Saturday, February 28, 2015

North Carolina Prisoner Service Opportunity

The following is an appeal from a North Carolina prison inmate for secular volunteers to participate in a re-orientation program for prisoners. I'm posting it here in hopes that some North Carolina residents will take advantage of this opportunity to assist secular prisoners.

North Carolina prisons offer a community volunteer program by which volunteers from the community may come into a minimum security prison to sponsor an inmate and take him out into society for up to six hours at a time. This is referred to as a CV Pass.

The program is very good at getting prisoners re-oriented with society, and in helping them to feel more like a person and less like a prisoner. In addition to boosting an inmate's self-esteem, it also offers a taste of what it's like to be a citizen once more, and by doing so, assists in the eventual re-integration of the inmate with the world at large. Rather than being hit with the full force of freedom all at once, an inmate who has been fortunate enough to participate in the CV Pass program (participation is a privilege which must be earned with good behavior) has been sampling freedom in small amounts well before he is released for good.

Where does one go on a CV Pass? Parks, zoos, arboretums, and hiking trails are acceptable venues, as are more public spaces such as malls, restaurants, movie theaters, or even humanist conventions and the like. Unfortunately, there are a lot of prisoners who have earned this privilege, many of whom have worked or years and years towards this goal, and are missing out on this awesome opportunity due to a lack of secular sponsors.

You see, local church groups are heavily involved with the prisons in their communities. They are taking many inmates out on CV Passes on a regular basis. However, they are mainly taking them to one place--they are bringing inmates to their churches. CV Passes are, for the most part, church passes. The well-intentioned Christians are not actively discriminating against atheists in prison. But the fact is that CV sponsors are predominantly church-goers, and thus are non-Christian inmates excluded from taking CV Passes.

It has been my experience that an overwhelming majority of men embrace Christianity with renewed vigor upon incarceration. However, many inmates have chosen not to to do the religion thing while in prison, which speaks to the power of reason and freethought to withstand an aggressive onslaught of Christian campaigning to indoctrinate offenders.

I have resided in a dozen prisons in as many years in North Carolina, and they have all had multiple church services held nearly every day of the week. In addition to regular church services, so-called "revivals" are frequently held in which (civilian) church members are allowed to navigate the entire prison, unescorted, to hand out Christian literature, offer prayer, and to win souls for Christ. This really happens. The pressure is there.

It is sad but true, that if an inmate wishes to go out on a CV Pass, he has to go to church to do so. I know of many "non-believers" who do go out to church, no doubt loathing the service, just to get a much longed for taste of the free world.

Let us show the world that the Christians do not have a monopoly on altruism--that there exists a secular basis for helping fellow humans. And so I reach out to humanists, brights, and secular persons of all stripes and affiliations in North Carolina, to contact a local minimum-security prison and become a community volunteer to provide more inmates the chance to participate in this exceptional privilege. Much good can come of this.

Sincerely,

Zack

Thursday, August 30, 2012

A True Christian

Some people, when they hear that I became an atheist after being a Christian for over 40 years, deny the possibility of such a thing. In some way or another, they say, "No, that couldn't be. You must not have been a real Christian."

This is an example of what is known as the "no true Scotsman" fallacy--an attempt to maintain a stereotype by redefining a term so as to exclude an example. What I want to say here is that by any common definition of the term "Christian," I was one.

If you arbitrarily define the term Christian so as to exclude someone who later loses his faith, then by your definition I was never a Christian, and you don't need to read any further. I don't see that as a useful definition of the term, however, because it doesn't allow you to identify someone as a Christian until they die. It doesn't even tell you if you are one yourself.

When someone calls my Christianity into question, I respond on one of three levels depending on how well the person knows me:
1. A stranger--someone who doesn't know my Christian background--has no basis for asserting that I was not a Christian.
2. An acquaintance--someone who knows about my Christian background but doesn't know me well--may grant that I had some reason to consider myself a Christian, but assume that I didn't have a strong faith.
3. A friend--someone who knows me well--is grasping at straws in an attempt to reconcile their knowledge of who I am with their conviction that no person who has experienced the goodness of God could reject that ultimate blessing. Such a belief is consistent with the idea of a good God, but inconsistent with my experience.

Christian Life

A stranger who summarily dismisses my claim to have been a Christian for many years may assume that I was what might be called a "cultural Christian"--someone who considers himself to be a Christian because that's what all good people are, whether they're active in a church or not. To the contrary, I based my life on strong Christian beliefs.

