Firstly, I care about the truth. I care about discovering the truth for myself and spreading it to others. Both these things seem to necessitate that I try to open up dialogue. It is not a matter of my assuming that I am right—though of course we all do assume this to a certain extent, otherwise we wouldn't hold the positions that we do. Rather, I place the information I have encountered on the table and I encourage others to do the same. I will present one perspective in the hopes that others will think critically about it, consider it, and 1) if they find it to be true, accept it or 2) if they find it to be false, inform me of this and explain why. If I failed to do this I would fear that having looked at the information only through my own lens and conformation bias I would not be doing my best to discover the truth of the matter—and so I rely on the input and perspective of others.
If there are individuals who have no interest in the truth of any given matter it should not matter in the least to them what I say, as any argument that I present is appealing to people’s interest in the reality of the situation. If, on the other hand, individuals do care about the truth, it would seem that they would welcome dialogue as much as I myself do. I am of the opinion that, ceteris paribus (all other things being equal), it's to the benefit of others to be made aware of the truth. Thus if I did not make my perspective at least available, I would be doing them a disservice by denying them the opportunity to evaluate it for themselves. It is because I love others and humanity that I seek the best for them and think it essential that we all come to understand things as fully as possible. An uninformed populace is easily manipulated.
Let us consider, for a moment, what the result of public education taking on the creed “allow anyone to believe whatever they want” would be. Chaos. For one thing, it might not really even be possible to conduct such an education, as asserting anything would be providing a bias for one perspective over another. It would certainly be impossible to grade—as everyone is “entitled to their opinion.” It would also be doing a disservice and damaging students as well as the population. “You think 7 and 7 make 12? Alright, go for it.” “You think the flames from the Bunsen burner will taste like chocolate ice cream? Okay.” It would be impossible to move forward.
Secondly, in Christianity I find a number of things that I would describe as being harmful in general. Now, to a certain extent I think individuals are entitled to do things to themselves that are harmful—though I think it would be a lapse in responsibility not to make them aware that this is indeed what they are doing. On a larger scale, I find it entirely unacceptable to allow any institution to harm and exploit others either through its own ignorance or the ignorance of the general population. Whatever happened to the appeal to reason of the Enlightenment?
The Inquisition, the Crusades, the witch trials—these were all made possible by people either failing to recognize or to eliminate in the general population ignorance, superstition, and the appeal to nihilistic and dogmatic worldviews. It is because of secular movements like that of the Enlightenment that the reins of power were taken out of the hands of the insane. But even so, insane institutions have damaging influences if allowed to propagate without someone stepping up and speaking on behalf of reason. Should we not stamp out sick and destructive worldviews wherever we see them? Or at the very least, should we not inoculate the general population against such insanity? What is the benefit in maintaining ignorance? It seems to me very small if not nonexistent. What is the benefit in educating the general populace? It seems to me overwhelming. I wonder to what extent people who preach the “believe whatever and let others believe whatever” position have really thought about it and to what extent they really care about the benefit of those others. I can at least see it potentially being an excuse for avoiding conflict not because it is good to do so but because it is comfortable to do so—silence through apathy. Or laziness. 1 In response, I feel something akin to what whoever said, “The only thing necessary for evil to win is for good men to do nothing” must have felt.
Perhaps you think that others might need their beliefs. But do they really need the beliefs they espouse? And if so, does that justify to you allowing them to deceive others without being countered? If their beliefs are harmful to themselves or to others, should they not at least be given the opportunity for an alternative perspective? And should not people in general? I think in that I argue against certain perspectives, I am treating those that hold them with respect. I am taking them and their perspective seriously. It is relevant to me whether Christianity, or any number of other paradigms, is true or false. Furthermore, if Christianity is harmful and baseless, which it appears to me to be, it seems to everyone’s benefit, ceteris paribus, to be made aware of that.
There are any number of things that people like about Christianity, but I do not see those virtues as being exclusive to Christianity. Love, for example, is not a Christian value. It is a natural value. To call love Christian is to detract from love. Christian love is love minus non-Christian love. Christian peace is peace minus non-Christian peace. Christian truth is truth minus non-Christian truth. But I would argue that if one looks closely at Christianity one will find that it is as much if not more about hatred, war, and deception—not through the misinterpretation of some of its followers, but inherently.
Maybe people think that if Christianity is false it would mean that God does not exist, or there is no afterlife, or life is meaningless—but all of these are in actuality quite separate issues, both from one another and from Christianity. And wouldn't it be better for baseless beliefs to be destroyed and give way to beliefs based on reality? If you really cared about the existence of God or an afterlife or meaning or spirituality, you would never take anyone else’s word for it. You would try to seek the truth about such things directly. And if you found that what you longed for most of all was true—what joy. And if you found that what you feared most of all was true—what terrible pain. But are you not entitled to that pain? There are any number of forces in society that want to keep you complacent, and they seek to do anything that is necessary—feed you any lies or poison that they need to—in order to keep you running smoothly as a cog in their machine. But is this really to your benefit? You are worth a thousand times more to me than that. They are afraid that if you find out the truth and it is not to your liking you will rebel or give up or go crazy—but are you not entitled to this? If life really were meaningless, what would be the point in pretending? So that you could continue to function and fulfill their purposes?
