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More On Truth: Pontius Pilate’s Age-Old Question

Every heard of Pontius Pilate?

If you’re a history buff, you likely have. If you were raised in any sect of Christianity or studied the religion even briefly, you DEFINITELY have.

For those of you who are neither, poor old P-dawg was the unlucky guy reportedly responsible for the authorization of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The book of John in the New Testament relates the conversation that took place between Jesus and Pilate, in which Jesus explains that he “came into the world to testify to truth,” and claims that “everyone on the side of truth listens to [him].”

These assertions prompt Pilate to shake his head resignedly (as I imagine it) and ask his famous question: “What is truth?”

As I suggested in my previous post, while I do think ultimate, objective truth exists, I do not think human beings are completely capable of detecting it. But it is a question we have been driven to ask since the beginning of recorded history. And a really weird question, when you really think about it.

Anyway, I wish Pilate would have had the chance to read Professor Eric Steinhart on this topic. I referenced his article at the end of my last post, before I’d had the chance to read it, and now that I have, I must recommend it again. He talks about Truth, and what it is, expertly and thoroughly, but in a way that is understandable even for a layperson like me.

Is there a greater food for thought than the question of truth!?!?

I get goose-bumps just thinking about it…

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Truth Is Not My God

I just read a great interview with Dr. Daniel Fincke, Doctor of Philosophy at Fordham University in New York State, over at the blog Anything But Theist. Both interviewer and interviewee consider themselves atheist, but, as is always the case with any two individuals, each holds his own unique combination of perspectives when it comes to the details.

The question they were addressing in the interview was the value of truth. As Dr. Fincke asked it, “Just how much should we prioritize truth over other goods?”

I have to admit this question stopped me in my tracks.

Even as a Christian I valued truth above all else. As a child and young adult I equated God and my particular perspective on him with Truth. My God was the most valuable thing. My God WAS truth. Truth was by far above and beyond the most valuable.

When I came to the realization that my religion did not have a corner on truth, in fact diametrically opposed so much of what was objectively and verifiably true about reality, I stripped Truth of its Christian paraphernalia and kept it alone – naked, purer, bigger, grander than any religion – as my God.

It wasn’t until reading the interview just now that I questioned that unconscious choice of value (though in reality, I haven’t practiced it).

While much of the atheist/agnostic literature I have read over the past couple of years has urged free-thinkers to proclaim objective truth to the masses of believers, I have never felt comfortable with that. Ironically, I have experienced the same sort of guilt over my failure as an atheist “evangelist” that I did over my failure as a Christian one.

In my experience, the people of faith that I know and love are living very good, productive, happy lives…in certain ways more so than my agnostic friends. And while I don’t believe that they are living from the most accurate understanding of reality, I have rarely felt the need to challenge their perspectives (except on certain topics related to sexual ethics).

And I guess that is because I am a pragmatist at heart. I ask myself, “What works?” and then I go with that. What actually, in practice, helps create the best possible world? It takes some trial and error, but I think this is the most functional M.O.

Theories about the way things should be and how they should work are great, but if, when you apply them, they don’t, then what is the point?

My friends and family are intelligent people. They have thought about what they believe. And they still believe those things. Just as I can only believe what my life experience has lead me to believe, so it is with them. And their lives have not yet led them to a place in which they can look objectively at Christianity. And there is nothing I can do about it.

And if I am going to promote peace and love between us (which I believe promotes peace and love and health and happiness on a global scale, ultimately), it is not going to be by trying to shove my rationalism down their throats.

So yeah. I guess I’m going to have to remove truth from slot number one on my list of values, and slide it into second place underneath human health and happiness (which is really the way it has been in practice all along).

I’m also going to be done feeling guilty about it.

And I’m also going to thank Dr. Fincke for freeing me up to not feel guilty.

It is very rare and very refreshing to hear an atheist acknowledge that atheism can become a dogmatic system of thought just as much as any religion. As he and Nietzsche, whom he frequently references, point out, no human being, regardless of philosophy or commitment to objectivity, can be completely objective. We are subjective, feeling creatures. We are swayed by our emotions and personal experiences.