I was raised in a devout fundamentalist Christian family. When my high school counselor suggested that I consider applying to Vanderbilt University, I instead chose a small Christian college which required a Bible class and chapel every day. In the various places I have lived, I was very active in several types of churches:

Church of Christ (fundamentalist)
Presbyterian Church in the US (mainline Protestant)
Assemblies of God (pentecostal)
Fellowship of the Way of Christ (charismatic house church)
United Methodist Church (mainline Protestant)
Non-denominational charismatic church
Vineyard Christian Fellowship (charismatic)
Evangelical Presbyterian Church (evangelical Protestant)

I financially supported my churches and other Christian organizations, including Focus on the Family and Samaritan's Purse.

I taught Bible classes and led home discussion groups. I read the Bible aloud and led prayers at home, in churches, and in an office prayer group. My wife and I hosted music parties consisting of worship music in our home. On a few occasions I led worship services, preached sermons, and gave testimonies. I participated in the Dunamis Project, Tres Dias, and Promise-Keepers events, and helped to lead spiritual retreats.

Any religious survey or casual observer would unquestionably categorize me as a Christian.

Personal Faith

Many Christians, though, would point out that church involvement is all well and good, but it's quite common to be an active church member without a strong personal faith. Considering a spectrum of devotion from a "Christmas and Easter" churchgoer to a serious monk, I can give some specific evidence that, although I was a computer programmer, I was closer to the monkish end.

Over four decades, I studied the Bible regularly and read scores of Christian books. I took college courses in Bible and classical Greek. I subscribed to "Christianity Today" and read it avidly. In my late 40's I took the time to write several pages describing my theology, intending to give them to my sons to counteract what I saw as false teachings in all the churches I knew of.

All my life, my favorite part of worship services was singing. I especially loved the Vineyard songs, because they were consistently addressed to God, praising him and praying for him to do his work in me and in the world.

I prayed informally, but frequently and fervently--sometimes for extended periods, sometimes in song, but most often in single sentences as I was working or going about my daily activities. My first impulse on learning of a problem I couldn't address myself was to pray. I prayed continually for God's guidance in making any decision of consequence.

I trusted God to take care of me and do what he knew to be best for me and everyone. I did what I thought he wanted me to do, but I didn't worry too much if things didn't go as I hoped, because I knew that God had the ultimate control over everything.

Although members of exclusivist groups like Roman Catholics and Mormons would not consider me to be a true Christian, I believe that the vast majority of other Christian leaders and theologians would.

Knowing God

Some close friends of mine, while acknowledging that I was a Christian, are more concerned with my relationship with God than with my religious affiliation.

They may suppose that my faith in God was merely a result of believing what I had been taught and my behavior was simply the result of practicing what I believed. Perhaps I was just "going through the motions" out of a desire to do the right thing, rather than acting in the power of the Holy Spirit as a loving response to a personal relationship with God.

That is exactly what I believe.

To someone who says to me, "You never really knew God," I say, "That's quite true. You can't know someone who doesn't exist." I could never know God because there is no God to know.

Apostasy Theories

Christians, of course have other hypotheses as to how I could have been (at least apparently) a Christian who subsequently lost my faith in God:

1. I am not one of God's elect.

John Calvin's doctrine of predestination offers the possibility that I'm simply not one of the elect--that God knows what's best and he didn't choose me. That is a non-answer, of course, because it doesn't explain why I am not one of the elect. And it does me no good, because it says there's nothing I can do to change my status; I'm bound for hell--end of story.

I may be misrepresenting Calvinism here, and I doubt that many Christians would describe my status in this way, because I can't see how to reconcile such an idea with the thrust of the New Testament and the traditions of the church. To me, this idea implies that God is unjust. It is thoroughly contradicted by the concept of the gospel as good news.

To someone who believes this, though, I have to grant that it is a reasonable explanation of my apostasy.

2. I failed to recognize God.

Based on any theology I'm aware of other than Calvinism, it seems very unlikely that God tried to reveal himself to me but I failed to recognize him. I don't know of any Biblical doctrine that would suggest that God would not successfully reveal himself to someone who was open to such a revelation.

Some people insist that God has revealed himself to me in many ways: in the Bible, through preachers, teachers, prophets, my friends, book authors, through circumstances, and directly in my own mind. Of course I used to believe that myself.

All of those communication methods except the last two are indirect--through other people. It is clear that all those people are passing along a religious tradition. I can see no evidence that they are mouthpieces through which the creator of the universe is speaking to me.

