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Placing Value on Life:

 Case in Point—The Never-ending Abortion Issue

 

     Abortion is one of the most troubling and hotly debated issues of our time. Weighing the social value of life is at the heart of the abortion issue. It remains a permanent fixture of our social landscape because of its unending cultural conflict created by values, politics, and science. The reason for this is that abortion is so intimately intertwined with the social definition of life. Yet, despite the fact many people believe life begins at conception, it is ironic that all life itself is not universally valued. The one underlying universal in all this seems to be that social context (value judgments rendered in different social situations) dictates the relative value placed on life.

Why isn’t life universally valued? Because it all depends upon the differing social contexts related to life itself. Even those who view life as beginning at conception think contextually. This occurs when the life of the mother is at stake, or conception is due to rape or incest. Even with abortion, there is no unconditional universal value placed on all life.

The Value of Life in Different Social Settings

Many issues today have to do with the value that is placed on life in different social settings. Life issues include: abortion, the death penalty, suicide and the right-to-die among the terminally ill, slaughtering animal species so humans can eat and using animals in medical research, stem cell research with human embryos, and killing of enemy combatants during wartime. Lastly, there is murder. In 2010, there were 12,996  murders in the United States.

It is important to know that the value placed on life has always been dictated by social context. That is, conservatives overwhelmingly tend to support the death penalty and willingness for the state to take a human life, yet form the major support group against abortion. Liberals tend to support a ban or moratorium on the death penalty, yet often do not have a problem terminating the life of the unborn. Liberals tend to accept the right to die claims of the terminally ill, and conservatives and the Catholic Church generally see it as wrong or sinful. Both liberals and conservatives buy meat or fish at their local corner grocery store and both have no problem terminating life in the animal kingdom. Both liberals and conservatives serving in a war zone are, if necessary, willing to take the life of an enemy combatant. Even John Q. Citizen will take life in dire situations to protect family members or oneself when threatened.

Any one of the above issues can be explored in more detail as it relates to valuing life. But let’s get back to abortion and social context.

 The Issue

The crux of the abortion issue seems to come down to two opposing sides. They include, “a woman’s right to choose” fostered by liberals and woman’s groups, versus “a right to life” fostered by conservatives and Right-to-Life groups. One of the long-standing groups against abortion has been the Catholic Church. However, many Catholics worldwide, and others, want to overturn the Catholic Church’s long-standing ban on abortion. Abortion nevertheless violates one of the Church’s basic tenets—belief in the sanctity of life. This long-standing stance of the Catholic Church is an appeal to faith, particularly faith in the righteousness of the Church’s position taken.

Regardless of what side one politically comes down on regarding abortion , Right-to-Life groups do have scientific support with their definition of life. And, the best definition of life is a scientific one. That scientific support is more about what constitutes a “life form” than it is as to the precise moment life occurs.   The biological definition of a “life form” is very consistent with the social definition of human life as espoused by Right-to-Life groups.

In the 1940s and 1950s a common social definition of life was life begins at conception. According to scientists six characteristics define what a “life form” is. Not everyone agrees on a social definition of life but there are generally accepted biological manifestations that life exhibits the following phenomena: Organization, Metabolism, Growth, Adaptation, Response to Stimuli, and Reproduction. All six characteristics are required for a population to be considered a life form. Fetuses, in the earliest of their development, manifest all six characteristics.

So why is there such social conflict over the issue of abortion? If biologists have given us a definition of life that is correct, then why is our social definition of life since the 1940s and 1950s so out of whack now? The answer appears to be political, not scientific or data-driven. It’s all about changing social underlying values that often masquerade in political debates as objective argumentation.

The Politics of Abortion

     One of the very strongest forces that contextualizes abortion and other issues where the value of life is concerned, is politics. At the heart of all politics is value judgment. A Women’s right to choose is more than a slogan. Feminists and abortion rights groups reject any political proposals that would seek to protect the unborn. Right-to-Life groups are likewise very political in supporting efforts by Republicans in Congress who put forth anti-abortion legislation.

What makes the abortion issue so beguiling is that the only perceived way groups can assure the rights of their own group is by denying the rights of opposing groups. This entrenchment on both sides of the issue implies that logic and reason are the enemies of both sides; values and value judgment dominate the political debate over abortion. Not surprisingly the biological definition of life carries very little weight in the political debate over abortion. Those for and against abortion prefer to use their own definition of when life begins. It is unfortunately a debate where definition of when life begins continues to produce great division among the public.

     It is for these reasons that the issue of abortion is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. It is very unfortunate that life under all circumstances is not universally valued. But all of these differing social contexts that is our present day reality worldwide, would all fade into dust  if the world ever chooses to engage in war with atomic bombs.

      May that day—never come!  But if that day does arrive, two things are very clear. One, we will no longer have a need to debate whether life begins at conception or birth. And two, on that day, society may finally unconditionally value and appreciate all lifeas it witnesses humanity meet its end in death through a self-inflicted worldwide suicide known as a nuclear annihilation.

 

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A Psychoanalytic Understanding of Your Life Cycle Stages

The Pioneer Work of Sigmund Freud

Part III

 

Freud defines religion as an illusion, consisting of “certain dogmas, assertions about facts and conditions of external and internal reality which tell one something that one has not oneself discovered, and which claim that one should give them credence.” Religious concepts are transmitted in three ways and thereby claim our belief. “Firstly because our primal ancestors already believed them; secondly, because we possess proofs which have been handed down to us from antiquity, and thirdly because it is forbidden to raise the question of their authenticity at all.”Psychologically speaking, these beliefs present the phenomena of wish fulfillment. Wishes that are the “fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind.” Among these are the necessity to cling to the existence of the father, the prolongation of earthly existence by a future life, and the immortality of the human soul. To differentiate between an illusion and an error, Freud lists scientific beliefs such as “Aristotle’s belief that vermin are developed out of dung” as errors, but “the assertion made by certain nationalists that the Indo-Germanic race is the only one capable of civilization” is an illusion, simply because of the wishing involved. Put forth more explicitly, “what is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes.” He adds, however, that, “Illusions need not necessarily be false.” He gives the example of a middle-class girl having the illusion that a prince will marry her. While this is unlikely, it is not impossible. The fact that it is grounded in her wishes is what makes it an illusion.

[Summarized Excerpt] The Future of an Illusion—Sigmund Freud, 1927

Introduction

 

This Blog is the third in a series of articles on the pioneer work of Sigmund Freud. It needed three parts in order to do justice to the remarkable work of this theoretical giant of the 20th Century. In Part III I review several of Freud’s written works. For those unfamiliar with Freud’s written contributions to the study of human behavior, Sigmund Freud was a prolific writer.

Combined with all his other psychoanalytic theoretical work, and considered to be the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud was indeed an extraordinary human being. Although he passed away in 1939 his contribution lives by being unparalleled in its significance to the field of human behavior.

Planned Reviews

I had originally planned to review eleven of Freud’s most important books. If I posted all of these as summarized reviews—my Blog would be 32 pages long. In deference to just how much information most people can digest at any one time, I’ve elected to review just four (and I’ll be honest—they are my favorite Freud books) out of the eleven books originally planned for review. Most of the nitty-gritty of Freud’s psychoanalytic work was covered in Part’s I and II anyway. Consequently, I’ve elected to review those books that had a larger world view of society in general, as I think most readers would be quite interested in the intellectual and sociological impact of Freud’s writings.

Consequently, I will review for the reader: The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Civilization and Its Discontents, Future of an Illusion, and Totem and Taboo.

 

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

 

Psychopathology of everyday life (1901) is one of the key texts of Sigmund Freud, who laid the basis for the theory of psychoanalysis, along with The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1910) and Ego and the Id (1923). This little book became one of the scientific classics of the 20th century and it is very important not only for psychopathology, but also for modern linguistics, semantics and philosophy.

Studying the various deviations from the stereotypes of everyday behavior, strange defects and malfunctions, as well as seemingly random errors, the author concludes that they indicate the underlying pathology of the psyche, the symptoms of psychoneurosis.

This is how Freud introduces his book:

During the year 1898 I published a short essay On the Psychic Mechanism of Forgetfulness. I shall now repeat its contents and take it as a starting-point for further discussion. I have there undertaken a psychologic analysis of a common case of temporary forgetfulness of proper names, and from a pregnant example of my own observation I have reached the conclusion that this frequent and practically unimportant occurrence of a failure of a psychic function — of memory — admits an explanation which goes beyond the customary utilization of this phenomenon.

If an average psychologist should be asked to explain how it happens that we often fail to recall a name which we are sure we know, he would probably contend himself with the answer that proper names are more apt to be forgotten than any other content of memory. He might give plausible reasons for this “forgetting preference” for proper names, but he would not assume any deep determinant for the process.

Freud believed that various deviations from the stereotypes of everyday conduct – seemingly unintended reservation, forgetting words, random movements and actions – are a manifestation of unconscious thoughts and impulses. Explaining “wrong actions” with the help of psychoanalysis, just as the interpretation of dreams, can be effectively used for diagnosis and therapy.

Considering the numerous cases of such deviations, he concludes that the boundary between the normal and abnormal human psyche is unstable and that we are all a bit neurotic. Such symptoms are able to disrupt eating, sexual relations, regular work, and communication with others.

This is the conclusion Freud makes at the end of the book:

The unconscious, at all events, knows no time limit. The most important as well as the most peculiar character of psychic fixation consists in the fact that all impressions are on the one hand retained in the same form as they were received, and also in the forms that they have assumed in their further development. This state of affairs cannot be elucidated by any comparison from any other sphere. By virtue of this theory every former state of the memory content may thus be restored, even though all original relations have long been replaced by newer ones.

 

 

Civilization and its Discontents

Civilization and Its Discontents Summary

In the introductory paragraphs, Freud attempts to understand the spiritual phenomenon of a so-called “oceanic” feeling – ‹the sense of boundlessness and oneness felt between the ego and the outside world. This feeling is “a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith.” It does not betoken an allegiance to a specific religion, but instead points to the source of religious sentiment in human beings. Churches and religious institutions are adept at channeling this sentiment into particular belief systems, but they do not themselves create it.

In general, the ego perceives itself as maintaining “sharp and clear lines of demarcation” with the outside world. This distinction between inside and outside is a crucial part of the process of psychological development, allowing the ego to recognize a “reality” separate from itself. After summarizing his previous research, Freud returns to the question of “oceanic” feeling, finding it unconvincing as an explanation of the source of religious sentiment in human beings. Instead, according to Freud, it is a longing for paternal protection in childhood that continues into adult life as a sustained “fear of the superior power of Fate.”

In Future of an Illusion, Freud lamented the common man’s preoccupation with the “enormously exalted father” embodied by God. The idea of placating a supposedly higher being for future recompense seems utterly infantile and absurd. The reality is, however, that masses of men persist in this illusion for the duration of their lives. According to Freud, men exhibit three main coping mechanisms to counter their experience of suffering in the world: 1) deflection of pain and disappointment (through planned distractions); 2) substitutive satisfactions (mainly through the replacement of reality by art); 3) intoxicating substances. Freud concludes that religion cannot be clearly categorized within this schema.

What does man wish for and aim to achieve in life? Religious belief hinges on this central question. Most immediately, men strive to be happy, and their behavior in the outside world is determined by this “pleasure principle.” But the possibilities for happiness and pleasure are limited, and more often we experience unhappiness from the following three sources: 1) our body; 2) the external world; and 3) our relations to other men. We employ various strategies to avoid displeasure: by isolating ourselves voluntarily, becoming a member of the human community (i.e. contributing to a common endeavor), or influencing our own organism. Religion dictates a simple path to happiness. It thereby spares the masses of their individual neuroses, but Freud sees few other benefits in religion. (For those of you who are curious, see how Freud’s ideas here compare to Eric Hoffer’s work in his seminal book—The True Believer.)

After looking specifically at religion, Freud broadens his inquiry into the relationship between civilization and misery. One of his main contentions is that civilization is responsible for our misery: we organize ourselves into civilized society to escape suffering, only to inflict it back upon ourselves.

Freud identifies three key historical events that produced this disillusionment with human civilization: 1) the victory of Christendom over pagan religions (and consequently the low value placed on earthly life in Christian doctrine); 2) the discovery and conquest of primitive tribes and peoples, who appeared to Europeans to be living more happily in a state of nature; and 3) scientific identification of the mechanism of neuroses, which are caused by the frustrating demands put on the individual by modern society. An antagonism toward civilization developed when people concluded that only a reduction of those demands – ‹in other words, withdrawal from the society that imposed them‹ – would lead to greater happiness [Think about the Hippie movement of the 1960’s].

Freud defines civilization as the whole sum of human achievements and regulations intended to protect men against nature and “adjust their mutual relations.” A “decisive step” toward civilization lies in the replacement of the individual’s power by that of the community. This substitution henceforth restricts the possibilities of individual satisfaction in the collective interests of law and order. Here Freud draws an analogy between the evolution of civilization and the libidinal development of the individual, identifying three parallel stages in which each occurs: 1) character-formation (acquisition of an identity); 2) sublimation (channeling of primal energy into other physical or psychological activities); 3) non-satisfaction/renunciation of instincts (burying of aggressive impulses in the individual; imposition of the rule of law in society).

Even if one of the main purposes of civilization is to bind each man’s libidinal impulses to those of others, love and civilization eventually come into conflict with one another. Freud identifies several different reasons for this later antagonism. For one, family units tend to isolate themselves and prevent individuals from detaching and maturing on their own. Civilization also saps sexual energy by diverting it into cultural endeavors. It also restricts love object choices and mutilates our erotic lives. Taboos (namely, against incest), laws, and customs impose further restrictions. Freud reasons that civilization’s antagonism toward sexuality arises from the necessity to build a communal bond based on relations of friendship. If the activity of the libido were allowed to run rampant, it would likely destroy the monogamous love-relationship of the couple that society has endorsed as the most stable.

Freud next objects to the commandment “Love thy neighbor” because, contrary to Biblical teaching, he has come to see human beings as primarily aggressive rather than loving. He first identified this instinctual aggressiveness in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and though his proposed “death drive” was initially met with skepticism, he maintains and develops the thesis here. Civilization is continually threatened with disintegration because of this inclination to aggression. It invests great energy in restraining these death instincts, and achieves this goal by installing within the individual a sort of watchdog agency, which Freud calls the super-ego, to master our desire for aggression. For Freud, the entire evolution of civilization can be summed up as a struggle between Eros and the death drive, overseen by the super-ego.

With the establishment of the super-ego comes a sense of bad conscience. Because it is internalized, the super-ego omnisciently regulates both our thoughts and deeds, whereas prior to its installation, individuals only had to submit themselves to a higher authority for punishment (such as parents) in the case of fully accomplished acts. There are two sources of guilt: 1) fear of authority and 2) fear of the super-ego. In the latter case, instinct renunciation no longer liberates the individual from the sense of internal guilt that the super-ego continues to perpetuate. By extension, civilization reinforces the sense of guilt to regulate and accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of relationships between men. It becomes a more repressive force that individuals find increasingly difficult to tolerate. Freud considers this increasing sense of guilt to be “most important problem in the development of civilization,” since it takes an enormous toll on the happiness of individuals.

