there is a higher authority than what some guy thousands of years ago wrote down on a piece of papyrus, a higher authority that lies within each of us: Reason. If a practice like slavery causes suffering to a whole class of people, it cannot be just or what God wants us to do. If half the population is reduced to a kind of sexual slavery because of a certain verse on an old parchment passed down from father to son for a couple of millennia, then toss that verse in the trash can of oblivion and let’s live according to a different standard: the Greater Good based on the rights of all human beings.

Carter’s welcome apostasy opens up the door to a room we so badly need right now in the world: the editing room, a place where so-called holy writ is analyzed and large sections consigned to the dustbin, from Balaam’s ass to the virgin birth. People have been busily at work in this room since Epicurus first wrote that the gods have no interest in us mortals, so lets get on with finding the best way to enjoy our lives together. It’s a room where Socrates, Hus, Bruno and a host of others have labored until overwhelmed by the forces of the dark side.

President Carter’s declaration means we should think about each and every verse in the Bible and every other holy book, asking ourselves “is this a keeper?”  and the gauge can be found in the precepts of Humanism.

For more on this subject try “Sam Harris to Muslims: Edit Your Sacred Texts!”

Christians Awake Part II: What Do You Believe?

Part I was about a cult begun by an egomaniac, exploiting people in the name of Jesus. Part II asks what is the difference between a cult and a religion? Is it that religions don’t set out to exploit people?  But what about what they say they believe?

Consider three anecdotes about friends who were raised as Catholics:

1) Today some of us were sitting around and the subject of religion, then communion came up. Someone said, “You know, the Catholics believe that when the priest blesses the wafer, it actually turns into the body of Christ—it’s not a symbol for them, it really is His body.” One of my colleagues who was raised Catholic, and had gone through First Communion at the age of 13 was dumbfounded—she didn’t attend services anymore, but somehow she had missed that central tenet of the Roman Church all these years.  Now she just shook her head in disbelief and a pained look crossed her face.

2) A few years ago I was talking with a Catholic friend and the subject of the Immaculate Conception came up.   “That’s the same thing as the Virgin Birth,” he said—that Mary miraculously conceived even though she was a virgin.” I corrected him, reporting that it’s actually the belief that Mary herself was conceived immaculately, that is, free from the taint of Original Sin. Her mother, St. Anne, conceived the normal way, they say, but God acted on Mary in the womb, removing that sin so she would be a proper vessel (if that’s the phrase) for the baby Jesus. My friend stared at me a moment, somewhat shocked, then heaved a big sigh.

3) A friend who went to a Catholic school in a major city told me recently that the moment he became an atheist was when he was 14 and the bishop came to visit their school.   The boys were all lined up in the chapel to honor his visit, and here he came, down the aisle in his robes, his finery, and on his hat, the mitre—or “that pointy hat” as my friend called it. In that moment he said to himself, “How can we take all this seriously? There is no way that God wants him dressed like that.”

It’s presumptuous for a non-Catholic to make these observations, but the point is simply this: if you say you are part of a group, Catholic, Protestant, or anything, shouldn’t you know what that group’s beliefs are? Otherwise, if you can’t buy into those beliefs, or accept the rituals and the dress, shouldn’t you call yourself something else to avoid confusion?   And if you can’t buy into some of those beliefs, which beliefs are you buying into? The ones that seem more reasonable?

Do you get to do that? Pick and choose?

Most church leaders would say no.

The Humanist would say yes, that’s exactly what you should be doing.

The Humanist’s Prayer Chamber


For some reason, the term “prayer chamber” escaped me all these years until last week.  From what I understand, this is where a group of Christians gather to ask God to intercede for someone who is sick or who is going through a crisis. The prayer chamber can also be mustered for something a little more “out there”: one website mentions help with “financial flow” and staving off “witchcraft and apostacy [sic].” On Facebook there is a prayer-chamber page with all kinds of prayers, from the old standby beseeching the Lord to bless you, keep you and make His face to shine upon you, to prayers bellicosely invoking the name of the entire Trinity at once to change the direction of our country. There you can even find a link to YouTube and something called “Prayer Warfare Strategy” with #91 back in November urging us to pray for the presidential election.

Maybe that explains what happened…

Many of our fellowmen and women find this kind of aggressive prayer difficult to take. The freethinker will have little patience with those who so vocally thrust their prayers at us and seem to delight in their personal relation with what to the skeptic is at best a big metaphysical question mark.

