Questions for Christians

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Questions for Christians
I grew up a Protestant preacher's kid in Bible Belt, USA. I attended a Christian school for 11 years, went to church every Sunday, studied the Bible, attended Christian conferences, and proselytized on the other side of the globe. I fell in love with God and tried to obey him enthusiastically whenever I could.
And then, confident that my faith would not waver, I unplugged myself from the Matrix to see what the world was like outside my Christian bubble. Immediately, I knew something was very, very wrong.
Christianity didn't make any sense.
While I investigate God's existence more thoroughly, I choose theism. But I do object to religion and its specific conceptions of God. Also, I do not intend to compare the worst of religion with the best of secularism, but to show the inherent problems with religion, most specifically Christianity.
I am so eager for truth that if Christians have good, rational answers to my questions, I will be quite happy to accept Christianity as truth once again. If nothing more, I wish to be less bewildered by Christianity. Christians, please help me understand you.
I have structured my questions as an imaginary dialogue with a Christian. The Christian's responses are typical but very incomplete - I wish to put as few words as possible in the mouths of my friends, and to leave it to unimaginary Christians to respond.
 
Me: It seems that religion has an inherent quality that encourages evil: it allows adherents to do insane things because they think their beliefs and actions are holy. Tens of millions of Christians believe that "God hates fags", that the USA is God's chosen nation for bringing democracy to the world by bombing it into submission, that we should not teach honry teens about safe sex, and that public policy should be written with the understanding that the world will end within 50 years. Throughout history, millions have murdered each other in the name of their god. Christians persecuted the Jews as "Christ killers" and Hitler exterminated them as his mission from Providence.
Christian: Well, those weren't true Christians.
Me: But that's just an example of the "no true Scotsman" logical fallacy, and it begs the question "What is a true Christian?" One who lives like the Christ? Then nobody I've ever seen is a true Christian, and the term means nothing. The fact remains that all these people claimed to be Christians, and did all these evil things in the name of Christianity.
Christian: Okay, but people of all worldviews do evil! Stalin, for example, was an atheist.
Me: My example evils were and are committed because of religious belief. Stalin didn't murder millions because he was an atheist - that's like saying he murdered people because he had a mustache. Nobody kills anybody for a lack of belief. Religious people do commit unspeakable evils because of their belief. All kinds of people can do evil, but religious people have an extra excuse to do evil because they believe their insanity is holy.
Christian: Well, Christians also do a lot of good because we believe it is holy. Some radicals just get confused and do evil instead.
Me: But you don't need religion to be moral - millions of secularists work for charity and live as morally as possible. Only fanaticism like religion or patriotism enables sane people to do insanely evil things in the name of righteous superiority.
Christian: Okay, but why would you be good without God's moral code?
Me: Because I want to live morally. If God didn't exist, would you seriously go around killing and stealing?
Christian: Okay, but what definition of morality is there in absence of God's law?
Me: Philosophers debate this all the time, but there are many ethical systems besides God's law. One of the most popular is utilitarianism: "Do the greatest good for the greatest number of people." Or, live by some alternate "commandments", for example: "Treat the world and its inhabitants with love, honesty, and respect" and "Live life with a sense of joy and wonder" and "Do not discriminate" and "Value the future beyond your lifespan."
And actually, any of these secular systems are better than Biblical morality. If you believe the Bible, the God of Jews and Christians is a brutal, jealous ogre. In Noah's day, he destroyed all of humanity, including innocent children and animals, because they displeased him (Genesis 7). He regularly ordered the Israelites to massacre other tribes (many books, especially Joshua), and sometimes commanded them to take slaves or rape the virgins (Numbers 31). His lengthy commandments via Moses oppressed women, abused children, and demanded death for those born homosexual (see Leviticus and Deuteronomy). He dismembered children for calling Elisha bald (2 Kings 2). He commanded Abraham to murder his own son and then called it off at the last moment, ignoring the psychological trauma to poor Isaac (Genesis 22). Another tale of Yahweh's morality depicts Lot giving his daughters to be gangraped in place of his male guests (Genesis 19), and later a Jewish priest does the same thing (Judges 19). And just to test poor Job, he took away all his posesssions, made him sick, and killed his innocent family, only to give it all back (except for his family, of course). Thank goodness we've outgrown the morality of such a jealous, perverse, brutal, discriminatory God!
Christian: Well, but that's the Old Testament. Most theologians believe those stories are symbolic anyway.
Me: But most Christians take them literally. And symbolic or not, Christians still claim to base their morality off this terrible God and the Bible! Now, you seem awfully quick to disown 80% of your "sacred, inerrant Scripture", and I'll admit the great moral innovations of Jesus are refreshing compared to the Old Testament brute, but even New Testament morality is appalling at times. The doctrine of the "atonement" is basically a replay of the child abuse of Abraham's sacrificing Isaac, but on a cosmic scale. Jesus was great to sacrifice himself for others, but it's still sick of God to demand torture and death because each human child is helplessly born with the "original sin" of his or her very distant ancestors.
And under the "New Covenant", God condemns everyone to hell who doesn't believe in Jesus! What about entire civilizations who come and go without ever hearing about Jesus?
Christian: Well, everyone can see that God exists just by looking at nature.
Me: And most civilizations have inferred gods from nature; but none of them inferred Yahweh from nature, or especially Jesus and atonement theology. They all went to hell without a chance, apparently.
And what about all the innocent children who die? Why does God let people be born with severe retardation so that they can never choose Jesus?
Christian: Well, yes, it's hard for us to understand God because we have finite minds and God is infinite. His ways are mysterious.
