DWise1's Religion Pages: What I believe

Back in 1999, Ed, a Christian and former young-earth creationist, whose site is at http://home.comcast.net/~whatrymes/, emailed me the following question:

Could you send me just an outline of your beliefs, especially your view on Scripture itself.
The following is my reply to him. It still holds true:

OK. I can appreciate why you ask for an outline, since many people could write volumes on this subject. At the same time, without laying down some kind of groundwork, I do not believe that a simple statement of my conclusions could make any sense. After I have laid that groundwork, then I will try to tie it all together in a statement of my beliefs. I will endeavor to be concise. I am certain that you will disagree with most of what I will say.

An email should be able to fit on one page, though spilling over to a second page is acceptable, to third page is starting to push it, and more than four or five is unacceptable in polite society (hence, I do not mind receiving long emails, just so long as it's not junk mail). I do not know how you handle your email; I normally use the Log Manager to capture my sessions to an ASCII file, so I just click through the mail list and read my mail at my leasure off-line, plus it provides me with a permanent record of my correspondence. Therefore, I will again send you the body of the message in an attached text file.

I remember about a decade ago, a Christian on CompuServe asked me what I believed in. I stopped and thought about it. Over and over. And no matter what I did, I kept coming up with the same answer: Truth, Justice, and the American Way. I know it must sound corny, but that's the truth.

As I said, I am not a Christian and have not been one for about 35 years, ever since, in my early teens, I decided that it required me to believe things that were just too incredible. At the same time, I also stopped being a theist, which, by definition, makes me an atheist. Again, since I became an atheist at about the standard age of confirmation/bar-mitzvahing, I sometimes refer to myself as a confirmed atheist.

At the same time, I also consider myself to be religious. This is no contradiction, since I am not a Christian atheist, which can be the worst kind of anti-religious, self-destructive, hedonistic nihilist. OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but that is basically what Christians are taught that atheism is and that is the role model that Christians are given to follow should they ever lose their faith. Couple that with creation science teaching that their faith depends on science and evolution being wrong (eg, John Morris of the ICR saying "If the earth is more than 10,000 years old then Scripture has no meaning.") and those Christians are being set up to take a very big fall. In real life, I have not personally known many of the extreme cases, but then I am rather clean-cut and do not travel in those circles (in my college "wild days", one acquaintance once said that I was the straightest person that he had ever met -- ie, non-freak; this was the tail end of the 60's, after all). However, through a local atheist organization, Atheists United, in Los Angeles, I have heard several testimonials of how they had become atheists and I have found that many Christians who have taken the fall (which can also be triggered by any event that makes the individual believe that his religion or religious leaders had betrayed him or had been lying to him, whether it had actually happened or not) do end up being strongly anti-religious.

Not only am I not a Christian, but I am also not a Christian atheist. I did not experience the trauma of betrayal by my religious leaders. Rather, my atheism started intellectually with the conscious decision that I simply could not believe what I was required to believe as a Christian or as a theist, something that I know to not be true. I continue to be an atheist, because I still could not believe something that I know to not be true. I am not a joiner. I do not join a group simply for the company. If I am to join a group or organization, then I need to be able to agree with or believe in its principles and/or goals. If I am to take an oath of any kind, then I need to be able to agree with that oath; I cannot in good conscience simply parrot the words.

By definition, an atheist is not a theist. A theist is one who believes in the gods, in supernatural beings. An atheist does not believe in the gods. It's as simple as that. Giving any extra attributes to atheists must be done on an individual, case-by-case basis.

My basic problem is with the supernatural. While many atheists will deny the possibility of the existence of the supernatural, I would not go that far, because it is no more possible to disprove the existence of the supernatural than it is to prove it. By its very nature, the supernatural cannot be detected, observed, measured, or tested. We cannot objectively determine any of the supernatural's properties, including its existence. We cannot prove nor disprove anything about the supernatural, only speculate and than extrapolate from those speculations. I learned very quickly that if there is no way to independently test one's speculations about the supernatural, then the extrapolations therefrom, no matter how rigorously logical, can very easily lead one to the furtherest reaches of absurdity.

