Thursday, July 28, 2011

A standard mid-summer roadtrip...or not!

A few readers may have noticed that I posted photos of the Creation Museum on Facebook a few days ago, and I figured that, at the very least, in conjunction with my previous blog posts, that the trip's timing may suggest that trip was an "ironic" one, meant to mock religious fundamentalists and Christianity at large. Not so! Here's the whole story:

I worked behind-the-scenes at the Creation Museum years before it was finished during a missions trip in 2001 (I think). I don't remember much; they housed us like campers - I slept in the top bunk. We spent the days scrubbing steel I-beams and the nights having Bible study sessions. Beyond that, I remember thinking that AiG was fighting an important battle to save the lost, and they had a model of a triceratops WITH A SADDLE. Somewhere there are a bunch of photos of me, snapped with a disposable camera, posing awkwardly on a saddled dinosaur.


Fast forward to 2011: my belief system has become sophisticated enough to consider individuals beyond my sphere and politics are becoming increasingly testy due to the conflation of conservative Christianity and conservative political ideologies. Since AiG is something of a leader for the conservative/fundamentalist Christian movement (or at the very least, a vocal arm of it), I was curious to see the rationale behind their beliefs.

That said, I will admit (gladly!) that I accepted evolution and dismissed the idea of interpreting the Bible literally while still in high school. For me, the idea of a young-Earth creation was just baffling, even then. What about every rock, fossil, and particle that has been dated, archived, and put on display in every museum I've ever visited? They must be wrong, according to Ken Ham et al. What about the fact that we see visible light from stars millions of lightyears away? I came to the conclusion that the Bible is a very, very old book written almost entirely by men about things that, for the greater part, weren't directly applicable to my day to day life. The words of Jesus I held near and dear, but I didn't so much like the mass murdering, genocidal, spiteful bits.

I was quick to see that the two just didn't mix. One party just had to be wrong. While I have been content the past 8 years with the understanding that science is not part of a giant conspiracy to undermine religion, I am still curious as to how those beliefs are/were rationalized. Like anything, you have to check things out, observe it and examine it for yourself, and then see if the thing holds water. And that's exactly what the roadtrip was about: taking a look for ourselves.

I had decently high expectations for the Creation Museum; I wanted to be shown evidence that I had not yet considered, perhaps a study or a scientific finding that might point to a created universe.

Instead, we encountered an inordinate amount of Guilt, Emotional Manipulation, and Misinformation. On shiny plaques. 70,000 square feet of it. I left the museum thinking that the CM only enforces what its attendees already believe; that will be its ultimate downfall. Unfortunately, skeptics and critical thinkers of any race, creed, or ideology will not be impressed by animatronic dinosaurs or flashy interactive displays. We can see through your Guilt, Emotional Manipulation, and Misinformation.

We're not five years old. We want facts. You can deceive a child with neat movies and pretty pictures (there was plenty of that going on), but a 30-year-old is a little tougher to persuade.

There's a reason this museum is designed for children. They are the only ones who will buy into it.

First off, ticket prices. General admission for adults is $25, plus $8 for the Planetarium exhibit. We decided to spring for the Planetarium because...well, heck, we decided we hadn't been to one since we were kids, and we had fond memories. That's reason enough, right? And it was fun.

At any rate, for Bryan and I the total was a whopping $66; we arrived around 11:00 a.m. and left around 2:00 p.m. For only three or so hours, it was an expensive museum. We didn't exhaust everything the museum had to offer, but the only things we didn't do were a) go to the petting zoo and b) walk around the grounds. Since neither of those things really had much to do with our purpose for going, we decided it was ok to skip.

No bones about it; this was a pretty steep ticket price for a pretty short experience. In addition, since we could get kicked out for just about anything, we were paranoid from the start. The back of the ticket said:

"Any loud, disrespectful, destructive, obscene, or abusive behavior, or inappropriate dress will not be tolerated and will result in your removal from the premises without refund."

Yikes. Talk about being put on the defensive! I had to make sure Daniel kept the baby-eating to a minimum while we were there.

The first thing we did was the Planetarium (no photos taken for obvious reasons); it was a half hour show called "Created Cosmos" mostly devoted to exploring what we know about the size of our universe. It was incredible! The video was pretty cool, and it's always fascinating to imagine the scale of objects that scientists and researchers are examining. Simply the vast scale of our galaxy alone is amazing; the video was a great reminder of that, in a slick package to boot. The only problem was when the video deviated to how the size of the universe proves the existence of God (it does not...this line of thinking is called "God of the Gaps"). Simply because we do not know of everything that exists in the universe or how it came to be is NOT proof of God's existence. It certainly doesn't prove that the Christian God created the universe.