However, skeptics take note: a terrific article on prayer in the North Dakota Quarterly was reprinted in the Utne Reader’s last issue.   The author, Cathy Krizik, is an atheist who in some detail describes her allergic reaction to traditional religion and conversations that invoked the Deity.   Prayer for her was “nothing but a Band-Aid to make us all feel better.” But when she was taking a class at an omnifaith spiritual community, she let it slip that she was having surgery for cancer, and, to her horror, her classmates immediately came together for a prayer chamber.

They surrounded her in a circle , and as the prayers began, she resisted. “I felt pummeled by their words….I sloughed off their kindness as wishful thinking….” But as the words and thoughts kept coming, something happened. She was overcome.

“Words became a wave of something I couldn’t name…Their words were medicine. I was being tended to. Lifted up and loved.”

These short excerpts don’t do her justice—it’s a beautifully written piece. Her closing is what is most noteworthy:

“As I drove home…I wondered what was at work in that prayer chamber. Quantum physics? God? Love? And was there a difference?”

Exactly. Who cares what we want to call it? This is the Sacrament of the Group, the power that comes from focusing our energies in a single, purposeful, spiritual direction. It’s there for anyone to experience.   We don’t need to bring in God, or sin. We just need that human-to-human connection, caring and compassion.

What is a Post-Christian?

Great article in the NY Times Magazine this week: “The Evangelical Scion Who Stopped Believing” about Bart Campolo, a star in the world of evangelical Christianity, who left it all behind to become the humanist chaplain at USC in Los Angeles.    Campolo is described as a “post-Christian”—someone who loved everything about the Christian ministry except the Christianity, that is, his focus was on community building, friendship, taking care of those in need, those going through a hard time, and not on the virgin birth, the resurrection, the miracles which some would call magical thinking.  By talking with Greg Epstein (Good Without God), the humanist chaplain at Harvard and head of the Humanist Hub, Bart eventually found his way to his new position in LA.

The article raises the key question: Can we have the benefits of what an old-style religion offers without the supernatural?  We better all hope the answer is a resounding “yes!” because it’s so often the supernatural–that metaphysical quagmire–that creates the zealots, so caught up in the phantasmagoria of paradise, angels, hell, and transubstantiation that all the humanity has been wrung out of our brief lives here on this Earth and we’re left with an electorate determined to create God’s kingdom on Earth with all the bigotry and hatred that too often go with it.

I particularly like the picture at the head of the article. Look at the crowd of college students bonding through laughter at something Bart is saying.  That’s the Sacrament of the Group, creating those invaluable human-to-human connections through humor. They will remember more about their time in that group and that leader than in any classroom they’ve ever been in.



Pope Francis on Marriage: Get it Together, People!

Pope Francis is in hot water with conservative Catholics.   He recently responded to a question on marriage by saying that most (later changed to “many”) marriages were invalid because the couple didn’t understand the sacrament of marriage. They did not, he said, fully comprehend what they had agreed to as they exchanged those vows. His antagonists began piling on, saying that he was making the entire Catholic community wonder if their marriages were legit, and “muddying the waters” of the Roman Church even more than he already has with his liberal attitudes towards gays, divorcees, and others living beyond the pale (their pale, that is). You could almost hear the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments as they proceeded to excoriate the Pontiff, as if he were an ordinary Joe off the street instead of the Vicar of Christ.

But Francis is on to something important.   Marriage doesn’t mean as much as it used to. It’s been plutoed. The Pope’s point is that those contemplating marriage are not being prepared properly for its demands, and that’s why there are so many seeking annulments (the Catholic Church does not recognize divorce).   They are too willing to call it a day and go on to the next partner on their dance card.

There are two things going on here. The first is the need to recognize that there are going to inevitably be some bad marriages and those people need to split up.   Maybe it’s nobody’s fault, maybe you can lay the blame at somebody’s feet, but every marriage is not going to be forever. People change. They get married too soon, too young, too unaware, blinded by passion and then one day they open up their eyes to a different person than the one they thought they knew.  They should be able to go their separate ways and start over.

But the second point jives with what Francis is trying to tell us. There is a sanctity in marriage, and not just for the Christian Faithful, but for everyone. Our partners in life, those with whom we beget our children should be our best beloved, and in that deep, ineffable affection and the intimacy of sexual union we find the Divine.  Call it God, call it whatever you want, it’s sacred.  Marriage should  ideally be for the long haul. But we live in a world of refunds, retooling, redecorating, and regifting. We have even invented the word “trial marriage”, an irritating phrase if ever there was one.

