When the early 20th century theologian, Paul Tillich, wrote in his systematic theology that “God does not exist,” he created a fire storm in the media and among modern churches. But Tillich was not declaring himself to be an atheist. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in God but he specifically did not believe in a supernatural theistic god who existed in time and space. God is not somewhere, in fact, God is not someone. I found it to be helpful to focus on his insistence that in order to understand the bigger God, you have to be willing to kill off the little god who gets in your way.
God, as conceived in antiquity, was a person, an individual who had human like qualities, like emotions, but also had super powers and non-human qualities like immortality and invisibility.
The primitive concepts of god, along with all of the complimentary angels and demons, heaven and hell, occupy so much space in culture that it is difficult to get a word in edgewise.
The primitive concepts of god, along with all of the complimentary angels and demons, heaven and hell, occupy so much space in culture that it is difficult to get a word in edgewise. If you are religious, you are expected to be religious in the terms of the prevailing culture. If you are religious in India, you are probably a Hindu. If you are religious in Iran, you are probably a Muslim, and if you are religious in Northern Ireland, you are probably a Catholic.
These rigid constructs, I would argue, tend to extinguish sincere thought and most of sincere spirituality. If I am to be a person of faith in the Midwest of the United States, I almost certainly have to be some flavor of Christian and I have to be that with fairly irrational beliefs in the primacy of the Bible, the eternal presence of Jesus, and to live in a certain anticipation of a very hazardous final judgement.
But through the centuries we have examples of people who just refused to be fit into that narrow box but it has often been quite dangerous to be public about it. Even in ancient Greece, the birthplace of western civilization, philosophy and literature, many politicians, and probably most philosophers did not buy into the myths about the gods but they had to be careful because the charge of being “godless” or an atheist could turn the public against you.
In the fifth century before the common era, 2600 years ago, the Greek philosopher, Euripides, wrote these lines for a character in a play:
“Doth some one say that there be gods above?
There are not; no, there are not. Let no fool,
Led by the old false fable, thus deceive you.”
Early Greek philosophers often wrote in the form of dialogues or plays because, that way, they could put ideas into the mouths of their fictional characters without having to say these things themselves and suffer the consequences.
Still, history and literature are littered with examples of people who just refused to be religious in a formal way because the claims of those rigid religious systems were based on very primitive and anthropomorphic views of the divine. And, when you are given a choice of either believing in this certain way or being a godless heathen, then, for many, being an atheist seems like the best option.
In another play, Euripides suggests that someone very clever invented belief in god in order to frighten the people into living moral lives. That observation has echoed through the centuries because fear of divine judgement has been useful to both governments and to religions.
I would like to think that most of us would like to be peaceful, considerate, compassionate, good people because it is better to be good than to be violent, dishonest, self-serving, and criminal but, you have to admit, religion has been needed as an incentive to be good people when you couldn’t rely on the inherent good instincts of people in general.
The 18th century French philosopher, Voltaire, famously observed that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. Voltaire was obviously an atheist but he very wryly noted the social usefulness of a watchful and harshly judgmental god who would serve to keep society from falling into anarchy.
Where fear of the police is not enough to control people’s more base instincts, we insert a fear of god.
Tuesday evening, my colleague David and I are hosting an online conference on Zoom entitled, “Overcoming religious guilt and fear.” You will find the link to that here.
We discovered in the course of offering another online conference that very many people seemed to have an almost desperate need to talk about the way in which they had been traumatized by either religious leaders or the institution of religion itself.
While, as Voltaire and Euripides noted that religion is used to frighten or manipulate people into behaving better, there are very many ways in which the plunge into that irrational way of thinking has also led people into doing even worse things than they were trying to stop.
Obviously, especially for those of us who have grown up in predominantly Christian culture, there has been a lot of judgement about being homosexual or trans. Women have almost always been relegated to second class citizenship through religious insistence, and we have all heard nauseating accounts of the sexual exploitation of children under the auspices of religious authority.