The video spent the majority of it's time with cool graphics and depictions of galaxies, and then suddenly threw in a few very scientific-sounding terms about spiral galaxies and quantum physics at the end. These concepts weren't explained or even defined; I wish I could have remembered the terms in order to research them myself, but unfortunately I was reclining quite extremely in a pitch-black theater and note-taking was quite limited.

On, to "Why Genesis Matters", a talk given by Dr. Tommy Mitchell concerning the relevance of Genesis for today's world. He attested that Genesis is the necessary foundation of all Christian truth, and that you must believe in a literal account of creation in order to believe in Jesus. He stated, though, that accepting creation would not get you to heaven; that something more fundamental was required.

On the whole, though, his talk was shot full of logical fallacies and misinterpretations of groups and individuals outside of Christian culture. He created a false dichotomy between creationists and "evolutionists" and used dangerous, war-like terminology. (I've said, in previous posts, that I am not a fan of using war metaphors for religious purposes. It inserts violence and aggression where it's not acceptable or necessary as well as demonizing the "opposition".) Attesting that secular science is out for Christian blood is just preposterous and silly, not to mention unfair to the professionals that participate in it. Mitchell was emphatic that "secular" science essentially exists to attempt to disprove the truth of creation and to create a world where morality is just based on "what anybody wants".

For example, one of the most shocking bits in the speech was a sentence or two around the abortion issue. Mitchell claimed that, without God, morals are so transient and "arbitrary" that non-Christians believe that abortion should be legal 28 days after the baby is born and that "if you can kill off a baby, why not Grandma? After all, we're all just animals according to their worldview."

This. Argument. Is so stupid. We aren't all degenerate baby-killing machines; Mitchell insults himself by suggesting it in the first place. I wonder, if he needs God that badly, what Mitchell would do without him?

Humans are not simply animals. No person of any religious inclination would suggest that we are purely animal, sent here to eat, poop, and copulate all our live-long days. Mitchell may have missed it, but we are required to live here on Earth with a finite amount of square footage. Together. All of us. And I think all of us would rather make it a pleasant place, together, rather than the dog-eat-dog, amoral landscape that Mitchell painted. Apparently, this is a man who has never even heard of the country of Sweden.

One of the most damaging and harmful pieces in the talk was the combination of vilifying scientists and non-Christians and then the militant disregard for the separation of church and State. He attested that atheists/scientists/humanists are out to get Christians and undermine their faith by teaching evolution in schools (and expanding it to include an entire ideology that evolution does not speak to at all), and are therefore at WAR with these individuals. Mitchell noted that many Christian teens/20somethings leave the church because their questions about science and the creation of the universe weren't being answered thoughtfully or at all by members of the church. However, he kind of shoots himself in the foot by making up answers instead of thoughtfully considering scientific evidence. Mitchell dumps a truckload of guilt onto parents to answer their children's questions (which is a valid and important point! ) by insinuating that it is the fault of the parent that children question and move away from religion later in life. Essentially, he stated that it is a moral imperative to train children while they are still young and impressionable by using the shaky-at-best "evidence" that the rest of the museum had to offer.

There was a lot more to the talk, but I think I'll just throw up a few photos taken through the walking tour illustrating some of the problematic aspects of the museum.

All three of these "clues" have to do with theology and nothing at all about the actual fossil. Apparently, dating fossils and rocks has nothing to do with the fossil or rock itself! The foregone conclusions in the museum are also painfully obvious in this photo (as well as the fact that this is obviously directed at small children).

Again, no actual evidence here, as well as absolute misinformation. There is no way of knowing whether or not the "original words" of the Bible have been preserved, as we do not know what versions we will uncover in the future.

There was also no evidence presented as to the historical details the Bible has proven true.

Hyberbolic language and abuse of "ghetto" stereotypes. This part of the museum was intended to illustrate how the Fall of Man has affected our world today; a godless, immoral, graffiti-filled world, apparently.

Also, never once in the museum was the idea of universal morality, the idea that certain things like lying, cheating, and stealing are considered immoral regardless of religious opinions, given credence. In essence, ever negative aspect of society was presented as a direct result of the lack of Christian influence. More dramatically seen later.

Another example of using/abusing scare tactics. What is the logical basis upon which this would be an exhibit in the museum? For us, this seemed a little silly (along with the huge, blown-up black and white images of a person doing heroin, a mushroom cloud, a bunch of gravestones), but to a child, this would solidify ideas that the outside world is a terrifying place filled with immoral people.