As my very wise dad often reminded us kids growing up, “The mind justifies what the heart chooses,” and that works both ways, in every direction.

None of us are free from bias. Ever.

And if that is the case, maybe there IS no such thing as ultimate, objective truth, since we – the only conscious beings in existence able to consider the concept – will never be able, completely, to detect it.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t try. But maybe we just shouldn’t get too hung up on it either.

And I think that’s what Dr. Fincke, a man infinitely more educated in these matters than I, was saying also. (My apologies if I’m wrong about that, Dr.)

Just FYI – Dr. Fincke blogs regularly over at Cammels With Hammers. I highly recommend you check it out. He has some really great things to say.

In fact, I’m planning on next reading a short guest post there by Eric Steiner entitled, “Do Atheists Worship Truth?”  and I think you should too. From my quick perusal earlier, it promises to be  meaty.

Why I Am Not A Christian (Part IV)

7.) NO ANSWER IS BETTER THAN A BAD ANSWER.

It is true that there is SO much we don’t yet (and may never) know about how the world works, how life got started, who Jesus actually was and how the events surrounding his life (assuming he was a real person) actually played out (and for that matter, what actually went down in most of human history). There is so much that we just can’t explain based on what we currently know, especially when it comes to events (whether biological or sociological) that happened in the very distant past.

And that doesn’t sit well with us.

We humans have this beautiful and obsessive need to understand things. (Perhaps engrained in us by evolution, that we may better predict and prepare for future events and thereby promote our survival…?)

And this need has driven us historically, in the absence of clear, observable explanations, to make up explanations. Weather patterns, reproduction, disease, and so many more natural phenomena we observe have been attributed to the intervention of a god or gods. But as time has marched on and human understanding has increased (in large part due to the development and application of the scientific process) more and more of these phenomena have been moved from the supernatural “shelf” to the natural one.

Today we know that the movement of the stars across the sky is the result of planetary orbit and has nothing to do with any sort of drama being played out by divine beings. We know that earthquakes happen because of shifts in tectonic plates caused by temperature differences between the earth’s core and crust and the resultant convection of molten rock, and not because any god is angry with us. We know that babies are made when a sperm fertilizes an egg, and that children often inherit the diseases of their parents as the result of the random sorting of DNA during meiosis and the uniting of randomly selected gametes, and not because of a family curse.

At one time, these phenomena were completely mysterious and the causes anyone’s guess. Today they are not.

Today, there are other questions that stump us. How could the first protein have been made if it takes a protein to make a protein? How could multi-part molecular systems that work so intricately and elegantly have happened accidentally? How come a few rare people recover miraculously and unexpectedly from terminal illnesses? Why do certain equally rare people have visions and insights and skills that are far above and beyond what most of us ever experience?

And the list goes on.

And just as human beings have done in the past when life is mysterious and unexplainable, many of us are tempted to say, “This is evidence of God. There is no way this could happen without the intervention of a supernatural force.”

It’s the whole “God of the gaps” idea. And the problem with it is that the gaps keep shrinking, even disappearing, or at least moving to a more theoretical, distant level.

Educated, thinking Christians (and theists in general) may say that in all of our explaining, we’ve really explained nothing. Genetics may be the mechanism of transmission of traits and disease, gravity and inertia may underlie movements of the stars and planets, etc, but God is behind all of that. He created genetics and the laws of physics and set it all in motion. He may not be individually manipulating in real time the sorting and recombination of chromosomes that create each individual person, but he put the materials and systems in place that would eventually lead to the genetic combinations that would make you and me.

At this point in time, with the now overwhelming body of evidence in support of evolution and an old earth, many Christians have had to apply this same reasoning to the development of life, positing that while evolution may be the mechanism God used, he was the ultimate cause and mastermind – the one who laid the groundwork and wound the clock and knew from the beginning of time how and when bacteria and cuttlefish and giraffes and humans would come to be.

And for the sake of this argument, I can concede that. There could be that kind of God behind it all.

Of course, if that is the kind of God you’re going to believe in, there are significant chunks of the Bible you can’t accept as literal. And other parts you can’t accept at all.