In the last chapter, Freud clarifies his usage of seemingly interchangeable terms: the “super-ego” is an internal agency whose existence has been inferred; “conscience” is one of the functions ascribed to the super-ego, to keep watch over the intentions and actions of the ego; “sense of guilt” designates the perception that the ego has of being surveyed and arises from the tension between its own strivings and the (often overly severe) demands of the super-ego. It can be felt prior to the execution of the guilty act, whereas “remorse” refers exclusively to the reaction after the act of aggression has been carried out. Finally, Freud re-emphasizes the instinct of aggression and self-destruction as the single greatest problem facing civilization, as manifested in “the present time.” He ends by asking which force‹ – “eternal Eros” or his potent adversary‹ – will prevail.

The Future of an Illusion

The Future of an Illusion (Die Zukunft einer Illusion) is a book written by Sigmund Freud in 1927. It describes his interpretation of religion’s origins, development, psychoanalysis, and its future. Freud viewed religion as a false belief system.

Religion as an Instinct Restrainer

Freud attempts to turn our attention to the future that awaits human culture. In the process of developing his thought, he finds it necessary to deal with the origin and purpose of human culture as such. By human culture Freud means all those respects in which human life has lifted itself above the animal condition and in which it differs from the life of the beast.

Human culture includes, on the one hand, all the knowledge and power that men have accumulated in order to master the forces of nature, and on the other all the necessary arrangements whereby men’s relations to each other may be regulated. These two conditions for culture are not separable from one another because the existing resources and the measure by which they satisfy the desires of our instincts, are deeply intertwined. Although man forms culture, he is, at the same time, subject to it because it tames his raw instincts and makes him behave in a socially acceptable way. Thus Freud writes: “It seems more probable that every culture must be built upon . . coercion and instinct renunciation.”

Freud maintains that the essence of culture does not lie in man’s conquest of nature for the means of supporting life, but in the psychological realm, in every man’s curbing his predatory instincts. One of the instinct restrainers that man has devised to perpetuate his culture is religion. The unique aspect of religion as reflecting moral conscience was recognized by Freud as he writes of one of its functions is attempting, “. . . to correct the so painfully felt imperfections of culture.”

Religion as an Illusion

Freud defines religion as an illusion, consisting of “certain dogmas, assertions about facts and conditions of external and internal reality which tell one something that one has not oneself discovered, and which claim that one should give them credence.”

Religious concepts are transmitted in three ways and thereby claim our belief. “Firstly because our primal ancestors already believed them; secondly, because we possess proofs which have been handed down to us from antiquity, and thirdly because it is forbidden to raise the question of their authenticity at all.”

Psychologically speaking, these beliefs present the phenomena of wish fulfillment. Wishes that are the “fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind.” Among these are the necessity to cling to the existence of the father, the prolongation of earthly existence by a future life, and the immortality of the human soul.

To differentiate between an illusion and an error, Freud lists scientific beliefs such as “Aristotle’s belief that vermin are developed out of dung” as errors, but “the assertion made by certain nationalists that the Indo-Germanic race is the only one capable of civilization” is an illusion, simply because of the wishing involved. Put forth more explicitly, “what is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes.” He adds, however, that, “Illusions need not necessarily be false.” He gives the example of a middle-class girl having the illusion that a prince will marry her. While this is unlikely, it is not impossible. The fact that it is grounded in her wishes is what makes it an illusion.

Origins and Development of Religion

Freud begins by explaining religion in a similar term to that of totemism. The individual is essentially an enemy of society and has instinctual urges that must be restrained to help society function. “Among these instinctual wishes are those of incest, cannibalism, and lust for killing.” His view of human nature is that it is anti-social, rebellious, and has high sexual and destructive tendencies. The destructive nature of humans sets a pre-inclination for disaster when humans must interact with others in society. “For masses are lazy and unintelligent; they have no love for instinctual renunciation, and they are not to be convinced by argument of its inevitability; and the individuals composing them support one another in giving free rein to their indiscipline.” So destructive is human nature, he claims, that “it is only through the influence of individuals who can set an example and whom masses recognize as their leaders that they can be induced to perform the work and undergo the renunciations on which the existence of civilization depends.” All this sets a terribly hostile society that could implode if it were not for civilizing forces and developing government.

He elaborates further on the development of religion, as the emphasis on acquisition of wealth and the satisfaction of instinctual drives (sex, wealth, glory, happiness, immortality) moves from “the material to the mental.” As compensation for good behaviors, religion promises a reward.

The topic is resumed in the beginning of Freud’s subsequent book, Civilization and Its Discontents:

“One of these exceptional few calls himself my friend in his letters to me. I had sent him my small book that treats religion as an illusion, and he answered that he entirely agreed with my judgement upon religion, but that he was sorry I had not properly appreciated the true source of religious sentiments. This, he says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded–as it were, ‘oceanic’. This feeling, he adds is a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith; it brings with it no assurance of personal immortality, but it is the source of the religious energy which is seized upon by the various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless also exhausted by them. One may, he thinks, rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one rejects every belief and every illusion.

The views expressed by the friend whom I so much honour, and who himself once praised the magic of illusion in a poem caused me no small difficulty…. From my own experience I could not convince myself of the primary nature of such a feeling. But this gives me no right to deny that it does in fact occur in other people. The only question is whether it is being correctly interpreted and whether it ought to be regarded as the fons et origo of the whole need for religion.”

Today, some scholars see the arguments set forth in The Future of an Illusion as a manifestation of the genetic fallacy, in which a belief is considered false or inverifiable based on its origin. Scholars still dispute this claim.

Psychoanalysis of Religion

Religion is an outshoot of the Oedipus complex, and represents man’s helplessness in the world, having to face the ultimate fate of death, the struggle of civilization, and the forces of nature.

He views god as a manifestation of a child-like “longing for [a] father.”  In his words “The gods retain the threefold task: they must exorcize the terrors of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruelty of Fate [parenthetically, it is akin to the religious expression—“God works in mysterious ways], particularly as it is shown in death, and they must compensate them for the sufferings and privations which a civilized life in common has imposed on them.”

 

Totem and Taboo

Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics is a book by Sigmund Freud published in German in 1913 under the title Totem und Tabu: Einige Übereinstimmungen im Seelenleben der Wilden und der Neurotiker.

It is a collection of four essays first published in the journal Imago (1912–13) employing the application of psychoanalysis to the fields of archaeology, anthropology, and the study of religion. The four essays are entitled: The Horror of Incest; Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence; Animism, Magic and the Omnipotence of Thoughts; and The Return of Totemism in Childhood.

The Horror of Incest

The first and shortest of the four essays concerns incest taboos adopted by societies believing in totemism.

Freud uses examples mostly from the Australian Aborigines, gathered and discussed by anthropologist James George Frazer. He points out, with some surprise, that although the Aborigines do not seem to have any sexual restrictions, there’s an elaborate social organization whose sole purpose is to prevent incestuous sexual relations.

Freud discusses various ways in which the exogamy of the totem system prevents incest not only among the nuclear family, but among extended families as well. In addition, the totem system prevents ‘incest’ among members of the same totem clan who are not related by blood and considers as incest relations between clan members which could not produce children. He explains that the existence of marriage restrictions between the members of the same tribes probably goes back to when group marriages were allowed (but not ‘incest’ within a group family).

He concludes the essay with a discussion of the mother-in-law taboo, and concludes that the incestuous wishes which are repressed to the unconscious among civilized peoples are still a conscious peril to the uncivilized people in Frazer’s studies.

Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence

In this essay, Freud considers the relationship of taboos to totemism. Freud uses his concepts ‘projection’ and ‘ambivalence’ he developed during his work with neurotic patients in Vienna to discuss the relationship between taboo and totemism.

Like neurotics, ‘primitive’ peoples feel ambivalent about most people in their lives, but will not admit this consciously to themselves. They will not admit that as much as they love their mother, there are things about her they hate. The suppressed part of this ambivalence (the hate parts) are projected onto others. In the case of natives, the hateful parts are projected onto the totem. As in: ‘I did not want my mother to die, the totem wanted her to die.’

Freud expands this idea of ambivalence to include the relationship of citizens to their ruler. In ceremonies surrounding kings, which are often quite violent, – such as the king starving himself in the woods for a few weeks – he considers two levels that are functioning to be the “ostensible” (i.e., the king is being honored) and the “actual” (i.e., the king is being tortured).

Animism, Magic and the Omnipotence of Thought

The third essay examines the animism and narcissistic phase associated with a primitive understanding of the universe and early libidinal development. A belief in magic and sorcery derives from an overvaluation of psychical acts whereby the structural conditions of mind are transposed onto the world: this overvaluation survives in both primitive men and neurotics. The animistic mode of thinking is governed by an “omnipotence of thoughts”, a projection of inner mental life onto the external world. This imaginary construction of reality is also discernible in obsessive thinking, delusional disorders and phobias.

Freud comments that the omnipotence of thoughts has been retained in the magical realm of art. The last part of the essay concludes the relationship between magic,paranormal, superstition and taboo, arguing that the practices of animistic system are scree behind which lies instinctual repression.

The Return of Totemism in Childhood

In the final essay, Freud argues that combining one of Charles Darwin’s more speculative theories about the arrangements of early human societies (a single alpha-male surrounded by a harem of females, similar to the arrangement of gorilla groupings) with the theory of the sacrifice ritual taken from William Robertson Smith located the origins of totemism in a singular event, whereby a band of prehistoric brothers expelled from the alpha-male group returned to kill their father, whom they both feared and respected. In this respect, Freud located the beginnings of the Oedipus complex at the origins of human society, and postulated that all religion was in effect an extended and collective form of guilt and ambivalence to cope with the killing of the father figure (which he saw as the true original sin).

Conclusions

 

This concludes the three-part series on Sigmund Freud. In Part III I reviewed some of the written works of this giant of the 20th Century.

I believe his work relating psychoanalysis to the larger characteristics of society to have been rather brilliant. If I remember in the years ahead very few details of Freud’s written works, I have nevertheless come away with a deeper understanding of human behavior. That is, I now realize (from his essay on Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence) that we are always ambivalent in our feelings toward other people—including those we love and are closest with.

We all project our own feelings onto others. In the modern era perhaps seeing the world in shades of gray [rather than black or white] allows us a kind of freedom not normally found among the true believers in society. It takes courage to see the world as complex, devoid of simplistic, sometimes delusional thinking patterns.

Ambivalence may be one of the prices we pay for being couragious. The reward however, in having such courage in the way we see the world in shades of gray— is mental maturity. And, mental maturity just might allow us the freedom to maintain healthy relationships for a lifetime with other people. And, as Detective Sergeant Rick Hunter used to say in the TV series Hunter (1984-1991), “It Works for Me.”

 

 

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This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religions in it.

John Adams (Second President of the United States, 1735-1826)

In Part III of Religious Beliefs in America I report on what I consider to be the most important aspect of this series—Why People Believe.  Also, I do repeat my explanation from Part I regarding the work of Erich Fromm. Of critical importance to understanding religious beliefs is to first understand it’s psychological basis. 

Although many people filling out questionnaires or responding to telephone surveys say that they believe in God or various aspects of Christianity, very little is known as to why. Is it because of how one is raised and where? Is it simply a matter of geography? Is it because of emotional needs? Or is it all a failure to take responsibility for one’s life? Or is it out of fear and concern for the death we will all face one day and what, if anything, follows that? Or is belief in God deep rooted in the desire of the “ego” to protect the “self” at all costs, including the cost of giving up intellectual honesty?

 Aside from the issue of why people believe, or don’t believe, we also know very little about the degree, bond, or commitment individuals have to their beliefs. Are their beliefs casual and transitory? Do they change every time the wind blows, or are one’s beliefs constant and enduring? For now I will look at the reasons people believe in hopes of generally answering the question, “why” people believe.

Paul Kurtz has identified possible explanations as to why people believe “such as the need for identity, the quest for community, the role of indoctrination, the power of tradition, and ethnicity.”[1] However, he focused on two other explanations. He believes that the first explanation as to why do people believe is that believers have not been exposed to the factual critiques of their faith. These critiques apply to the cognitive basis of their belief and were alternative explanations of the alleged phenomena. This would appeal only to some people who were committed to inquiry but that also many people would use rationalization to intervene to rescue their faith.[2]

Kurtz also provided a second explanation. Accordingly, there are non-cognitive tendencies and impulses that temp believers to accept the unbelievable. He feels the disposition to believe, in spite of insufficient or contrary evidence, has deep roots in our biological and social nature.[3]

Most of us in our daily lives try to exercise common sense and reason as we cope with the many problems of everyday life. Kurtz also asserts that people do exercise common sense, and are cognitive in liberating us from false ideas in everyday life. We constantly, in everyday activities, use reason to refute unwarranted beliefs. However, he describes what he calls a “class of over-beliefs” for which no amount of evidence seems to suffice; at least for some people.[4]

Over-beliefs have a special name; they are known as “transcendental beliefs.” It is with these types of beliefs that faith, or will to believe, intervenes. “Transcendental beliefs are not verifiable and lie beyond normal observation. It is outside rational coherence and is enhanced by mystery and magic.”[5]

Kurtz believes many people accept unverified occult explanations when they are clothed in religious, supernatural, or paranormal guise.[6] Why do people believe in such things? He felt the answer lies in part because such accounts arouse awe and entice the passionate imagination. He labeled this, “the transcendental temptation”–the temptation to believe in things unseen because they satisfy inner needs and desires. More will be said of this last statement when the work of Eric Hoffer is reviewed.

All of us can find many reasons in our lives for things that seem, temporarily or otherwise–events, actions, or objects–that can overwhelm us. If one lives long enough we all encounter such things that make us afraid, to fear the known as well as the unknown. The transcendental temptation that Kurtz describes makes sense. It is a coping mechanism that helps one deal with calamity, disaster, pain, suffering, grief, sorrow, and even death all around us, and all the trials and tribulation of everyday living.

 Said another way, perhaps supernatural belief systems are the hopes and rationalizations we all use to protect ourselves in the face of personal hardship, difficulties, and sometimes tragedy. The transcendental belief is a lure (and fans the flame of unreality) which has the power to make otherwise intelligent people submit to it. It is a delusional characteristic that in other circles might be described as “mental illness.” As Kurtz reports, “It is the mystery and magic of religion, its incantations and rituals, that form the passions of over-belief, and nourish illusion and unreality.”[7]

 It is fair to say that when one person has a delusion, it is called mental illness; when millions of people have a delusion it is called religion. [I highly and enthusiastically recommend people read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins]. Interestingly, Richard Dawkins makes the same point I do about mental illness and religious beliefs. According to Dawkins, “You say you’ve experienced God directly? Well, some people have experienced a pink elephant, but that probably doesn’t impress you. Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, directly heard the voice of Jesus telling him to kill women, and he was locked up for life. George W. Bush says that God told him to invade Iraq (a pity God didn’t vouchsafe him a revelation that there were no weapons of mass destruction). Individuals in asylums think they are Napoleon or Charlie Chaplin, or that the entire world is against them, or that they can broadcast their thoughts into other people’s heads. We humor them but don’t take their internally revealed beliefs seriously, mostly because not many people share them. Religious experiences are different only in that the people who claim them are numerous.”8

 Can you imagine what it must have been like for primitive peoples, long before science provided explanations for thunder, lightening, fire and floods? Earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons and tornadoes all demonstrated terrifying power. Such natural power must have scared the living daylights out of ancient and primitive people and tribes. How easy it must have been to concoct explanations of unseen gods (The Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians were masters of such concoctions) and other things that go bump in the night.[8]

 Humans tend to corrupt their vision of reality in order to survive in a world they cannot fully understand.[9] Modern man finds his troubles no less daunting than primitive man. The fact that he now has so many competing explanations may increase modern man’s desire to escape the very freedom he works so hard to achieve. This is certainly the case as revealed by one of the seminal writers of the 1940s, Erich Fromm.