The media has talked about this primarily as a matter of pedophilia among Catholic priests but I assure you that it was not limited to Roman Catholics. In my own practice of pastoral counseling, I have talked to many people who were sexually exploited by ministers and church leaders in the Baptist Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Methodists, the Assemblies of God, and in my own mother church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Among the Disciples, the controversy went right to the top, hiding a 40 year long career of child abuse by a man who ended his career as the General Minister and President of the denomination, C. William Nichols, who went to his grave in 2012, still avoiding any legal consequences for a monstrous lifetime of sexual abuse of vulnerable victims.
But, while all of these examples are horrible and they make for great movie plots and newspaper headlines, what I want to focus on in our conference on Tuesday evening is not these specific crimes and these particular criminals but more, I would like to talk about the big lie. Because, isn’t it obvious that telling children that if they think dirty thoughts or touch their private parts that they might spend eternity in a burning hell, that telling them that, century after century, telling literally billions of children about the tortures of hell, that’s child abuse.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time defining venial sins verses mortal sins but, if you will allow me to say it, what is putting an immigrant child in a cage at the border for two months, compared to a trusted Sunday School teacher telling hundreds of little children that they are very likely to go to hell forever if they behave in ways that human beings cannot help to behave?
I don’t know who started the internet memes that suggest that we always should have been more afraid of the righteous who burned witches alive than we were afraid of witchcraft.
To me, that is the big lie that has survived for centuries.
I took our wisdom lesson today from the writings of one of the founders of the 18th century French enlightenment, a movement that in many ways gave birth to desires for liberty, equality, and freedom that found physical expression in the founding of the United States, Baron d'Holbach.
In those days before television, movies and the internet, people like Baron d’Holback would keep what was called a “salon.” A meeting room where people would come to entertain one another with intelligent conversation. A lot of publications arose from these public sharing of ideas, much as had been done in the open air meetings of philosophers in ancient Greece.
They also got a lot of people in trouble for allowing them to think aloud about the claims of the Catholic Church and the absurdities of religious guilt and fear.
The Catholic Church fought hard to close these salons and to suppress the publications that came out of them. There was a time when simply owning one of Voltaire’s books could get you executed in France. But I found this quote because it had such an impact on the thinking of the British poet, Percy Shelly, who quoted Baron d'Holbach in an anonymous pamphlet he published as a young student at Oxford that got him expelled. Still, even without an Oxford degree, Shelly’s willingness to ask hard questions of obvious social lies made him a major influence on the later works of Karl Marx and Gandhi.
My point today is that there are very many good reasons to strive to be a spiritual person, a good person, a compassionate person, but, I am afraid, institutional religion gets in the way of that goal, both through filling our minds with magic and superstition, and giving us very good reasons to find a therapist to try to overcome the poisoned reasoning religion leaves behind, even years after a victim has stopped going to church.
d’Holbach, line by line, knocks the foundations out from under traditional Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christianity just by saying the obvious:
If [God] is infinitely good, what reason should we have to fear him?
If he is infinitely wise, why should we have doubts concerning our future?
If he knows all, why warn him of our needs and fatigue him with our prayers?
If he is everywhere, why erect temples to him?
If he is just, why fear that he will punish the creatures that he has filled with weaknesses?
If he is all-powerful, how offend him, how resist him?
If he is reasonable, how can he be angry at the blind, to whom he has given the liberty of being unreasonable?
If he is immovable, by what right do we pretend to make him change his decrees? If he is inconceivable, why occupy ourselves with him?
IF HE HAS SPOKEN, WHY IS THE UNIVERSE NOT CONVINCED?
The revolutionaries of the French Enlightenment and the American movement that followed, were not satisfied with individual enlightenment and rejection of the mental prison that religion imposed, they wanted society to be free.
I left grad school in the mid 1980’s with a skull full of theology and not enough smarts to really put it all together. I credit the insightful works of the famous M. Scott Peck, with making my formal education finally make real sense to me.
