Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Thoughts on the God's Not Dead Debate

Ten days out from my first official debate about the existence of gods, I feel ready to talk about how it went.

First off, I want to thank Red for inviting me; I don’t know that I would have done this unless I had been asked by someone I trusted. Second, I would TOTALLY do it again. I had not anticipated how invigorating it would be to say what I really think about religious claims and have people engage me with vigor instead of shutting down with pearls firmly clutched and expecting me to do the same. Many thanks to Red and to Matt and Billy for a wonderful experience.

One note: We didn’t talk about the film God’s Not Dead as much as we might have, but that’s just as well because it is execrable and we are way more interesting.

Here’s a brief breakdown of stuff I said and stuff I should have said:

Things I’m Glad I Did Say

One of the pastors kept talking about the “absurdity” of the universe’s existence. (I confess to being a little disappointed that these claims were such textbook apologetics and thus so picked over. You can find them all, with accompanying explanations, in the Talk Origins “Index to Creationist Claims”: http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/.) I was able to respond, though, more than once by pointing out that nothing in the physical universe, no matter how wacky and inconceivable, can ever be *more* wacky and inconceivable than the claim that an immense, omniscient, all-powerful being created it with its mind. Give me the craziest question about the universe that you can imagine—abiogenesis, dark matter, event horizons, big bangs—and all you do when you posit a magic creator is crank the crazy up to eleven. It’s a position that offers absolutely no explanatory power; it does nothing but engender more questions. I mean, if the existence of the universe is too much for me to handle, how can I grasp the existence of such a creature as a universe-creating deity?

Another all-too-familiar claim from the Christian side had to do with how my life has no meaning without a god to assign it to me. Doesn’t that worry me, that my life is meaningless? I do understand why religious people think this way—and one thing I did manage to get out was that I used to be a believer, so I get it. But I don’t believe it anymore and I’m really fine with that. No, really. I’m fine! When a pastor asked about my life’s meaning, I responded that it has meaning to me. And I do my best to contribute to meaning in the lives of others in ways that are positive rather than negative, and that also has meaning to me as well as, I hope, to them. This is one of those things that religious people should be able to understand much more easily than they often do, because they feel the same way underneath the religious trappings. They find meaning in relationships with loved ones, just as I do. They add religious explanations to those feelings, and I don’t, but that’s the only difference. They don’t consult their scripture before deciding whether they feel love or friendship or connectedness; their emotional experiences are as intrinsic as mine. For me, that’s enough. I don’t need my feelings validated by an external authority.

Things I’m Sorry I Didn’t Say

A couple of people who attended the event have mentioned that I seemed to stop myself from saying something at times. They’re right, of course, and after time to reflect…I wish I had said some things that I didn’t. That’s me, though: pushing 50 years of life and still hindered by fear of making others feel bad, like a proper southern woman. If I get another opportunity to do an event like this one, I promise to do better. For now, here are some things I didn’t say:

At one point, the more sermonic pastor started in on prophecy and Israel and historicity of the Bible. I did say that no one disputes the existence of the ancient Hebrews or that the Bible represents their story about themselves—because, for real, that argument is very strange to me. India is still there too. Does that tell us anything about Shiva? What I didn’t articulate was how much it gets under my skin when Christians take this proprietary attitude toward the Jews and their scripture. I’m not Jewish, ethnic or religious, and I’m no more a fan of that religion than any other (though I admit to a fondness for their stories over those of the New Testament) but man, that annoys me. The shameless appropriation that they don’t even acknowledge, chanting “Judeo-Christian!” as if that will keep anyone from hearing the Jews in the background saying, “Um, we don’t actually believe that our religion is most notable as a prologue to yours? Also, we don’t so much buy Jesus as the son of our god? Hello?” At one point when he was holding forth about Isaiah and how it’s all about Jesus, I opened my mouth to say, “You know the Jews don’t agree with you, right? Remember them? The Jews? Who wrote that book for themselves, about themselves, NOT ABOUT YOU?” Ugh.

But I did not say that, which brings me to my other most pressing regret also, oddly, related to the Jews. The same pastor went to the Hitler place, though now I can’t recall why…I think he was trying to make a point about cosmic justice because I do remember him saying that in the atheist worldview Hitler “got away with it,” to which I replied “HE DID GET AWAY WITH IT. He KILLED A BUNCH OF PEOPLE!” And right here is something I cannot stand about Christianity—its privileging of the reactionary over the proactive. I should have said so, too, but I didn’t, maybe because I wasn’t sure I could do it without getting upset, as it really does upset me when someone acts like suffering is somehow canceled out by punishment when it so is not. Even if I believed that Hitler were being punished somewhere in a hell, how does that help all those people who suffered horribly and died? Or suffered the grief of losing their loved ones, their homes, their countries? How about a god who uses its incredible universe-building powers to get out in front of shit like holocausts instead of showing up afterward with bloodthirsty vengeance promises? Because how does that help the victims? Also, how is that morality?

As one pastor pointed out, while the hamfisted death-road conversion of Professor Atheist in the movie God’s Not Dead may be off-putting, it is consistent with Christian doctrine, which should inspire any Christian presiding over the death of a non-Christian to do everything possible to convert that person and keep her/him out of eternal damnation. I agree with him. So answer me this: Where are all those Jews that Hitler killed, if we’re being consistent in our doctrine? It seems safe to assume that they did not have a pastor like the one in the film hovering in the gas chambers feeding them the salvation prayer as they choked out their last tormented breaths, so if they died as Jews, meaning they did not accept Christ as their Lord and Savior, where are they now? And again: how is that moral?

I guess Christianity’s perverse refusal to view suffering as something we all—gods and mortals alike—should strive to eliminate lines up naturally with the ghastly story of Christ. I love and respect many people who happen to be Christians, but Christianity itself will remain morally repugnant to me as long as its central narrative celebrates the blood sacrifice of an innocent as its mechanism for communal salvation. Everyone sees that killing Christ is essentially the desert version of throwing a virgin into a volcano, right? The classic scapegoat tale? In which the people who get to live and supposedly benefit from the victim’s pain console themselves and each other by focusing on their deep gratitude for the sacrifice, as well as the comforting belief that the victim is being rewarded for that sacrifice in some other realm of existence? It’s barbaric and gross, and everyone would see that if it were the religion of a culture not your own. I couldn’t see it myself until I was out and able to assess it with disinterest. Now, though, I state with confidence that if someone asked me if I would accept the torture and murder of another person for my own sake, I would say NO—and I hope every Christian I know would refuse as well. No, thank you. I will be responsible for my own vices, as should we all. I don’t consider myself in need of redemption; I want no martyrs on my conscience, and nor should you.

I didn’t say any of that in the debate, but I might next time.

Once the video appears, I imagine I will see plenty of other ways in which I screwed this up. I’ll be sure to post it here so you can all make sure I don’t miss anything. ;)

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