BY MATTHEW HERBERT
It is with fear and trembling that I borrow this title from one of my heroes, Bertrand Russell. A magnificent philosopher, Russell was much more measured and cogent on the topic than I will be. You can read his memorable essay here or hear it as a lecture here.
Orginally I wanted to call my post “Why I Am Not a Theist,” partly to avoid using Russell’s famous title and partly because I wanted to give an account of my disbelief in all gods, not just the one who sacrificed his only begotten son on Golgotha. As I started to outline my argument, though, it became clear to me that it was the god of the Christian Bible that I had a particular quarrel with. I had no deeply-felt objections to Zeus, Wotan, forest sprites, or any other dead gods, I suppose because all civilized people are already blithely atheistic about them.
Nor did I feel any need to go after exotic ideas of god. Almost all human cultures have evolved an idea of divinity, and at the end of the day, I think they are all either false or nonsensical. But, as William James pointed out in The Will to Believe and The Varieties of Religious Experience, the God-seeker approaches divinity through a cuturally salient framework. A spiritually thirsty young man at Harvard in 1900 (James’s main audience back when he was writing his books) would not have turned to the esoterica of Vishnu, for example, for salvation, since all his cutural touchstones referred to the Gospel of Jesus or at least the sissified Unitarianism of Emerson.
And so I would miss the point If I went after other cultures’ ideas of god, even if I think they all boil down to much the same thing as the Christian mythology I gew up with. (But please do give a moment to attend to the profusion and variety of theistic religions around the world. How likely is it that you, among these billions of divergent believers, were born to the one culture that identified the right god? Had you been born in Indonesia, would the Lord have, mirabile dictu, led you to Christianity? The Indonesian villager–probably a Muslim, maybe an animist–is as convinced as you are that he was divinely sanctioned to worship the one true God or panoply of gods in exactly the right way.)
My own disbelief was the outcome of a long journey, which I won’t bother to describe in any detail. Suffice it to say that, from the time of my baptism into the Southern Baptist Church when I was 11, to the time of my graduate studies in philosophy 20 years later, I had pulled a multitude of tricks out of the book to shore up my faith. I was an unusual animal, perhaps one of the few North American evangelicals who delved into Thomas Aquinas, then Augustine, then William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein, to find an intellectual framework for my Christianity.
For a time I read the novels of Walker Percy, and I thought they were excellent. Now I only think they are good. They are mostly about the existence of God and the improbability of finding Him in America, the most death-dealing, wealth-worshiping land on Earth. (Percy did believe he found Him, though, in the South, of all places.)
In graduate school, I became an analytic philosopher, someone who tries to understand the world through statements of predicate logic, which mostly look like this:
- where denotes
- where denotes
Analytic philosophers tend to believe, as Wittgenstein famously said, that whatever can be expressed can be expressed precisely. And some such philosophers were, like me, bedeviled by religious belief. So they constructed arguments like this one, which tried to make Christian theism technically daunting and, thus, intellectually respectable:
(1) If God exists then he has necessary existence.
(2) Either God has necessary existence, or he doesn’t.
(3) If God doesn’t have necessary existence, then he necessarily doesn’t.
(4) Either God has necessary existence, or he necessarily doesn’t.
(5) If God necessarily doesn’t have necessary existence, then God necessarily doesn‘t exist.
(6) Either God has necessary existence, or he necessarily doesn’t exist.
(7) It is not the case that God necessarily doesn’t exist.
(8) God has necessary existence.
(9) If God has necessary existence, then God exists.
(10) God exists.
The author of this argument, Alvin Plantinga, a fiercely intellectual Calvinist who taught at Notre Dame last I knew, still claimed that Christian belief was “fundamental,” a technical term which meant that faith is its own foundation; it stands in no need of further eividentiary proof.
All those fancy arguments down the drain! Plantinga (like me, and all the other philosophers of religion I knew of) was still right back where so much Christian belief founders–on the need to take everything in the Bible on blind faith. I think this is the right juncture, by the way, to reflect that the Bible enjoins us to kill fags, describes a beer bet in which God allows Satan to torture and kill several humans just to fuck with one particularly faithful human, Job, and invites us to find moral uplift in a story about cutting the throat of one’s child and then burning his body to make a pleasing aroma for the Lord. Pure poetry.
I also explored fideism, the “existentialist” idea that faith is valid because it consciously avoids the trap of rationalism. The central image of fideism is of the Orthodox Russian peasant desolate in his poverty but immovable in his belief, or the American hayseed slain in the spirit and prostrated by Glory in a sweaty Kansas revival tent. The idea is that the unlettered faithful tap straight into a root of wisdom that eludes the intellectual. In this vein, I read all of Dostoevsky’s big novels and Kierkegaard’s philosophical tracts, and they all say, don’t bother with an intellectual framework for faith; there’s no such thing. The Bible also appears to say this in places, at least where it is not saying that reason and intellect are also good for belief.
No matter where I searched, I increasingly found that I had no honest answer for the questions confronting Biblical faith. In no particualr order, here are few that came knocking over the years:
- If the Bible was authored and edited by fallible men, how could it be taken as perfectly true and authoritative? The Bible says in several places that its texts are “self-sufficient,” meaning that they need no reference to other evidence or authority to prove their truth; you may simply take them as self-evidently correct. Of course, this is what you would say too if you wanted to impose a doctrine of your choice on an uninstructed audience.
- Why were there so many other kinds of believers who also thought they had exclusive access to divine truth? Did my faith not require me to deny the dignity of their beliefs, essentially dismissing them as less human than myself?
