satan from paradise lost

Misotheism & Atheism

There is a term which I think should be more widely used and understood. That term is misotheism which means “hatred of the gods” (or God).

An example of a character who is a misotheist would be the “atheist” professor in the recent film God’s Not Dead (played by Kevin Sorbo). Sorbo’s character doesn’t have many good arguments against belief in the Christian God, mostly appeals to authority. The story does reveal that he has a deep antipathy towards God because he blames him for the death of his mother when he was a child. At the end of the film viewers see Sorbo’s character renounce his atheism and embrace Christianity moments before dying. This sort of abrupt conversion would obviously be problematic for an atheist who was truly convinced in their skepticism, but is definitely less of a problem for a character whose “atheism” is depicted as a smokescreen for his emotional problems with a god he clearly does believe in. A classic example of a misotheistic character would be Satan from Paradise Lost. That character is unable to have any doubts about God’s existence yet he still hates God and actively works to overthrow his plans.

A misotheist is a person who truly hates God. For them, there is no question about the existence of a divine being (speaking here of monotheistic misotheists, not pagans) but rather the question is how they relate to this divine being. Instead of responding with love, adoration, and worship they respond with indignation, anger and outright hatred towards that being and everything which it (in their mind) represents.

Atheists are NOT misotheists

Something I’ve noticed is that in debates and discussions between Christians and atheists, the Christian will often (not always) assume that their opponent really does believe in god but is choosing to “suppress” or deny that they do. In other words, many sincere Christian believers think that most atheists are actually misotheists and not true atheists. This can be quite frustrating for the atheists that they talk to. How can you convince someone you are telling the truth concerning a basic fact about yourself? Can you imagine an atheist saying “I don’t think you really believe in your God, you just pretend to so that you can feel better!” Obviously, most Christians would feel quite insulted if they were told that their sincerely held beliefs were really just a game of make-believe. An atheist is going to have a similar response when their genuine state of doubt and skepticism gets reinterpreted as merely an emotional state of mind, a sort of psychological bubble-wrap over their true, god-hating, beliefs.

What makes this common misunderstanding of atheists even more problematic is that for many ex-Christian atheists, they spent a period of time (whether weeks, months or years) trying to earnestly believe, trying to “get back” to the place they once were in their faith. When this simply becomes impossible for them it is frustrating to hear that they just need to “let go” of their doubts and negative feelings about God and suddenly their former faith will make sense. I’ve really latched onto the image of a broken bridge to explain how those of us who sometimes want to come back to Christianity feel (click here to read more about that).

Misotheism vs …?

So, while misotheism may not be useful in explaining how most atheists relate to god, is there some kernel of truth to the idea that ‘atheists hate God and religion’? It is quite possible for atheists to have strong negative feelings about their former religion or even about a religion which they never participated in. Sometimes those passions get translated into words which explicitly condemn the god of that religion. Thus, a former Jehovah’s Witness may say that they despise the character of Jehovah who they also now disbelieve in. They despise the control which that former belief system had over their life and their decisions. They despise what they now see as an abusive, manipulative belief system (not all former JW’s have such strong negative feelings, but that’s an easy example and it doesn’t take much digging to uncover the very real harm caused by their beliefs about blood transfusions).

An ex-Muslim likewise might come across to Muslims as “hating Allah”, because they are willing to speak out against what they see as cruel and primitive within Islam. When “Allah” is described in the Quran or the Hadiths as the one commanding cruel and misogynistic things, then it makes sense for people to condemn that “Allah” (ie, that human idea of Allah/God) as cruel and misogynistic.

Simply having strong negative feelings does not mean that the person criticizing their former beliefs actually feels as though they are in a relationship (even a combative one) with their former deity. What it means is that they are wrestling with their past. It means that they are calling out ideas and behaviors which they have now rejected. To deny that there is any emotional component here seems foolish. We are all emotional beings and we make decisions about what to criticize and what to ignore all of the time. An ex-Muslim obviously knows much more about and has a much more intimate knowledge of Islam, so it makes sense for them to blog about and speak against that religion. An ex-Christian, likewise, knows about the Bible and the Christian god. This doesn’t mean that an ex-Christian can never criticize Scientology or Buddhism, but it does help to explain why so many atheists in America choose to focus their limited time and attention on debunking the Christian god and the Bible (the fact that most Americans still believe in that god also helps to explain the criticism, since Bible-believing Christians currently wield much more political and social power than Buddhists or Muslims in America).

