Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

What's the Point Of Doubt?

In response to my posts about the Resurrection on Easter (Part One is here; Part Two is here), A reader writes:

My first thought, as I was reading your blog was "Dave, what do you have to gain by not believing in a bodily resurrection?"

What an interesting question! And it raises a larger one: what do you gain by being skeptical at all? (I promised I'd get back to this question, and tonight I finally have.)

The short answer is "peace of mind," or perhaps "epistomological coherence." But since evangelical Christians (and other religious types, but especially evangelicals) don't even see the point of epistemological coherence (which I will define in a moment), it's worth going a step or two back to look at evangelical belief in general.

I'm going to start with a potentially irritating example: Santa Claus. So let me state upfront that, unlike some atheists I could name, I don't think a belief in God is as dumb as a belief in Santa Claus. I'm using it as an outlier example so we can all see what’s going on. Now: what do we gain by not believing in Santa Claus? Goodness knows we give up a lot. It's a pretty nice story, it's full of magic, it makes everyone feel happy (at least here in the states, where Santa Claus never actually beats naughty children), and it's got some really interesting substories (like Rudolph). He gives gifts! He's a lovely guy! Why would you want to disbelieve in him? What possible motivation could you have? Do you hate niceness or something?

If you're like most people, Santa Claus did not survive into adulthood not because you made a choice to say, "screw it; I just won't believe it because I hate happy stories!" You stopped believing because it became practically unthinkable. To believe in Santa Claus today, you'd have to almost wall off a portion of your brain and its understanding of reality and say things like, "Well, I know velocity plus air friction causes space shuttle nose cones to glow with heat, but I also know that that doesn't apply to magical reindeer." You'd walk around with two realities: one real and boring, one magical and interesting.

If these two realities were constantly clashing, it would probably be unhealthy. But of course, the reason people ever believe in Santa Claus at all is because, even for children, this secondary belief is remote and doesn't cost much: Santa only appears once a year, and only when everyone's asleep, and the rest of the time he's way off at the North Pole where no one can see him. If you were trying to tell a story to children that, say, cats will talk if you feed them corn flakes, this belief would only survive among kids who had been too lazy to ever try it, and who refused to believe the testimony of their friends who had. Santa Claus is easier to believe than that—not any more probable, since both are completely false, but healthier for the brain to cope with.

But even belief in Santa Claus gets dropped by everyone--usually unwillingly--not because the disbeliever has decided to hate niceness, but because the story literally raises too many questions to make sustainable sense. The world doesn't work that way, not because the world contains no miracles, but because this particular set of miracles makes particuarly little sense. Elves? Flying reindeer? He sees you when you’re sleeping? The implausibilities mount to an impossible level long before you get to the more advanced questions like "How does he have time to visit every single house in a single evening?" and "What about the other Santa Clauses in other lands, plus that so-called ‘helper’ from the mall?"

There are ancillary benefits that come from disbelief in Santa Claus—like the approval of one’s more sophisticated peers—but the chief benefit is that you’re seeing life as it really is, and acting according to your best possible beliefs in that reality. After all, wouldn’t we despise a kid who decided not to believe in Santa Claus, not because it was troubling her that much, but in order to be popular? Because to do it that way really is to be disloyal to the concept of Christmas joy for the sake of social climbing. How ugly that would be! So at core, what we get from doubting Santa Claus is the joy of truth, and honesty with ourselves; a more mature engagement with, and understanding, of how the world really works. If this were not so, then only total jerks would ever stop believing in Santa. But as it turns out, the only thing more important than Christmas is integrity.

Now, the two weirdest beliefs often held by evangelical Christians—and pretty much only evangelical Christians—are as follows:

a.) the earth is 6,000 years old, there was a real Adam and Eve, a real Flood, and evolution didn’t happen; and

b.) we’re all going to get Raptured into heaven, and the Antichrist will form a one-world government, and then a dozen weird plagues will strike the earth and then there’s a happy ending forever.

As you might expect, these two sets of beliefs are only sustainable by sane human beings precisely because they’re temporally remote: the creation of the world is in the relatively distant past, and the Rapture is in the unforeseeable future. They don’t affect the believer’s day-to-day life in any serious way. Both beliefs are intellectually remote as well: arguments about evolution are too abstruse to intrude on an average person’s intellect (you have to try to learn evolution; it’s not obvious without training), so creation-evolution looks like a simple he-said, she-said argument if you’re sufficiently uninformed; and the Rapture scenario, while it’s in many ways incoherent (How could there be a one-world government without people recognizing the signs of an Antichrist? And why do those particular plagues happen in that particular order? What point is there to making everyone suffer right before you save them?) is placed by its adherents, along with the Old Testament, in a kind of mentally bifurcated “Bible space” where huge miracles happen according to some completely different set of rules than we live by today. (A common term among evangelicals for this “Bible space” is that these time periods exist in different “dispensations.”) Even people who believe that huge miracles can happen today in theory don’t actually act it out in practice…which is why (as Sam Harris points out) no believer in the absolute power of God ever prays for amputees to grow their limbs back. For whatever reason, God doesn’t work that way, and even the wildest faith healers know this. Therefore they never have to test this belief in the real world; it’s safe to sort of keep on the mental back burner in case it comes in handy if the rules we live by ever drastically change.