- How would Heaven avoid being an eternal horror show? I have limited faith that humans can imagine what it is like to do anything forever, let alone all that blasting of trumpets and bellowing of hosannas the Bible promises (“Oh, to be there and at peace!” Mark Twain shouts as he tries, in his own mind, to be heard against the clamor of an imagined Heaven.) Seriously, though, to survive heaven–still more to rejoice in it–would require a transformation of our consiousness that would render us inhuman and no longer ourselves.
- Is there any faith problem that magical thinking cannot fix? This last point about heaven and the perdurance of individual identity (whether the “you” that’s in heaven a million years from now is still you in any meaningful sense) really got me thinking: every time I came up against a hard problem of faith, I reflexively retreated to the idea that God can transform anything he wants to, and it does not matter whether we understand such transformations. The me that would last through all of heaven’s eternal existence would just magically be me, because I know that’s how God intends things to be.
- How closely must I identify with such a stearn and jealous God as the God of the Bible? While I was still a believer, I did not dare to think of God as cruel, even though I was deeply interested in the problem of evil (how are bad things allowed to happen in a world governed by an all-benevolent and all-powerful God?). To call God cruel, as he occasionally appeared to be, was to break a powerful taboo. But my thinking evolved on this point. If my faith was real, I told myself, I should not be constantly fighting little rearguard actions against pathetic, creeping doubts about what God really wanted or what he was really like. Whatever God willed for his creation, I should be able to affirm with full and joyous confidence.
This is what what broke my belief–my inability to identifiy with the morally odious God of the Bible. Christians are presented with mixed messages about the goodness of God. On one hand he is supposed to shine forth with benevolence so pure and radiant that it overwhelms us and inspires us to be as good as we can, given our fallen status.
On the other hand, though, God’s goodness is said to surpass all understanding; it reflects a deep cosmic mystery that we won’t be able to apprehend until we pass through Heaven’s gate. This is the side of divine goodness that is invoked to console the victims of horrific, meaningless fates such as childhood cancer or ruinous natural disasters.
I have too many objections to this concept of divine benevolence to discuss all of them in one place. The most obvious one is that believers in the Christian God cannot have it both ways: divine goodness is either intelligible or it is not. (There are philosophical ways to squeak out of this problem, but I do not find them convincing.)
The place where Christian theism comes to grief is in God’s sadistic attitude toward his human creatures, namely that we humans are created sick and commanded to be well.
Let’s imagine a very watered down version of this situation. You have a child under your care. (It may heighten the relevance of this thought experiment to think of the child as your own, but it is not necessary.) You instruct the child to love and obey you, and you may it clear that your love and affection depend on his taking this instruction seriously. It works. When his faces turns up toward yours, it shines with hope that you will love and care for him.
Now you induce sickness in the child. A mild toxin with chronic effects would do the job. It is crucial that you actually imagine yourself doing this; you must not just regard it as an abstraction.
You are, at this point, a moral monster. I would understand entirely if you stopped the thought experiment and excused yourself to go perform some restoring act of kindness for a loved one. But, to truly emulate the God of the Bible, you must take the thought experiment beyond its present Mengelean limit.
Now you command the child to be well, and you tell him repeatedly that if he really loved you, he would do so. You keep administering the poison, though. Again, it is crucial that you not regard this idea as fiction but that you try your best to imagine yourself doing it, and that you expect the fulsome, unrelenting praise of your victim, along with pitiful cries for “forgiveness.”
But this is too much to ask. A morally serious person with even a scrap of human dignity cannot imagine such sadism. The thought experiment must end here.
If I have any Christian readers (and in this most Christian land, why wouldn’t I?), they will object at this point that I have entirely missed what they mean by Christianity.
To which I respond: Of course I have. Almost all the Christians I know are decent, humane, and often reasonable people. Which means they have found ways to ignore, minimize or re-interpret the parts of the Bible that call for them to be barbaric.
Most Christians in America have also found ways to avoid the main injunctions that started their whole religion, including the one about being abundantly merciful, the one about not seeking wealth, and the one about trying to avoid war. We have not just picked at the frayed edges of Christianity: we have gutted it at its center. That we should forgive our enemies 70 times 70 times and know war no more?–give me a fucking break. And by the way, I’m packing. If you don’t fear my power to kill, you haven’t really caught the loving mood of Christian America.
So the question naturally arises, if we American Christians have found ways to change or ignore anything we don’t like about our religion’s foundational text–the big stuff and the little, the good and the bad–why do we insist on continuing to call ourselves Christians? Why do we not admit that we use utterly non-Biblical standards to make sense of the Bible and that those standards have ipso facto interpretive priority in our lives?
I would be tempted to call this puzzle a burden, but I don’t think many Christians experience it as such; it does not weigh them down. Most simply don’t care, would simply never be bothered to work out the implications of their faith.
But, as Christopher Hitchens once implored his audience in an excellent article about blowjobs, stay with me; I’m doing all the hard thinking for you. At this point in our country’s history, where we have so clearly thrown off several principles of Christianity and bent others to accommodate our love of money and killing, Christianity is much more like a silly hat than a philsophical burden, as it was for, say, Dostoevsky, or even your humble correspondent. Faith problems don’t drag us down; they adorn us with a garish spectacle of ridiculous “beliefs” which our actions robustly indicate we do not hold.
I wanted to end this essay with a heartfelt invitation to lay down your burden. You need not live a life of chronic and dissipating hypocrisy. You may be rid of a spiteful Bronze Age idol god and be glad for it. But that would miss the point. You probably already do not believe. Lay down your burden? No, there is none to lay down. But do take off that silly hat.