In his book, The Different Drum, Peck describes four stages of spiritual transformation, beginning with the chaos of early childhood, full of selfishness and fear, greed and an apparent unwillingness or, Peck suggests, an inability to care for others. Sadly, this is not just an affliction of childhood since many people persist in this state for their entire lives. Without being at all tongue in cheek about it, this is the kind of person we saw in our former president, Donald Trump, and in the kind of people who tried to overthrow the government on January 6th when they stormed the Capitol Building. All fear and greed, without governing morals.
Most people are trained out of this stage with what Peck calls an institutional faith, something that has been found to be necessary, even in adamantly atheist countries like China and Russia, where veneration of the state itself forms the governing, controlling, force that religion is in most of the rest of the world.
Again, I understand why this is done. We are literally using either religion or nationalism to tame the wild emotions of a chaotic child. Sadly, manipulation by fear is the biggest part of that.
But, as Peck describes, the claims of institutional religion and nationalism fall apart when they are closely examined. The third stage of development, Peck calls “Skepticism” which can be horrifying to most people. If you have been trained to believe that things happen for a reason, that there is a god who is in control of the outcomes of life, and that in some afterlife, the deserving will be punished and the well behaved believers will be rewarded, and then you get to a place where you just don’t know anymore, you can’t be sure, and probably all of it is hogwash.
That, quite frankly, is what revivals are for. To bring skeptics back into the fold. That is why religious leaders can be so inflexible, to unbending in orthodox beliefs. They force people to stop questioning, to stop doubting, to stop being skeptical, and they try to fit them back into choir robes, and handbell choirs, and Sunday School lessons followed by really bad hymns and tedious rituals.
Again, most people don’t go back and those that do are never again fully convinced. Most church goers are nominal Christians at best because no one really likes fanatics. The goal is to be just religious enough to avoid the potential of hell while not really putting much stock in the gamble.
Most people either find themselves uncomfortably and largely unconvinced and yet tethered to traditional religion, or they give up on the project entirely, assuming that it is all just a bunch of hogwash.
What Scott Peck was encouraging, what has kept me in the church and kept me preaching, writing, and teaching, is the hope of a fourth stage, a stage of spirituality on the other side of skepticism and doubt, a stage that is more defined by mystery, a holy wonder at the connectedness of the universe and of people.
Peck argues that there are fourth stage spiritual leaders in all of the world’s religions: Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism, when people can come to accept doubt and uncertainty in doctrine in favor of a more experiential form of community, of loving other people, of striving to be a force for good without fear of judgment, and without a narcissistic need for eternal life.
Aldous Huxley called mysticism “the perennial philosophy” because it emerges in all cultures in all centuries among enlightened and liberated thinkers. Sadly, there is a whole spiritual industry that has grown up around using the word “mystery” to mean something that is simply devoid of facts and reason. That is the opposite of what I mean, what Peck, and Tillich, and Euripides meant.
People reject institutional religion and embrace a set of beliefs that are even more toxic and stupid than the mental prison they just escaped. I am shocked by just how gullible most people turn out to be.
What I am talking about is probably better described as being a sense of awe, of wonder, what Leander Keck called, allowing our souls to be astonished by both the sight of an unobscured night sky, or peering into either a microscope or a telescope.
To bathe in wonder that transcends understanding, and frees us from fear, guilt, and all forms of self-condemnation, and liberates us to forgive others, to believe in the potential in every person to become a good person, a person of sincere compassion and love.
We don’t use religion the way an addict uses drugs, to escape reality and remove ourselves from others. We become spiritual in order to have a more firm grip on reality. To find spirituality in a deep dive into science and mathematics, into music and art, and in loving connections to others.
We want to help people to overcome the trauma they have suffered at the hands of toxic religion and that requires some fairly aggressive confrontation of priests, bishops, popes, and pastors before we can break open the bars that keep people locked in irrational fear. And we don’t want to lose people in the darkness of hopelessness and skepticism.
Like Plato’s allegory of the cave, it is our hope to be dismissive of lies, and to endure the initial blinding light of reality, to become a joyful and loving part of a profoundly connected universe in which happiness is not only possible, but it should be seen as a birthright for everyone.
You will not live forever, but you should live in joy in the life that you are given. That may be only my opinion, but you will not find it easy to prove me wrong.
Dr. Roger Ray