"All humans are related" would also justify incest, would it not? Bendy/twisty logic here.

"God shut Noah's family into the Ark. This ended any opportunity for people outside the Ark to be saved."

Let me make this clear: it was God who condemned an entire population of people that He did not have patience for. The God that you worship. The very idea that a God would condemn his own creation to an eternity of torment without giving them a chance is unfathomably cruel to me.

The last, majestic moments of the Great Flood covering the Earth. Beings who have, allegedly, no power at all in view of God's infinite power, were drowned to death in view of the Ark that could have saved them.

Also, they had to deal with tigers who were also about to drowned. Hungry, man-eating tigers.

This should have been at the BEGINNING of the museum, because that was all it was. And that's why this museum will fail, over and over again, to convince non-believers. Many, many individuals do not care in the slightest what your holy book has to say; we want observable fact.

And not a scrap of it was presented at the Creation Museum. The only justification was, over and over, the supposed absolute inerrancy of the Bible.

This sign suggested that all of the horrible things illustrated in the photo come from human reason. In another room just down the hall, a recording was playing a verse from Jesus talking about how a person should treat others with dignity, including "lepers and slaves".

The thing that makes me angry about this particular poster is that it completely ignores some of the less-than-savory bits of Christian history. If I remember correctly, there are a rather militant group of conservative Christians in funny hats that played a big part in public lynchings. The KKK has existed since 1865. And nobody told Ken Ham.

So, all in all, an utter disappointment from Answers in Genesis ministries. Although I appreciate the efforts to fully believe in the religious text at hand, the methodology and manipulations used was totally wrong and misleading.

Last bit of food for thought: while the three of us in attendance left the museum mystified and troubled, we also recognized the legitimacy of the work that AiG does. Really, in the lens of the religion, they are doing absolutely no wrong by interpreting the Bible literally (even though that requires that they forfeit the right to all human logic and scientific progress). On the AiG website, in the Statement of Faith section that all employees must agree to, I found this quote:

"By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information."

While I fail to see how human beings could agree to such logic, I also fail to see how moderate Christians could respond to this. Is AiG not simply following the imperatives that the Bible suggests? By the CM logic, either the Bible is all right or it's all wrong.

I agree with them wholeheartedly on that point, and with that I will conclude.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Why I Don't Attend Church, Part II

First off, thanks to everyone for commenting and for reading! The response from the Friendly Atheist community was overwhelming (the post garnered 80+ comments since the last time I checked!) and I was/am thrilled to hear all of the opinions aired. I had minimum expectations when I wrote the blog post; I'm happy that readers "got something" out of it.

Also, I feel that I should clarify one point that many FA commenters noted: these posts are a critique of the way the Christian church functions, not the validity or truth of the Christian faith. That is a can of worms that I would prefer not to open in this forum, nor do I feel qualified to address that issue. While I attended church for twenty years, I am not a theologian; that said, I will leave that argument to the many, many published thinkers and writers who have already expounded greatly on the subject. I will leave the burden to the individual reader to decide what is "true", but go bearing the knowledge that I expect a measured and rational decision after evaluating both sides.

Now, onto the slippery business of criticizing the sacrosanct:

3. The abuse of the power that pastors hold.

One part of my job as an ELA teacher, as I understand it, is to make difficult or previously unknown concepts comprehensible to my students. Allegedly, I know more about rhetorical tropes than a random sampling of 14-year-olds; I am responsible for explaining the relatively difficult idea of metonymy in a way that is understandable, meaningful, and that a student can then apply for herself.

Unfortunately, my experience with church taught me that the same expectations do not apply to pastors.

I have a very limited understanding of the Bible; I have not read every word (although I tried), and I do not have an expansive knowledge of the historical context in which the Bible was written (which greatly affects the meaning we derive from passages). If I were to apply the same principles that I require of a teacher, journalist, or scientist (etc), I would assume that a pastor would be required, essentially, to fill in the gaps in my knowledge and back up those assertions with evidence. A pastor should be able to confidently answer questions like: how do I know what you are saying is true? How do you know that for yourself? Are there conflicting opinions about your statement?