Me: This is special pleading. You can always say that God's bumbling or hidden or evil ways are a secret and wise plan beyond our ability to comprehend. But there is no evidence for this independent of your own faith, which only begs the question. And if God's ways are so mysterious, how do you know he's not actually the Flying Spaghetti Monster, tricking you into thinking he's Yahweh, tricking another billion people into thinking he's Allah, and tricking others into thinking he's Zeus? Moreover, claiming that God's thoughts are beyond your own understanding undermines your own position, since you claim to know a great deal about what God thinks and wants.
Christian: Well, you just have to have faith.
Me: That is one of many terrible doctrines taught by religions to keep their adherents loyal in the face of evidence and reason. Dogmatic faith in something for which no evidence exists is somehow better than faith in something for which a mountain of evidence exists. Thus, Jesus' virgin birth, Trinity doctrine, and 6-day creation are "more true" than highly-evidenced evolution, an ancient earth, basic sexual biology, etc. (However, if science ever agrees with Christian doctrine, Christians trumpet it immediately.)
This is an appeal to authority (the pope, the Bible, etc.) rather than an appeal to evidence and reason. A central problem with an appeal to authority is that it is not clear why one should prefer one authority over another: the Old Testament or the New Testament or the Qur'an or the Vedas or the writings of L. Ron Hubbard.
Christian: Well, I know the Bible is the ultimate authority on reality because of my personal encounter with Jesus.
Me: Millions of people have false visions so convincing they are sure they're real. Usually we call it insanity. If too many people have the same kind of vision, we call it religion. The brain is a powerful simulator, especially adept at falsely recognizing faces and voices and persons in inanimate objects. In fact, even mass hallucinations are possible. In 1917, 70,000 people in Portugal reported that "the sun seemed to tear itself from the heavens and come crashing down upon the horrified multitude", and yet the sun still floats in space and has not burned up the earth yet.
If you believe your own miraculous experience, why do you disbelieve the millions of contradictory experiences others have had with Allah, ghosts, non-Christian mystical forces, etc.? Are you so arrogant as to believe you are more discerning than these millions; that your unrepeateable, unevidenced vision or warm feeling or intuitions are correct and they are all deluded?
One of the things that always bothered my about being a Christian was that I had to be so double-minded like this. Another example: Christians believe in impossible magic (virgin birth, walking on water, fitting 500,000 species or more on a 450-foot boat, a man living inside a whale, etc.) and a logically impossible God (how can God be omnipotent? Can he create a rock so big he can't lift it? Etc.). Christians allow Yahweh to perform miracles and be logically impossible, but deny all miracles attributed to other gods (even if they are better-evidenced) and point out how other gods are rationally impossible. Christians use reason when evaluating physics and history and politics and every other aspect of life, but not when it comes to Yahweh. Why should one believe in Yahweh and not, say, unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? These are all unevidenced and unfalsifiable.
Indeed, I wonder if Christians even believe the things they claim. They mourn when people die instead of rejoice for their entrance into heaven. They feel it necessary to constantly reinforce their faith by reciting doctrine, singing doctrine, and listening to doctrine in Christian music throughout the day. That strikes me as awfully insecure, not faithful. I have such faith in gravity - because of the overwhelming evidence for it - that I never need to sing "Whatever comes up, I do believe, must come down!" Christians don't seem so sure about their God and his attributes, and for good reason.
Christian: Well, I'm no professional apologist. I just have faith.
Me: And that is the most terrifying doctrine of religion yet! You would really base all of your decisions on something for which you have no evidence, and without investigating it? If so, then you are just as vulnerable to life-long delusion as the child born into an extremist Islamic family or a primitive tribe in Papua New Guinea; doomed to live under whatever silly superstition your parents were born into! This willfull ignorance is so sad, so unnecessary in an age of unprecedented access to knowledge and debate. The truth is at your fingertips, waiting to be accessed. If you seek the truth and find justification for your Christian faith, then great! But don't condemn yourself to blind ignorance like the child of the primitive tribesman!
Christian: But lots of really smart people are Christians. How do you explain them?
Me: Some of them are Christians because the idea that the Creator of the universe personally loves you is irresistable. At least one prominent Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, gives exactly that reason. Also, some have argued that there are deep psychological and Darwinian reasons that humans almost always manufacture gods. It may be difficult, even for the smartest of men, to overcome this unless certain events or circumstances present themselves.
Christian: Well, but how can life have any meaning without a loving God? What hope do we have if we're here by accident, and when we're dead there is nothing? Why go on living?
Me: I understand your fear. When I began to call into question my own faith, I was terrified and depressed. Free-thinking has a cost, especially in religious countries. My family quietly weeps and my friends distance me. I may yet lose the only love of my life - and that thought hurts most of all. Maybe I'm not brave enough to lose her.
But happiness awaits. Millions of secularists report deep fulfillment. The human purpose in secularism is perhaps less romantic than the epic Christian tale of eternal love and redemption and everlasting joy in heaven (if you can ignore all the contradiction and absuridity and evil in this story and this God). But I will not live for empty wishful thinking. I choose the red pill.
The secular worldview does offer participation in another kind of epic tale: the progress of humanity from dumb brute to rational organizer to passionate artist to compassionate moralist to... who knows? We are progressing beyond ugly religious morality and silly religious superstition. One day we can conquer prejudice and poverty, and perhaps even death. Until then, life is a precious gift each day rather than a suffering delay on my way to an idle paradise, and I am more productive knowing that I own my life and make it what it is. The universe achieves greater splendor as we comprehend it more, and it is most magical of all to suppose that it could have produced us without magic.