The last two of those "communication methods," circumstances and my mind, are both my interpretations of events and thoughts. They are heavily influenced by what I have been taught by other people, so to a large extent, they also come from other people. To the extent that they were not due to the influence of other people, I thought that they originated either in my own mind or from God, but I saw no way to determine how much, if any, came from God.

Knowing how easily people's worldviews are molded by their upbringing and society, it doesn't seem wise to accept what I've been taught without strong evidence to support it. I was exposed to a wide variety of theological doctrines, and found none that made sense to me. If I failed to recognize God because he only communicated with me through other people, I would have to conclude that he was unwilling to show me which of their ideas were accurate.

3. I refused to accept him.

This seems similarly unlikely. Only the idea of arbitrary predestination would allow for the possibility that someone would try to serve God for 40 years while refusing to accept him.

4. I failed to approach God humbly.

Some people have suggested that I needed to accept God on his terms rather than mine, saying that I just needed to wait for God to reveal himself to me when he (or I) was ready. For my part, I could see no reason for such a delay, and I saw nothing in all Christian teaching to indicate that God would not be ready when I was. I wasn't demanding that God reveal himself to me within a certain time period; I was merely waiting for him to do so. But after 40 years, it began to seem unlikely that I would someday begin to see convincing evidence that God was more than a religious tradition.

5. I was deceived by the Devil and rebelled against God.

This is a common theory, but it just raises the question of why God would allow me to be so deceived instead of revealing himself to me.

6. God gave up on me because of persistent sin.


One answer is that I was so persistent in some sin that God abandoned me to suffer the consequences of that sin, causing me to see my foolishness and give it up. This is plausible as a concept, but it I was not aware of persistently committing any sin. As a very conscientious person, I seldom do things I believe to be bad, and when I do, I readily apologize and try to do better. Perhaps I rationalized my sin so thoroughly that I was no longer able to recognize it as a sin. In that case, I needed for God to reveal it to me, not abandon me to it.

Furthermore, this idea is difficult to reconcile with the "gospel" that Jesus takes away our sins. I was taught that the undefined "sin against the Holy Spirit" is the only kind that can't be forgiven. I knew that I had never done such a thing intentionally, and I believed that God would not be so unfair as to irredeemably condemn someone for accidentally breaking some obscure rule.

In any event, abandonment, if it has occurred, doesn't appear to be a very effective approach. For the most part, I'm enjoying my life very much; I don't know anyone whose life I would prefer to mine.

7. I didn't seek God with my whole heart.

I am not aware of any theology which suggests that God would refuse to reveal himself to someone who might have reservations or selfish motives. This would require perfection of anyone who wants to know God personally.

Some people have quoted Jeremiah 29:13 to tell me that if I want God more than anything else, I can still find him. I believe this to be true because I know that people can convince themselves of anything if they want it badly enough. However, I am not willing to sacrifice reality to gain faith in an imaginary God.

8. I never experienced God's grace.

Some people close to me lament that I never had a profound conversion experience in which I realized the depth of my depravity and the wonder of being freed from it by God's forgiveness.

Personally, I'm grateful that I felt enough love from my parents that I never felt that I was fundamentally a worthless sinner. I feel sorry for people who feel that way about themselves; the comfort they take in God's forgiveness never seems adequate to free them from the shame into which they have been indoctrinated.


Many of these comments on my apostasy try to defend God by blaming me for doing something wrong--failing to seek God, rejecting him, or rebelling against him. My testimony is that I sought him to the best of my ability. To anyone who feels that my efforts simply fell short, I would ask why it is so difficult to know a god who is supposedly all-wise, all-powerful, and longs for me to know him.

Everyone has a slightly different definition of what makes someone a Christian, but I was certainly what I believed a Christian to be. If I was not a true Christian, then I have never to my knowledge met or even heard of one.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Dislike of Guns

In the wake of the Colorado theater shootings, I posted a Facebook link to an article about gun control, quoting a comment from Anne Lamott that such disasters are never stopped by citizens carrying guns. I was surprised when I received many comments on my posting--even some from people I didn't know--mostly opposing gun control. I added this comment:

It seems that many people have much stronger feelings on the subject than I do.

This isn't a subject I've researched, because it isn't of primary importance to me, but my impression is that many of the countries with the lowest crime rates have much stricter gun control than ours. Maybe I'm terribly naive, but I like to see the signs (like those on the doors to the building where I work) forbidding weapons on the property.

