There is a strange phenomenon in my online life of comment-leaving interaction with other comment-leavers. I used to be a devout Christian of the non-denominational evangelical variety, complete with glossolalia and other gifts of the Holy Spirit, and despite having been vouchsafed sight of many miracles, eventually lost my faith. That story, along with my native agnosticism and chosen atheism, is for another day.
But because I remember my earnest faith quite well, and still have a family of believers, I’m often the only person in the atheist clubhouse (or even the progressive Christian clubhouse) who can answer the question, “What in HELL are those people smoking that they believe that BS?” Progressive Christians in the room either stay silent, possibly out of embarrassment of association, or so as not to be seen defending the extremists, or they sneer at their farther-right brethren, possibly for the same reasons, or even because extremists richly deserve it. Inter-sect rivalry? Who knows.
Being the only person, or one of very few, who pipes up with insight into the American evangelical mindset,without contemptuous wild-assed conjecture, often leads people to construe my explanation as endorsement. I don’t blame them for skimming, but it’s not my position.
Once they find out my actual position, they tend to want to get chummy by expressing contempt for religious extremists, and I give them the cold shoulder at that point. They don’t get it, they really don’t. I’ve tried to explain it, with no luck. Lately, reading Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett, I ran across a rant by Granny Weatherwax to a Priest of Om that sums it up pretty well.
Granny asks the priest if his god, Om, has ever been seen by anyone, and the priest confesses that thousands of people saw Om appear, according to their holy text, but that was a long time ago, and now it’s in dispute. She replies,
“Right. Right. That’s people for you. Now if I’d seen him, really there, really alive, it’d be in me like a fever. If I thought there was some god who really did care two hoots about people, who watched ’em like a father and cared for ’em like a mother…well, you wouldn’t catch me sayin’ things like ‘there are two sides to every question’ and ‘we must respect other people’s beliefs.’ You wouldn’t find me just being gen’rally nice in the hope that it’d all turn out right in the end, not if the flame was burning in me like an unforgivin’ sword. And I did say burnin’, Mister Oats, ‘cos that’s what it’d be. You say that you people don’t burn folk and sacrifice people anymore, but that’s what true faith would mean, y’see? Sacrificin’ your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin’ the truth of it, workin’ for it, breathin’ the soul of it. That’s religion. Anything else is just…bein’ nice. And a way of keepin’ in touch with the neighbors.”
I couldn’t agree more. If a person sincerely believes, to the core of his being, that he has an open wire to an eternal and almighty God, whose will is known to us through holy writ, how can he be true to that overwhelming reality without doing things that, to nonbelievers and other-believers, seem grossly unfair and against the social contract?
If you have ever experienced true-to-the-bone, core-melting belief, the people who aren’t really sure what they believe — but insist that they behave so nicely as they do because God wills it — might irritate the hell out of you. When they talk about being nice per God’s will, it makes me wonder if they’re admitting to having horrible, violent inclinations that are only barely kept in check by fear of going to hell. But no, not really. They are genuinely nice people, and they would behave nicely whether or not they were religious.
The fact that they pick and choose what to believe, out of the Bible, lets you know without a doubt that they don’t have an almighty God that they worship; they insist that God fit with what they already believe. The rationale sometimes comes out in this form: “No real god would hate gays! My favorite aunt is gay!” — Which tells you how much logic is involved. God doesn’t have to be what you think God should be. If he did, would there be child abuse, disease, and starvation, and all that jazz? The Catholic Church practically invented the orthodoxy to cover up for the theodicy problem, believe me, and make it look like it was all our fault and not God’s. But if God’s the grown-up in the room, and by definition could stop it, but doesn’t…He’s responsible, in my book, and if He does exist, He has a hell of a lot to answer for.
But back to the flock. If you don’t have real faith, why pretend? If you’re not going to do the ugly stuff that devotion demands, why get so defensive about doing the obviously good stuff “for God”? There is more than sufficient reason to be a good person without insisting that God wants it that way. Especially when He doesn’t.