HTLG Chapter 4: Objections #1 and #2
OBJECTION #1: “You, as an atheist, are in no position to tell religious people about religion.”
There are several reasons someone might say this, and I think they’re all wrong. Let me run down the possibilities.
First, you might say that atheists don’t understand religious people, and therefore have as little right to say anything about religion as the pope (who is a presumably virginal male) has to advise women about sex. That would be a sensible point if the parallel were accurate. But the difference is that, while the pope has never been female or had sex, I used to be religious. If you ask anyone who was raised religious (Madonna will do) it’s obvious that the upbringing never really leaves you; you may live some other way, but you always remember how it felt. You may say I’m speaking from a weak position (that’s the next point), but it’s not like I’ve got no experience and nothing to say. Just the opposite, in fact. I can even speak the language still, though my ability to quote chapter and verse has certainly atrophied.
Second, you might say that an atheist can’t tell religious people about religion because religious people won’t listen. I think this sells religious people short, since they seem to buy all kinds of books, go to all sorts of movies, and consume all sorts of magazines containing articles that don’t represent their world view. You can watch “Friends,” hoping that Ross and Rachel get together, while at the same time wishing the show wasn’t about sex all the time. Conservative Christians do this every day, and this book shouldn’t be unduly jarring. In addition, bear in mind that I left religion—and the evangelical faith in particular—because it didn’t work for me, and it started flying to pieces around me. Surely the survivor of a car crash is, in fact, the best person possible to discuss how the crash happened! (Especially if, afterwards, they spent years like I did, researching, looking at it from all angles and trying to figure out what went wrong.) Surely even people who disagree with my driving can benefit from the point of view inside the car.
Finally, you might say that, as a non-participant, my critique isn’t even relevant. I’m like a European saying, “Those Americans should do something about their tax schedules.” It’s not technically my problem, and so even if I level the critique, who am I to say anything at all? This objection is wrong on two counts. First, of course, as a citizen of this country, I am very much affected by the beliefs of conservative religious people, every time they make it harder to teach science, or erect senseless laws that oppress homosexuals, or make it impossible to buy whiskey on Sunday. Admittedly, it could be worse—just look at the Middle East!—but it’s a definite pain in the ass, and I should be allowed to say something. Second, as an outsider to the tradition, who nevertheless has a past in, and some sympathy toward, that same tradition, I think I offer an unusually clear perspective on the morality play that the actors in the scenes are apt to miss, precisely because I can afford to be dispassionate. I can’t join the cast, but I can tell you how the show is going, and share a few ideas on why. And my critique will be all the more reliable, I think, if I’m not best friends with the director.
OBJECTION #2: “Your whole premise is flawed, since it analyzes behavior instead of exploring spiritual truth”
I hear a lot of references to “spiritual truth,” and I used to throw the term around a lot myself. Of course, it should be obvious that what “spiritual truth” means might vary from person to person, and that calling something “spiritual truth” doesn’t necessarily mean that it actually is spiritual or true. For example, the belief that the earth is 6,000 years old is not a spiritual belief by most measures (since it’s a claim about rocks, not about the nature of intangibles like grace or meaning), and it is quite demonstrably untrue. [FOOTNOTE: If by chance you want to fight me on this claim, just sit tight; we’ve got a whole chapter on science coming up.] And yet I’ve heard people state that this assertion, because it is based on a particular reading of a spiritual book (the Bible; duh), therefore qualifies as a “spiritual truth.” Since I disagree, this is a good example of why we need to define our terms. So how do we know what “spiritual truth” really is?
Most believers in most major religions—at least in the English-speaking world—have two sources of spiritual “knowledge”: what they are told (by their holy book or the nearest religious guide), and what they experience. When I was an evangelical, I believed that homosexuality was a sin because the Bible said so, not because I’d experienced it for myself, nor from witnessing any clear horrors associated with consensual sex. I also knew that if I was in an emotional or spiritual crisis and wanted to feel closer to God, this would be easier to accomplish in a Catholic church than in an evangelical one: Catholic churches tend to feel like holy ground, while evangelical churches tend to feel like office buildings. This was not something I learned from the Bible, of course; I learned it from the experience of trying to pray in both places.
If I wanted to play the materialist card now, I could probably look back and explain the logical, testable reasons that the Catholic church appealed to me more—even while I was afraid of their theology and (what seemed to me) their weird and dangerously unbiblical practices. The somber lighting; the mythic, traditional art; the urge to kneel, or to cross yourself; the candles. All of these things, in different ways, seemed to draw me out of myself and suffuse me with a sort of spiritual virtual reality: here things were old, vast, and timeless—like God himself—and you could, if you wished, get your entire body involved in humble worship. (In the evangelical tradition, we tend to close our eyes and raise up our upturned palms during particularly moving, rapturous songs, but we don’t have any similar posture that’s useful when we’re tired or sad, the way Catholics have with kneeling.)
But trying to explain it scientifically or psychologically is like breaking down love into a series of chemicals, or analyzing humor or art. I’m a lover of wordplay, and every so often I’ll be talking to someone, and they’ll say a word like “chorizo” and I’ll think, “If you add a letter, you get ‘C horizon’ and if you add one more you get ‘chorizont’” [FOOTNOTE: ‘C horizon’ is a scientific term for a particular layer of earth’s soil, and a chorizont is someone who believes the Iliad and the Odyssey were written by two separate authors. Thanks to my friend Trip Payne, who was the first person to point out this word progression to me.] and before you know it, I’ll have missed the whole point of my friend’s Mexican-lunch story. When I do that, I’m being a scientist instead of an experiencer, distracted by details instead of accepting the whole thing.