In Escape from Freedom he writes that man strives for independence and individuality, in essence to be free. History shows that freedom from external domination. According to Fromm, “The history of economic liberation, political democracy, religious autonomy, and individualism in personal life, gave expression to the longing for freedom, and at the same time seemed to bring mankind closer to its realization. One tie after another was severed. Man had overcome the domination of nature and had made himself her master; he had overcome the church and the domination of the absolutist state. The abolition of external domination seemed to be a necessary but also a sufficient condition to attain the cherished goal: freedom of the individual.”[10]

But Fromm wondered why it was, despite the long history of wars and fighting to achieve freedom, people (like in Italy and Germany during World War II) were so willing to give up their freedom so easily to a charismatic leader or dictator. He concluded that people tend to want to escape from freedom and that this process is very much psychological. Freedom, while very welcome on the one hand, nevertheless presents the individual with too many choices he must confront in his life. A few can handle this freedom. Many cannot.

The reaction to such choice is often aloneness, isolation, and a desire to escape such freedom. Often the form that it takes is to submit oneself to a higher authority, a religion, or a charismatic leader. If aloneness is the price of individuality, “impulses arise to give up one’s individuality, to overcome the feeling of aloneness and powerlessness by completely submerging oneself in the world outside.”[11] As one submits, one realizes that the price it pays is giving up strength and the integrity of the self. Once again, according to Fromm, “This identity with nature, clan, religion, gives the individual security. He belongs to, is rooted in, a structuralized whole in which he has an unquestionable place. He may suffer from hunger or suppression, but he does not suffer from the worst of all pains–complete aloneness and doubt.”[12]

 Christianity is a mass movement and, as such, provides a level of analysis as to why mass movements are found to be so attractive to the individual. One of the most fertile minds of the 20th Century was that of the late longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer (The True Believer, 1951; The Passionate State of Mind, 1955; The Ordeal of Change, 1963; and The Temper of Our Times, 1967–among others).[13]

In the True Believer he answers the question: Who is the True Believer? According to Hoffer, “he is a guilt-ridden hitchhiker who thumbs a ride on every cause from Christianity to Communism. He’s a fanatic, needing a Stalin (or a Christ) to worship and die for. He’s the mortal enemy of things-as-they-are, and insists on sacrificing himself for a dream impossible to attain (like a heaven and eternal bliss or happiness). He is today everywhere on the march.”[14] [Just consider for a moment the religious right].

 This more aggregate sociological look at what motivates people to become a true believer for some mass movement, ironically perhaps, leads one to the psychological basis for such belief in a cause. While there are vast differences between various mass movements as to purposes and doctrine, they nevertheless share common characteristics such as uniformity in all types of dedication, of faith, of pursuit of power, of unity and of self-sacrifice.[15]

 The working hypothesis found in Hoffer’s work on the True Believer is that during the active, revivalist phase of mass movements, the phase is dominated by the true believer–the man of fanatical faith who is ready to sacrifice his life for a holy cause. According to Hoffer the frustrated predominate among the early adherents of all mass movements and they tend to join of their own accord.[16]

 “A mass movement, particularly in its active, revivalist phase, appeals not to those intent on bettering and advancing a cherished self…Their innermost craving is for a new life–a rebirth or, failing this, a hope, a sense of purpose and worth by identification with a holy cause.”[17]

Hoffer was able to show what seems to connect an ardent follower of a mass movement and his psychological characteristics. For Hoffer, “faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves…The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause…The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life, we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.”[18]

The famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud was a convinced, consistent, aggressive atheist. According to Peter Gay, “In the manner of the eighteenth Philosophes, he argued that religion and science are mortal enemies and that every attempt at bridging the gap between them is bound to be futile…By 1907, when he published Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices, in which he dwelt on the profound affinities between the ceremonies of obsessive neurotics and the ceremonies of religious believers, he had already told Jung proudly that he had got to the heart of religion: it was founded in the child’s sense of helplessness.”[19]

 For Freud man is always in conflict with his culture because of instinctual drives that are suppressed. But in order to deal with dangers outside such as nature, civilization serves a role of defending against nature. Nature never lets man control her through earthquakes, fires, floods, storms, and painfully the riddle of death against which no medicine has been found, nor ever will be. Civilization fights these forces of nature. In addition to nature and the hardship of life, civilization in turn, while being protective through communal action, nevertheless imposes privation on man and other men bring him a measure of suffering, either in spite of precepts of his civilization or because of its imperfections.[20]

Why People Believe in God

The Skeptics Society surveyed two populations for their beliefs (or disbeliefs) in God. In 1995 a survey was conducted among members of this society.[21]  A majority of members were scientists or professionals who were very well educated with a fifth who had a Ph.D. and three quarters who were college graduates. The results were surprising.

Over a third (35 percent) thought it “very likely” or “possible” that there is a God.  Sixty-seven percent said, “Not very likely,” “Very Unlikely,” or “Definitely Not.” Interestingly some 77 percent said they believe religion is “always” or “sometimes” a force for morality and social stability. According to those conducting the survey, while the majority of skeptics and scientists did not believe in God, a surprisingly large minority did.[22]

The question was why does anyone believe in God? These authors reported that a partial answer is based on how our brains and genes are wired. Some scientists believe that genes account for 50 percent of the beliefs in religiosity. However, that still leaves the environment to play a major role as well.[23]

A follow-up survey was conducted by members of the Skeptics Society as to family background, religious beliefs, reasons for belief or disbeliefs, and an essay question asking why people believe (or disbelieve), and why they think other people believe.[24] Some 1,700 responded to the survey, 78 percent men and 22 percent women, with an average age of 49. The following are the results of the survey for the question, why do you believe in God:

Why Skeptics Believe in God

Arguments based on good design/natural beauty/perfection/complexity of the world or universe. (29 percent)

  • Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives purpose and meaning to life. (21.3 percent)
  • The experience of God in everyday life / a feeling that God is in us. (14.4 percent)
  • Just because /faith / or need to believe in something. (11.4 percent)
  • Without God there would be no reality. (6.4 percent) [25]

 Why Skeptics Think Other People Believe in God

 Belief in God is comforting / relieving /consoling / and gives meaning and purpose to life. (21.5 percent)

  • The need to believe in an afterlife / the fear of death and the unknown. (17.8 percent)
  • Lack of exposure to science / lack of education / ignorance. (13.5 percent)
  • Raised to believe in God (11.5 percent)
  • Arguments based on good design/ natural beauty/perfection/complexity of the world or universe (8.8 percent) [26]

 Why Skeptics Do Not Believe in God

 There is no proof for God’s existence. (37.9 percent)

  • There is no need to believe in God. (13.2 percent)
  • It is absurd to believe in God. (12.1 percent)
  • God is unknowable. (8.3 percent)
  • Science provides all the answers we need (8.3 percent)[27]

 The other survey pertained to the general population. Survey of the general population resulted in 1,000 responses.[28] Average age of respondent was 42. Sixty-two percent of respondents were men and 38 percent were women.

The results were different. A belief in God amounted to 18 percent among the skeptics sample, but 64 percent in the general survey. When they looked at why people believe or do not believe they found that the three strongest predictors supporting religiosity, and belief in God, were being raised religiously, gender (more women are religious than men), and parent’s religiosity.[29]

The three strongest predictors of lower religiosity and disbelief in God are education, age, and parental conflict. In other words being male, educated, and older tends to make people less religious, while being female, possessing less education, and raised by religious parents makes one more religious. The researchers reported that socioeconomic status had no direct influence on beliefs, but political beliefs did. Conservatives were found to be more religious and liberals less so.[30]

“David Wulff, summarizing a sizeable body of literature on the subject, reported that ‘measuring piety’ as a function of religious affiliation, church attendance, doctrinal orthodoxy, and self-rated importance of religion, researchers consistently found positive correlation with ethnocentrism, authoritarianism, dogmatism, social distance, rigidity, intolerance of ambiguity, and specific forms of prejudice, especially against Jews and Blacks. That is to say, greater religiosity was associated with higher scores for these personality traits–traits that are the very antithesis of political liberalism.”[31]

Another way people believe in God (or don’t believe) is related to sociobiology. According to Morton Hunt, “Sociobiology holds that a certain part of human behavior is based on our biology–specifically, by gene-directed tendencies developed in us by evolution…complex interactions among numerous genes give us the capacity and inclination to develop into people who are either more or less violent, more or less altruistic, monogamous or polygamous, Muslim or Catholic, or whatever–depending on how our upbringing, experience, and the myriad of influences on us of the culture we are immersed in elicit the potentialities within those cogeries of genes. That’s how the individual develops.”[32]

Edward O. Wilson of Harvard made popular the new branch of human behavioral science known as sociobiology. Wilson coined the term “gene-culture coevolution.”[33] What does this mean? It means that certain psychologically based preferences charmed the development of culture. He uses the example of the development of family life in every culture in response to the infant’s and mother’s need for continuing sustenance and protection.[34]

“On the other hand, certain cultural influences reciprocally favor the selection and evolution of particular genetic tendencies such as society’s need to inhibit uncontrolled aggression by favoring people with built-in responsiveness to social control of aggression.”[35]

Morton further reports, “The primary needs met by religion, socio-biologists say, were the allaying of fear and the explanation of the world’s many mystifying phenomena. With the development of the brains’ capacity for language, human beings were able to develop concepts and have experiences that had been available to pre-humans, among them the consciousness of risks and of death, of time. The past and the futures of reward and punishment: puzzlement about natural phenomena; the satisfaction of problem solving; and aesthetic pleasure, wonder, and awe.”[36]

While primitive humans developed and experienced a sense of awe at the world around them, modern humans could think with the increased brain size and capacity with language. For early man religion had no competition for explanation. Mysteries of the world for early humans were demystified by religious explanation. Real living by people produced both positive (health returning after sickness, crops harvested, new child birth, the balance of justice among people, and pleasure in beauty and awe in the world around them) and negative experiences (sickness, hardships, crop failures, death and loss of loved ones).[37]

More than 75 percent of the world’s people try to make sense of the negative and positive experience described above by means of religion. If evil exists it is the work of the evil deity such as Satan. Or it is the product of evil desires in human beings. People pray asking the deity to make all turn out well. People seek reassurance after the death of a loved one with the hope that they will live after death in heaven. If life is terrible your reward is in heaven by a loving father. On the other hand, when everything in one’s life goes well, shouldn’t one give thanks to the one who is the supposed source of all good things, i.e., the “sky God who judges you?”

Religious explanations cover the entire myriad of experiences in life, the good and the bad. That is, all the bases are covered. Religious explanations act to bind and cement both our emotional and physical life. Religion meets the need to understand and control life. Through either ancient shamans, or modern-day priests and ministers, one is encouraged to trust in them, and submit in order to live together in harmony. The need to live together is biologically based. Finally, according to Morton, “we require social life to thrive emotionally–and, in fact, physically. Recent evidence shows that people who live alone have less immune resistance to disease than people who live with spouses or ‘significant other’ partners.”[38]

Why People Don’t Believe

In 1900 1% of the American population considered themselves atheists or free-thinkers. In 2000, that percentage had increased to 15-20% of the population. Figures in Europe are much higher. In Australia the figure is even higher, i.e., 25 percent. Given that religion has been described as the opium of the people, and gives order to their lives, why do some people not believe when the majority of people do? Don’t unbelievers, agnostics and atheists ever get caught up with the transcendental temptation?

 Kurtz believes there is a plurality of explanations.

 For those who go through conversion, the conversion is a rather rapid emotional transformation.

 For those who go through de-conversion the process (based on autobiographical accounts) is a slow, cognitive process.

 One could argue that, on average, those who don’t believe are much smarter (or have more education) than the believer. There is research evidence that the more intelligent an individual is the less likely he or she is to believe in God or a religion. Or perhaps non-believers are a much more advanced species of humans. Both believers and non-believers are a product of millions of years of evolution. Both types evolved from a common ancestor a few million years ago. There is a sequence of events that moved our evolution along on the road to modern man. Intelligence increases were possible through a series of interacting events.

We now know that the crucial turning point in our evolution was when the great apes and/or australopithecines stood up and became bipedal on the African savannah. This allowed their hands to free up, and led to a greater ability to make tools for cutting which in turn provided greater access to animal protein. More protein via meat-eating thus led in turn to an increase in the size of the brain. Those who had an edge in the brain department were more likely to survive and reproduce. All of these things helped early man on the road to language, and then correspondingly to the evolutionary development of culture.

 The Role of Experience and Culture

 What role does experience and culture play in evolutionary development? I reported earlier that 52% of Jews do not believe in a God, 21% of Catholics, and 10% of Protestants. As a group, Jews are much better educated than most other groups. But they also have cultural experiences like the Holocaust that would tend not to strengthen one’s belief in a benevolent deity. Said another way, experience in life is important as well as education in matters of belief.

There are a large number of people who regard consistent laws of nature governing the behavior of galaxies, human genes, and quarks, with the awe and respect that others accord to a more traditional God. An often stated quotation of Albert Einstein is, “science without religion is lame; but religion without science is blind.” What Einstein actually meant by the term religion is different from how the term is normally used in Christianity. For Einstein religion or religious meant the awe and respect he had for the natural laws of the universe and those discoverable through the sciences of physics and cosmology.

Albert Einstein did not believe in a personal God who meddles in the affairs of humans. To be religious, to Albert Einstein, was to enthusiastically hold in high regard the laws of physics and of the universe that he spent a lifetime trying to determine and theorize about. Ultimately, Albert Einstein was a scientific Pantheist, not a traditionally religious person at all.

Morton Hunt put his finger on the characteristics of the unbeliever when he said, “Perhaps unbelievers do not so much reject the religious needs and impulses of the human race, as adapt to them in realistic and humanistic terms, replacing the fairy tales of conventional religions with the more intellectually demanding tales, provided by modern science, of natural laws and of the demonstrable, repeatable evidence of cause-and-effect relationships…perhaps unbelievers differ from the great majority of human beings in one other way: possibly unbelievers are psychologically adult, needing no invisible parent figure, able to face the reality of life and death without fear (or at least live with that fear), and too sensible to believe in anything that has no proof, any explanation of the world that is either impossible or absurdum.”[39]

 The Caring Hypothesis and Death

 Most of the variables so far used do describe why people believe in a God or heaven seem to dwell on the naïve nature of people, and because of fear of the unknown. This is because there is strong institutional support for maintaining those beliefs. This author proposes a new hypothesis on why people believe that relates to fear but also ties in to the social nature of caring about others. I think there is a positive motive, most likely unconscious, as to why one wishes to believe in a God and heaven. This might be characterized as The Caring Hypothesis and Death.

Most of us care deeply about the people we live and socialize with in our lives. Caring for people is one of the greatest activities to give people meaning and purpose in life. One’s spouse, significant other, children and/or friends collectively comprise, along with perhaps humanity in general, the nexus of caring for others–all others.