For the reasons I’ve just outlined, most evangelical Christians are capable of holding these beliefs because, for all practical purposes, and for most Christians who believe them, from an outsider’s perspective they’re nothing more than harmless delusions. It’s when these beliefs start to have actual impact on your daily behavior—when you move to Jerusalem to train to fight the Antichrist’s army—that it starts to be very unhealthy.

But some evangelical Christians, like the kind I was, are more than usually sensitive to inconsistencies and weirdness. These people tend to shed weird beliefs sooner—and, I would bet, these are the evangelicals who are more likely to grudgingly accept evolution.

I’ll do as an example. I’d always believed that all truth is God’s truth, and that if what the Bible says is true, then it should be as obvious to unbiased observers as any other set of historical facts. We shouldn’t have to weasel out of our own Bible, the way the Mormons do when they are forced to say, “Well, when the Book of Mormon describes huge tribes of warriors in America, they were really talking about parts of South America that we haven’t explored yet, and some of the numbers may have been mistranslated so it was hundreds of warriors instead of ten thousand.” When I left evangelical Christianity, what I got out of it was the same peace of mind that a Mormon presumably feels when she stops believing that Native Americans are genetically Jewish: the peace of mind that says, “At last, I no longer have to make excuses for things that don’t actually make sense to me either. The world really is the way it seems to be, not the way some ancient prescientific book imagined it.” Until you leave, you don’t actually notice how much energy this has been taking up in your head. But particularly for a contradiction-sensitive guy like me, the removal of that unconscious strain was a huge psychic relief.

That's epistemological coherence: the ability to think about your world without straining to make incompatible parts of it fit together.

That’s what I get out of doubt in general, but that’s not why I wrote the original post. So before I get to the final answer, I should remind everyone that, as an atheist, I don’t actually believe in any of this; I wrote the original post about the Resurrection not because I personally have anything to gain, but because I think Christians who do believe in the Resurrection would gain by rethinking it.

The short answer, then, is this: What Christians would gain from not believing in the bodily Resurrection would be a model of salvation that speaks to actual human need as we feel it today, instead of a series of intellectual justifications of a literalized myth that, even if it were true, would be off the main point.

(If this is unclear, think of it this way: if Christianity were designed to meet some other kind of hunger—let’s use physical hunger as an example—then it would be sensible for Christianity to find hungry people and offer them bread, saying, “Christianity offers the bread that human beings hunger for.” That’s what they should be doing! It would be quite another thing to say (as the Bible would say if there were a written myth of this bread story), “And the most amazing thing about this bread is that it contains spiritual atoms that can’t be measured in any way!” It would be even weirder to add (as St. Paul of the Church of Bread would add), “And in fact, if there aren’t spiritual atoms inside it, then our bread is worthless!” The point of the bread is that it feeds hungry people. That’s important to remember, especially if you’re the one trying to sell it.)



Blogger Andrew M Greene said...

Your "short answer" raises a question for me. You write: "...a model of salvation that speaks to actual human need..."

What do you mean by the word "salvation" and what is the human need that it meets?

As a non-Christian, my impression has been that the Christian concept of bodily resurrection is linked, at least for many, to the concept of "salvation" being a human need.

4/10/2008 10:14 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

The evangelical model of salvation is that human beings are separated from God, and all the miseries of life--our failed attempts at happiness, our misdeeds, our wars against others and our divisions within ourselves--are symptoms of that spiritual separation. Fix that separation, be one with God, and we can be whole--both now (in theory) and in the future in heaven (for sure).

The more blunt version of this is, "We're all naturally selfish and morally impure, and since God is morally perfect, we're heading straight for the punishment of hell if something isn't done. Jesus died, and that's the way out."

So as I always understood it, Jesus's sacrifice was a way to symbolically satisfy the requirements of the Temple for all time: just as a lamb was killed every year for the Jewish nation's sins, Jesus, the Perfect Lamb, was killed for eveyone's sins for all time. (In this worldview, there's no forgiveness without the shedding of blood.)

Now technically, if this were all that Jesus came for, then he could (in theory) have simply died, just like the Temple lamb did every year, and we'd still be okay. But Jesus' resurrection afterward is an example of what Christianity adds to the concept of salvation: Christ's rebirth is a signal of the resurrection and renewal of the entire world; an end to death, to disease, to tragic accidents and misunderstandings. So not only are we forgiven by following Christ, but in being reunited with God, our lot actually improves...and potentially brings the whole world with us to a better place. (Or rather, the world is going to be reborn anyway no matter what we do; by following Jesus now, we get on the winning side while we can still choose.)

