Esmerelda & Keith

Why are we here?  Where is here?  What happens when we die?  Historically, these questions — the so-called “big questions” — were the exclusive purview of religion.  For at least two millennia now, the Church in the West has claimed exclusive rights to proffer an answer:  Earth, you see, is little more than a testing ground to screen humans for assignment into one of only two future and eternal states of being which will take place in one of two locations — heaven or hell.  This silly, half-witted, ignorant conjecture, supported by no evidence of any kind other than the barbaric, superstitious, and ludicrous writings of bronze age and patristic writers for whom the device you are reading this sentence on would be considered witchcraft is showing signs, strong signs, of being past its sell-by date and being discarded like yesterday’s chutney.  Since 1990, the religiously unaffiliated, better known as the “nones” in an ironic pun, have steadily gained in number; Gallup has been polling Americans about their religious affiliation since 1937; throughout the 20th century, the answers were, for the most part, consistent showing that a majority, roughly 70%, said they belonged to a church, a synagogue, a mosque, or other house of worship.  But in the 21st century, religious affiliation began to drop as if from a cliff.  Since 2015, twenty-five million people have departed their organized religions (8% of the entire US population); in 2015, 55% of Americans (a narrow majority) were members of a religion, but by 2020, only 47% would cop to believing horses can fly, dead people can sit up and talk, or shrubberies on fire can do the same.  The “Secular Age” is upon us.

Gallup - none s

This shift away from religion is happening across the traditional dividing lines, affecting all genders, races, education levels, political ideologies, and age groups.  It cannot be explained away using the outdated binary thinking of younger generations vs. older; Gen X, Boomers, and even the pre-Baby-Boom “traditionalists” have all become less likely to be members of a religion and more likely to report no religious preference.

What accounts for this rapid social transformation?  The Internet which lays at our fingertips a world-wide array of ideas and practices and cultures that undercut old-timey regional beliefs?  A redefinition of "family” that severs traditional homogenized participation in local congregations from which cultural identity was drawn?  A growing cynicism surrounding authority of all types?  Fundamentalist hostility toward abortion and LGBTQ people which has offended the majority of tolerant-minded Americans?  Rampant clergy sexual abuse of children and demonstrated evidence of institutional coverup revealing a truly breathtaking hypocrisy that has rendered religious claims to moral authority laughable?  Or is it just that In the scientific 21st century, it’s less necessary to look to invisible gods, devils, angels, and demons to explain everything from earthquakes to eclipses?  Virgin births, resurrections, miracles, messiahs, prophecies, faith-healings, visions, incarnations, incantations, divine visitations, and other supernatural claims just seem so quaint; magical thinking like this is ludicrous — it’s an affront to intelligent, educated people.  Ridiculous beliefs, by definition, deserve ridicule.

Since the 1960’s, university-educated priests and ministers have tried to distract their congregations from all the supernaturalism, focusing on the compassion of the Jesus ethic and something they like to call the "social gospel."  It was a noble effort, but it has failed.  Like most people, I was brought-up to believe in God — not in an overly devout way, but more as a cultural assumption.  But my nominal belief in God had little to do with how I lived my life, or even how I saw it.  Ironically, it was those who took their religious faith most seriously that made me question the assumptions being made.  If you’re going to believe in sky fairies and underground demons, you should accept the whole package, and that meant denying the remarkable discoveries of science and ignoring the violence and harm done, presently and throughout history, in the name of gods — I couldn’t do that.

In dark ages people are best guided by religion, as in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind old men as guides.
(Heinrich Heine, Gedanken und Einfälle)

To paraphrase Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell — most people, when they say they believe in god, actually believe in believing in god.  It seems a harmless cultural phenomenon until you consider that throughout history, lives have been lost because those people over there do not believe what these people over here believe, and suffering has resulted from the unquestioning belief in the “rightness” of one's side, unsullied by rational and critical thought and scornful of challenges or opinions to the contrary.