Wow. After all the discussions I've had with you about religion, I never thought you'd end up here. At the same time, might I say that your newfound secularism has inspired a very intriguing and eloquent post. I can't promise I will express my thoughts as well as you have, but I'll give it my best shot.

I do think there is room for a good amount of faith in this rational-thought-based world of ours, if not faith that can lead one to the levels of certainty that you have expressed in the past. I feel that one of the truths of this universe is that we'll never prove the existence (or non-existence) of any supernatural powers that control it with any level of certainty, so it's inappopriate to be sure enough in one's faith to go out and kill/condemn in the name of one's religion. But that certainly doesn't mean there's no place for belief in this world. It must be difficult for someone who was always taught Christianity as objective truth to be overcome by all the holes and contradictions, but keep an open mind about any worldview you have and I think it all becomes less confusing and frustrating.

I have a Jewish friend who once called her mother a "Jew of convenience" in that she would ignore half the rules of the Bible and then look down on other Jews for not following the half that she followed. I actually think that, while some may be less judgemental, the vast majority of religious people use a similar practice. Few people can do everything, so most people take the parts of religions they like and discard those they find inconvenient to their worldview or lifestyle. I actually don't think there is any problem with this practice if you're picking the right parts and not judging others for the parts they pick; I do find it unfortunate when the chosen parts inspire Christians to, say, refer to Hurricane Katrina as God's revenge on homosexuals.

Furthermore, I think I can say with confidence that I have never seen Christianity inspire you to do evil, and I would be surprised if it ever has, but if your main point in bringing all that up was more about your desire to dissociate yourself with the bad people who have been inspired by your religion, then your point is taken.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, your devotion to Christianity in the past would have been awe-inspiring to any Christian. And now, if there are aspects of Christianity you still want in your life, you don't have to give those up. Ignore all implications you've accepted in the past, such as the belief that He wrote the Bible or the belief in any afterlife, and tell me, do you still believe Yahweh exists? How about Jesus?

If the answers to those questions is still no, then I wish you the best of luck in getting your loved ones to accept your secularism.

By the way, let me know if you want any help rebuilding your music collection. Seriously, dude.

I would not call myself a secularist. I'm on a quest to find the truth as best as possible, a quest that will involve the study of philosophy, science, and theology for a decade or more. During this time, I am living with doubt. I would probably call myself a "theist" because I want to believe in God, but I'm asking all the hard questions.

I can think of a million occasions where Christianity inspired me to do evil, from gay-bashing, Jew-bashing, atheist-bashing, Muslim-bashing, etc. I would say I didn't do worse because I am, like most people, steeped in modern secular morality, which overcame Christian teaching and the often questionable morality of Yahweh.

Jesus remains among the most impressive moral innovators ever, and worth imitating.

Because I know mostly Christians, the most loving and beautiful people I know are Christians. And the smartest people I know of attest to a variety of worldviews. I am no longer so naive as to think Christians have a monopoly on correct thinking, and I don't think any worldview does.

Thanks for the music offer. I think I'll be fine. A nice product of my drastic choice was that I don't need music anymore, but I can still love it.

Gotcha. Sorry for jumping to the conclusion that you've taken up secularism; I shouldn't have assumed it based on your post. I wish you the best of luck in your quest for truth. And by the way, I agree completely with your third and fourth paragraphs.

If you change your mind about the music, don't hesitate to ask. I'm sure I can scrounge around for plenty of music you love.