What I hear when you say “Jesus loves you.”

(Trigger warning: religion and childhood, corporal punishment)

I know what I’m supposed to hear when a Christian smiles at me (or sends a text, or an email or a smoke-signal) and says “Jesus loves you!” I’m supposed to hear “I care about you so much that I want to tell you that my special friend Jesus thinks you are amazing!” Or I could even take it as “I want the best for you and care about you.” But for someone who has been on the inside of conservative, evangelical Christianity, for someone who knows “the rest of the story” and no longer believes it, those words have a darker meaning which clouds the cheery demeanor and good intentions of the people who speak them. The words below are a reflection on what comes into my mind when I read or hear “Jesus loves you.” They are an attempt to put my feelings into simple images, and as such they do not reflect the full truth about what I now think and believe, but they do represent an important part of how I feel.

 

When you say ‘Jesus loves you’

I hear “If you love him back.”

I hear “If you believe the right things about him.”

 

When you say ‘Jesus loves you unconditionally’

What I think is ‘do you really mean it?’

I ponder the meaning of the word ‘condition.’

In my mind I picture a contract set before me…

“Sign here.” A voice says.

“But I can’t read the words, they’re too small and squiggly.”

“Sign here.”

“What if I choose not to?”

“Sign here, or you forfeit your right to eternal happiness,

and gain the just punishment of eternal pain.”

“Who are you?” I ask.

But now the voice is silent, and it’s just me again,

alone in my head.

And instead of a contract,

I see just a blank sheet

of paper.

 

When you say ‘Jesus loves you’

I am reminded of my Sunday school lessons,

I am reminded of Bible Quizzing and Camp Clearwater,

and lock-ins,

and street evangelism,

and staying home on Halloween,

and late nights poring over my King James Bible.

I remember the whole story, not just that small part.

I hear myself being called a sinner, a blasphemer,

the most worthless, awful worm ever to exist.

I hear in my head the notes of God’s hatred.

He is a stern Father. Even more stern than my father

when he takes out his belt or raises his voice.

God is angry at me again.

I can feel his eyes on me,

dark and red,

as he looks down from Heaven.

I’ve begged for forgiveness so many times.

I’ve begged and crawled on my knees.

“Lord, save me. Forgive me for my sins. I’m not worthy.”

The belt stings, and so do the words I hear from my father.

But they are nothing compared to what Heavenly Father can do.

The grown-ups speak in hushed whispers about Hell.

But sometimes they raise their voices too

and yell out the dreaded curse:

Eternal Damnation!

Sometimes I can even feel myself leaning over it,

A great gaping pit in the Earth,

a wound.

I know that I deserve it.

But I must not feel bad enough yet.

Because I keep sinning.

Sin clings to me like a dark tar,

and despite all of my prayers and tears

it does not wash off.

I grow older, but the sin still remains,

slick and vile.

I learn more about Heavenly Father

and I come to terms with my guilt.

“Guilt is a sign of the Spirit at work in my heart” I say.

Guilt becomes my friend, my companion.

“The World doesn’t have guilt,” I laugh,

“they only have corruption.

God allows their sin to take over, to ruin their lives.”

But I know better. I’ve found the way out.

I’ve found the way to keep Heavenly Father from being too angry.

I’ve found the way to keep Him from throwing me into the Pit.

This gives me pride.

“No,” I scream at myself,

“Pride is wicked! Repent!”

Heavenly Father is angry again, but I feel comforted,

because I know the secret.

As long as I can feel bad enough,

it means that Heavenly Father knows I am truly sorry,

and that he has forgiven me.

 

I tell others that they too must know the love of Jesus.

“Come to the Father! Jesus has made a way!” I tell them.

“He is good and He will keep you from the worst of sin.”

“He will protect you from the Punishment.”

 

Inwardly I despair. I know that only a few can ever hear me.

Most are doomed.

Heavenly Father has told me

that only those He chooses will know the secret.

And then I feel happy again,

special,

because I know the secret.

I am a bad boy, but the secret makes me a good boy.

Most of the other children are still bad children.

They don’t know it, but they are naughty,

and they

must

be

punished.

Do Miracles Require “Extraordinary Evidence”?