Forget for a moment the annoyance you may feel at celibate men of the Church ordering you around in this realm of intimacy and domesticity.  The world would be a better place if marriage were viewed as a sacrament instead of a tax benefit. The Pope is doubtlessly correct that many of us are woefully unprepared to be good spouses. But what is sacramental about the union of two souls, is not what happens in front of an altar as a priest utters some magic words. The sacrament lies deep in the heart of the bride and groom if they really care about each other and are willing to make sacrifices for each other and work together to make the marriage more important than either of their own individual lives. It is that depth of feeling that unites them, and makes them married in a spiritual sense. It is Divine. But you have to work at it.


God Misconceived: Three Real-Life Examples

Imagine this happening where you live:

X kills her two sons ages 6 and 8, smashing their heads with a rock. She explains that God came to her to say the world was ending and she needed to “get her house in order”.

Y attacks a neighboring village with a group of like-minded men. They round up the women they find and force them to return with them. They tell the women that God wants them to be married and they are kept as sexual slaves by their captors.

Z and a group of his friends go into a neighboring village and steal the harvest of the farmers there. They burn the farm buildings and the neighbor’s child dies in the blaze.   Z justifies it all by saying the land belongs to him because God gave it to him and the people who live there have to be driven out.

What is the difference between these examples? In the third, Z could also provide some writings from long ago that in his mind prove what God’s will is. But really, aren’t they the same in the end?  How would any of us react to a neighbor announcing that God wanted any of these things? A call to the nearest police station would result, which is precisely what happened to X, a Christian Texas woman who was judged insane. But if she is insane, why not Y and Z as well? As you’ve probably guessed, Y is an Islamist adherent of Boko Haram or  IS, and Z is a Jewish settler in the West Bank, all doing God’s work.

Why would an unbiased reader condemn all three of these behaviors?    It’s because most of us have a concept of the Good or the Divine Will or Right and Wrong–call it what you like– that rules out killing, stealing, rape.  We don’t need to appeal to God for authority  or look in a sacred text, we know in our hearts what is wrong.   Any outsider would call X, Y and Z delusional, even with the Old Testament as exhibit A.   Did God really dictate the boundaries of that real estate deal in the Middle East way back when? How do we know? If the answer is “we know in our hearts”  that’s what X said as she murdered her own children.   If the answer is “we know because that’s what we’ve been taught” we’re closer to a  way to prevent these sorts of tragedies: better curriculum, better teaching. Start with compassion, not real estate. Start with the here and now and real-live human beings.

Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

The Public Religion Research Institute is a great site to visit for anyone interested in the role faith plays in the United States.   For example, here’s something to wrap your head around:  27% of Americans believe that God plays a role in deciding which team wins a sporting event.


You can’t help but wonder what criteria God would be using to make that decision. Would it be purely statistical? The number of Christians on the team? The number of sins committed by the team that week? The number of prayers offered up by fans on either side? Or was He really impressed by that fervent Hail Mary as the quarterback released that pass with two seconds left on the clock.

This thinking in nothing more nor less than a corollary to that old chestnut “Everything happens for a reason,” one of my least favorite sayings.   Students in my humanities classes frequently trot this one out in discussions, but when pressed a bit– what would be the reason for Hurricane Katrina, or the Holocaust, or the death of that innocent woman in Chicago shot accidentally by police through her door? They have to retreat back to the Maginot Line of “God Works in Mysterious Ways,” or in other words, we can’t know the mind of God….but of course, that’s what they are claiming they can do when they say “Everything happens for a reason.”

It often turns out that what they really mean is not that God has a plan when He makes bad things happen to good people, but rather, that there is a silver lining to any dark cloud.   Yes, I was in a car accident, but no one was hurt, and it was a wake-up call to my careless driving. Yes, my father has a terminal illness, but it’s made both him and me focus much more on spiritual things, the things that really matter in life. This is a lot different than the oppressive, predestinatory view that there is a divine Cause and Effect in everything we see happening around us. It’s the “Life is what you make it” school of thought. Although the  clichés can make you blanch, this is a healthy way to wade through life’s vicissitudes.