Ah, but what of receiving information about the supernatural through Revelation? I tend to agree with Thomas Paine's observation that Revelation is Revelation only to that one individual who receives it. When he tells another about it, then it becomes hear-say, and when that person tells yet another, then it becomes hear-say upon hear-say, and so forth, many hundreds of times over. But I believe that Paine was too optimistic and understated the situation. Having spent my first seven years of college as a language major (German, French, Spanish, Russian, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Old English), I understand something about the effects of language on the mind and on the structuring of thought, even on a pre-verbal level. I would correct Paine's statement by saying that Revelation is not even Revelation to that person directly receiving it, but rather it would have become hear-say as soon as he began to think about it, because his mind would have started filtering and interpreting it. Revelation cannot be improved upon; it can only hope to be transmitted perfectly. Perfect transmission of Revelation within the human mind and from one human mind to another is impossible; our minds and our means of information transfer -- eg, language -- are far too imperfect to be up to the job. Therefore, in human hands and minds and through human means, Revelation can only be degraded. The only way I can see for an individual to access Revelation is for that individual to receive It himself, even though even then it would be degraded by his mind and by his cultural filters, including what he has been taught by his religion to expect of Revelation. Ironically, I believe that that would make me something of a mystic.

"God is not what you imagine, or what you think you understand. For if you understand, you have failed."
(Augustine of Hippo)
When a Fundamentalist co-worker learned that we are Unitarians, he remarked, "A man-made religion", to which I nearly responded, "Is there any religion that is not?" Regardless of how a particular religion's adherents believe that that religion had been founded, the truth remains that ALL of man's religions are very human institutions which were all founded by humans, all had their doctrines written and interpreted by humans, are all run by humans, and are all imperfect. There is no religion in existence that is truly of divine origin; even if a religion had been founded at the command of a god in order to embody that god's teachings, it would still have been built and organized and devised and run by humans and its teachings would have still been compiled, written down, interpreted, and taught by imperfect humans.

Which brings us to a paradox. I'm sure that you have often heard both theists and atheists point out that of all the great multitude of the world's religions, they cannot all be right; only one can be right and the rest must be wrong. Of course, most Christians would say that their religion is right and all the others are wrong, whereas most atheists would point out that ALL religions are wrong, thus exempifying the observation that the only difference between Christians and atheists is one of magnitude -- Christians disbelieve in all the gods except for one and atheist disbelieve in only one more god than do the Christians <gr>. But I would say that, yes, all of the world's religions are indeed wrong, yet they all are also right (*see footnote). They all are wrong in that they have all gotten It wrong, the Truth. Due to the human imperfections of their imperfect human founders, developers, and administrators, their doctrines all contain imperfections, misinterpretations, and untruths. NONE of them have totally true doctrine. At the same time, none (or, at least, virtually none) of them have totally false doctrine. All of them have some truth in their doctrine. As long as they contain some semblence of the truth and they endeavor to seek truth and wisdom and help in the spiritual growth of their members, then they can be considered to be valid religions.

[*FOOTNOTE: Saying that they all are right is admittedly too broad of a statement. Whereas it can truthfully be said that there is no religion which contains no untruthful doctrine, it might not be true that every single religion contains at least one truthful doctrine. Certainly, there are those "religions" which were devised for devious and/or deceitful purposes; Scientology comes immediately to mind. Yet most religions, especially if they truthfully endeavor to seek out truth and wisdom, should still contain some nuggets of Truth. Despite the possible existence of a few invalid religions, most religions should still be valid and the intent of my statement above should still hold.]

"[When you go searching for what God is, y]ou can't go to the people who believe already. They've made up their minds and want to convince you of their own personal heresy."
(Viktor Koman, "The Jehovah Contract")

I am familiar with the belief that the Bible is the inerrant, literal Word of God. However, I am also familiar with some of the history of the writing of the Bible. I know that God did not dictate it to a stenographer complete with chapters and verses. I know that it was written by a number of different authors, human authors, imperfect and fallible human authors using imperfect human language to express their ideas. I know that what we find in the Bible is only a small part of the large number of gospels, prophesies, histories, letters, and other sacred writings that were written around that time by inspired authors. I know that human committees decided which of these sacred writings were to be included in Scripture. I know that some parts of the gospels were originally written in Aramaic and then translated into Greek, and the Greek was translated into Latin, and the Latin into the vernacular (indeed, Martin Luther's complete translation of the Latin Bible into German, wherein he transplanted into German the Latin rules for synthesizing entirely new words out of roots and affixes, formed the basis for Modern German). I also know all too well that translation requires interpretation and that losses, additions, and changes frequently occur in the translation process. I also know that multiple variant versions of several New Testament verses exist in the manuscripts, some of which greatly change the meaning of the verse. The practice of biblical literalism would require some way of handling the problems of translation and of the existence of different versions of New Testament manuscripts and I do not believe that this has been done satisfactorily.