At the end of the day, a “god of the gaps” is pretty much useless. For me, the current absence of scientific answers is not reason enough to believe in a god that brings with him so much baggage and cognitive dissonance. It is possible there may be something “supernatural” (i.e. forces we cannot see or detect) at work in the world, but I’m certain (for reasons addressed in earlier posts) that it’s not the Christian God.

From my point of view, it’s much better to leave the question blank and keep searching for a good answer, than to accept a bad one for the sake of immediate gratification.

And this idea of having no answer brings me to my last point…

8.) GOD AS A “FIRST CAUSE” IS NOT NECESSARY.

If you are a Christian, this idea might be one of the most difficult to wrap your mind around. It was for me.

I’d lived all of my conscious life with the assumption that SOMETHING was behind all of this crazy amazing-ness we call reality. Even if we could figure out how it all happened, no amount of time or scientific observation could ever help us figure out why, and in my mind there HAD to be a why, or, as philosophers and theoretical physicists call it, a “first cause.”

And this assumption is held by Christians and theists of all kinds, and probably most people who have lived. Everything we experience in life has a cause behind it, so we conclude that the universe must also. It makes sense to us on a gut level.

We just feel that there must be a reason for the existence of the universe, especially a universe that is so vast and intricate and amazing and incomprehensible. And for Christians, that reason is God.

But here’s the thing. If God is the reason behind the universe, he must be even more vast and intricate and amazing and incomprehensible. So, if we stick with our thinking, there must be a reason or cause behind him, too, ad infinitum.

At some point, you must accept that something just IS. That he/she/it exists without cause.

And I realized that it makes much more sense to accept the universe as the self-existent Thing than it does to push the problem back one layer onto a concept (God) for which we have no objective evidence and which conflicts with observed reality on so many levels.

Now that I see things this way, I can hardly remember what it was like to think otherwise, kinda like looking at a Rubin vase sort of picture. But I tell you, it was a huge leap for me to make at the time…

…perhaps the hugest of them all. (I will have to dedicate a post in the near future to address this, I think.)

But for now, I need to wrap things up.

CONCLUSION

While I continue to value many of the teachings of Jesus, I am not a Christian in the traditional sense. And never will be one again, most likely.

And I promise you it’s not because I don’t want to be.

Life is freaking hard and painful and unfair and overwhelming. And it was comforting beyond words to believe that all the pain and grief of life was somehow going to be made right one day, was somehow going to be worth it.

To be certain that good would inevitably triumph over evil…

To know that when Mom died, when Dad died, when my sisters and brother died, that they would not be gone…that I would be reunited with them forever in a place of perfect peace and joy…

To trust that abused and starving children would be greeted with love and nurturing and warmth and home when they passed on…

To believe that one day I would have a perfect body that would never get sick, never be in pain, never get old or wear out…

To always have someone to talk to when I was feeling alone and confused…

It made life more tolerable, and less overwhelming, and easier to keep living on certain levels, and it was a loss, I can assure you, to have this life-long foundation dissolve underneath me, along with the free, open, honest and vulnerable relationships I’d always been able to share with my parents up until this point.

There is still a lot of love between us all, but now there is pain, too. Now there is awkwardness. Now there are walls.

I would give anything to have family be the way it was when I was still a Christian. Family was my thing. It was my happy thought; my reason to get up in the morning. It was what I most valued. It still is. And I hope that someday everything will be okay somehow, but I don’t know that it will.

The point is, my life would be a lot easier and a lot happier in a lot of ways if I could believe again.

But the funny thing about belief is that you can’t fake it.

People always talk about Pascal’s wager as if it’s really an option. But I don’t get that at all. If you are just believing perfunctorily, God’s gonna know it. Saying you believe does not make you a believer.

Either you believe or you don’t. And you can’t control whether or not you do.

You can control the information you take into your mind, to a certain degree. And that is what happened to me. I quit controlling what I let in. In my search for truth (which I was initially convinced would lead me back to God and a deeper understanding of him) I opened the doors of my mind wide.

And a flood of new information rushed in.

And unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you see things), learning is irreversible. I can’t un-know things that I now know (unless I suffer a traumatic brain injury or we invent the neuralizer Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones had so much fun with in Men in Black.)

