The following is part of an email conversation exchange between myself and atheist writer and humorist Jeff Swenson, author of the Freethunk blog site (http://www.freethunk.net/). We discuss a lot of things, and I express some of my rather heretical views on faith:
Swenson: Eternal security falls into the trap of Dahmer, Bundy, even Saul turned to Paul--all your past murders wiped away by faith. And then unlimited punishment for limited sins isn't what I would call justice either. It makes Heaven and hell pointless. And then how is it that people can enjoy Heaven knowing their atheist friend is in hell. It's twisted. I find the afterlife useless in general when we are closing in on immortality on earth in the next century (of course, it probably won't happen in my lifetime. I'll miss it by one year or something ironic). Religion really is a bit like science fiction. Sci-fi is future wish fulfillment (like Star Trek). Religious concepts of immortality are also wish fulfillment. And what does science do? It finds a way to make these ideas come true. However, we don't hold onto the past fictions, we embrace the future realities. I read over your other email. If this kind of faith works for you, then it's your journey. I can't convince you otherwise, I already know that from my own "journey." But I don't see god as necessary. I was a fundamentalist Jesus Freak who became an atheist. I've had all of these joyful experiences you describe and the transformative feelings but guess what, they stayed with me as an atheist and I realized it's just my brain rewarding me with chemical processes. We have machines now that can give you a spiritual rush and we now it's nothing supernatural. My charitable sensibilities have stayed the same because of my cultural programming. I have always been generous to the point of annoying my wife due to my Dad being very generous. I don't want to sound narcissistic, but generally speaking, people are surprised to find out how nice I am when I tell them I'm an atheist. I don't believe you need god for anything you describe about spirituality. You can have all these same effects with atheism. There's even atheistic spirituality. The bible is worthless as a reference point if you pick and choose what is true and what isn't, and how would you be the knower of that compared to someone else? I mean, don't you think a "smart" god would take care that the book describing him would get it "right", even in translation? This is why to me, if you want to use this book, it really is the fundie way--all or nothing that would make sense. If the reference to the Sun standing still in Joshua was just metaphorical language then why should I believe Jesus literally raised from the dead? If the rules in Leviticus were just cultural for the Israelites then why not all of the moral guidance and rules throughout the book? And why don't the Ten Commandments say "Thou shalt not rape or own slaves." If it's partially outdated then it probably is all outdated and it if is partially incorrect then why believe any of it is correct? All you're doing is applying reason to find what makes sense according to modern standards--like the golden rule makes sense (to a degree), which actually came before Jesus said it (Confucious). The messiah concepts of Jesus also aren't new ideas, you can find them in previous myths. Morality is us. Our current society has evolved to be morally correct or as correct as can be. There's no religious transformation necessary. And what happens if I end up being "more" moral than you? Shouldn't Christians, by the power of this godly transformative effect, be the most moral beings on the planet? It is after all, supernatural. And yet, I find no difference between believers and unbelievers. No way to quantify the differences. These spiritual feelings, all very natural. Generosity and good works, it all varies based on the person regardless of their faith/religion. No need for Christianity. So basically if you feel "Christian" I would say great, but that doesn't really mean much. I'm happy you feel good, but I get the same thing without Christianity or god and I don't have to accept horrid ideas like hell and blood sacrifices. I'd say it'd be better to become a Unitarian, you might find their company more to your liking from what you describe as your overall Christian faith.
Me: I don't think I would have had a transmormative experience if I hadn't known about Christ first. I've heard that others have had them without Christ (Sam Harris is a former Buddist), but it's hard to understand just how atheist spirituality could work. How do you meditate? You surely don't concentrate on "no god." If you concentrate on the love you have your fellow humans (as have I) then I would answer that that trnasformativepower IS Christ, whether you're aware of it or not.
I'd hestitate to say this to my fellow church members, but I go by prayer first, and scripture second. Yes, the "all or nothing" approach to scripture is on thing both atheists and fundementalists tend to agree. But I don't see why this should be so. Why could it not be that some passages in the Bible were truly inspired by God, while others were not? The writers may indeed have been filled with the Holy Spirit, but they were also human, and they may have allowed human emotion to influence them at some point. For instance, perhaps St. Paul truly did have a transformative experience (something surely happened in his life!), but his passage regarding how women should keep silent in church may hve been his own personal bias-it certainly sounds like it, and NOT like something someone would write after communicating with the Holy Spirit. This might be "cherry-picking", but why can't it be the truth? Evidence suggests that it is. There is evidence that the passages at the end of Mark about "taking up serpents", and the risen Christ telling His followers that those who would not listen to the would be damned were added to the book later, after it had been recorded. There is a book called Laying Down the Sword: Why We cannot Ignore the Bible's Violent Passages, wherein the author argues that some (perhaps all) of the genocidal atrocities recorded in the OT, such the Battle of Jericho, were purposely exagerrated by the authors for the same reason evangelists use the doctrine of hell today--namely to instill fear of God in thier followers (There's archeological evidence suggesting that the Battle of Jericho, as describd in the Bible, never took place). They feared that their followers were straying from the Law. ANytime you encounter a monstrous, unethical portait of God, then or now, the intent is ALWAYS to frighten. People don't come to Christ by fearfully submitting. But, then as now, religious people feared that they were losing their culture. That's why fundementalists take an all-or-nothing approach. Any slippery-slope aproach to Scripture is a threat to beleif, therefore to Christian tradition. But this is traditonal and soical, NOT spiritual. I actually believe that a lot of Christians today have made culture into an idol. They are not so much warriors for Chirst, as warriors for tradition.
About the Golden Rule, sure it existed before Christ came to earth (Truths are eternal) and Confuscious and Kristna knew about it. But would the Golden Rule, and knowedledge of it, be so widespread today if it weren't for Christ and His sacrifice? Surey not.
I could agree with you more that what is often preached by evangelicals is about the epitomy of injustice. Yes, even serial killers and mass murders will get a free ticket ot Paradise, and there was a former colleg professor of mine who was an atheist, and he was one of the nicest and best human beings I have ever known. Many ould insist he will end up in hell--in fact a Christian friend of mine at the time (who was also one of the best people I ever knew)said exactly that. Thus, morality is totally jettisoned.
About the idea that there is no moral difference between beleivers and nonbelievers, however, I'm not sure. Are there statistics to back this up? I've read some reports that say that the religious give more to charity than secularists do. This is only a generality, of course. What about other aspects of morality in their personal lives? I don't know. But I do know that from personal experience on messageboards, that, sorry to say, but unbeleivers have tended to be less courteous. I don't want to offend, but that's the truth. I've encountered a lot of angry atheists back when I used to blog on Sam Harris's messageboard--and I was a secularist (not really an atheist) at that particular time. My beleif in the supernatural did not go over well. Some atheists on that board were fine, of course. But many others weren't. I once wrote on Jeff Dee's blog, stating that I, like him, was a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars books, and also mentioned my religous views. He was quite rude to be for my beleifs. I also know an atheist horror writer who attacks faith on his blog. ANy Christian or atheist who is partially sympathethic to Christians is very rudely admonished. And yet he always seems to think the other person is being a jerk. I never post on his blog. I don't dare.
Yes, there are some angry Christians out there as well. In fact, I just encountered one professing Chistian on youtube who was worse than most of the rude atheists I've met. You have been very couteous with me so far. But it seems that this is exception,not the rule. Sorry, that's just what I've encountered.
About Unitarans, this might sound stupid, but who are they? I've heard the name, but am not familiar with their beleifs.