I think my attitude comes from the fact that guns have never been a visible part of the social circles I've lived in. If any of my family or friends had a gun, it was for hunting, and I thought of that as a strange, unpleasant, and dangerous hobby. My father served in the Army as a conscientious objector during World War II, and I did the same during the Viet Nam war. I no longer have religious scruples about possibly killing someone, but with no expectation of an afterlife, I value life very highly. I think shooting someone would be a terrible last resort for defending someone's life--certainly not something to do to protect property. Maybe I've lived a sheltered life, but I've never felt that I needed to have a gun to protect myself or my family.

I doubt that the intent of the second amendment was to deter oppressive state or U.S. governments. As I understand it, the militia was intended as a defense against foreign governments, outlaw gangs, and native Americans. I don't think we'd stand a chance against the U.S. military, but I think our government, as foolish as it often is, is far from what I would call oppressive.

Not to say it could never happen, but in our current situation I can't imagine that any law enforcement officer or military unit would attack my family. I know that innocent people have been killed by law officers, but I doubt that there are many situations in which it would be wise to use a gun to protect someone from a police officer.

I can understand that people who live in areas where violent crime is common might feel it worthwhile to carry a gun for self-defense, but that isn't true for me. In my situation, I feel safer without one.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Favorite Bible Translation

My favorite bible for my last couple of decades as a Christian was the Good News Bible, aka Today's English Version. I liked it because it's a good translation, not a paraphrase like The Message. I appreciated its modern, idiomatic English, which avoids the sometimes awkward phrasing of other translations.

I found that the readability of the GNB made it a good choice for reading aloud, and its clear, contemporary phrasing helped me read with a more open mind because it didn't trigger the pre-digested interpretations that I associated with the wording of more literal translations. I was often asked what version I was reading from, but few other people seemed to appreciate it like I did.

At the time, I wondered why it wasn't more popular. Now I think that may be because it makes the text so clear that people find it unsupportive of their preferred interpretations.

The Good News Bible is now on-line.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Evolution Denial

An article in this month's Christianity Today reported on the resignation of a respected theology professor brought about by his acceptance of evolution. It reminded me of the many years during which I was a Christian embarrassed by the common evangelical denial of evolution. I had trouble understanding why God didn't teach these obviously committed believers that their dogma was wrong.

I left this comment on the CT article:

When Christians insist that the beliefs of other Christians must match their own, they put themselves the head of the church. When Christians deny evolution, they declare that their understanding of nature (based on their understanding of the Bible) is better than that of people who have spent their lives studying nature. Such arrogance is strong evidence that it is human nature, not the Holy Spirit, that guided these people to their "truth."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Why People Matter

Recently I made a comment in an e-mail note expressing my concern about how people are treated. My correspondent responded with some interesting questions:

Why would it matter how people are treated in a universe without God?
Why should we help other human beings at all if there is no God?

I think the key question underlying both of these is, “Why do you care?”

I can think of three reasons why it matters to me how other people are treated: it is part of human nature, my training reinforced it, and my own self-interest requires it.

Nature

My concern for other people is natural—instinctive.

Like all other humans, I am a social animal. I am by nature inclined to enjoy the companionship and society of other people. There is a wide spectrum of extroversion and introversion, and I'm very much an introvert, but I still have a very strong desire to have close relationships, and I even enjoy meeting new people.

As a part of my innate sociability, my emotions resonate with those of other people. I care about how they feel, because I experience some of what they feel. Knowing how various situations affect me, I experience empathy with people who are in similar circumstances. I sympathize with people who are suffering.

Only sociopathic people lack empathy. It is a part of mental health, unrelated to religion or lack of religion. Mothers love their children and everyone cares about their friends, regardless of their worldview or the kind of gods they worship. Many psychologists have studied caring relationships, and some intriguing studies have found that a number of primate species demonstrate compassion, indicating that the capacity for empathy evolved even before our species did.

The fact that empathy is natural doesn't imply that people will never mistreat each other. Anger and the desire for revenge are emotions as natural as love and compassion. People who harm others often regret doing so, however, because mistreating other people is contrary to the kinder aspects of our nature.

Why does it matter how other people are treated? Because we relate to other people and share their emotions. Why should we help other people? Because we know how it feels to receive help when we need it.

Nurture

I was trained to care.

I grew up in a family that valued compassion. Before I was born, my parents chose to serve as houseparents in a home for orphans. Seeing the needs of the children they cared for, my father made a career in social work, in the field of child welfare.

I absorbed the concern for others that my parents taught and demonstrated. I took seriously the teaching of the Bible and my church that love for others—even enemies—is the greatest virtue. My family, my friends, my teachers, and the books I read all reinforced my innate tendency to care about other people.

Self-interest

I know that it benefits me to love other people.