People say, “But they are happy believing that.” But are they? I think it makes some people happy, but I think it makes a lot of people miserable. They say, “It gives them comfort.” But does it? How does the belief in hell make you comfortable? Or the belief in Satan? Or the belief in sin? How do those things make you comfortable? And how valuable is comfort to you, really? If you decide that you care more about comfort than truth, if you are going to believe things independently of reason and evidence, at least believe things that aren’t terrible. At least believe good things, happy things, things that enhance and sustain life. If you want to get together with some friends, smoke pot, go dancing naked through the woods (weather permitting), worship the Goddess, and sing songs of the Summerland, I say go crazy. But to the extent that your beliefs aren't based on evidence or direct experience, don’t take them too seriously. Just don’t be a jerk, I guess, is what I'm saying.
Because I'm sorry to report that it seems to me that a lot of you carry around a lot of beliefs which are largely dead weight. They're not true, and they don't make you happy. Not really happy. Not as happy as you could be. So what are you doing? A good number of you don't even really believe the things the groups you associate with espouse. Some of you just go along with it, but you have never really thought about it. Others have thought about it, but you don't know what else to do. But I am asking you to try. To really think about it. Because I don't think what you are doing is really good for you in the long run. Or for your children. You are teaching them values—but not good values. Or at least, some bad mixed in with the good. A little bit of poison to cripple them just a little bit.
If Christianity is able to gain converts solely because those converts are not aware of the issues—who does that benefit? If individuals are restricting their potential because they are told expansion is harmful—but in fact expansion is in no way harmful and is extremely beneficial—who does it benefit to allow such ignorance to remain? If people are made to feel separate from life because of sin but this separation is really just an illusion—who does it benefit to allow that illusion to continue?
So what can you do? What positive steps can you take? Well, ultimately, of course, that is something you have to decide for yourself. You are the one in your particular situation. I am not. But here is my advice, in general, for the general population that feels it needs some religious base. If you are a member of the clergy, preach as liberal a message as you can. By that, I don't mean empty, as it has often meant. I do not mean preach something wishy-washy where no one can really agree or disagree with you. Rather, I ask you to make your job about conveying the understandings of mainline biblical scholarship to the people as much as possible. Maybe you think they can't handle it, but give them some credit. Especially the young. Teach your constituents to be critical thinkers and revolutionaries. Teach them to question everything. Read excerpts from scholarly works from the pulpit to them, form study groups at your church, and encourage them to read, discuss, and share scholarly works and understandings on their own as much as possible. When you quote a passage from the Bible, explain who, to the best of our knowledge, actually wrote it, and what the context was.
Preach as universal a message as you possibly can. Preach love rather than Christian love. Preach truth rather than Christian truth. Preach justice rather than Christian justice. Place Jesus and the Bible in their actual socio-historical context. Read from and teach about other religions and secular philosophy. Set up as many interfaith activities as you can with the other religious groups in the area. Do your best to push the envelope without losing your constituents. And if they fire you, do not worry. New and better doors will open for you. And you will feel alive in ways you no longer thought were possible. Because you will be living genuinely. You have the unique opportunity to make things better from the inside out. Do it.
Fight for liberal values and get groups organized for liberal political agendas. Promote an appreciation for the scientific method and the findings of science. And get on the air, for life’s sake. Why is it that all these conservative televangelists are on the air and you are nowhere to be seen? Where are the “Deconstructing the Bible” television programs? I want to see them coming on more than these conservative Christian shows. I am looking in your direction, liberal clergy, because as far as I am concerned you are not doing your job. You know better. You are biblically literate. You know these people are liars, and you let them get away with it. Chris Hedges is an inspiration to me, and he should be to you, too. Because he is getting up and saying something. He has the courage and the mettle not to let these dominionists take over the country without a fight. And where are the rest of you when we need you most? Sulking in the shadows? What are you doing? They should be the ones sulking in the shadows. Life forbid what Hedges fears comes to pass, and another terrorist attack leads to these new fundamentalists really taking over the country. Is that what you want? Because I don’t see you doing a whole lot to stop it. Get it together.
Use your institution as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. You should be a clinic to take individuals from fundamentalism to freethought. You have your work cut out for you, but when this is done, be done with it. Don't encourage dependency. Didn't you come into existence to bring an end to sin? Then follow my example, and end sin by transcending the concept. And then be done with it. What greater purpose could you possibly serve? To unite the world in love? But you, as Christians, can never do this. Because for you to arrive at a place as a Christian, rather than as an individual, is to arrive wearing a T-shirt that says, “I am distinct from you, and what I do I do for the glory of my own, separate institution.” And this is by no means love of them.
And if you're a member of the laity, what can you do? Well, first of all, understand that just because you're born into a tradition doesn't mean you're stuck with it. You can leave. You can change your mind. If you so choose. But let's say that you like your tradition and decide you want to continue being a part of it. My advice to you is to join as liberal a congregation as you can, and show your appreciation for them with your wallet. Because people are pouring money into the pockets of fundamentalists. Liberal Christian groups need as much support as they can get, and they should receive support, if they dedicate themselves to the enunciation of truth. Put pressure on them to take an active role in politics and in opposing fundamentalism. Do you want to study the Bible? I think most of you don't, because most of you aren't really very active about doing it. But I would recommend that you do study the Bible. That you really study it. Read mainstream scholarly works concerning our present understanding of the Bible. Learn where the Bible came from. You should be able to refute someone quoting C.S. Lewis, Lee Strobel, or Josh McDowell at the drop of a hat. Very little independent research on your part should be sufficient to allow you to do this, since their arguments are all smoke and shadows. And I think that it would be beneficial for you to do this.