A lot more could be said on this topic (namely “what constitutes evidence?” and “how do religious people define and conceive of miracles?”) but I think that this is a good vid which helps to explain why atheists and skeptics request “extraordinary evidence” (more than just personal testimony) when they are presented with the claims of a supernatural belief system. Enjoy.


 

related: What is History? (longer blog post related to a term which is frequently invoked in Christian apologetics)

I believe in firewalking…and magic!

Since coming out as a “non-believer” and a skeptic I’ve read lots of books. One of my favorite discoveries in the last year has been contemporary philosopher Daniel Dennett. Dennett likes to tackle tricky questions related to consciousness, free-will and neurology. During some of his public lectures he likes to give an analogy to help explain his research and the current study of human consciousness.

Here’s the analogy. Dennett has a friend who was writing a book on magic. People asked this person “is your book about real magic?” and this friend would reply “No, it’s about stage tricks, mirrors, prestidigitation etc” (I’m paraphrasing Dennett’s illustration here). So you see “real magic” is the magic that you can’t do, the stuff of fantasy films, Harry Potter and the like. Real magic is impossible. But the magic that you can really do is usually considered “fake magic” even though it’s far more real than casting spells, lifting hexes, and channelling energy through arcane objects. Consciousness is the same way. We have mechanical explanations for how parts of human consciousness works. We have material descriptions of what consciousness is and we have some idea of what further research (research on physical patterns, in a lab) will probably be needed to help us unlock that mystery. But for some people, that view of consciousness will never  be “real consciousness.” No matter how good the scientific explanations become, that view of consciousness will be seen as just “a bag of tricks” (as Dennett is fond of saying). And of course a bag of tricks can’t possibly be real consciousness just as stage magic can never be real magic.

What does this all have to do with firewalking?

Firewalking is a cultural practice still performed throughout the world and also by some motivational groups here in the USA. In traditional firewalking usually a “shaman” or holy man of some sort (titles vary by religion) will walk across a bed of hot coals  which are spread out across the ground. At the end of this “test of faith” the holy man’s feet are unscathed. He has literally “walked on fire” and appears to have done so using the aid of the supernatural. At least, that’s what some would claim. Some modern practitioners might say that having a positive mental state protects your feet from the flames. The real explanation is actually quite simple: air is a poor conductor of heat and the burnt ashes on top of the coals act as an additional barrier (other materials can also work if arranged and set up properly). Just as you can retrieve a hot pan from a very hot oven using just a thin cloth barrier, all without receiving 3rd-degree burns on your palms, so too can you take a brisk walk across the ashes on top of glowing embers. Real firewalking involves good prep-work so that things don’t get out of control (too much heat and not enough barrier). And, even when the coals have cooled down a bit you aren’t likely to find any shamans willing to stand upon a bed of coals for an hour while their toes cook. So that’s it. Firewalking is something that a shaman, or anyone with enough care and experience, can accomplish. It’s less dangerous than it initially appears, though there are still risks.

I believe in firewalking, as this post title says. But, I don’t believe in supernaturally empowered, or psychically enabled firewalking. I believe in real firewalking just as much as I believe in real magic and not in horcruxes and mystical pentagrams. To me the act  which you can actually do and provide a consistent explanation for is far more real than the idea of what some people hold about that event. Some people who see a ritual performed are convinced that there must be “something more” which we modern people raised with “Western values” and a scientific approach to truth must be missing out on. To that I simply say: show me the evidence, and I’ll believe it. Demonstrate a firewalking technique which goes far beyond what can be accounted for with the known physical laws (longer duration, higher flames, more exposure etc) or conduct a carefully controlled study demonstrating that mindstate or belief in certain metaphysical principles really is the deciding factor in who gets their feet burned or not. If the data comes in proving that there is some sort of extra factor going on which cannot be explained by simple physics of burning materials and heat conductivity (or the thickness of padding on one’s feet), then this discovery would be a boon for the world and definitely something worth knowing about (of course, this challenge would require that these results could be repeated and independently verified or the possibility of a fluke or deception still remains).

For a more detailed account of the physics behind firewalking check out the video below or read this article which explains the “trick” in more detail.