Because we care so deeply for others we would like there to be a safe place for those we love after death. An invisible caring entity (The Sky God who judges you) that looks after those we care about is very appealing. The old expression, “Life’s a bitch and then you die” doesn’t make one feel any better even if the expression is sometimes true. An eternal life for those we love, without pain and suffering, is very appealing.

This desire to help our loved ones in all things makes the suspension of disbelief also appealing despite our normal observation that when life is over the body decays and rots in the grave or turns to ash following cremation.

 Five billion years from now the earth will be no more, and everything will all become stardust again. As nice as that thought of becoming stardust can be for people, it is not as appealing or compelling as eternal life.

We do everything in our power to deny the obvious–to engage in denial. Fairy tales are much more appealing than rotting corpses, pain, loss, and personal suffering by those left behind. “He’s in heaven now dear” said a relative to the grieving widow, or among those who really believe in their hearts, “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” These people would rather say, “He’s in a better place now.” Yeah! Well better than what?

The Burden of Proof

When it comes to non-believers there are 1.1 billion worldwide. They are a sizable minority compared to the other 4.9 billion inhabitants of the earth who identify with some religion. An Agnostic may be defined as a person who believes that the existence of God, or a primal cause, can be neither proven nor unproven. The word agnostic comes from the Greek word meaning “unknown” or “unknowable.” The term agnostic needs to be contrasted with the term “Gnosis” or Gnostic where the later term means knowledge.

Another term used to refer to one’s position on God or primal causes is Atheist. Atheists, as a group of non-believers, have certain disadvantages in their position taken. The first disadvantage is a verbal assertion about what is unknown, unknowable, supernatural, or invisible. That assertion is–that something does not exist. Such an assertion is patently “unscientific.”

By asserting that something does not exist one immediately clashes with what science has long held as its own limitation. That is, it is impossible to prove a negative hypothesis. Science doesn’t work that way for what data would one collect (and data is the cornerstone of all science) in order to test one’s hypothesis that something does not exist? Put very simply–it is impossible to do that.

Ironically, to make an assertion about non-existence of a God is strikingly similar to the person who lives by faith that God does exist. Many people don’t realize it but the religious zealot and the atheist share a common perspective i.e., they are both trying to make a “leap of faith.” The believer and the non-believer share the same podium in that respect. Nevertheless, there is an important difference here that does favor the Atheist over the Theist or Deist. And that difference is the burden of proof.

The burden of proof does not lie with the atheist or the scientist to prove something does not exist. Such proof technically lies with those who make claims of a supernatural nature; otherwise claims are only assertions of belief unsubstantiated and without the benefit of actual proof. What is different between the atheist and scientist on the one hand, and the true believer or religious zealot on the other, are their tools of measurement, willingness to measure, and the approach taken.

Interestingly, the invisibility of the subject matter of religion or science isn’t even the issue. Why? Because even where invisibility of the subject matter is concerned, it is measurement, and a willingness to measure, that does matter. For example molecules, atoms, protons, and even the elusive neutrino are invisible to the naked eye. Nevertheless, they can be measured for their proof of existence. God is alleged to be invisible to the naked eye, yet theologians and fundamentalist “true believers” of all types have yet to provide proof of existence through any kind of “measurement.”

Said simply, they have failed to provide the needed proof to substantiate their supernatural claims. It is interesting to note that the 20th Century’s greatest scientist Albert Einstein never attributed bizarre supernatural forces as an explanation for the fundamental laws of the universe.

 Why America is turning more Secular

 The data from the Barna survey strongly suggested that the slide toward syncretism may be responsible for the decline of Christianity in the 20th Century. Evidently, the democratic trend toward freedom of religion and freedom from religion took heart in America. However, the net effect of these changes within and outside Christianity is the move toward a more secular society.

There are three basic reasons American society, in particular, is becoming more secular: (1) The religious right is trying to invade secular society, (2) scandals within the church has lowered its status in the eyes of the public, and (3) simultaneously, science education and technology has come to dominate the social landscape of our culture through laboratory research, and through educational programs on television and in the classroom.

 It is also true that alienation produced by fundamentalists gone amuck with their disdain for liberal and mainstream Protestant denominations created an atmosphere where younger potential converts automatically looked askance at religious institutions altogether with contempt. As stated before, until mainstream and liberal churches gang up and fight fundamentalists politically and socially, they will continue to lose adherents, and suffer from the consequences of a right-wing extremist theocracy.

Adding fuel to the decline in Christianity is the undeniable scourge of sexual abuse of innocent children at the hands of Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, along with many other types of church workers. Not only have these offenders brought dishonor and disgrace to themselves as individuals, but have lowered the value and status of the various religious institutions they represent. The outcome of these and other scandals has harmed and denigrated whatever value remains of religious institutions in America. Such disgrace and dishonor has resulted in the continued decline in attracting new people to the faith of Christianity.

Squabbles both inside and outside the church will continue to paint a picture of church leadership as incompetent. Cognitive dissonance perceived by others as phoniness and hypocrisy in actual conduct by believers, will continue to cast a light on the bigotry and hatred that has lessened the status of religious institutions everywhere. If Jesus were alive today he would be ashamed of what has happened in Christianity during the last 2000 years in His name. The following quote is worthy of repeating. As Mark Twain said in the 19th Century, “If Jesus was alive today there is one thing he certainly wouldn’t be–and that is a Christian.”[40]

Joseph Campbell discussed in his book, The Power of Myth that every culture holds dearly to its myths. And there is a tendency in every culture to believe one’s own. Why people hold on to their religious cultural myths has been the subject of this blog. Holding on to cultural myths (for all you sociologists) is a product of learning in small social groups. But it is also due to the vast institutionalization of Christianity in America. Such mythology does have power that has persisted into the modern era. Some of the reasons have been discussed in this series of blogs. But cultural wars employ many of the same tools such as television programs that provide an instant audience of millions of people.

Right now as one scans television’s power they’re several first rate channels on DISH and cable networks. They include: The Science Channel, Discovery Channel, Learning Channel, The History Channel, and many other programs found on NOVA. In addition the Science Channel in 2008 brought back the award-winning program COSMOS, originally written and hosted by the late scientist, Carl Sagan.

Collectively, these kinds of programs can have a profound influence on shaping and developing young fertile minds, and help stimulate opposition to the mythology of the Christian world. Organized religion, including Christianity, is all about social control of its adherents. But in a true democracy like America, Christian radio and television exists right along as competition for the attention of people. There is “Freedom of Religion” in our U.S. Constitution. But guess what? By implication there is also “Freedom from Religion” as well.

 


[1] Paul Kurtz, “Why Do People Believe or Disbelieve?” In Science and Religion: Are They Compatible, ed. Paul Kurtz with assistance of Barry Karr and Ronjit Sandhu  (New York: Promethius Books, 2003), 283

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 283-284

[5] Ibid, 284

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 285

[8] Polytheism and paganism involved characteristics of animism, shamanism, and anthropomorphism. 

[9] Ibid, 285

[10] Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1941), 3-4.

[11] Ibid, 29

[12] Ibid, 35

[13] Eric Hoffer published ten books between 1951 and 1982, and an eleventh was published after his death in 1983.

[14] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (Perennial Library Harper & Row Publishers, 1951), back cover.

[15] Ibid, Preface.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, 23

[18] Ibid.

[19] Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, with a biographical introduction by Peter Gay (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1961), xxiii

[20] Ibid, 19-20

[21] Michael Shermer, How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God (2nd Edition) A.W.H. Freeman/Owl Book, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000), 74-75

[22] Ibid, 74

[23] Ibid, 75

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 77

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid, 78

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid, 79

[30] Ibid, 80

[31] Ibid, 81

[32] Morton Hunt, “The Biological Roots of Religion” Paul Kurtz ed. In Science and Religion (New York: Prometheus Books, 2003), 303

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid, 303-304

[36] Ibid, 304

[37] Ibid, 305-306

[38] Ibid, 305

[39] Ibid, 308-309

[40] Mark Twain was also known as Samuel Clemens.

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If Jesus were born today one thing he certainly wouldn’t be–is a Christian.

Mark Twain (American writer, 1835-1910)

 In the first chapter of his #1 New York Times best selling book, The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren writes, “It’s not about you. The purpose of your life is far greater than your personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.”[1] If God has a purpose for everyone then it would certainly be elucidative to know what the purpose was of the 3,000 people who lost their lives in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and what purpose was being served for the 160,000 people who lost their lives in Indonesia’s tsunami in December, 2004.

This Blog article doesn’t deal with some sky God’s supernatural pre-ordained purpose for your life that is surprise, surprise, mysteriously hidden from you; rather it is a forthright approach to help people understand the true nature of religious belief. Part of that understanding is to first describe what Americans in fact believe. 

 A recent poll was taken in 2004 by the Harris Interactive Organization. Some 2,306 adults were polled for their attitudes toward a belief in God.[2]  Attitudes toward the concept of a God varied greatly depending upon the group surveyed. Ten percent of Protestants, 21 percent of Roman Catholics, and 52 percent of Jews do NOT believe in God.

 The survey also revealed a number of other interesting research findings relating to belief in God and church attendance such as:

 Americans are more likely to believe in God and to attend religious services than people in most other developed countries, particularly in Europe.

  • 79 percent of Americans believe there is a God, but only 66 percent are absolutely certain of it. Nine percent do not believe in God and 12 percent are not sure.
  • 26 percent say they attend services every week while 55 percent say they attend services a few times a year or more.[3]

When data from geographical location, religious organization, and age, sex, and race were disaggregated, findings again revealed large differences of opinion:

 Eighty-two percent of Midwesterners and Southerners believe in God, compared with 75 percent in the East and West.

  • Protestants are more likely to attend church once a month or more often (47percent) than are Roman Catholics (35 percent) or Jews (16 percent).
  • 71 percent of 25-29 year olds believe in God. For people over 40 the percent increases to 80 percent. For those 65 and older the number increases again to 83 percent. The data suggest that as people get older a larger percentage believe in God.
  • 84 percent of women believe in God, compared with 73 percent of men.
  • 91 percent of African Americans believe in God, compared with 81 percent of Hispanics and 78 percent of whites. [4]

When political orientation and education were taken into account the following findings were revealed:

87 percent of Republicans believe in God, compared with 78 percent of   Democrats and 75 percent of Independents.

  • 82 percent of those with no college education believe in God, compared with 73 percent who went to college. [5]

 

Attitudes of Christian Evangelicals

In April 2004 a survey was reported by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Inc. for Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.[6] There were 1610 adults in the sample used with an over-sampling of Christian evangelicals. Who were being taped for analysis were those who considered themselves not to be Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Mormon and who saw themselves as fundamentalist, evangelical, charismatic or Pentecostal Protestants.

 Their research findings revealed the following attitudes and characteristics of evangelicals:

 A large majority of white evangelicals oppose gay marriage (84 percent) and civil unions (73 percent).

  • A strong majority of all evangelicals feel the mass media is hostile to their moral and spiritual values.
  • Almost half (48 percent) believe that evangelical Christians are looked down upon by most Americans.
  • And (75 percent) feel they must make their voices heard.
  • In contrast, less than half (46 percent) of non-evangelicals think evangelicals must fight to be heard, and only (35 percent) of non-evangelicals think Americans look down on evangelicals.

When it comes to international issues evangelicals rank military strength (40 percent), controlling weapons of mass destruction (34 percent) and fighting terrorism (30 percent) as significantly more important than relief efforts (14 percent) or helping to improve the standard of living in less developed countries (9 percent).[7]

Beliefs in Biblical Stories

 The Washington Times reported on an ABC News poll among a sample of 1011 adults.[8] They found in the survey that a majority of Americans believe the Holy Bible is literally true and not just a book of stories that are meant to be interpreted as symbolic lessons.

 Their major findings were that:

 61 percent believe the story of the creation of the Earth in seven days as told in the book of Genesis is literally true.

  • 60 percent believe in the story of Noah’s Ark, the global flood, and God’s covenant to never destroy Earth again.

 

  • 64 percent believe that Moses really did part the Red Sea so the Jews could escape their Egyptian captors.

 

The survey looked at how different Christian Groups view the literalness of biblical stories. They disaggregated the survey findings into Mainline Protestants, Evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, and non-believers. What they found was the following:

  • Among Mainline Protestants 75 percent believe in the story of creation, 79 percent in the Red Sea account, and 73 percent in Noah and the Ark.
  • Among Evangelicals 87 percent believe in the creation story, 91 percent in the Red Sea account, and 87 percent in Noah and the Ark.
  • Among Roman Catholics 51 percent think the story of creation is literally true, while 50 percent believe in the Red Sea story and 44 percent in the flood.
  • Interestingly among those who said they had no religion 25 percent still believe in the creation story, almost a third in Moses and the Red Sea, and 29 percent believe in Noah and the Ark.[9]

A summary of information findings found on the internet tells of two different Harris polls taken in 2003 among Christians in the United States.

 They summarized some key findings which included:

  • 93 percent believe in miracles
  • 95 percent believe in heaven
  • 93 percent believe in the Virgin Birth of Christ
  • 96 percent believe in Christ’s Resurrection
  • 42 percent believe God is a male
  • 1 percent believe God is female
  • 38 percent believe God has no gender.

 

BARNA RESEARCH

 One of the most premier survey research groups in the United States is the Barna Research Group of Southern California. They conducted a nationwide survey in 2002 which indicated that a large share of the people who attend church were Protestant or Catholic. Those polled seemed to adopt beliefs that conflict with the teachings of the bible and the church.

 The data described was a national telephone survey among a random sample of adults (age 18 and older) living in the 48 continental states. The survey involved the responses of 630 people and had a sampling error rate of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points at the 95 percent level of statistical confidence. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a realistic sample of adults. [10]

 Type of Respondent

There is first a need to describe to the reader a few definitions of types of respondents used in the Barna research survey. They include:

 Born Again Christians

These were defined in their survey as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.[11]

Evangelicals

Evangelicals are a subset of Born Again Christians in the Barna survey. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satin exists; believing that external salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the bible is accurate in all its teaching; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today.[12]

 Notional Christians

Notional Christians are defined as individuals who consider themselves to be Christians but either do not have a personal relationship to Jesus or do not believe they will experience eternal favor with God based solely on his grace and mercy.[13]

Survey Results

Not one single teaching in the bible received a 100 percent support position in the Barna survey. However, there are some fundamentalist Christian precepts that most Americans held on to. The three classic precepts included the concept of the trinity, every person has a soul that will live forever, and the belief that the bible can only be correctly interpreted by people who have years of training in theology.[14] 

 The Trinity (in Christianity) is the belief that God manifests himself in one being in three separate and equal entities–God the Father, Jesus Christ the son, and the Holy Spirit. Some 79 percent of adults believed this to be a reality. Women were 85 percent in believing this while 72 percent of the men did.[15] [Monotheism is the belief in one God, such as found in Islam or Judaism. Christianity however puts a bizarre spin on the concept by creating three Gods as one or one God represented three ways. Some experts question whether Christianity can even consider itself a monotheistic religion in the first place.]

The idea that “every person has a soul that will live forever, either in God’s presence or absence, is believed by 79 percent of American adults (women 82 percent and men 72 percent). When training and interpretation is concerned, it is rejected by 76 percent of the respondents to the survey. The groups most likely to agree with this belief are African-Americans and Hispanics (24 percent of each group) and Catholics (22 percent). Even among these segments, however, less than one-quarter believe that accurate comprehension of the bible is beyond the capacity of the average person.”[16]

Conflict with Biblical Scripture

A majority or large minority of Americans often expressed points of view that conflict with the bible. These areas of conflict include the Nature of Spiritual Being, Sin and Salvation, and Sources of Truth. The following is a listing of the most important findings in the Barna Survey of 2002:

Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed rejected the existence of Satan.