To take just one example, there is strong evidence that homosexuality is genetic.  It has been observed and documented in over 450 species of animals worldwide according to Bruce Bagemihl in Biological Exuberance:  Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity published in 1999; that number should put to rest the silly idea that homosexuality is a choice, or are we to believe that two male penguins — one of the species in whom same-sex behavior has been documented — “decided” to forego the ladies (which would ascribe to them a consciousness and free will)?  Humans increase that number by one, and it would seem by some religious accounts that a creator-god created some living things to be in perpetual disharmony (or opposition) to their species.  If we add the concept of sin into the equation, this creator-god created gays and lesbians to sin.  If you advance the notion of a creator-god, this calls his omnipotence (power) and omnibenevolence (goodness) into question.  I realize that in the Christian worldview all men and women bear the stain of original sin and are “sinners” in need of salvation, but, even if I believed that, homosexuality is not like covetousness that can be overcome with effort and, a believer would say, with something called “God’s grace” — so God created beings he is incapable of “saving?”  Help me out here — I’m just trying to understand the design specifications of the homosexual who, it seems, is designed for the purposes of damnation.  This is not a very good (in both senses of that word) god!

I’d go into condom usage to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS and the manifest hypocrisy of firing gay teachers while allowing their divorced and remarried heterosexual colleagues to keep their jobs when both homosexual sex and remarriage after divorce are forbidden by the Catholic Church, but we haven’t the time here.

Faith is the ultimate in moral narcissism; God is good — I got that job I wanted, I feel so loved in a community at church, I prayed and the bank reduced my mortgage.  But when you ask why he allowed the Nazis to kill six million Jews, around two-thirds (66%) of Europe's Jewish population, there is a double standard — we are told his ways are mysterious.  Do you really think those Jews in the camps weren’t praying their asses off for deliverance from their sadistic captors?  If he didn’t help them, he was either unable or unwilling — meaning he’s either impotent or didn’t care.  But a sports player thanks him for scoring the wining point.  Not only does that trivialize the Jewish experience of the Holocaust, but it paints an obscene picture of this so-called god if he is more inclined to help Tim Tebow than his “chosen people.”

What about “cultural" religion for the sake of community?  I find the argument that “moderate” religion does no harm and is actually useful unconvincing at the least and disingenuous at the worst because it lends credibility to scriptural literalism by claiming to believe in the very same gods and supposedly divinely-inspired texts that are exalted by Fundamentalists.  If not for moderate religion, the absurdity of Fundamentalists’ anachronistic beliefs would be much more obvious; but those beliefs are not as easy to identify as absurd when billions of people worship the same god and revere the same scripture.  The result is that Fundamentalist beliefs are seen not as ridiculous, but as merely unorthodox or incorrect interpretations of something widely regarded as correct on the whole.  I don’t deny that there are nuggets of truth and beauty to be found in the scriptures of the major religions.  But just as with a cable television package, the real gems are bundled together with a lot of garbage, from misogyny to homophobia.

Also, we almost always talk about the Bible as one thing; in reality, there are actually several different Bibles: the Jewish Tanakh or Hebrew Bible, which (with its books arranged in a different order) is either the whole or part (depending on which denomination of Christians we’re talking about) of a Christian Old Testament, which comprises the bulk but not the entirety of Christian Bibles, which also include a New Testament.  Setting aside the structure of the Bible, let’s focus on content.  Of the six hundred thirteen specific laws found in the books of Leviticus and Numbers, how many are about abortion (none); and with regard to the one or two that might (or then again, might not) have to do with homosexuality, why do they get so much attention when there are so many laws explicitly and unequivocally laid-out which we never hear anything about — condemning adultery, dictating food choices, obsessed with clothing and hygiene, and so on?  Seems a lot of selective reading is going on.  Why would an omniscient, omnipotent being (a god) allow such imprecision in his primary mode of communication?

The god described in the Bible is the personification of evil — vindictive, spiteful, and violent — and hardly worthy of praise or obedience.  Shall we have a look?  Here are my top five favorites from season one of The Bible, a.k.a. The Old Testament, as an example of this abusive bully:

  1. 42 boys are ripped to shreds by two bears for picking on a grown man and making fun of his bald spot.
    From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.

    (2 Kings 2:23-24)
  2. Really big hailstones thrown down by God from Heaven are way more effective at killing people than swords, dontchaknow?