So if I’m not going to be overly analytical, I’m inclined to say that the first type of belief—reading what the Bible says—is more like actual truth as we normally think of it (facts that just are, no matter what we may think), and the second type of belief is more like spirituality—it’s mysterious, hits us below our radar, and speaks to us in ways that are difficult to express. And if the first thing is truth (broad assertion covering everyone), and the second thing is spirit (personal take on the invisible), then it starts to look like “spiritual truth” might be a contradiction in terms, like “invisible fog” or “depressive optimism.” The closer you are to one descriptor, the further you are from the other.
A third way to think of spiritual truth—and possibly the most common, though it is of course difficult to pin down—is that spiritual truth is the felt experience of the accuracy of God’s commands. This is certainly the way evangelicals generally think of the Christian journey: as a process of learning to conform yourself to God’s (i.e., the Bible’s) precepts and desires; the happy marriage of theory and practice, if you will. For example, actually forgiving someone who has wronged you makes you experience the difficult work of the Biblical call to morality, and it also changes the light by which you view the word “forgiveness” the next time you read the Bible. Your understanding of the Bible expands, and you become more willing to follow what it says, and to claim its underlying wisdom as territory you have explored. You have gained spiritual wisdom, and the content of the wisdom is spiritual truth (which in this case might be something like, “Forgiveness works, ultimately bringing you peace and happiness and a compassion for others, even if it’s difficult, and the person you’re forgiving doesn’t care”).
I mention this whole process in order to point out that the second you have this truth, and can express it in a sentence like the one above, it ceases to be spiritual and becomes an ethical teaching or a moral truth, which you can test just like you can test any other assertion: comparing it to the Golden Rule, asking other people about their experiences, applying thought experiments, and so forth. In cases like this—which I think are most of them—what is meant by “spiritual truth” turns out to mean not “truth that exists on a separate plane from our human reality” but “practical truth derived from religiously-inspired experience.” The practice or experience itself may be spiritual and impossible to quantify or rule on; but the alleged “truth” derived from it is just as susceptible to judgment as anything else human beings claim is right.
And thank goodness! Because if some lunatic claimed that his “spiritual truth” was that Chinese people have shriveled souls and they all need to be whipped thirty times before they can achieve salvation, surely no one hearing this would dream of throwing up their hands and saying, “Well, since it’s spiritual truth, I guess I can have nothing to say about it if I haven’t experienced it.” Wouldn’t you like to have some way of judging that to be wrong? In the above absurd case, we judge by looking at its theories and its effects: hatred of Chinese people is unfair, whipping people is wrong, and how could anyone possibly look at a soul and judge it “shriveled?”; therefore this can’t be a legitimate bit of wisdom. That’s all I aim to do: apply this same principle to beliefs that are more mainstream and, as a result, a little more familiar and invisible to most of us.
Note that some people—Bible-believers, mostly—would be inclined to say in response to my judgment in the previous paragraph, “You can’t just declare something wrong because it’s unfair. What if life is unfair? What if spiritual truth causes a bit of suffering? The real test of spiritual truth is not what we personally think is right, but what the Bible says.” (Conservative Catholics would say something similar, but invoke Church tradition instead of the Bible.) The moment you’ve said this, you’ve stopped talking about anything spiritual the way we normally think of it—the invisible, the numinous, the experiences we have of awe and wonder and everyday grace—and have started conflating “spiritual” with “this thing I read in this book.” I repeat: an assertion about the world or the way we should live that is made in a religious text may be true—you can test it—but it is manifestly not a “spiritual truth,” because it requires no particular spiritual sensitivity to comprehend it. But conservative religious people, whether they rely on texts or on traditions, are so accustomed to treating this text or tradition as divine that they usually aren’t aware that they’re trying to have things both ways. That’s what I’m trying to point out.
I’ll have more to say on this in a later chapter. For now, suffice it to say that “spiritual truth” either has practical consequences that I can talk about (like belief about the importance of everyone getting baptized in a particular way), or it has no possible practical consequences (like believing that God spoke to you, wordlessly and powerfully, when you were given immersion baptism, but that other people can do what they like), in which case it’s not a problem, and not what I’m talking about in this book.
One last point: the irony of the Bible-believer’s claim that the Bible is the sole judge of truth is very hard to sustain, because the Bible-believer has to also be willing to admit that they are able to tell truth from falsehood pretty accurately…and yet every conservative Christian is sectarian enough to believe that other people, throughout history, have gone pretty far astray in their Bible reading…people who probably felt just as sure as the conservative Christian does about their reading, even when—especially on subjects like The Rapture—the evangelical scriptural reading is unusually shoddy and inconsistent. If you are an evangelical, I think I only need to ask one question: are you positive that nothing you believe about how to read the Bible could possibly be wrong, when you don’t even trust your own judgment in moral matters, much less anyone else’s? If your main assurance on this matter is “spiritual”—that is, God himself has assured you of your correctness, through various “proofs” (invisible except to the eyes of faith) throughout a life of earnest pursuit of your religion—then I submit that you have no actual proof that you haven’t been fooling yourself, however much you may want to believe otherwise. You need to test the spirits, humbly. This is how you do it: by their fruits ye shall know them.