For example, in your copy of the New Testament, what does Mark 16:9-20 say? In my King James Version, NIV, Gideons, and Keppler Bibel, those verses go into a fair amount of detail telling of the resurrected Jesus appearing to various people. But in some bibles, those verses either do not exist or only exist in a footnote along with other endings which only tell of his followers going forth to spread the news of eternal salvation. It turns out that Mark has four different endings, depending on which manuscripts you use, which are presented as a long ending and a short ending. So how is the biblical literalist to decide which "literally true" version of Mark to use? FWIW, the older, more reliable (read "more authentic") manuscripts use the short ending, while only the later, more apocryphal manuscripts use the long ending prefered by literalists.

What does your copy of Luke 2:14 say? Here are a few different translations:

  • KJV:
  • Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

  • NIV:
  • Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.

  • Keppler:
  • Ehre sei Gott in der H÷he und Friede den Menschen auf Erden, die eines guten Willens sind!
    (Honor be to God on high and peace to humans on earth, who are of good will.)

  • Greek (the original, BTW):
  • Doxa en uyistoiV Qew kai epi ghV eirhnh en anqrwpoiV eudokia[V].
    (Glory in highest to God and upon the earth peace among humans)
    [with sigma: eudokiaV means of good will/of favor; without sigma: eudokia means good will/favor]

    It turns out that the various manuscripts cannot agree on what case "eudokia" (good will/favor) is in (please let me know if your grammar is too rusty to understand case). Some end it with a sigma, which places it in the genitive case, which accounts for the NIV and the Keppler translations. Others leave the sigma out, placing it in the nominative case, which accounts for the KJV translation. I believe that the manuscripts that include the sigma are older and considered more authentic by scholars.

    OBTW, do you know what the name of Barabbas was? Jewish male names follow the formula of "so-and-so son of another-so-and-so"; in Hebrew, "son" is "ben" and in Aramaic, I believe, it is "bar", which is still used in Judaism, as in "Bar Mitzvah", "Son of the Covenent." So, eg, Jesus would have been called "Yeshua bar Yosef." "bar Abbas" would mean "son of the father" or "son of the master", so his actual name isn't being mentioned in most bibles. But according to several Greek manuscripts of Matthew 27:16, his name was Jesus bar Abbas. Which some modern authors have tried to read even more into (remember, they used to marry at about 14 years of age).

    So claims of the Bible being literally true lead me to ask, "But which Bible?" There are different canons; even the Ten Commandments are different in the Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant traditions. And different translations based on different source documents, many of which are intermediate translations. And is the literalist working from the original language (assuming he has access to it, eg Aramaic manuscripts not yet discovered) or na´vely proceding with an English translation? In his newsletter, Bill Morgan told of and praised a very na´ve interpretation based solely on a tortured twisting of English; I will tell you of that in another message.

    OK, that should be enough groundwork for now.

    What are my beliefs? I am not a Christian, nor am I at all likely to become one again in this lifetime. We are members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, with whose principles I agree; being an atheist and applying the Scout Oath and Law for 25 years, I quite naturally turned into a Unitarian. I am an atheist, in that I do not believe in the supernatural nor in supernatural beings (and I was expelled with extreme prejudice as a Scout leader in 1991 just for not believing in the supernatural). I do not deny the possibility of the existence of the supernatural. Indeed, I believe that there is a lot more to this little universe of ours than we have even begun to discover. But I find that I cannot place my trust in -- ie, believe in -- the blind speculations and dogmatic pronouncements of mere humans about the supernatural, about which they have no means, direct or indirect, to discover anything. I believe that, if there is an after-life, there are going to be a lot of very surprised souls, mostly "true Christians", once the Maya wears off.