    As they fled before Israel on the road down from Beth Horon to Azekah, the Lord hurled large hailstones down on them, and more of them died from the hail than were killed by the swords of the Israelites.
    (Joshua 10:11)
  3. God gets really pissed-off because someone accidentally touched the pretty box they keep the commandments in
    When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.
    (2 Samuel 6:6-7)
  4. Don’t like the food?  Nothing to drink?  How about poisonous snakes?  You like snakes?  Ha-ha…that’ll teach ya’ to whine!

    …they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.
    (Numbers 21:5-6)
  5. But the all-time, greatest, hands-down biggest do-over in the history of the world — The Flood
    That time God flooded the entire Earth with water, drowning everything (except the fish I suppose) is probably the most famous story in the Old Testament, told in the Book of Genesis chapters 6 through 8, though for the last time, Joan of Arc was not Noah’s wife!  Think about what this story is actually saying:  if you’ve got regrets, commit genocide!  This is a god who could definitely use that anger management seminar at the Hilton by the airport.

    …The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.”

    (Genesis 6:6-7)

Many have pointed-out what a con religion is to make belief in deities dependent on accepting the flimsy evidence available; for ex-Catholics like myself, if you lived 2000 years ago, there was evidence galore — according to scripture you couldn’t walk down the street without tripping over a miracle.  But apparently God got tired of helping us along.  One visit to a middle-eastern backwater is all humanity gets.  If that wasn’t enough to convince you, you lose.

Social anthropologists have identified approximately 3,000 deities over the course of recorded history, many strikingly similar to one another.

One of the the sun god Ra's sons was the savior Osiris, who, along with his wife, Isis, became two of the most popular gods ever to be conceived by the human mind; they were worshipped in one form or another over a period of millennia, and entire cultures were established around them, including a huge amount of art and literature, as well as massive and magnificent edifices and sanctuaries and shrines.  Like today's supposed apparitions of Jesus and Mary, ancient gods such as Osiris and Isis often appeared to their followers, centuries and millennia prior to the Christian or “common era.”  As can be seen, Jesus of Nazareth’s purported advent is entirely unoriginal and un-noteworthy.

Osiris...was successively god of the Nile, a life-giver, a sun-god, god of justice and love, and finally a resurrected god who ruled in the afterlife.... The most popular legend about Osiris is one of a resurrected god. He was killed by Set, the god of darkness... Osiris was then resurrected and went to live on high. Osiris became the first of a long line of resurrected deities — Tammuz, Mithras, Balder, Christ. Every spring the life of Osiris was re-enacted at Abydos in a stirring passion play, dating back to the eighteenth or nineteenth century before Christ. This play is the earliest record in history of drama.
(Gerald L. Berry, Religions of the World)

Osiris is thus a very old god, whose worship dated to thousands of years before the common era.  And Abydos was the narrative template for the remake — Easter.  Over the years, Osiris took on the attributes of countless other gods in true syncretistic fashion and became the “king of kings” and “lord of lords,” as he was called in Egyptian texts; roughly around 1300 BCE, Osiris’ epithets included, “the king of eternity,” “the lord of everlastingness,” “the firstborn son of the womb of Nut,” “begotten of Seb,” “the prince of gods and men,” “the god of gods,” “the king of kings,” “the lord of lords,” and “the prince of princes.”  At Osiris’ birth a voice proclaimed, "The ruler of all the earth is born.”

There was a human being in the first century who was called “Divine,” "Son of God,” “God,” and "God from God,” whose titles were “Lord,” “Redeemer,” “Liberator,” and "Saviour of the World” … most Christians probably think that those titles were originally created and uniquely applied to Christ. But before Jesus ever existed, all those terms belonged to Caesar Augustus.
(John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire)

Esmerelda or Keith?

In the 2016 presidential election, white Evangelical Christians voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, giving him an unfathomable 81% of their votes despite his crass, vulgar contradiction of everything they say they believe in. Hypocrisy on display on a national scale.

The noted humanist Andrew Mueller has pointed out that pledging yourself to any particular religion “is no more or less weird than choosing to believe that the world is rhombus-shaped, and borne through the cosmos in the pincers of two enormous green lobsters called Esmerelda and Keith.”

It is said that without religion, we have nothing to live for.

Actually, without religion, and specifically one of religion’s afterlives, we have nothing to die for and everything to live for…

because our reward is on this side of the grave.

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