  • Fifty-one percent believe that praying to deceased saints can have a positive effect in a person’s life.
  • Thirty-five percent of the public surveyed believe that it is possible to communicate with others after they die.
  • Forty-two percent believed that when Jesus Christ was on earth He committed sins.
  • Fifty percent surveyed believe that anyone who is generally good or does good things for others during their life will earn a place in heaven.
  • As opposed to biblical teaching, three-quarters of adults (74%) agree that, “when people are born they are neither good nor evil—they make a choice between the two as they mature.
  • Forty-four percent of those surveyed contend the Bible, Koran, and the Book of Mormon are all different expressions of the same spiritual truth.

It is interesting to report the conclusion of George Barna. He was not surprised by the results of the survey. Barna is the author of numerous books about the religious beliefs and practices of Americans, including The State of the Church: 2002.[17]

According to Barna, “Over the last 20 years we have seen the nation’s theological views slowly become less aligned with the bible. Americans still revere the bible and like to think of themselves as Bible-believing people, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Christians have been increasingly adopting spiritual views that come from Islam, Wicca, secular humanism, the eastern religions and other sources. Because we remain a largely Bible- illiterate society, few are alarmed or even aware of the slide toward syncretism–a belief that blindly combines beliefs from many different faith perspectives.”[18]

 According to Barna, “the passing ahead of a Christian heritage from one generation to the next appears to be rapidly dissipating in America.”[19]

 What do the surveys mean?

 The survey data from Barna and other surveys strongly suggests that the slide toward syncretism may, in part, be responsible for the decline of Christianity in the 20th Century and is part of the reason why Christianity will likely decline in numbers in the future.

 It was once said that all values were up for grabs in the 20th Century. Evidently, the trend toward freedom of religion and freedom from religion took heart in America during the last century. This is only supposition but it is possible that the alienation produced by some fundamentalists with their disdain for other world religions, and their disdain for liberal and mainstream Protestant denominations within Christianity, created an atmosphere where younger potential converts looked askance at religious institutions altogether.

Later in Part III of this series the work of Eric Hoffer will shed light on the characteristics of The True Believer. What is revealed is that there is a very definite psychological component as to why people believe as they do. The psychological nature of human behavior begins to get at the root of why people believe in religion at all.

 


[1] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 17.

[2]  “Guess Who Doesn’t Believe in God?” Netscape Network News  n.d. [online  newspaper] ; accessed 26 Aug. 2004; available from http://cnn.netscape.cnn.com/ns/news/package.Jsp?name=fte/not believe in God/not.

[3] Ibid. 

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Poll: America’s Evangelicals More and More Mainstream But Insecure,” Religion and Ethics Newsweekly   13 Apr. 2004 [online newspaper]; accessed 15 Nov. 2004; available from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religion-and ethics/week/release.html

[7] Ibid.

[8] “WHO Says the Bible is Literally True?” Netscape Network News  n.d. [online newspaper]; accessed 26 Aug. 2004; available from http://cnn.netscape.cnn.com/ns/news/package.jsp?name=fte/holy bible/holy bible

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Barna: Americans Are Spiritual But Postmodern,”  The Christian Post  9 Aug. 2005 [online magazine]; accessed 14 Mar. 2005; available from http://www.the good stewart.com/article.php3?articleID=1285

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

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Introduction

The dominant religion in America today is Christianity. However, it has been changing in size (diminishing numbers of adherents) and character for a very long time. There are many other religions in America; but focus in this Blog will be on Christianity.  I have decided to initiate a three-part series on religious beliefs in America including its conceptual diversity, and some demographic characteristics of groups by religious/nonreligious affiliation. In addition, what people believe about God, Christianity and various aspects of the Christian Bible is also covered.

However, the most important part of this three-part series will be (Part III) to explain why people believe as they do. People’s cherished beliefs usually are based on their values. But why people hold the beliefs (or values) they do is seldom explained or addressed. In this first Part (Overview), I critique a recent book, Four Gods (2010), which describes the diverse conceptual ways Americans currently view God. It will be followed by highlight material from the 2008 ARIS (American Religious Identification Survey), some sociological facts on religion in America, pertinent research including the relationship of intelligence to religiosity or religious beliefs, an informative section on Atheism, and an historical look at how early and modern Christians view Christianity. In Part II what specifically people believe will be covered in terms of biblical stories and other aspects of Christianity.

In Part III material will be presented as to the BIG QUESTION–Why do people believe as they do? For the religious and the nonreligious alike, what I’m about to share with you should help you understand the psychological and sociological nature of American’s religious beliefs.

Background

From a 21st Century Perspective

 The word superstition is one of the most provocative words in the dictionary. Well, how is it defined? It is defined as:

 1.  irrational belief: an irrational, but usually deep-seated belief in the magical effects of a specific action or ritual, especially in the likelihood that good or bad luck will result from performing it. 

2.  irrational beliefs: irrational and often quasi-religious belief in and reverence for the magical effects of some actions and rituals or the magical powers of some objects. 

Superstition has always been a part of culture, usually learned from individuals, small social networks like the family, and is reinforced when larger social entities become involved, such as communities and large nation-states. When many superstitions become institutionalized and integrated into a cohesive social entity they take on a new name—it’s called religion. Early man believed in the existence of spirits; later man largely during the Axial Age (800 B.C. to 200 B.C.) adopted a new concept that was parallel to a world ruled by spirits. And that new concept was the idea that the world was ruled by invisible entities called Gods (For example, Greek, Roman and Egyptian Gods). That idea became further refined into the belief that there was just one god (Monotheism). Beginning a few hundred years ago a new concept was being discussed, especially during and following the Renaissance or Age of Enlightenment. And that concept was the belief in no God or gods, called Atheism.

Belief in a God or spirits (or many Gods i.e., polytheism) has always been, like all superstitions, a cultural phenomena. The origin of religion itself goes back some 200,000 years ago to it’s beginning with Animism. All belief systems are a product of Culture; and culture is a set of customs or beliefs obtained from learning in social groups. This was as true during the Axial Age as it is today.

Recently, two sociologists from Baylor University published a new book (2010) called America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God and What That Says about Us. Their book presents data on religious beliefs today centering on the type of God conceptualized by many people who profess to believe in a God. The typology the authors use draws upon the finding that religious people, primarily Christians, have differing beliefs about the character of the God they believe in.

Paul Froese and Christopher Bader argue that many of America’s most intractable social and political divisions emerge from religious convictions that are deeply held but rarely openly discussed.

Drawing upon original survey data and in-depth interviews the authors argue that America’s cultural and political diversity is due to these differing opinions about God. Their typology falls into four distinct groupings. These four distinct groupings are: The Authoritative God–who is both engaged in the world and judgmental; The Benevolent God–who loves and helps us in spite of our failings; The Critical God–who catalogs our sins but does not punish them (at least not in this life); and The Distant God–who stands apart from the world He created. The authors suggest that these four conceptions of God form the basis of our worldviews and are among the most powerful predictors of how we feel about the most contentious issues in American life.

I found the use of the typology used in the book to have value in shedding light on the notion that interpretation of religious concepts (like the character of God) is far from a universal belief “in a sky God who judges you.”

In other respects however, I dispute many of the statements made in the book mostly because the religious views of the American people were not accurately accounted for by the authors sampling design.  Several other scientifically constructed surveys such as ARIS (American Religious Identification Survey) in 1990, 2001, and 2008 produced quite a different profile in religious beliefs than that found in the Four Gods study. The ARIS time-series results found that Christians, as a group, are declining in number in deference to other non-Christian viewpoints. And, in fact, other data suggest that Christianity has been declining since 1900.

It turns out the methodology in Froese and Bader’s study was lacking, i.e., sampling was not randomly done and there were self-selecting individuals in some locations. Prior research on the topic was not presented for the reading audience to review, and the tone and many comments in the book suggested religious bias in the authors. Funding for their project was from the Templeton Foundation, a very conservative organization that has been heavily criticized for its biased agenda by funding research that attempts to force-fit religious paradigms within science and vice-versa. It’s like trying to integrate or combine Logos with Mythos. Basically, they are two different things, with different purposes. They also inaccurately stated that atheists comprised only 5% of the population. That is contradicted by every ARIS survey taken since 1990 (See ARIS Survey for 2008 following).  Also, the idea that people have differing conceptions of God is hardly new. Early Christians had varying views on God and what Jesus Christ was all about.

What follows in the next section is a more accurate portrayal of religious beliefs in America.

AMERICAN RELIGIOUS IDENTIFICATION

SURVEY (ARIS) 2008

Principal Investigators: Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar

Highlights

 The 2008 ARIS survey was carried out during February-November 2008 and collected answers from 54,461 respondents who were questioned in English or Spanish.

The American population self-identifies as predominantly Christian but Americans are slowly becoming less Christian.

• 86% of American adults identified as Christians in 1990 and 76% in 2008.

• The historic Mainline churches and denominations have experienced the steepest declines while the non-denominational Christian identity has been trending upward particularly since 2001.

• The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.

34% of American adults considered themselves “Born Again or Evangelical Christians” in 2008.

The U. S. population continues to show signs of becoming less religious, with one out of every five Americans failing to indicate a religious identity in 2008.

• The “Nones” (no stated religious preference, atheist, or agnostic) continue to grow, though at a much slower pace than in the 1990s, from 8.2% in 1990, to 14.1% in 2001, to 15.0% in 2008.

• Asian Americans are substantially more likely to indicate no religious identity than other racial or ethnic groups.

One sign of the lack of attachment of Americans to religion is that 27% do not expect a religious funeral at their death.

Some Sociological Facts Regarding Religion Today

One major theme of this Blog is that there has been a significant social decline in Christianity. And since 1900 the number of people who regard themselves as Christian has declined by 13%. In terms of other demographic changes the following has been observed:

Since the late 19th century, the demographics of religion have changed a great deal. Some countries with a historically large Christian population have experienced a significant decline in the numbers of professed active Christians. Symptoms of the decline in active participation in Christian religious life include declining recruitment for the priesthood and monastic life, as well as diminishing attendance at church. At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of people who identify themselves as secular humanists.

Other interesting sociological facts include the observation that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world today, and is nearly universal in many countries from western Africa to Indonesia, where there are close ties between government and religion.It is also noteworthy that Hinduism is undergoing a revival. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shintoism are the religions with the largest number of adherents in the Far East, and have greatly influenced spirituality in the West, particularly in the United States. Among major world religions Hinduism is the fastest-growing religion in the United States.

Intelligence and Religiosity

 One of the things psychologists and sociologists do is study respectively individual and group behavior. Much social science research has been conducted since the early part of the 20th century. One area that has received a fair amount of research and evaluation is intelligence and religiosity.

In 2008, intelligence researcher Helmuth Nyborg examined whether IQ relates to denomination and income. His results, published in the scientific journal Intelligence, demonstrated that on average, Atheists scored 5.89 IQ points higher than Dogmatic persuasions. “My hypothesis is that people with a low intelligence are more easily drawn toward religions, which give answers that are certain, while people with a high intelligence are more skeptical,” says the professor. Many other studies have been conducted on intelligence and religiosity. Burnham P. Beckwith paraphrased and summarized the following from The Effect of Intelligence on Religious Faith, Free Inquiry, Spring 1986. He reported on several studies between 1927 and 2008. These pre-Nyborg studies included the following:

1. Thomas Howells, 1927
Study of 461 students showed religiously conservative students “are, in general, relatively inferior in intellectual ability.”

2. Hilding Carlson, 1933
Study of 215 students showed that “there is a tendency for the more intelligent undergraduate to be sympathetic toward … atheism.”

3. Abraham Franzblau, 1934
Confirming Howells and Carlson, tested 354 Jewish children, 10-16. A negative correlation was found between religiosity and Terman’s intelligence test.

4. Thomas Symington, 1935
He tested 400 young people in colleges and church groups. He reported, “there is a constant positive relation in all the groups between liberal religious thinking and mental ability…There is also a constant positive relation between liberal scores and intelligence…”

5. Vernon Jones, 1938
He tested 381 students, concluding “a slight tendency for intelligence and liberal attitudes to go together.”

6. A. R. Gilliland, 1940
At variance with all other studies, found “little or no relationship between intelligence and attitude toward god.”

7. Donald Gragg, 1942
He reported an inverse correlation between 100 ACE freshman test scores and Thurstone “reality of god” scores.

8. Brown and Love, 1951
At U. of Denver, tested 613 male and female students. Mean test scores of non-believers = 119, believers = 100. Percentile NBs = 80, BBs = 50. Their findings “strongly corroborate those of Howells.”

9. Michael Argyle, 1958
He concluded that “although intelligent children grasp religious concepts earlier, they are also the first to doubt the truth of religion, and intelligent students are much less likely to accept orthodox beliefs.”

10. Jeffrey Hadden, 1963
Found no correlation between intelligence and grades. This was an anomalous finding, since GPA corresponds closely with intelligence. Other factors may have influenced the results at the U. of Wisconsin.

11. Young, Dustin and Holtzman, 1966
Average religiosity decreased as GPA rose.

12. James Trent, 1967
Polled 1400 college seniors. Found little difference, but high-ability students in his sample group were over-represented.

13. C. Plant and E. Minium, 1967
The more intelligent students were less religious, both before entering college and after 2 years of college.

14. Robert Wuthnow, 1978
Of 532 students, 37% of christians, but 58% of apostates and 53 percent of non-religious students scored above average on SATs.

15. Hastings and Hoge, 1967, 1974
Polled 200 college students and found no significant correlations.

16. Norman Poythress, 1975
He found Mean SATs for strongly antireligious (1148), moderately anti-religious (1119), slightly antireligious (1108), and religious (1022).

17. Wiebe and Fleck, 1980
They studied 158 male and female Canadian university students. They reported “nonreligious S’s tended to be strongly intelligent” and “more intelligent than religious S’s.

Student Body Comparisons-

1. Rose Goldsen, Student belief in a divine god, percentages 1952.
Harvard 30; UCLA 32; Dartmouth 35; Yale 36; Cornell 42; Wayne 43; Weslyan 43; Michigan 45; Fisk 60; Texas 62; N. Carolina 68.

2. National Review Study, 1970 Students Belief in Spirit or Divine
God. Percentages: Reed 15; Brandeis 25; Sarah Lawrence 28; Williams 36; Stanford 41; Boston U. 41; Yale 42; Howard 47; Indiana 57; Davidson 59; S. Carolina 65; Marquette 77.

3. Caplovitz and Sherrow, 1977
Apostasy rates rose continuously from 5% in “low” ranked schools to 17% in “high” ranked schools.

4. Niemi, Ross, and Alexander, 1978
In elite schools, organized religion was judged important by only 26%, compared with 44% of all students.

Studies of Very-High-IQ groups.

1. Terman, 1959
Studied group with IQ > 140. Of men, 10% held strong religious belief, of women 18%. 62% of men and 57% of women when claiming “little religious inclination,” while 28% men and 23% of women who claimed it was “not at all important.”