PS – If physics is sufficient to explain the phenomenon of firewalking, then trying to add in another key element (something like “confidence,” “mental state” or belief) appears to be a violation of Occam’s Razor. If I have to assume a factor which is vague or untested, then I am providing additional speculation which is not required in order to make sense of firewalking (well, at least the type of firewalking which has been observed in our world). Also, none of this is meant to “bash” people who really do think that there is “something more” to all of this. It’s simply a way to explain my perspective as a skeptic and a naturalist. I would love to try firewalking some day (under proper supervision of course, with first-aid nearby).

Becoming UU

Last Sunday I had the privilege of becoming a member of Blue Hills Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Rice Lake. The ceremony itself was quite simple. I went to the front of the room along (it’s a rather modest sanctuary and I know almost everyone there now so I wasn’t too nervous) and presented myself before the congregation. I stood next to my new friend Julie who was also becoming a member that day. A book was placed on a table and after some words were read I stepped forward and signed my name in the book, adding myself to the list of active members. I am now in a covenant with that community. This means that I have committed myself to the 7 principles of Unitarian Universalism and that I agree to contribute my time, talents and money to that specific fellowship (it also meant that I agreed to the congregational by-laws and that I am in agreement with “the purpose and mission” of Blue Hills UU). Julie and I both received red roses as a token of appreciation from the fellowship. Prior to this moment I had prepared by speaking with the lay leader and with a member of the board. The “New Members’ Class” that I took a few weeks prior was rather short and provided a chance for me to interact with others who were new to Blue Hills and to ask any questions I might have about Unitarian Universalism or Blue Hills in particular.

I really appreciated the warmth with which I have been received by that fellowship and the freedom that I have to explore my beliefs there. This was touched on during the membership ceremony when one of the Board Members spoke these words:

“We hold that a basic principle of our Unitarian Universalist movement is freedom of belief. We do not require assent to any creed or statement of faith before a person can join us. We trust people’s ability to build their own faith. We believe we gain strength in our diversity.”

Still, even though there is an openness to explore, members are asked to commit to certain things. We are asked to allow ourselves to be open to growth and change, to “be restless in the pursuit of human rights” and to tolerate the differences of others within the fellowship.

These things are not asked lightly. Being in community is hard. It requires commitment. I’ve noticed that many people in my generation seem to be hesitant about this type of commitment. Being in a group means putting up with the inevitable disagreements and the messes made by other fallible human beings. It means putting yourself out there and taking the risk that others may not reciprocate your good intentions and honesty. It means making sacrifices for others, rather than thinking solely of one’s own immediate concerns.

My Journey into UU

Becoming a Unitarian Universalist was both a long and a short journey for me. I have spent far more years of my life as an active member in various Evangelical churches. I can still vividly recall my baptism at Fourth Baptist Church when I was 12 years old. I entered as a sort of “junior member” there. Later I became strongly committed to Hope Community Church in Minneapolis. Their membership process was rather lengthy and involved having a thorough understanding of Hope’s doctrinal positions (especially what they believed about the Bible, God, salvation and church government).

When I became public about my doubts I decided to leave the church that I was currently a member of. I wanted to continue developing as a person and learning about the Bible, but I did not feel that my current church (The Refuge in Chetek, WI) was the place to do it. That place was filled with good, loving people, but I recognized that we no longer were on the same page. I still wanted to seek the truth but I no longer believed in the traditional Christian gospel, which is a core part of their mission and identity. I knew that if I stuck around I would continue to feel out-of-place there (and more so as people discovered my doubts about Christianity). I left that church shortly after Easter 2013. It wasn’t until October of that year that I discovered Blue Hills. I had heard a lot of positive things about UU from other ex-Christians online so I decided to take a closer look at this strange little religious denomination. I was surprised to find that there was a small UU fellowship not far from my house. At first I simply hoped to find a place to pass the time on Sundays. I didn’t know how people would receive my “extreme skepticism.” I also wasn’t sure that my atheism would truly be accepted there, despite the friendly words on the UUA.org website.

What I found far exceeded my expectations. These are the words that I spoke in front of the congregation when I joined:

“I came to this fellowship with an open mind, and you have received me with open arms. Thank you for the opportunity to be a part of your community, and to grow in my understanding of what it means to be a spiritual seeker. I grew up immersed in conservative Evangelical theology. I dreamed of being a teacher of the word and saving souls from hell. About a year ago I started telling people that I had “lost my faith.” But now I realize that it wasn’t a loss; it was a gain. Thank you.”