It's funny, but you've made me think yet again: it never struck me before, but according to the "sin management/avoidance of hell" model of soteriology (that's the study of salvation), there's no reason for Jesus to have come back to life--except that, as I recall, Paul saw his resurrection as a sign that he was, in fact, the chosen one of God, adopted after his death. But the death and the resurrection, I see at the moment, are actually two separate issues: the death to settle our current separation from God, and the resurrection to tell us what we can expect from the better future world that's going to come.

Thanks for making me think about this. I just jumped so easily to the idea that resurrection "answers a felt human need," I forgot that this isn't necessarily the case. It could be what Paul Tillich says: that Christianity invented its traditional take on sin in order to sell the cure. So I'm going to need to think about this some more, and possibly rephrase.

I can't resist saying one more thing, though: the atonement model of salvation (you have to bleed before God can forgive you) is not only morally offensive (and has troubled religious thinkers forever), but doesn't even make any actual sense. HOW does killing Jesus "work" to make us all potentially saved forever, and WHY does it work the way it does, and not in some other way that would be a little less weird?

This is what produces the weakest part of "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe," and it struck me even when I read it as a child. (Spoiler alert.) When Aslan comes back from being killed at the climax, the children ask the obvious question--"How did that happen?"--and Aslan says, in essence, "It's a very old, very specific, mysterious rule that the Queen didn't know about." At the very moment when an explanation would be extremely helpful, Lewis just shrugs and says, "It's magic." And after that--although it took decades for it to sink in--I always noticed that the Christian crucifixion story was a similarly unhelpful, just-believe-it mystery. And I always wished afterward, even when I was preaching it to other people, that God had made a little more sense, and that God's solution had been a little more ethically direct and logical and had employed a little less hocus pocus.

4/10/2008 11:20 AM  
Blogger Judith said...

I appreciate the clear writing from you and from most of the people who leave comments. Tell you what: I won't try to change your beliefs if you don't try to change mine, OK? Let's just say that I still believe in Santa Claus. I don't know why, but it comforts me and it's not hurting anyone that I do. But I still like to examine those beliefs and I appreciate your style of writing as you, in effect, examine them for me. (Sheesh! I'm damnably lazy!) I mean, you write clearly what I'm able only to think about.

As a product of a lazy Catholic upbringing, a teenage Catholic/Pentecostal experience, and later a 10+ year stint in an evangelical Christian church, I'm surprised I still believe in God, etc., etc. But I have come to believe that a lot of Christians are impossibly arrogant and intolerably lazy in their thinking. I attend a UCC church now and I find myself surprised that a group of people who are so set on accepting everyone are having a problem with the fact that I like to knit when I listen to the week's message. How silly is that? "No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life's road, you're welcome here. Except if you knit."

Well, people are people. Flawed and inconsistent.

Here's my real question (thanks for wading through the above drivel): You know those Christian churches that get all excited because they're going to have a "living nativity" or re-enact "the last supper?" I wonder when they're going to figure out that it didn't look one bit like the love greeting-card images they attempt to re-create. A "living nativity" would require a young woman to give birth on the spot, a re-enacted "last supper" would be a Passover seder, and none of the folks involved were pale Euro-Americans with blond hair and perfectly straight teeth. And I'm sure none of them spoke in the KJV. (Really, I'm thinking it would be hilarious to hear Jesus recite the Exodus story with a Southern accent and by ending all of his verbs with -eth.)

But, if it makes them happy, I'm all for it.

So long as they remember to share the tangible stuff (food, drink, clothing, shelter) with folks who have none.

4/11/2008 1:20 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Thanks for writing! You've correctly divined my main point: not to shipwreck people's faith, but to poke it and make sure it's helping everyone out.

Your ultimate comment reminds me that I have a similar concern but the opposite preference: I wish people wouldn't even TRY to do what they call "the original Nativity" or talk about the original Seder or whatnot. One of the main animating features of fundamentalism is that it tries to literalize myth; it pretends that their group has access to the pure truth of the past that others have let slide. In the process, it a.) reinforces sectarian thinking that builds up walls instead of tearing them down, and b.) in practice, you wind up with a bunch of WASPs informing each other about what Jews believe, which has always made me cringe.

Better by far, it seems to me, to simply admit that all religions are already tainted by their culture in a sort of ongoing conversation, and to celebrate that fluidity and that syncretism. It seems to me to be a healthier and more noble impulse to serve an Easter meal with jambalaya and lutefisk. The quest for purity has never made anyone happy without also making them nervous.

4/11/2008 6:50 AM  

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