Coming back to the statistic: it’s difficult to know what to do with it. If you had someone in the room who believed God favored one team over another, how could you convince him or her otherwise?  Perhaps they never really thought it through and, hopefully, some non-confrontational appeal to reason would be an eye-opener. Who knows?   But before leaving this subject, it would be just as well to point out the differences regionally. Here are the statistics for the percentage agreeing that

“God plays a role in determining which team wins a sporting event”





The regional relationships are similar for many other questions asked by the Institute, including “God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success” (53% of Americans agree) or those disapproving of same-sex marriage. In this latter category I was surprised that my home state of New Hampshire led the pro same-sex marriage group with 75%, while the southern states were in the 30s and 40s, with the exception of Florida.  We should all work on shrinking that divide between the Old Confederacy and the North and West.


Sam Harris to Muslims: Edit your Sacred Texts!

Watch the CNN clip from November with Sam Harris and Dean Obeidallah arguing over what Ben Carson said about Muslims (–scroll down to “Never Stop Lying”).   It’s depressing. We’re wasting so much time getting worked up about the wrong thing, a point that Harris made very clearly.

The starting point was Carson’s comment that he could never support a Muslim presidential candidate if he or she did not reject Sharia law. Who can argue with that? We’ve all heard the horror stories of what sharia law entails: beheadings, stonings, wife beatings (and by the way, some of these same punishments are mandated in the Old Testament). Some Islamic scholars say that these kinds of punishments are controversial within the Muslim community, too–OK, fair enough, so let’s cut to the chase: everyone should ask themselves (and this goes for Christians too), which takes precedence:

A) what’s written in a sacred text, or

B) laws based on human rights

Would your statutes derive from ancient scriptures or modern sensibilities?

Obeidalla never answers this. He gets all caught up in his personal antagonism for Harris, when the point is, do you or do you not reject a literal interpretation of the Islamic holy texts? Nothing would help us more at this point than assigning a word to describe that section of the Muslim population who believe it’s morally acceptable to decapitate prisoners and sell young girls and women into sexual slavery.   Extremists, Literalists, Fundamentalists, Jihadists, Back-to-the-Dark-Agists, Delusionists—let’s just pick one so we’ll all know from here on in we’re not talking about the moderate Muslim population. Here’s an easy question to determine which side you’re on:  do you or do you not think that it’s wrong to stone a woman to death for adultery? If you do not, you are now an editor of your sacred text and have entered the modern world.  Get out the blue pencil and keep going through the verses. We can argue about details as we go along in a civilized way.

This reminds me of Mike Huckabee’s accusation a while back, the one where he suggested President Obama had a different Bible than the rest of Christendom.   There is a different Bible in 2015 from the one written centuries ago in Palestine. Our new Bible has been edited—by us. It recognizes that some of the chapters and verses have nothing to do with us today. It excises those horrific, inhuman passages about stoning adulterers, and fables of talking donkeys.   It’s a Bible that is based on what is consonant with the human heart, nowhere better expressed than in the Charter for Compassion movement of Karen Armstrong.

Nothing would serve the cause of world peace more than to have the Muslim community in America go through their holy texts and underscore those writings that especially define who they are and who they want their children to be. The result might shift the focus from the horror stories of torture and mutilation to the texts that enjoin us to have compassion and mercy for all.

Pew Poll : Churchgoers’ Numbers Declining

Lots of interesting statistics in the latest Pew poll on religion in America. The big news is the same as last time: the number of people who are religiously unaffiliated (the Nones) is growing. In the  2014 survey, 23% of Americans fall into this category, up from 16% in 2007.   Belief in God has remained strong, but has fallen slightly, from 92% to 89%. However, the percentage of people who regularly feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being rose from 52% to 59%.

Whether or not this trend will continue depends on the state of the world and how secure people feel.  Here at home we feel fairly secure, I would reckon, but there are still no atheists in foxholes, so if we start to feel under threat, perhaps some of those Nones will head back to the pews. There are threats a-plenty beyond our borders as wars and gangs continue to spin out of control in so many places, and refugees are fleeing to stable countries like ours in unprecedented numbers. It’s anyone’s guess whether they will be absorbed quietly or end up disenchanted and angry—the source of even more unrest.

But  I hope this trend does continue as it has, and that those apostate Nones look to the Seven Universal Sacraments for a framework upon which to build a new moral code to fill the gap left by traditional religions.   Children must be raised, something has to be taught about what makes us tick as human beings, and how to live as humanly and humanely as possible.   Without Sunday School to etch the Ten Commandments into young hearts, parents can use some guidance on how to approach the Greater Good.  Whether there is a God or not, we can perceive some universal Rights and Wrongs in the world if we take the time to look around.