As a Christian, I often heard teachers say that we love because God loved us first. With a long background of teachings like that, I was a little surprised to discover how much I still loved and cared for people when I found myself no longer believing in God.

As I pondered this discovery, I realized not only that my concern for others is natural, but that it benefits me in many ways. I depend on other people for most of my needs. I don't think I would survive for very long if there were no other people around—nor would I enjoy surviving alone. I am not an island—either physically or emotionally.

Because of my dependence on other people and my friendships with them, I care about their welfare. I want their lives to be secure and enjoyable, and I want to contribute to their happiness. I want to treat them in the ways I want to be treated.

I want everyone to be treated well—not just my friends and family. People who are treated badly behave badly. When people suffer extreme injustice, they grow desperate for revenge. In their anger, they often strike out at anyone and everyone, with little regard for whether or not their victims are actually responsible for their suffering. If everyone were happy, no one would be a terrorist.

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama said,
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; if you want to be happy, practice compassion.
I agree.


Influence of religion

I have heard people suggest that former Christians care for other people primarily because of their religious background. Although I don't deny that I was influenced by my training, the idea that it is responsible for my humanitarian values is not supported by my observations.

First, I found that some of my values changed dramatically when I left religion, while others remained very much the same. This indicates to me that I'm not merely a product of my upbringing or my religious traditions.

Second, my Christian teachers and role models taught me to love everyone, but I find that the strength of my passion for the welfare of other people varies, depending on the level of my relationship with those people. The people I know the best and spend the most time with—my family and friends—are the ones I love the most. As I observe my reactions to news stories and e-mails, I see that I tend to care more about acquaintances and even strangers I encounter than I do about people I have no direct contact with at all. I care more about Americans than I do about Asians.

This spectrum of concern is not what my religious teachers promoted, but is consistent with the idea that empathy evolved as a result of the benefits of empathetic behavior. Caring for one's own family and tribe is likely to have been much more beneficial than caring for strangers who had different languages and customs.

I see plenty of evidence that other people, religious or not, share this pattern of caring for others.

What matters most

Nature, nurture, and self-interest all factor into my concern for other people. Those explanations of my motivation for that concern may not be the whole story, but the completeness of my understanding isn't essential to the truth of my feelings. In the end, it doesn't really matter much why I care about other people. I do care, and that's what matters.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Scientific Study of the Supernatural

This morning I found an excellent paper by Dr. Yonatan Fishman, an Assistant Professor of Neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York, titled “Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?”. Fishman argues that no field of knowledge is inaccessible to scientific study. He points out that this contradicts the idea of "non-overlapping magesteria" that is often used to exempt supernatural concepts from rational analysis, as well as to exclude Intelligent Design and other religious ideas from science curricula.

This is something I’ve thought about many times and wanted to write about, but Fishman’s paper covers the subject with much more rigor and detail than I’d have been able to supply. Here are some quotes (with page numbers):

9 The findings of modern neuroscience strongly support the dependence of perception, cognition, emotion, memory, decision making, and personality on the function of the physical brain.

11 In general, most believers hold that gods, spirits, and paranormal phenomena have real effects on the world and on their lives. These effects should be testable by the methods of science.

12 The history of science has been characterized by the progressive ‘naturalization of the world’, providing non-supernatural alternative explanations for phenomena that were once thought to be explicable only by appeal to supernatural agents.

17 Demarcating ‘science’ from ‘pseudoscience’ or ‘natural’ from ‘supernatural’ is not only problematic but unnecessary. The crucial question is not, Is it science? or Is it supernatural?, but rather, Is there any good reason to believe that claim X is true?

17 If the fundamental aim of science is the pursuit of truth - to uncover, to the extent that humans are capable, the nature of reality - then science should go wherever the evidence leads. If the evidence were to strongly suggest the existence of supernatural phenomena, then so be it.

17 Naturalism is not a premise or presupposition of science - it is a conclusion of science, albeit a tentative one, based upon the available evidence to date.

18 The best explanation for why there has been so far no convincing, independently verifiable evidence for supernatural phenomena, despite honest and methodologically sound attempts to verify them, is that these phenomena probably do not exist. Indeed, as discussed earlier, absence of evidence, where such evidence is expected to be found after extensive searching, is evidence of absence.

18 Contrary to the positions expressed [in the 2005 Dover Pennsylvania school district trial] by Judge Jones, the AAAS, and the NAS, the reason why supernatural or religious claims, such as those of ID/Creationism, do not belong in science classes is not because they have supernatural or religious content, but rather because there is either no convincing evidence to support them or science has debunked them.