However, in my experience, pastors wield a great deal of influence as to the opinions of the congregation, but rarely deliver sermons that are evidence-based. At all. I racked my brain before beginning to write to try and remember a sermon that I remember being incredibly logical, that appealed to my (very human) sense of reason, but I came up empty. Generally speaking, in my "home church", the sermons followed this rough format:

  1. Attention getter. This could be a joke or an anecdote that will transition into the topic of the sermon. Popular themes for jokes are husband/wife relationships, funny crap your kids say/do, sports, religious experiences (like attending a conference), or pop culture references.
  2. Reading of the passage. Sometimes the sermon would center on as little as a single verse up to as much as a chapter. Here, the pastor might take the opportunity to highlight what individual words in the passage meant in the Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic. Usually, the sermon will only discuss the origin and/or meaning of a single word, not the entire verse or passage in context.
  3. Application. Here, the speaker will tell the audience what the verse means for their lives today, and, specifically, how their behavior should change. Mark 16:15 "And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature," therefore it is the responsibility of the congregation to evangelize.
  4. Directive. The pastor may end the sermon by giving a direct order to the congregation that relates to the message. This is likely to be accompanied by another anecdote or joke to follow the emotional arc of the message (be lighthearted, get serious, get angry, then be lighthearted again). For a sermon on Mark 16:15, a pastor might instruct the congregation to drum up a conversation about faith during lunch at work, or for the high school students to not be afraid to pray in the cafeteria (all so that they create opportunities to evangelize).
There are several problems with this format, the first being that no one has an opportunity to ask questions or verify the validity of these statements. When I stand in front of a class, I have to be prepared to field questions from my students as to why my information is correct. It's not about having "absolute" truth, but about being able to solidly back your claims with evidence.

Which leads into my next idea: Biblical passages are understood to be parts of a whole, but are presented as seamless, unified ideas. I'm currently reading Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie, and my friends would think I was losing my mind if I pulled one sentence from the novel, applied the concept to my life, and then altered my behavior to suit that concept. The Bible is the ONLY book that I know of that can have its nits picked without nitpicking the whole thing. Essentially, pastors are given license to go to town on the interpretation of individual passages while the validity of the entire book is never called into question.

Which leads into my next idea: Congregations have a right to know about the dubious validity of the Bible. Christians use extremely tricky arguments to get around the fact that their religion is only based on certain parts of the Bible, yet accept, in general, that the Bible is the inspired word of God. I've never understood this. Even accepting the whole idea of the "new covenant" in the New Testament (why Christians are not obligated to live under OT laws), it still doesn't explain the entirely different character of God shown in the OT vs. NT. How can it be that your God, while exhibiting agape love for his creation, simultaneously request that Abraham kill Isaac with his own hands in order to test his faith? We would be horrified if modern society required any of this sort of nonsense.

There are zillions of contradictions in the Bible that Christians ought to know about. With any other piece of information, the believer is required to put forth evidence as to why they believe, but with Christianity, there are two cop-outs: because the Bible says so and God is a supreme being and I can't possibly understand everything there is to know about God. These arguments infuriate me because they absolve the arguer of the responsibility to have actually read the Bible or to convince me in a logical manner. Christians should know that the Gospels give three varying depictions of the crucifixion story, and that they were all written at least a decade after Christ died, but they don't know and they don't care. Seriously, as a Christian, how would you refute this guy's argument?

Which leads to my next idea (don't worry, sweet reader...eventually this post will end): there are wildly differing opinions on how to interpret the Bible, so who is correct? These disputes are responsible for the vast number of denominations that exist (all of whom are, ostensibly, "right" in their own mind) and also for a mind-bending amount of conflict within a single church.

Examples from TCBC*:

Around my freshmen/sophomore year of high school, my church's youth program (Word of Life) hosted a purely-for-fun lip-sync event to get everyone involved. I was rather shy in high school, and extremely so in my church, as I constantly felt excluded, but I fought what I saw as my own social shortcomings and got together with several girls to prepare for this lip-sync. We practiced in the basement of one our lip-syncers parents houses (they had built their own soundproof studio, which we used as a rehearsal space) for hours and debated over our "costumes". We decided to lip sync to a song by a band featuring the eldest son of a previous worship leader at TCBC; I wish I remembered the exact name of the song/band, but I do not.

Suffice to say that the kid was someone everyone knew; the band was explicitly Christian, and the record was full of Christian lyrics. The song we chose was a really silly, fluffy song that was simply fun to perform (that's why we picked it!), and although technically Godless, we figured that the event was for fun and it would be a cool way to insert music that I actually liked into church (bear in mind that Christian culture is always, like, ten years behind counter-culture movements; at the time I had just discovered pop-punk and thought I had discovered the cure for cancer).