And these things I have learned in my recent history, that I didn’t know before, are many. While I have given a brief overview of basic, foundational reasons I no longer believe in the Christian God, there are many, many more details and facts logged away in my mind that have lead me to this conclusion…

And it is those same facts that have helped me form the framework of the wonderful and beautiful new things I DO believe.

Someday soon I will share them.

Why I Am Not A Christian (Part III)

6.) TIMELY INCIDENTS AND “MIRACULOUS” OCCURRANCES HAPPEN RANDOMLY.

I was talking to a Christian friend lately who, while explaining her faith, mentioned particular incidents in her life that she holds onto as touchstones of her belief in God. There have been multiple instances in which she has found herself in dire financial circumstances, wondering how she was going to keep living, when, for example, a check would arrive in the mail unexpectedly.

One time it was from a friend who had gotten wind of a possible need. Another time it came from an old employer finally balancing the books. Sometimes the amount of unexpected money would closely match the need or just barely cover the upcoming bill. Of course my friend turned to God in those times of desperation, and saw those met needs as answers to prayer, divine interventions.

I have another friend who is a pastor. He is an amazing man who lives with deep conviction and passion, and I respect him deeply. In our talks about life and faith, he has shared similar stories of answered prayer in his personal life. When his wife gave birth to their third child there were serious complications and a major nerve in the baby boy’s arm was damaged. The doctors were not sure he would ever be able to move/use his arm again, which as you can imagine was devastating news for his parents to receive.

My friend remembers standing outside the neonatal intensive care unit window, watching his baby boy lying in one of those, cold, clear, plastic hospital bassinettes, praying and praying and praying for him to move his arm. And he remembers the moment when he did, and the overwhelming sense of joy and faith and sacredness he experienced. And the deep knowing with which he knew that the Lord was there watching over him. And that conviction has stayed with him, and been reinforced by other such experiences. And it has held him through many, many other trials and tribulations that have not ended up as he would have wished.

And in a way this faith that my friends hold, faith that those good things are direct and personal gifts from a personal God, is a beautiful thing. It helps them acknowledge that they are gifts…that things could have turned out differently…that they are things to be vastly grateful for. It testifies to the humility that each of these friends possesses – a humility that admits our limitedness and the inevitable suffering involved in living, and chooses to accept whatever comes as the will of God.

At the same time, however, there is a dark side to this faith.

What do you say to people whose prayers are not answered, whose needs are not met?

I’m sure that as my pastor friend stood in the NIC unit, praying for his son’s arm, thousands of people around the world were standing over their children praying for their children’s limbs, and even their lives, whose prayers were not answered. Why would God choose to heal one man’s son, but not spare the life of another man’s, who prayed equally as humbly and fervently?

And then there is the fact that other friends with no faith, or an entirely different faith, have had almost identical experiences with financial provision and unexpected healing.

A dear friend of mine and her significant other, who I would describe as spiritual but not religious, lost almost everything they had in a business-venture-turned-swindle. There was one month when they weren’t sure they were going to be able to make rent and, lo and behold, some money came in, just in the nick of time, from some old side business account, that just covered it.

The reality is that coincidences happen all the time.

Sometimes I will randomly start singing a song that I haven’t heard in ages, and get in the car and flip on the radio and the same song is playing. Sometimes I will learn a new word or fact in the morning, and then it will come up in conversation in a completely unrelated setting later in the day. Multiple times I have been in airports on the other side of the globe and run into an acquaintances from my tiny little hometown in rural Washington.

We live in a world in which trillions of events are happening at every instant. Sometimes, by pure random chance, those events line up in a way that seems to us, from our minute individual points of view, to show a sort of cause and effect pattern. But that doesn’t mean there actually IS one.

If we could see the grand scheme of things, I’m pretty sure we’d find that most of what happens to us is entirely random, or the product of detectable forces. And the reason I think so is that, the broader and bigger my range of view has become, the more and more random everything is appearing to be.

I have done a lot of reading and a lot of web surfing in my pursuit of truth over the past couple of years, and I have been privy to stories of miraculous healings and spiritual transformations from Buddhist yogis and Muslim imams and Christians of all ilks and eras.