2. Warren and Heist, 1960
They found no differences among National Merit Scholars. Results may have been affected by the fact that NM scholars are not selected on the basis of intelligence or grades alone, but also on “leadership” and such.

3. Southern and Plant, 1968
42 male and 30 female members of Mensa. Mensa members were much less religious in belief than the typical American college alumnus or adult.

4. William S. Ament, 1927
C. C. Little, president U. of Michigan, checked persons listed in Who’s Who in America: “Unitarians, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Universalists, and Presbyterians are … far more numerous in Who’s Who than would be expercted on the basis of the population which they form. Baptists, Methodists, and Catholics are distinctly less numerous.”

Ament confirmed Little’s conclusion. He noted that Unitarians, the least religious, were more than 40 times as numerous in Who’s Who as in the U.S. population.

5. Lehman and Witty, 1931
Identified 1189 scientists found in both _Who’s Who_ (1927) and American Men of Science (1927). Only 25% in AM of S and 50% of those listed in Who’s Who reported their religious denomination despite the specific requests to do so, “religious denomination (if any).” Well over 90% of the general population claims religious affiliation. The figure of 25% suggest far less religiosity among scientists.

Unitarians were 81.4 times as numerous among eminent scientists as non-Unitarians.

6. Kelley and Fisk, 1951
Found a negative (-.39) correlation between the strength of religious values and research competence.

7. Ann Roe, 1953

Interviewed 64 “eminent scientists, nearly all members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences or the American Philosophical Society. She reported that, while nearly all of them had religious parents and had attended Sunday school, ‘now only three of these men are seriously active in church. A few others attend upon occasion, or even give some financial support to a church which they do not attend… All the others have long since dismissed religion as any guide to them, and the church plays no part in their lives…A few are militantly atheistic, but most are just not interested.'”

8. Francis Bello, 1954
Questionnaired or interviewed 107 young (<= 40) nonindustrial scientists judged by senior colleagues to be outstanding. 87 responded. 45% claimed to be “agnostic or atheistic” and an additional 22% claimed no religious affiliation. For 20 most eminent, “the proportion who are now a-religious is considerably higher than in the entire survey group.”

9. Jack Chambers, 1964
Questionnaired 740 US psychologists and chemists. He reported, “the highly creative men [jft- assume no women included] … significantly more often show either no preference for a particular religion or little or no interest in religion.” Found that the most eminent psychologists showed 40% no preference, 16% for the most eminent chemists.

10. Vaughan, Smith, and Sjoberg, 1965
Polled 850 US physicists, zoologists, chemical engineers, and geologists listed in American Men of Science (1955) on church membership, and attendance patterns, and belief in afterlife. 642 replies.

38.5% did not believe in afterlife, 31.8% did. Belief in immortality was less common among major university staff than among those employed by business, government, or minor universities. The contemporaneous Gallup poll showed 2/3 of US population believed in afterlife, so scientists were far less religious than typical adult.

From Beckwith’s concluding remarks:

Conclusions

In this essay I have reviewed: (1)sixteen studies of the correlation between individual measures of student intelligence and religiosity, all but three of which reported an inverse correlation. (2) five studies reporting that student bodies with high average IQ and/or SAT scores are much less religious than inferior student bodies; (3) three studies reporting that geniuses (IQ 150+) are much less religious than the general public (Average IQ, 100), and one dubious study, (4) seven studies reporting that highly successful persons are much less religious in belief than are others; and (5) eight old and four new Gallup polls revealing that college alumni (average IQ about 115) are much less religious in belief than are grade-school students polled.

I have also noted that many studies have shown that students become less religious as they proceed through college, probably in part because average IQ rises.

All but four of the forty-three polls I have reviewed support the conclusion that native intelligence varies inversely with degree of religious faith; i.e., that, other factors being equal, the more intelligent a person is, the less religious he is. It is easy to find fault with the studies I have reviewed, for all were imperfect. But the fact that all but four of them supported the general conclusion provides overwhelming evidence that, among American students and adults, the amount of religious faith tends to vary inversely and appreciably with intelligence.

There are no entirely satisfactory measures of intelligence, nor even satisfactory definitions of what is to be measured. Intelligence seems to be something, though, and every tack we take in trying to catch the elusive winds of thought carries us further toward workable definitions. Is intelligence a good memory, the ability to sculpt, make a diving catch in center field, play blindfold chess, construct sentences of “learned length and thundering sound”, or time a punchline?

SAT tests, IQ tests, success in life, measures of fame and esteem in peer groups all fail to give that satisfying, final readout of how smart or stupid any given person is. The evidence we have indicates that the more we know about the real world, the less likely we are to believe in an imaginary one.

  WHO ARE THE NONBELIEVERS AND ATHEISTS?

Atheism, in a broad sense, is the rejection of belief in the existence of dieties. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Most inclusively, atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which in its most general form is the belief that at least one deity exists.

The term atheism originated from the Greek ἄθεος (atheos), meaning “without god”, which was applied with a negative connotation to those thought to reject the gods worshipped by the larger society. With the spread of freethought, skeptical inquiry, and subsequent increase in criticism of religion, application of the term narrowed in scope. The first individuals to identify themselves as “atheist” appeared in the 18th century.

Today, about 2.3% of the world’s population describes itself as atheist, while a further 11.9% is described as nonreligious. Between 64% and 65% of Japanese are atheists, agnostics, or do not believe in God. In Australia the percentage of atheists is close to 25%. In Europe, the estimated percentage of atheists, agnostics and other nonbelievers in a personal god ranges as low as single digits in Poland, Romania, Cyprus, and some other countries, and up to 85% in Sweden (where 17% identify themselves as atheists), 80% in Denmark, 72% in Norway, and 60% in Finland.

Atheists tend to lean toward skepticism regarding supernatural claims, citing a lack of empirical evidence. Atheists have offered several rationales for not believing in any deity. These include the problem of evil, the argument from inconsistent revelations, and the argument from nonbelief. Other arguments for atheism range from the philosophical to the social to the historical. Although some atheists have adopted secular philosophies, there is no one ideology or set of behaviors to which all atheists adhere.

In Western culture, atheists are frequently assumed to be exclusively irreligious or unspirtual. However, atheism also figures in certain religious and spiritual belief systems, such as Jainism, and some forms of Buddhism that do not advocate belief in gods. Hinduism also holds atheism to be valid, but difficult to follow spiritually.

Diversity of Opinion in Early Christianity

 There was no New Testament for early Christians. The books that were eventually collected into the New Testament had been written by the 2nd century but had not been gathered yet into a widely recognized and authoritative canon of Scripture. The best way to determine if early Christians held differing opinions about Christ and Christianity is to know what their beliefs were and how they differed.

For example, according to Erdman, “The wide diversity of early Christianity may be seen above all in the theological beliefs embraced by people who understood themselves to be followers of Jesus.”  Erdman goes on to cite an impressive offering of different beliefs among early Christians of the second and third centuries. Among those Christians, some thought there was just one god, and others believed there were two gods. Some thought there were thirty and some even believed there were 365.

There were Christians that thought God created the world; other Christians thought or believed that this world had been created by a subordinate, ignorant divinity. (Why else would the world be filled with such misery and hardship?). Yet other Christians thought it was worse than that, that this world was a cosmic mistake created by a malevolent divinity as a place of imprisonment, to trap humans and subject them to pain and suffering.

There were Christians in the second and third centuries who believed that the Jewish Scriptures (the Christian “Old Testament”) was inspired by the one true God. Others believed it was inspired by the God of the Jews, who was not the one true God. Others believed it was inspired by an evil deity. Others believed it was not inspired.

In the second and third centuries there were Christians who believed that Jesus was both divine and human, God and man. There were other Christians that argued that he was completely divine and not human at all. (For them, divinity and humanity were incommensurate entities: God can no more be a man than a man can be a rock.) There were others who insisted that Jesus was a full flesh-and- blood human, adopted by God to be his son but not himself divine. There were yet other Christians who claimed that Jesus Christ was two things: a full flesh-and-blood human, Jesus, and a fully divine Christ, who temporarily inhabited Jesus’ body during his ministry and left him prior to his death, inspiring his teachings and miracles but avoiding the suffering in its aftermath.

Finally, there were Christians who believed that Jesus’ death brought about the salvation of the world. Others believed that Jesus’ death had nothing to do with the salvation of the world. There were other Christians who said that Jesus never died.

At the time the New Testament was written (The Gospels that were included in the New Testament were all written anonymously), and later assigned the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as reputed authors, there were other Gospel books that were becoming available as sacred texts that were being read and revered by different Christian groups throughout the world.

But all these other Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses were viewed as heresy by the orthodox religious authorities of the day. As rich and as popular as these books were among early Christians, they were excluded from becoming part of the sacred scriptures or canon of Christianity. What eventually became the 27 books of the New Testament is only a subset of all Christian literature that was once available to all Christians.

At the root of the development of orthodox views only of Christianity–was politics, even in the ancient world. Holding a conservative orthodox view of Christianity today is, as it was in early Christianity, to see only one view of Christianity. Just because it’s a politically derived set of canonized scriptures doesn’t make it any more descriptive of the historical Jesus than if the literature of those branded the heretics of Christianity had succeeded instead in dominating the sacred texts of Christianity.

Modern Day Differences of Opinion

Despite the orthodoxy of winning the battle to control the scriptures of early Christianity, large differences today exist among the world religions and the many denominations within Christianity itself.

Any particular church’s doctrine may be at great variance, not only with other world religions and other denominations within Christianity, but with the very tomb of religious cannon itself that they promote as their source of authority–the Bible. We see wide variation of opinion regarding Christian doctrine. Differences of opinion are the rule where the Bible is concerned, not the exception. One group that has received a lot of media attention is known as the Jesus Seminar. This is a group of academic scholars who question the truth behind the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith.

According to Lee Strobel,

The Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith: the Jesus Seminar believes there’s a big gulf between the two. In its view the historical Jesus was a bright, witty, countercultural man who never claimed to be the Son of God, while the Jesus of faith is a cluster of feel-good ideas that help people live right but are ultimately based on wishful thinking.

One of the great apologists for Christianity was C.S. Lewis (1898-1963). Many younger generations may more likely remember C.S. Lewis for his creative fictional work, “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.” C. S. Lewis was one of the great defenders of the Faith since his conversion to Christianity in 1931. There were many Christians at Oxford in the 1940s. Many, like Lewis, felt that both the pros and cons of the Christian religion should be discussed openly. This led to the foundation of the Socratic Club. C.S. Lewis served as its president until 1954 when he became a Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature at Cambridge University, England.

Many scholars today probably would dismiss Lewis’ logic as nothing more than Socratic debate double-talk, or that his underlying assumptions about the relationship of natural to supernatural things or events made no sense at all. There was one statement in the Preface to Lewis’ book that did make a lot of sense. That is, Walter Hooper wrote, in the preface to Lewis’ book, God in the Dock, “Regardless of one’s education, it is impossible to decide whether Christianity is true or false if you do not know what it is about.” The methodology, of course, of knowing what something is about, should be based on observation, knowledge, and interpretation of the facts and assumptions made.

Interpretation of the bible itself is made further difficult by the conflicts between various texts. There are texts within the New Testament that conflict with one another as well as conflict with those sacred texts that were rejected by the Orthodox Church. These rejected texts may have been more representative of who Jesus was and what Christianity was about than those texts that eventually became the “Orthodox view” of the bible people read today. For example Elaine Pagels reports in, Beyond Belief–The Secret Gospel of Thomas, “Christian mystics, like their Jewish and Muslim counterparts, have always been careful not to identify themselves with God. But the gospel of Thomas teaches that recognizing one’s affinity with God is the key to the kingdom of God.” Pagels goes on to say that,

Orthodox Jews and Christians, of course, have never wholly denied affinity between God and ourselves. But their leaders have tended to discourage or, at least, to circumscribe the process through which people may seek God on their own. This may be why some people raised as Christians and Jews today are looking elsewhere to supplement what they have not found in Western tradition.

Will Christianity Decline in the 21st Century?

It is a fact that there has been a 13% decline in the number of adherents to Christianity since 1900. And, it is very likely that the Christian religion will continue to decline as society moves further into the 21st Century.

This decline will force people to face the reality that previous explanations for how the world about us works—just doesn’t possess the influence they once did. Many people will find this upsetting, especially because their belief in a supernatural “sky God who judges you” is now being questioned like never before. As Christianity declines, many people in the religious community will believe that their values are being threatened and their influence diminishing.

I hope that such people will understand that social change throughout history is both normal and inevitable. Given the vast diversity of America culture today, I hope that most people will see both social change and diversity as an opportunity to redefine their perceptions regarding reality, and begin to focus on a more inclusive, rather than exclusive, set of values. Many people may wonder what caused the decline in Christianity. At this point in time eleven general causes have been identified.

The reasons for the decline include:

The growth of secularism and the changing religious landscape

The growth of Atheism

The influence of modern science on society

Social changes in beliefs

Global awareness of different cultures and other belief systems

Disdain for fundamentalism at home and abroad

Increases in educational level of the citizenry

Increasing unwillingness of people to accept naïve supernatural explanations

A modern information explosion in all areas of knowledge

A more liberalized, democratic, and less dogmatic society

And recognition that all values were up for grabs during the 20th century, including freedom from religion

Conclusions

This Blog has attempted to look at different religious beliefs and perspectives in America. Just as Americans are a very diverse group of people, so too are the religious beliefs of Americans. The more dogmatic among us view their beliefs as cast in iron or concrete. However, the facts demonstrate that religious beliefs are constantly changing. Social change is the poison conservatives fear the most, and revere the least.

The data in this Blog may be painful for some. That’s unfortunate. So, how do we overcome the social stranglehold religions have on a person’s ability to think clearly, factually, and logically? Bright people, especially very bright people, are not shackled by the chains of superstition or religious dogma because they are endowed, not just with high IQs, but more importantly, with a healthy skepticism. Those less endowed with gray matter between their ears grasp for certainty in their lives; there is nothing wrong with wanting certainty.

However, the mature adult, whether super-bright or not, needs to take responsibility for one’s own life. That takes courage and determination. Once fairy tales are dispensed with a kind of new freedom of the mind is achieved. However, that freedom has a price to pay. Erik Fromm wrote a seminal work during the 1940s, Escape from Freedom. In Escape from Freedom he writes that man strives for independence and individuality, in essence to be free.

History shows that freedom from external domination. According to Fromm, “The history of economic liberation, political democracy, religious autonomy, and individualism in personal life, gave expression to the longing for freedom, and at the same time seemed to bring mankind closer to its realization. One tie after another was severed. Man had overcome the domination of nature and had made himself her master; he had overcome the church and the domination of the absolutist state. The abolition of external domination seemed to be a necessary but also a sufficient condition to attain the cherished goal: freedom of the individual.”

But Fromm wondered why it was, despite the long history of wars and fighting to achieve freedom, people (like in Italy and Germany during World War II) were so willing to give up their freedom so easily to a charismatic leader or dictator. He concluded that people tend to want to escape from freedom and that this process is very much psychological. Freedom, while very welcome on the one hand, nevertheless presents the individual with too many choices he must confront in his life. A few can handle this freedom. Many cannot.

