I’ve been hinting about this topic for a while now, but I think this is a good time to open up why I see “truth” and “objective veracity” to be different things and why I think religion should quit trying to merge the two together.
A long time ago, I discovered that the Bible made a lot of claims which turned out to be completely without basis in fact–in other words, which were objectively untrue. The discovery devastated me. Destroyed me. I’d trusted its promises. I’d believed its version of history. I’d even tried to go along with its conception of science. Then I discovered nothing in it is really objectively trustworthy. Nothing in it is anything but what we’d expect to see out of primitive savages living thousands of years ago. Every bit of “evidence” Christians unearth is of the wackiest, least credible, weakest variety–when there’re all these amazing things their god could do, all these amazing things Christians could produce as compelling evidence, their god seems quite content to make the sponges migrate a foot-and-a-half and they seem even more content to accept fuzzy photos of columns and wheels as satisfactory evidence of their god’s workings upon the world. It’s awfully thin soup to try to live off of.
As provocative as this revelation was for me, though, it paled beside the follow-up: I learned eventually that the Bible’s lack of valid history and science is actually the least damnable thing about the religion. It’s the least compelling reason to distrust Christianity, and yet it’s the thing that Christians argue about the most. Using deception, fallacies, junk science, and the flimsiest possible threads of faux-evidence, Christians create a cruel dilemma for themselves, and that is why the Bible’s veracity is a problem–not that selfsame lack of veracity.
Christians genuinely believe that if their religion isn’t objectively true, then it isn’t worth following. And they argue and argue about its objective truthfulness in this weird, wild, mad hope that if they can just prove it’s objectively true, that everybody will convert to it immediately. They made objective credibility a fight, but it was a fight that didn’t ever need to happen, and now they’re getting bitten on the butts by that selfsame lack of objective credibility. They made this bed, and now that they must lie in it they’ve got two choices: either admit that no, actually, their religion makes a number of objectively untrue claims, or else drill down on insisting it does by using the flimsiest and most pathetic “evidence” possible and leaping on any shred of “proof” they possibly can.
All of this knife-catching happens while they loudly proclaim that they don’t need evidence anyway. And they don’t. When their gurus are hacked to pieces by mainstream science and archaeology, they don’t deconvert. They know that their religion’s veracity doesn’t actually, at its core, matter, or else they’d have been a bit more careful about establishing that before converting.
And really, they’re right in a way. A religion doesn’t have to be objectively true to have some useful things in it for humanity. The myths of ancient Greece sometimes move me to tears, they are so powerful and so touching. The stories that Zen Buddhism uses to induce spiritual awakening are incredibly edifying to me. There are even stories in the Bible that can be used to provoke thoughtful consideration of the human condition. Nor do I know of many religions that claim that their most ancient myths really happened. Even Jews don’t tend to take a literalist view of the Old Testament.
But Christianity–and evangelical Christianity more than any other flavor–insists that its claims are factually true. It’s easy for me to see why: without a real Jesus, there can’t be a real Crucifixion, and without that, there can’t be a real Resurrection or forgiveness of sins (yes, yes, I know–“or can there?” Shh, we’ll get to that in a minute, I promise). Without a real Heaven and Hell, there can’t be any teeth to Christianity’s threats of hellfire or promises of heaven. If the Garden of Eden didn’t really happen, then neither did the Fall, which makes the entire Crucifixion a sham or worse, and which also invalidates the entire message of redemption in their eyes (see above note–we’re getting there). Without objective veracity, there’s no real reason to bludgeon non-believers over the head with threats and cajoling promises so they might convert–without verified claims, there’s no real reason to see Christianity as superior to any other religion–and that, friends and brethren, cannot possibly be to them. This is how I thought as a Christian fundamentalist and how I see fundamentalists acting today.
The problem is that we can assess those claims when they are made. If someone wants to make the case for a historical Jesus, it’s going to be rough considering there is not a single contemporaneous mention of Jesus during his supposed lifetime nor a single word about his parents (who took part in a Census, don’t forget) or his trial and death at the times they should have been mentioned. We know the Exodus didn’t really happen and that the Garden of Eden couldn’t possibly have happened, which makes for a bunch of theological problems for literalist Christians. If someone is trying to claim that Hell is real, well, we’ve never found anywhere like it that fits the bill, and NDE accounts are maddeningly culture-specific and not in the least consistent (there are many other reasons not to take NDEs seriously as proof of an afterlife, but those are the two main ones I think are relevant here). For a god who desperately wants and craves the love and worship of all humankind, this one’s being very, very careful not to provide a single shred of evidence for anything his holy book claims and threatens, and it’s a little odd that every time we do discover some new bit of history or science, it contradicts one of the Bible’s myths or timelines.
Any time a Christian makes a factual claim for Christianity, that’s a line in the sand that we can examine very critically. And nothing Christianity has claimed thus far has turned out to be objectively, credibly true. Quite a bit of it is objectively untrue. If one’s entire religion hinges upon certain claims being true, then when those claims turn out to be untrue, that’s a big problem. It threatens the entire religious framework that person holds dear.
Does it actually have to be that way?
Other religions seem to get by just fine without being literally true. One day long ago I was doing housework while the TV was on and a Native American story was ending thusly: “What I just described to you might not have happened just the way I’ve told it, but it’s still all true.”