    I am drawn to science, because, flawed and limited and imperfect though it may be, it represents the most reliable methodology we have for discovering truths about the physical universe. At the same time, I realize that there are many things and areas of knowledge that science cannot handle, such as the non-physical aspects of the universe. I do not oppose religion, realizing that it is an important human endeavor which serves to address some very real human concerns and needs and provides a medium for asking and trying to answer the truly important and basic questions facing us, such as the most basic religious question, "How, then, am I to live my life?" I consider myself to be religious and recognize the need for everybody to find and follow their own spiritual paths. I try to support and help others on their paths, trying to not challenge the paths others have chosen unless I see those paths leading to harm, as is the case with creation science and with the forms of Christian Reconstructionism adapted by the Christian Coalition and other elements of the Religious Right.

    Scripture holds no particular fascination for me. I respect it as the sacred text of some major religions. I recognize its disproportionate influence on Western art and literature. I see parts of it as containing the accumulated wisdom of an entire people and value that wisdom, as I valued the wisdom in the Pirke Avoth (Sayings of the Fathers) in the Talmudic tradition (one of my first classes at Cal-State Fullerton was in Rabbinic Literature). I do not believe it to be of divine origin and I do not see it as containing any particularly special qualities or information, no more special than any other sacred text. I see its descriptions of nature and of "scientific" matters as indicative of the beliefs of a pre-scientific culture in the pre-scientific times in which it was written and to be non-binding to our own times and our own culture; would one expect a caring god to have fed scientific meat to a scientific infant? We should expect ancient descriptions of how the universe works to be superceded by later discoveries, whereas ancient descriptions of WHY the universe is can still have relevance.

    I have also seen Scripture used as a weapon against me and against others, over the years as a frequent target of proselytizers and now increasingly with the growth of the Radical Religious Right's political power, so I view it partially in the spirit of Sun Tzu's teaching of "know your enemy."

    I can understand that a believer in the special nature of the Bible (so stated to include as broad a spectrum as possible of beliefs regarding the Bible) could perceive a conflict between a surface reading of the Bible and the findings of science. I can understand the strong need to attempt to resolve that conflict. My understanding of the role of apologetics is that of dealing with conflicts, both internal and external and both real and imagined, and of harmonizing those conflicts away, thus protecting the believer's faith and presenting the religion's beliefs as reasonable and true to prospective converts.

    I agree with Glenn R. Morton that any attempts at harmonizing a religion's teachings and the real world (ie, the physical universe) must be scientifically accurate. Failure to do so will cause the harmonization to unravel and could do far more damage than any good it would have possibly done. Our experience and observations have verified this to be true.

    "Any faith that cannot live in the world as it is, is defective, and not to be considered by a rational thinker, on pain of self-contradiction."
    (John Wilkins, Head of Communication Services, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, in newsgroup message to Glenn R. Morton, quoted in "The Effect of Scientific Error in Christian Apologetics" (link broken).
    I understand the importance for a believer to harmonize Scripture and science and I believe that to be an important exercise that he has to work through. However, since I do not attach special importance to the Bible and do not have any such special expectations of it, the whole business of harmonizing is personally a moot point for me. I may have some glimmer of intellectual curiosity about the ways that Christians have found to achieve, or almost achieve, that harmonization, but I have no personal stake in it and other things place more demand on my attention.

    FWIW, I had presented to Bill Morgan the thought that all his beliefs concerning the Bible and concerning conflicts between it and science stem from human interpretation. Most certainly, the expectation that if creation science is wrong and science and evolution are correct, then "Scripture has no meaning," is purely somebody's fallible interpretation. When it does turn out that creation science is dead wrong, then that doesn't mean that the Bible is wrong, but rather only that the ICR's interpretation was wrong. And if the ICR got that wrong, then why insist that they were right about your faith needing to self-destruct? Simply accept that the ICR was wrong and move on, hopefully a little wiser for it. Of course, Bill never responded to that pearl of wisdom; my minister has cautioned me about where I cast them, but I cannot seem to learn <gr -- actually, he was talking about BSA, Inc.>.

    Well, there it is. I hope that it makes sense to you. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask.

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    First uploaded on 2007 November 05.
    Updated on 2017 July 14.