November 7, 2007

Fear of an Idea

Job: A Comedy of Justice
Job: A Comedy of Justice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The following is an invited guest post by Billy (A Liberal Disabled Vet), a regular commenter on Atheist Revolution. Enjoy!

I have been trying for most of my life (some of the early years are a little iffy) to understand people and the world. I think I may have come up with a small insight into the Christian (as well as authoritarian, fundamentalist, and christianist) mode of thought. What one idea links these groups?

I met my first girlfriend in high school at all county chorus. She was nice, quiet, sweet, and was raised Catholic and then (to the surprise of her parents) ‘born again.’ She and I had long philosophical and literary discussions, but if the subject became religion, my ideas (at the time agnostic deism (though I did not know the term at that time)) disturbed her at a very deep level. The idea of the universe as ‘god’ actually frightened her. She was not stupid. She carried a 4.0 at a public high school (including AP physics and biology) and planned to go to college to become a pharmacist. I remember trying to discuss a Heinlein book, Job: A Comedy of Justice, (hey, at 18 I thought it was a good book) which focuses on alternate universes and portrays ‘god’ as a petty tyrant who managed to wrangle a ‘universe’ for his own pleasure to (if I remember it right) prove that he could get people to worship him. Just the discussion of alternate universes (some with and some without a recognizable Christianity) scared the living hell out of her. She later broke up with me. I did not know why at the time. I later learned it was because I was not born again.

My first job after I left the U.S. Army was as a mail clerk for a government office. This involved driving ten miles, picking up the mail, driving ten mile back, bringing it to the mail office, sorting it, driving ten miles to deliver the mail, etc. I drove about 60 miles a day in 10 mile increments. Radio, specifically NPR, was my life line. One of the men who worked in the warehouse (that’s where the mail room was) would sometimes use the mini van to, say, deliver paper to the offices. I always knew he had used the van as every blinkin’ preset station on the radio had been changed to a Christian format station, erasing my two NPR stations and one classic rock station (out of 12 presets). He did this every single time. I asked him not to. I asked our boss to ask him not to. His reply? “I don’t want to risk my heavenly reward by hearing the wrong thing.” Luckily, I only worked there about 8 months.

As I look at the modern arguments involving evolution and ‘intelligent design,’ I see parallels to my personal experiences. And I have come to the conclusion that this involves the development of early Christianity.

Christianity is the second monotheistic religion after Judaism. However, Judaism is concerned less with faith than with proper observation and ritual. The question of Judaic ritual is still being argued. But (except for the recent flap in Israel regarding whether a Jew must be born of a Jewish woman and other nonsense from the radical Jewish right (and such things as excommunications in 19th century Ottoman Salonika (which had more to do with economics than Judaism))) Judaism is more than willing to discuss which ritual is appropriate and to what degree with very little questioning of whether one is still Jew.

Christianity, though, seems to have invented the idea of orthodoxy and heresy. The early history of the various Christian sects is, to put it mildly, mind-blowing. The questions dealt with such things as: does a person need to first become a Jew before he can become a Christian? Does the Old Testament even matter any more? Are there two gods, twenty gods, a thousand, or only one? Was Jesus a man, a spirit, half man-half spirit, or a was he totally both at the same time? And was Jesus part of god, next to god, equal to god? These were important questions as, for the first time, believing the wrong thing (as opposed to performing the wrong ritual) ensured eternal damnation (another Christian invention). By the time the Nicene Creed was promulgated, Christianity had become almost boringly orthodox. Virtually every sect today follows the same basic set of orthodox beliefs set out at Nicaea. And it is all based on ‘right belief.’

This made Christianity an incredibly intolerant religion. The persecutions of early Christians was not because they were monotheists, it was not because it was a new religion, it was not because of pagan intolerance. The persecutions came about because the Christians refused to even go through the motions, to observe the rituals, of the Roman state religion. Christian intolerance of heterodoxy, their refusal to see the world in anything other than black and white, though, most likely helped in the ‘conversion’ of Europe (much the same way modern political conservatism has a distinct advantage in message because of the same us and them, black and white mentality).

There were, arguably, advantages to western civilization based on monotheistic intolerance. For instance, in a polytheistic milieu, since every natural action can be attributed to a deity, why try to determine cause and effect relationships, why worry about why something happens. Western science (including the study of evolution) stem from this idea of single god (or trinity, whatever).

Today, though, we still see the intolerance of new ideas from a majority of modern Christianities. Whether at the personal level (my first girlfriend, or the fruitcake I worked with in my first post-army job) or at a national level (evolution).

Could it be that Christians, deep down inside, recognize that their religion is based on 1800 year old hearsay? I personally don’t think so (feel free to disagree). I think it is instead based on the fear that believing the wrong thing will lead to eternal damnation. If I, for instance, never learn anything new, then there is no chance of that I will believe wrongly (heresy and heterodoxy).

I look at the back of a christianist’s vehicle about three days a week (I almost invariably am behind this vehicle at a stop light). On the back are bumper stickers. These include such gems as: “Darwinists worship Satan,” “Pray the Rosary Every Day,” “God Said It, The Bible Records It, End of Discussion,” “Biblical Law for All,” “Live the Ten Commandments,” “American Judges Threaten American Life,” “Save Our Children: Close All Colleges,” “Children Need to Pray,” “Beat Satan Out of Your Child,” “Life Begins at Conception,” “Homosexuals are Dead to the Word,” the ‘IHC’ fish, “God Bless George W. Bush,” “A Monkey is Not My Uncle,” plus some I haven’t gotten close enough to read. These bumper stickers tend to support my thesis (at least in my mind) that anti-intellectualism, anti-new-idea-ism, are part and parcel to conservative fundamentalist christianist Christianity.

I am an agnostic, leaning towards atheism. I have been called a coward because I have not made the logical leap to atheism. I pride myself on being open-minded. If proof of god (or gods) can be made in a scientific and rational manner which does not have, ‘and then a miracle occurred,’ somewhere in it, I may be moved toward deism or theism. Who am I to say?

Thank you, vjack, for giving me this chance to write a longer post. Your site is wonderful and welcoming.

Billy (A Liberal Disabled Vet)