I remember my entire world stopped cold. I put down what I was doing immediately and stared at the television. What the heck was that? Wait, what? I felt my mind blooming like a flower in the desert after the rains as I considered what this shaman had said.
Why was I addicted to the idea of a religion being objectively true? Why did I consider it a mark against a religion that its myths were untrue? Wasn’t I just buying into the same rhetoric I had as a fundamentalist, discarding other denominations’ way of worship if they weren’t literal enough? Wasn’t I just indulging in the same dichotomies I had as a Christian to hold against these religions their lack of historical or scientific accuracy? I’d bought into the same lies that I had as a Christian: that a religion’s validity rose and fell upon its claims being historically and scientifically accurate. That’s why I’d discarded Christianity, for goodness’ sake–because I had realized that its promises about prayer and its predictions of the future were totally untrue. But was that lack of external validity really the problem the religion had, or was that just a non-starter I’d been taught to consider as a problem?
Let’s get serious here. Like most ex-Christians, even if I found out tomorrow that Jesus had really existed and that the Creation account was literally true, I wouldn’t reconvert. The Bible’s stories’ accuracy doesn’t really matter one way or the other. Christians make it a problem and then try to solve it with the weakest, most ridiculous “solutions” the world has ever seen, but even if their pathetic fuzzy photos and medically-unverified “miracles” were real evidence of this or that myth’s veracity, would people convert? I say they would not. There’d still be a lot of brutality, misogyny, and barbarity in the Bible to get past before I’d ever consider the Bible’s religion as a good force.
Later I would meet pagans from a number of different traditions who were well aware that their myths probably didn’t happen and were just fine with that idea. Let me tell you: that blew my little mind anew. They took the wisdom they could from their cherished myths and didn’t worry about whether they had “really” happened that way. It was still all true to them.
So slowly, slowly I began to untangle myself from the “true or bust” mindset that Christianity and modern culture had bestowed upon me. I began to step away from that true/false black/white thinking and into a land where myths freed me to consider the deepest concepts of grace, love, tolerance, and freedom.
But none of it led me back to my old religion. It was just too late for me by the time I figured all this stuff out. I’d seen too much, learned too much. I’d heard too many Christians “lie for Jesus” to me and contort themselves into weird positions over verses that, on the face of them, are quite straightforward. It matters more to me that Christians insist these myths are real when they are very clearly not real than it does that the myths are not real. Their contortions mean more to me than the actual stuff causing the contortions.
I wonder sometimes what would have happened had I run across some of these ultra-liberal “progressive” Christians you see nowadays–if I’d still be a Christian at all, just one my old Pentecostal friends wouldn’t ever recognize. I have come to think that I wouldn’t have, and I’ll tell you why:
The thing that makes a religion or philosophy valid or invalid, in my eyes, is how it leads its adherents to treat other people and move the world forward–how it considers the human condition and how it sees humanity. At its heart, even the least-toxic, least-literal forms of Christianity still see humans as needing a god in their lives. They see us as needing rules handed down to us by some big objective source. Most of them see humans as broken and in need of fixing. Most of them think of their deity as “reaching down” and humans as “reaching up.” And let’s face it–the religion as a whole is known not for moving humanity forward but for holding it back and oppressing and abusing big segments of it. I just don’t accept any of those ideas. They don’t fit what I see going on around me in the world. The idea that I need fixing and can’t possibly handle my own self-improvement seems inherently abusive and belittling.
Simply put, a religion should make its adherents better people because it celebrates what makes us human: our sense of right and wrong, our desire for community and love, our need for self-expression and freedom, our responsibility for self-improvement and charity. Some Christians are finding that their form of religion fits this bill, and lots of people in lots of religions (and those who follow no religion at all) are coming to these ideas. Nothing about what I just wrote is specific to any one religion or atheism. Once I came to this more nuanced understanding of spirituality, I began to look at other faith systems and philosophies that fit how I see humanity all around me: that humans are neither good nor bad. We’re just human, that’s all, and that we don’t require or need any gods to help us along if we are there for each other.
And we must be there for each other.
As the Christian world explodes into post-DOMA (yeah, I used the term, sue me. That’s what this is) apoplexy and infighting, I hope that sooner or later they start to consider just what their god really told them to do. It takes a truly humble heart to look past Bible verses and to the very core of Christianity’s basic timeless message: acceptance and love. Those are values that many religions share and something we can all agree needs to happen. I admire those many Christians who are trying so hard to uncouple their religion from its true/false yes/no roots. I’m not sure they can turn this Titanic from the rocks at this point, but I do admire that they’re trying.
Meanwhile, quite a few of us don’t have to rescue our religion from the reefs of myth and the rocks of change; we’re already heading forward to the shore and trying to pull along who we can.
So this is why I don’t really care what religion someone follows and why I don’t talk much about what term I in particular use to label my own religious outlook. When someone tells me “I’m a Christian,” that is so utterly irrelevant it’s not even worth saying. It tells me absolutely nothing. What matters to me a great deal more is how that person uses a religion to better him/herself and move humanity forward. And you’re not going to discover those things by just learning what label the person uses to describe his/her life philosophy or whose cosmic butt is being kissed or rejected.
Stay tuned, my dear friends. Now that I’ve put forward what I see as important about spirituality, I’m going to unpack some of what I’ve been seeing about Christians’ response to DOMA, both good and bad. Be there or be trapezoidal.