Our youth pastor thought otherwise. On the day of the event, about a half hour before it was supposed to start, he told us (all girls) that we couldn't perform in the event because the lyrics did not mention God and, furthermore, that "that kind" of music was not glorifying to God in the first place. Crushed, we chose another (lamer) song and attempted to lip-sync to it without having practiced. It was stupid, we were unprepared, and we didn't have fun.

On top of this lunacy, two boys from the youth group were allowed to lip-sync to Mississippi Squirrel Revival by Ray Stevens, which is a freaking parody of church culture.

But their song didn't have drums in it, which I guess aren't very edifying. What horrid hypocrisy.

Another good example is a small quip that a newer pastor at TCBC said during the 2008 elections. I hadn't been to TCBC in a long time before this, and was unfamiliar with the new pastor, and was shocked to hear what he said. Before beginning his sermon (I forget the topic; it must not have appealed to my sense of reason ^_^), he used some sort of anecdote and pulled in pop culture/current events. He then informed the church that the congregation should pray for all political leaders to come to Christ instead of voting because there were "no candidates" that he supported.

My parents said they did not remember him mentioning this, which just goes to show what can happen to your brain if you presuppose something to be true or someone to be an authority without ever questioning. This pastor advocated that 300 people should forsake their right to the democratic process simply because he believes that if you are not a Christian you cannot be a good politician.

And no one is disturbed by this. To me, that is the most repugnant part of all.

Christians, turn on your brains when you sit in church. You HAVE THE RIGHT to ask questions. If what is being said is really true, you will have no problem finding evidence for it. Ask things like: "how do you know?" at all times! What's the point in believing in something if you don't know the information for yourself?

4. The problem of evangelism.

Evangelism is stupid. It really, really is. Under no other circumstances can you attempt to change a person's opinion on any singular topic with no knowledge of the person you are speaking to and no need for a relationship beforehand.

At TCBC, I was taught that evangelism was part and parcel of being a Christian; that to be a Christian you must share your faith (this is called "bearing fruit", referencing the fruits of the Spirit). However, we were also taught to insulate ourselves to the outside world and only interact with people like us, so evangelism was very difficult. In a sense, I felt that it was imperative for me to talk about Jesus everywhere I went, but was also deeply terrified and misinformed about anyone who wasn't a Christian. I had to convince people to become a Christian without knowing them and without having any leverage beyond "the Bible says so" and "I just know".

The Bible was presented as the be-all, end-all basis for walking people through the conversion process. I actually attended a youth event (I was in the 8th grade) where they sent us out in pairs and we went door to door, reading from a script and attempting to get people to commit to attending church. *headdesk* Of course this method didn't work! The last thing you expect to see when you open your door is a pair of 13-year-old girls, and you certainly wouldn't be terribly convinced of their passion for Jesus as they are shaking in their boots because they are trying to push an agenda on a perfect stranger.

Christians are also really in the dark as to the the actual effects of evangelism. When I read "Things Fall Apart" in college as part of a Post-Colonial Literature course, I was floored. It deeply troubled my sense of mission work, which I always considered to be an infallible and holy work that was ordained by God (this is largely due to the rhetoric that churches use; at many events and camps, male members are strongly encouraged to see if God is "calling you into ministry"). Later, when I read "The Poisonwood Bible", I was simply disturbed. I was disturbed, of course, at the actual fallout from the missionaries, but moreso at the idea that someone utterly convinced they were doing "God's work" could bring such horrible consequences. How is that possible? Well, since being "called by God" doesn't require you to actually connect with the person you are converting, who cares? It's not the physical or the day-to-day mundane that Christians care about; they need to focus on the condition of the soul at any cost so that they can add another notch onto their Bible.

To sum it all up, I would argue that I do not attend church because church advocates some things I find morally disgusting, insulates its members from new ideas or challenging philosophies (which I inherently seek out; I value new knowledge and different opinions so that I can see what I truly believe), its leaders are not held accountable for the things they say, and the emphasis on evangelism is absurd. Naturally, this is only the tip of the iceberg; people have miles and miles of printed work on why they find the church distasteful, but these are my opinions.

I also know lots of intelligent, knowledgeable Christians that would agree with many of the things I have stated; it's quite obvious to them that a Christian would need to be well-versed in counter-arguments in order to solidify their own beliefs, or that relationships need to come well before conversion. To them, let me say that I am not attacking you or your faith, but your churches, your buildings, your Institution, your Religion.

But you already know that. You don't worship your Church, you worship God, so what I have said is no surprise to you.

And thank you to everyone that will read this or has. I appreciate your opinion!