The reaction to such choice is often aloneness, isolation, and a desire to escape such freedom. Often the form that it takes is to submit oneself to a higher authority, a religion, or a charismatic leader. If aloneness is the price of individuality, “impulses arise to give up one’s individuality, to overcome the feeling of aloneness and powerlessness by completely submerging oneself in the world outside.” As one submits, one realizes that the price it pays is giving up strength and the integrity of the self. Once again, according to Fromm, “This identity with nature, clan, religion, gives the individual security. He belongs to, is rooted in, a structuralized whole in which he has an unquestionable place. He may suffer from hunger or suppression, but he does not suffer from the worst of all pains–complete aloneness and doubt.”

During the twentieth century psychology, sociology, and anthropology gave society great tools for understanding itself. To this, we are all indebted. The eleven reasons listed above for what has impacted changes in Christianity all add up to one undeniable fact: Christianity is in trouble and will likely continue to spiral downward in size as fewer and fewer people buy indiscriminately into its primarily emotional, and correspondingly vacuous logical basis.

Part II of this series will show that religious people are still trapped inside the conundrum of ancient scripture and cultural thinking patterns of 2000 years ago. The one unfortunate thing about reliance on an ancient document for one’s direction in life is that many Americans rely on something they have very little knowledge of in the first place. Also, saying one should have faith—is a “cop-out.” What people need is not faith, but greater reasoning power. Whether one is talking about educational attainment, IQ scores, SAT scores, GPA, or attainment of great success in life, the evidence leans toward convergence of all these indices. That is, there is a convergence of the research evidence which shows that the more intelligent an individual is the less religious he tends to be. As quoted earlier in this Blog, “The evidence we have indicates that the more we know about the real world, the less likely we are to believe in an imaginary one.”

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A Bogus Christianity based on an Incomplete Bible

 On December 25th, 2005, and later during the spring of 2006, the History Channel presented an outstanding 2-hour world premiere documentary called, “Banned from the Bible.” The reader must understand that many Christian documents and gospels on Christ and Christianity may have been destroyed or lost during the last 2000 years. However, many gospels and related documents were not lost or destroyed. They were simply banned from the Bible. What makes the extant Bible the Word of God? Why wouldn’t the volumes of excluded documents also be the Word of God? And if so, who appointed whom to be the editor of God’s word? Could it be then that the existing bogus Bible really had nothing to do with giving voice to God’s word if men decided what was and was not the Word of God?   

It is obvious to religious scholars that these books were in some way objectionable and threatening to the leaders of the orthodox Christian churches. Anything that did not meet with their approval was branded as heresy. Many of the books that were available as possible candidates for inclusion in the New Testament were, in fact, very popular with early Christians. Like today, early Christians hungered for any information about Christ.

The extant Bible today is a bogus version representing the life of Christ in only an incomplete and limited way. Other Christian beliefs, such as those of the Agnostics, never saw the light of day even though many might argue better represented the true nature of Jesus Christ and Christianity. Interpretation and the derivation of meaning from any scriptures are patently unintelligible if the original sources of literary importance were excluded.

 One hundred and fifty years after the birth of Jesus, a man named Marcion decided that a Christian Bible was needed to replace the Hebrew Bible. Church leaders opposed Marcion’s banning of the Hebrew books, but they did agree that Christians should have a Bible of their own. After Constantine the Great converted to Christianity in the 4th century, a serious effort was made to compile a Christian bible, one that included both the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) and Christian manuscripts (the New Testament). It took another 40 years before a final list of New Testament books was officially canonized by the church. Many of the most popular were excluded. Upon examination today, many of these writings attempt to resolve inconsistencies and questions raised from reading the bible.[i]    

 As pointed out, more gospels and documents were left out than were included. To say that the Bible is the word of God is to miss the mark in a big way. The Bible was the political creation of conservative, Orthodox Church leaders in the 4th century that determined what was included, and what wasn’t included in the Bible.

 It is interesting to note in Bart D. Ehrman’s book, Lost Christianities when he points out,

  It is striking that, for centuries, virtually everyone who studied the history of early Christianity simply accepted the version of the early conflicts written by the orthodox victors. This all began to change in a significant way in the nineteenth century as some scholars began to question the ‘objectivity’ of such early Christian writers as the fourth-century orthodox author Eusebius, the so-called Father of Church History, who reproduced for us the earliest account of the conflict. This initial query into Eusebius’s accuracy eventually became, in some circles, a virtual onslaught on his character, as twentieth-century scholars began to subject his work to an ideological critique that exposed his biases and their role in his presentation. The reevaluation of Eusebius was prompted, in part, by the discovery of additional ancient books, uncovered by trained archaeologists looking for them and by Bedouin who came across them by chance, other gospels, for examples, that also claimed to be written in the names of apostles.[ii]

 Banned Sacred Texts

 A short synopsis of some of the banned sacred texts follows. Each of the books was excluded from the canons of Christianity:

 The Life of Adam and Eve: A more detailed story of creation than what is found in Genesis, this book includes jealous angels, a more devious serpent, and more information about Eve’s fall from grace from her point of view.[iii] 

  • The Book of Jubilees: This obscure Hebrew text offers an answer to a question that has vexed Christians for centuries – if Adam and Eve only had sons, and if no other humans existed, who gave birth to humanity? This text reveals that Adam and Eve had nine children and that Cain’s younger sister Awan became his wife. The idea that humanity was born of incest would have been radical – and heretical.[iv]
  • The Book of Enoch: This scripture reads like a modern day action film, telling of fallen angels, bloodthirsty giants, an earth that had become home to an increasingly flawed humanity and a Devine judgment to be rendered though denied a place in most Western Bibles; it has been used for centuries by Ethiopian Christians. Large portions of this book were found as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls.[v]
  • The Infancy Gospel of Thomas: The only book that deals with young Jesus, it indicates that Jesus was a strong-willed child who one historian describes as “Dennis the Menace as God.” The book reveals that at age five, Jesus may have killed a boy by pushing him off a roof and then resurrected him. Perhaps too disturbing for inclusion in the Bible, this book seems to contain traditions, also known to the Koran.[vi]
  • The Protovangelion of James: This book offers details of the life of the Virgin Mary, her parents, her birth and her youth, stories not found in the New Testament Gospels but was beloved by many early Christians.
  • The Gospel of Mary: This Agnostic Text reveals that Mary Magdalene may have been an apostle, perhaps even a leading apostle, not a prostitute. While some texts in the Bible seem to deny women a voice in the Christian community, this text helps spark the debate about the role of women in the church.[vii]
  • The Gospel of Nicodemus: This is the story of Jesus’s trial and execution and descent into hell. According to this gospel the Savior asserts his power over Satan by freeing patriarchs such as Adam, Isaiah and Abraham from Hell.[viii] 
  • The Apocalypse of Peter: Peter’s apocalypse suggests that there is a way out of punishment for evildoers and implies that the threat of the apocalypse is a way for God to scare people into living a moral life, and committing fewer sins.[ix]

 “These books are just a sampling of the hundreds of that were never included in the Holy Bible. Perhaps there are more to be found. Whether one believes these alternative stories or not, they do provide an interesting perspective of the religious culture and propensities of the time.”[x]

 On April 7, 2006 a bombshell rocked the world of modern day Christianity. Another book that had never made its way into the “official Bible” was discovered and found to be, through carbon dating, authentic. After 1700 years The Gospel of Judas was rediscovered. “Judas Iscariot, long reviled as history’s quintessential betrayer, was actually the best friend of Jesus and turned him over to authorities only because Jesus asked him to, according to the Gospel of Judas.”[xi] The long-lost document was revealed by the National Geographic Society. The document is considered by some to be the most important archaeological find in the last 60 years. It “purports to record conversations between Jesus and Judas in the last week of their lives–conversations in which Jesus shared religious secrets not known by the other disciples.”[xii]

This particular gospel, like many others above, was ruled heretical by early church leaders because of its disagreement with the conventionally accepted Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. According to Thomas H. Maugh II, writer for the Los Angeles Times, “Biblical scholars, however, hailed the new text because of the insight it will provide into the exceptionally turbulent period when competing ideologies sought to stake their own claims to the Jesus story, battling in oral stories and written texts until a single, faction eventually won out.”[xiii]

This writer’s article, which appeared in the Sacramento Bee also reported that, “Scholars said the 26-page document was written on 13 sheets of papyrus leaf in ancient Egyptian, or Coptic, and was bound as a book, known as a codex. It is one of dozens of sacred texts from the Christian Gnostics, who believed that salvation came through secret knowledge conveyed by Jesus.”[xiv] 

 The Great Problem of Biblical Interpretation

 One of the greatest problems for Christian believers and non-believers alike is interpretation of biblical scriptures. Historically, this is shown and demonstrated by the plethora of major denominations and splinter groups in the Protestant movement alone. Different groups reflect different perspectives on Christian practice, theology, and the underlying meaning of scripture. All of this is aside from the many religions worldwide that have very different systems of belief from Christianity.

 Fundamentalists in Christianity are more likely to believe in a ‘literal’ interpretation of the Bible. What exactly is a literal interpretation?

 According to Donald K. Campbell, “when we interpret the Bible literally we interpret its words and sentences in their natural, normal, and usual sense.”[xv] He quotes Merrill F. Unger as saying the literal method is “the method which seeks to arrive at the precise meaning of the language of each of the Bible writers as is required by the laws of grammar and the facts of history.”[xvi] At the heart of this approach is to derive ‘meaning’ from the scriptures.

The literal method does not preclude figures of speech such as symbols, allegories, metaphors, and similes.[xvii] The literal method recognizes that sometimes poetical and allegorical language is used to support a literal meaning of the Bible.[xviii] Natural meaning, rather than literal words, per se, is secondary to natural meaning that provides context to underlying biblical truth.

Campbell further asserts that the more important principles of literal interpretation of the Bible include: (1) grammatical interpretation, (2) contextual interpretation, and (3) passages in the Bible have one meaning that should be determined prior to any moral application of the passage.[xix]

However, A.R. Bernard, Pastor of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn New York says, “Interpretation of the Bible is more than literal.” That is, he describes the interpretation of the Bible as literal, figurative, and symbolic.[xx] According to Campbell and Bell, coming to agreement about what the Bible means has been quite a difficult task.[xxi] Both authors attribute difficulty to three factors: (1) a changing culture, (2) different and changing religions, and (3) different ways of understanding sacred writing. Within the Christian faith alone there is a plethora of opinions on what scriptures mean.[xxii]

Whether something is told as a parable, appears to be hyperbole, the words themselves always need to have their meaning deciphered. Campbell and Bell generally agreed (also an opinion) that the Bible provides God’s truth for our lives, but how to interpret that truth is another matter. These authors also say, “One reason you need to check out the bible on your own, rather than limiting your knowledge to what we tell you, is that people vary in their opinion of what is to be taken literally and what is figurative or symbolic.”[xxiii]

According to Christian scriptures, only God possesses absolute truth, not man. However, it is still man who must interpret scriptures. If this were not so there wouldn’t be so many religions worldwide, and so many different denominations within Christianity itself. “We all tend to draw those lines in different places, and its no simple matter to say that one person is right and another wrong.”[xxiv] How right one is ought to follow some degree of logic and reason, two things fundamentalists reject, ironically, even when defending their own positions.

There are extremes unfortunately in how scripture is interpreted. Some splinter Christian groups use snakes in their services, and others employ mentally unbalanced oppressive interpretations of God and scripture. Such was the case with charismatic leaders David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, and Jim Jones of Jonestown.

 Freedom of religion is a key freedom in every democracy; but also democracy, to be truly free, requires that there also be freedom from religion. Problems of interpreting the morality underlying many stories in the Bible are very significant. Seeing the Bible as the only source for moral conduct is not only problematic, but downright immoral.

 Using the Bible as any source for moral conduct is not only highly misplaced judgment, but highly dangerous in its implications. Problems of moral interpretation of the Bible reach far beyond the difficulties individuals have with ordinary contradictions and nonsensical or bizarre statements found in the Bible. There are more moral contradictions in the Bible than there are speeders on the nation’s freeways. Rather than address all of them I will concentrate on just a few.

 Is God A Loving God or a Murderous Thug? You Decide.

 In the Bible, many people, including children, are slaughtered. Does God want children to die as some sort of whim? In Matt 18:14. it reads, “It is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.” One might conclude from this passage that God doesn’t want any children to die. However, he often kills children and commands others to do so as well. In Gen.7: 21-22. God drowns all children (except for Noah’s) in a worldwide flood. In Gen.19:24. God kills all of the children of Sodom and Gomorrah, and in Gen. 22:2. God tells Abraham to kill his son for a burnt offering. Gee, what a loving God!

One must remember that fundamentalists believe in a “literal” interpretation of the Bible. If one does take a literal view, as fundamentalists tell us we should when reading and interpreting the Bible, one certainly can’t simultaneously take a symbolic or metaphorical interpretation just to be able to deny the acts of violence and mass murder committed by a monotheistic God. Fundamentalists must also accept these acts of murder as the will of God.

In Exodus 21:15; Lev. 20:9 and Deut.21: 18-21. the word of God says, “Children who are disobedient, or who curse or strike their parents are to be killed. In 1 Samuel 15: 2-3. God orders Saul to kill all of the Amalekite children, and in 2 Samuel 12: 15, 18, and 20. to punish David for having Uriah killed, God kills David’s newborn son. In Deut. 20:16. and Joshua 10:40. God orders the Israelites to kill everyone including the children in the cities that they invaded.

Another area of interest is modern day Christian writers. One of the most influential contemporary religious writers is Lee Strobel. Lee Strobel has written several books on Christianity including The Case for Faith, The Case for Christ, and The Case for the Creator. In the Case for Faith, as in his other books, he takes the approach of stating objections to Christianity as a kind of intellectually presented “straw man.”

His Objection # 4 (in The Case for Faith) is “God Isn’t Worthy of Worship If He Kills Innocent Children.”[xxv] Next in the process he conducts interviews of key religious scholars or academic theologians for their answers.

On the surface this appears to be straightforward and objective. One of his interviews was with a religious expert, Norman L. Geisler. In one example God orders genocide by telling the Israelites in Deuteronomy 7 to totally destroy the Cannanites and six other nations and to show them no mercy. “God orders the execution of every Egyptian firstborn; He flooded the world and killed untold thousands of people; He told the Israelites to now go attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children, and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”[xxvi]

Strobel asked a question, “How can people be expected to worship Him if he orders innocent children to be slaughtered? Geisler’s answer was some odd statement about how evil the Amalekites had been, and God’s motive for committing murder. Strobel again asks the question by pressing him, “Why did innocent children need to be killed?” Geisler’s answer then took off in the direction of the totally bizarre. He said “that technically nobody is truly innocent because we’re all born in sin.”[xxvii] Here the Christian concept of Original Sin is invoked again.

This ascribed status for all human beings (rather than judgment based on earned status) of being born in sin is presumably one of God’s justifications for murdering children. Classifying children as full of sin is similar to what often happens to victims of violent crime in the criminal justice system in modern day society. That is, the victim is blamed for the acts of the criminal. For example, “She had it coming to her. She got raped because she lured me.” Blaming the victim is to misplace responsibility for the acts of the offender. When children are blamed through some religiously simplistic explanation of original sin, it only reinforces the non-believer’s perception that people within Christianity are very misguided.

 The Key to Salvation: Faith or Good Works?