It is true that I haven’t come across too many from atheists or agnostics, and that could be for a couple of different reasons (Either they don’t acknowledge events as supernatural and therefore don’t go out of their way to share them as testimonies of a higher power at work, OR there is actually a higher frequency of these events occurring among spiritualists as a result of the positive physical side effects of meditation, faith, etc. as documented by science on numerous occasions.) but whatever they are, it is clear that they do not happen at higher rates among one group (not to mention the fact that they have never been reproduced under controlled, experimental, verifiable conditions).

Christians will say that that doesn’t mean anything, because God has a plan and purpose for each of us that does not necessarily involve everything being peaches and cream all the time. They say he allows suffering in our lives in order to teach and guide us and accomplish his good and perfect will in our lives. And (though that assertion raises countless other questions and problems related to God’s character) it may very well be the case.

But if it is the case, then you can’t use any supposed act of God in your life as evidence for him. Because as far as we can see from where we are, it is all random. There is no method to the madness if God’s intervention in our lives has nothing to do with our behavior toward him.

You can’t say you know God is real because one time this good thing happened in your life and another time a bad thing happened and another time a good thing happened. Because the atheist down the road could say exactly the opposite for the same reason.

If God is there and wants us to see and know him through his action in our lives as the Bible suggests and most Christians believe, there would have to be some sort of pattern. We would need to see all those people surrendering in earnest prayer and asking for healing, healed. We would need to see all needs submitted to him met. And as it is, we do not see that.

As it is, God always gets the benefit of the doubt. If the healing happens we say, “Praise the Lord, God healed him.” If it doesn’t we say, “Praise the Lord, God is using this trial in his life to teach and mold him and draw him into closer relationship.”

That is not reasonable. That is assuming a conclusion (God is there and intervenes in our lives) and then interpreting the evidence to fit it, no matter what.

Let me be clear here. I am not denying the occurrence of fortuitous events in our lives that can have profound meaning for us and even change the course of things. I am not ruling out the possibility that there are unseen forces at work that can influence what happens in our physical, mental, and social reality. Unexpected and even “miraculous” events do seem to happen, especially in dire circumstances. The world, in spite of science and human exploration, is still full of mystery, and there could be a whole world underlying this one that is presently invisible to us.

All I’m saying is that, based on the lack of any clear patterns in frequency and distribution of these events, it seems most likely that there is not a loving, intervening, omnipotent, intelligent Good Will behind them. It seems most likely that life happenings appear random because they actually are random.

Why I Am Not A Christian (Part II)

5.) THE WAY NATURE WORKS DOES NOT SUGGEST THAT A GOOD, PERFECT, LOVING CREATOR IS BEHIND IT ALL.

One fact that many Christians will offer in support of their beliefs (one that I relied on myself, for many years) is the beauty, majesty, intricacy, and phenomenal complexity of the natural world, and biological life in particular. There is a verse in the book of Romans that is often quoted in conjunction with this idea. It says that God’s, “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20 English Standard Version).

Now, I will concede the first statement. The world IS beautiful, majestic, intricate and MIND-BOGGLINGLY complex. However, it is also cold, harsh, bloody, unfeeling. In the biological world, it is rarely love and kindness and generosity that are rewarded, but rather brute strength and selfishness.

There is so much waste and brutality, and not just incidentally, but intrinsically. So much of what we consider beautiful and inspiring and precious in nature – birth, growth, development, nurturing – would never exist without predation, parasitism, pain, death.

People may suggest that the harshness of nature is a result of the fall, that it wasn’t always the way it is now and someday God will restore it to the way it was meant to be. But if that is the case, the world before the fall must have been an entirely separate reality from this one. If the lion were to “lay down with the lamb” as the Bible says will happen when all is set right again, the lion would starve. Lions are carnivores. Their teeth, their musculo-skeletal systems, their digestive tracts, their biochemistry require them to eat a diet of meat. And that requires the death of other beautiful, sentient beings.

What exists now must be fairly close to what God (if he did indeed create it) intended it to be, as there is no way to extract the death and pain and still have the same beautiful reality. And if it is a revelation of the character of God as the Bible posits, it paints a pretty grim picture.