 One of the key doctrines of Christianity is salvation. Some believers of the faith believe salvation is by faith alone. What the Bible has to say about it is pure unadulterated contradiction. In Mark16:16. “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”[xxviii]

It is said in Acts 16:30-31., “Sirs what must I do to be saved? And they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved–you and your household.”[xxix] However, in Psalm 62:12. “For you render to each according to his works,” and in Jer.17: 10. “I the Lord…give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruits of his doing,”[xxx] and in Matt. 16: 27. “For the Son of Man will come in his glory of His Father with His angels, and then he will reward each according to his works.”[xxxi] And in addition there is James 2:17. “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, it is dead.”[xxxii]

Contradictions in scripture are one reason why we have some Christian denominations telling their members that salvation is based on faith alone, while other denominations are preaching salvation by works alone, and others may be saying you can’t have one without the other. This emphasis on salvation, either way or both, probably varies from church-to-church.

  An Approach to Overcoming Conflict with Biblical Interpretation

 One of the ideas surrounding overcoming problems of biblical interpretation in the twentieth century was centered around theistic evolution. This was an effort on the part of some scientists and theologians to bridge the gap between science and religion. Despite the long standing conflict between the two approaches to knowledge and the seeking of “Truth,” there may be a middle ground. Not everyone agrees that there can be a middle ground.

If religion, and in particular Christianity, wants to extricate itself from its losing position in the world today, it will have to take a more reasoned approach (albeit scientific methodology) and play by a different set of rules. In all likelihood this repositioning of the rules of the game will be easier for mainline protestant groups, already many of whom have no quarrel with science, scientists or the concept of theistic evolution.

Theologians who pay lip service to wanting to bridge the gap need to remember the words of Clint Eastwood to Liam Neeson in The Dead Pool, “If you want to play in the game love, you better know what the rules are.”[xxxiii]

That means take nothing in religion on faith. Test everything according to the rules of scientific inquiry. In other words prove whatever claims are made. Let the chips fall where they may. Let there be no straw men in such testing, but rather the testing of genuine real hypotheses about biblical scripture.

Even if science isn’t brought to bear in the field of religion and theology, it is very likely that conservative fundamentalists, evangelicals and others, who demand a literal translation of biblical scriptures, will continue to experience a losing uphill battle. This is their propensity to view religious dogma in “absolute” terms. This entrenched position, of course, flies in the face of, not just scientific knowledge that contradicts scripture, but competition from other major religions and even denominations within Christianity itself.

In addition, there is absolute widespread ignorance among most Christian church-goers in the United States on the very history of Christianity itself. There is a profound need to improve the education of Christians themselves. Instead of teaching Christianity from a doctrinal point of view (and doctrine is the “psycho-babble of religion”), churchgoers would be better off initially if they endeavored to learn the actual history of their own religion. Because of this need, education needs to be more detailed as to all of the historical decision-making points in Christianity that are known.

How the Bible was put together in the first place, and how theological issues were decided at various points in Christian history had a tremendous bearing on what finally came forward from the 4th century on as to the “accepted” content of the Bible Christians use today. Much needs to be learned about 4th Century activities that changed Christianity.

Many questions need to be evaluated and discussed such as why did early Christians high-jack the Torah, the first five books of the Bible from Judaism? Where did the idea of the Trinity come from (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost)? What was the conflict of Christ’s status as either man or God, or both, and why wasn’t it officially decided until 325 C.E?    While answers to these questions are available in the academic literature on Christianity, very few church-goers have an interest in developing a deeper understanding of the very religion they lay claim to believe in. Some believers want to maintain a comfort zone of belief independent of any effort to learn the facts of the very religion they believe in. The notion of justification of beliefs and faith will be covered in Chapter 10 ahead, Religious Beliefs versus Rationality.

Despite the sometimes antagonistic relationship between science and religion it must be remembered that some scientists, namely biblical archaeologists, have contributed a great deal toward our understanding of the ancient world of the Middle East. Biblical Archaeology, however, has never been able to affirm the divinity of Christ, his miracles, or even his character. What it has been able to do is connect many of the locations and identify (through artifacts) many of the events, individuals and empires described in the Bible.


[i] Banned From the Bible: The Stories That Were Deleted From Biblical History,  25 Dec. 2005 [online]; accessed 19 Mar. 2006; available from http://www.prnewswire.com/cgi-bin/stories.pl?Acct=10466story=/www/story/12-19-2003/00

[ii] Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 5

[iii] Banned From the Bible.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times “Long Lost Document Casts Judas in new light,” in The Sacramento Bee 7 Apr. 2006, A1

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid, A12

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Donald K. Campbell, “We believe in literal interpretation,” Pamplet (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1974), 4

[xvi] Ibid, 5

[xvii] Ibid, 7

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid, 13-17

[xx] This quote was obtained while watching A.R. Bernard’s television show during the fall of 2004.

[xxi] Jim Bell and Stan Campbell, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Bible, (New York: Alpha Books, A Simon & Shuster Macmillan Company, 1999), 15

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid, 17

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith , (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), 113

[xxvi] Ibid, 118

[xxvii] Ibid, 119

[xxviii] “The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible,” [online]; accessed 16 Mar. 2005; available from http://www.skepticsannotated bible.com/contra/faithalone.html.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Clint Eastwood, The Dead Pool, 1988 VHS Tape, A Malpaso Production (15189), 1997 Warner Home Video.

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MY STRUGGLE WITH CANCER AND ITS RELIGIOUS MEANING

 

(A Personal Journey)

 

 

Have you ever been diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease? If so, how did you deal with its uncertainty? Did you worry that you might die soon, and what was your mental attitude? Were you terrified all the time? Or did you embrace a more positive “kick-ass” attitude such as, “I’m strong and can deal with anything, including death.”

 

Unfortunately, I was diagnosed with cancer, a potentially fatal disease. For me, I chose to celebrate life and to think positively. I do not presume to know how you or anyone else would react. All I can tell you is how I coped with cancer and how I determined what, if any, meaning could be ascribed to the experience.

 

So, how did all of this come about and why did a brush with death turn into a broader journey of self-discovery and search for specific religious meaning?  Where and when did it all start?  In May of 2004 I was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Through a process involving a Sonogram, a CAT scan, and an MRI, a tumor was discovered.  It was determined that the size of the tumor was very large, about eight inches long and approximately 5 inches wide. For about one month after the diagnosis I was discomposed. I didn’t know where to turn for answers.  Did I have Stage I, or Stage IV cancer, did I have any time left or was I already terminal?

 

At the age of 61, I was facing the very real possibility that maybe I wouldn’t live much longer. I might not live to see 62. After a month of worry and researching the net for answers, I had a three hour operation to remove one of my kidneys. I stayed in the hospital for 5 days during which I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink. I was amazed to discover that no eating and no water (just lemon swabs), other than that delivered by IV, was worse than the operation itself. By the third day of recovery, I was allowed to eat ice chips. Being a middle-class American I can say unequivocally, that I hadn’t missed too many meals in my life and yet I found the ice chips to be exceptionally satisfying. The last major surgery I had, I was young and bounced back quickly. This time, recovering from a kidney cancer operation was not an overnight event and it flat out wasn’t fun.  

 

Most of my life I was not a religious person. In fact, during my undergraduate college years in the early 1960s, I was definitely in the atheist camp intellectually and heavily influenced by writers such as Eric Hoffer, Bertrand Russell, Paul Tillich, Albert Camus, and John Paul Sartre and the philosophy of existentialism. I also was influenced by the academic fields of psychology and sociology, taking my baccalaureate in the former field and a minor in the latter field of study. During most of my life, the question of religion and mortality didn’t really matter to me at all. Nevertheless, I am aware that there is a large segment of our society who firmly believes that “God” will take care of them in life and in death.  Facing the real possibility of death by cancer, I began to wonder if there was some truth to this. (Plus I didn’t want to leave anything to chance if I could do anything to influence the results.) I began attending church, listening to sermons, attending religious studies classes and reading the bible.  

 

It wasn’t until I was home recovering, and had a chance to better reflect on what had happened, that I could begin to assess what it all meant. For me, two important and significant events happened as a result of my experience. (1) I learned a lot about myself and my behavior during this crisis, and (2) I began to ask myself the same types of questions that have both perplexed and stimulated human thought since the dawn of time.

 

What I learned about myself was that I took a rather positive philosophical stance on the issue of life and death, and I found that I was mentally and physically one very tough individual. One never knows until a crisis occurs how one might react. Rather than worry about myself, I became more concerned as to how my cancer would affect my loved ones. How were they reacting to the knowledge that I had cancer? What could I do to help allay their fears and anxieties?

 

I experienced tremendous support from my family and friends. I knew realistically that cancer might take my life, but I was also determined to take a “kick-ass” attitude toward the disease. I wasn’t going to let anything prevent me from living a full and long life. Whether my attitude had any effect on the cancer, the operation or recovery, I can’t say.  But soon after the operation I learned from a barrage of blood tests, and another MRI, that there was no sign the cancer had spread. When the pathologist’s report came back two weeks after the operation I learned that my cancer was, despite the very large tumor, Stage I, treatable and highly curable. Although I had a positive philosophical stance, I was never more relieved than when I got that news.

 

Two things happened while I was recovering at home.  First, I wanted to believe that my experience with cancer had a reason or purpose.  I needed the question “Why me?” answered. And, I wanted assurance that if I died because the disease came back, and there was such a place known as heaven, I would find myself in it.  In the months ahead, I became baptized in the belief that I was going to be a follower and supporter of Jesus Christ. I attended a conservative Assemblies of God evangelical church every Sunday, enjoyed the camaraderie with my friends, thoroughly enjoyed the music, and listened to the sermons with enthusiastic interest. I was glad to be alive.

 

But, as the initial scare of having cancer receded, I began to ask myself questions. Questions such as: Was it God that helped me through this trying time?  What if it had not been a success, is there really life after death; a Heaven or Hell? How could I know?  As I looked around the cathedral, I asked myself why do so many people have a strong trust in and a belief in the existence of God and others not?

 

At this point I still had a very open mind as to the evangelical preaching of Christianity, and the belief that Christ died for our sins. And I fervently hoped there was life after death. But something was troubling me from the very start. I was uneasy in my quick acceptance of the Christian doctrines that I was now being taught. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first.  I think my early years as an atheistic intellectual were beginning to influence my thoughts. The questions I asked myself then were once again popping up begging for answers. Gradually it became clear what was bothering me.  Where was the logic?

 

One Sunday morning I was listening to one of the sermons when the topic of evolution came up. The minister kept saying “evolution is just a theory.” Saying something that uninformed really awakened my researcher’s inquisitiveness. In fact, it really pushed my button. I was sure I knew much better than that. Evolution wasn’t just a theory but the very foundation of all biological life. It has 150 years of data across 20+ scientific disciplines. It is the most robust theory in all of science, and it describes the complex evolution of life on this planet. One would have to be completely blind to think otherwise.

 

In college I took science courses, and related methodologies, in physical anthropology, biology, calculus, physics, astronomy, and geology. But I also knew that much of my early college education in the sciences, and tools of science, was somewhat dated. My real strength and knowledge was in the twentieth century sciences of psychology and sociology.  Consequently, this wake-up call re-directed my thinking and re-kindled my innate curiosity. I soon began collecting books on science as well as religion. A researcher by career, I am not one to let important questions blow in the wind. I wanted to take responsibility for answering the questions for myself by myself. Being an intensely curious person, I began to investigate the nature of religion in general, and Christianity in particular. I read and listened and devoured knowledge wherever it was, including books, magazines, the internet, tapes and DVDs on Christianity and on Karen Armstrong’s book, The History of God.

 

I was determined to be objective and not let my emotional reaction to cancer continue to cloud my judgment. I began to question EVERYTHING in this world again like I did at age 20 or 21—all theories, facts, data, assumptions, values, and beliefs. Feeling foolish and stupid that I had allowed myself the luxury to think uncritically where religion was concerned, my appetite for analyzing and evaluating the important questions of religion versus science increased exponentially during the subsequent 2 ½ years. My voracious appetite for knowledge on religion and science had a direct impact on the tone and character of the second event in my life to come out of this experience—the writing of a non-fiction manuscript called, Trouble in Paradise: The Social and Intellectual Decline of Christianity and the Rise of Science..

 

So what conclusions have I come to during my struggle with cancer and its religious meaning? What “analytical insights” do I now have? By the way, I don’t like to use the term “belief” because beliefs are a dime a dozen and based on assumptions that lack the merit of evidence. I much prefer to use the term “analytical insight.” It too is based on assumptions, but it does carry with it the merit of logic and evidence.

 

In general, my analytical insight is that all religions, including Christianity, are cultural phenomena. My search for religious meaning and having cancer has no connection whatsoever. There is no meaning to it. Cancer is what it is, and its causes are very complex involving genetic and/or environmental factors. I really can’t personalize the experience of having cancer. Trying to derive meaning, or ascribing some sort of significance to cancer, was based on my egocentric need to believe that the physical and mental stress I endured had importance and value.

 

Once I got past this desire to connect meaning with my cancer experience, I began to use the “jeweler’s eye” to focus in on what religion and Christianity were really all about. After four years of study, and writing of the manuscript, these are my analytical insights: 

 

Up until this point I had believed in the idea of theistic evolution, i.e., the notion that religion and science need not be in conflict with one another, a position not unlike the position taken today by many mainstream protestant denominations. And, interestingly enough, this is also the position taken by the Catholic Church since Second Vatican II in 1965. Now I question my beliefs regarding theistic evolution.

 

The root of all religion goes back to Animism nearly 200,000 years ago. And monotheism grew out of the larger cultural experience of polytheism. That transition from polytheism to monotheism changed the emphasis from a spirit-centered world, reflective of many gods, to a human-centered world, reflective of just one god. Isn’t it amazing that a single god is ascribed with so many human characteristics and emotions?

 

Today, monotheism dominates the religious landscape worldwide. A human-centered world is really about culture with its never-ending collective Ego. Given human nature, I’m not surprised today that society (and the individual) puts itself at the center of the universe. Early cultures believed that the earth was at the center of the solar system , and along with it—mankind. No one back then  understood just how large the universe really was. This was what society believed for centuries before Galileo defended heliocentrism (the sun rather than the earth was at the center of the solar system) during the seventeenth century.  His defense of such a controversial theory violated biblical scripture of the times. But today heliocentrism is a widely held and accepted fact.

 

In such an egotistical social environment, culture got it wrong. God did not create man in God’s image, rather the opposite—Man created God in man’s own image. It is amazing to me that people use reason and logic all the time in their everyday lives, but somehow give religion a free pass from logical scrutiny. Many people believe in “a sky God who judges you” because they want to, not because they have personal knowledge behind supernatural hypotheses. They want to believe in an intelligently designed universe and designer. However, just ask people who have suffered from a lifetime of back problems and pain whether they think the human body was intelligently designed. My guess is you won’t find many takers with that proposition. And the concept of faith, rather than being simply reverential yearning, is really a “cop out” for not demanding evidence. Why does demanding evidence and promoting logic and reason trump belief and faith? I think the late comedian George Carlin summed it all up very well.

 

“Something is wrong here. War, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty, torture, crime, corruption and the Ice Capades.  Something is definitely wrong. This is not good work. If this is the best God can do, I am not impressed. Results like these do not belong on the resume of a supreme being. This is the kinda (expletive) you’d expect from an office temp with a bad attitude.”

 

Please periodically return to this blog and stay tuned for future topics. One of the first to be presented soon is to answer the question, “Will Christianity decline in the 21st Century?”

 

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