Some of my friends who have known me for a long time would be glad to tell you of times that I ruffled some feathers at the conservative Christian school that I attended from kindergarten through high school graduation. We had a Bible class in which we studied the book “Seven Men Who Rule the World from the Grave” (in case you’re curious: Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Julius Wellhausen, John Dewey, Sigmund Freud, John Maynard Keynes, and Soren Kierkegaard). The next semester, we had to write a paper and give an oral presentation about a well-known figure (politics, religion, sports, entertainment, whatever) who had positively influenced our Christian life.
I wrote about Kierkegaard, because screw that book.
On the other hand, others who have known me a bit less time can tell you that I was pretty blind to some of the realities of science when I got to college. One of my dearest friends insisted that I should never, ever talk to him about the Bible when he learned that I believed in The Great Flood (think Noah).
To give a quick summary of my current beliefs when it comes to science and religion: I am unwilling to accept any scientific belief that seeks to disprove a God that I have personally known… and I am unwilling to believe any religious doctrine that counters proven science. I believe that confirmation bias leads people to believe all sorts of things that are inaccurate, both in science and religion. I believe that it is easy for the religious to reject science without thinking, and I believe that it is easy for the zealously nonreligious to accept even the most spurious science if it even hints at disproving a religious belief. I believe that both religion and science have an unfortunate tendency to assume that they hold all the answers to everything.
…So this isn’t quite as quick a summary as I’d hoped. I feel like I should give one example.
Do I believe that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, because the Bible says it? Do I believe in an earth that is millions of years old and life through evolution, because science has amassed astonishing amounts of evidence? Do I believe in intelligent design, where God used evolution to create, because it combines (some would say compromises) the two beliefs? Here’s my answer: I don’t care. I know this pisses off people on both sides of the fence, but it’s true. I don’t care. I believe in God, and I believe He is the intentionally capitalized Almighty Creator. I don’t care how He did it. Six days, millions of years, with or without a guide — I don’t care. I wasn’t there, and it does not affect how I live my life today. I think too many Christians get caught up in having this argument and devoting ridiculous amounts of time and money to this rather than living the life Jesus wanted: service and sacrifice. (So, yes, Christians: I am telling you to shut up about this and get busy loving your neighbor as yourself.)
So I think there’s room for living one’s life without letting the whole science vs. religion argument get in the way. There are times when I find it unavoidable, though, to ignore the argument between religion and just plain common sense and human decency. There are times when confirmation bias leads to painful moments in the Christian church, and it’s a reason that a lot of people look at Christians as being hopelessly naive and insular. (Hint: it’s because many of us are.)
The thing that drives me the nuttiest about Christianity is the blind acceptance of urban legends that support a narrow view of how the world works.
Here are some of the things that I was told by various pastors, youth leaders, and teachers while I was growing up, many of which I believed at one time or another, all of which I have rejected. Not all of it contradicts science; some of it just has absolutely no basis in reality. Some of you readers will be astonished that anyone could possibly believe these things. Some of you may be offended when something you believe is in this list. And some of you will be astonished if you read this list, see something you believe, and suddenly find yourself thinking, “Wait, why haven’t I ever questioned this?” (Maybe it’s because the definition I was given in school for what “critical thinking” meant was “compare this to what the Bible tells you; if it fits, it’s true, and if it doesn’t, it’s not.” That is a paraphrase only because I did not commit the specific words to memory.)
- By studying (astronomy, geology, fill in the blank), scientists have found that there is a day missing from the historical record — just plain missing — and they now believe it corresponds to the battle in which God allowed the sun to stand still so that Joshua could defeat the enemy. (Numerous scientific reasons that this is not only untrue, but impossible.)
- When Jesus said it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven, it was a reference to one of the gates in the walls around Jerusalem; camels had to be divested of all of their baggage in order to fit through. (Great story, great parallel for letting go of things in order to seek holiness — but there was no such gate.)
- Darwin refuted evolution on his deathbed and commited his life to Christ.
- Procter and Gamble is run by a Satanist. He admitted it on television.
- (Prefacing this by stating I believed this next one when I was VERY young, and had figured out it was stupid by the time I was seven.) Nobody can go beyond the moon, because God will not allow them to get that close to heaven.
- (Prefacing this by stating that I believed this one until a girl in my class — terrified — tested it and found it to be untrue… in eighth grade. The fact that so many of us believed this one is somewhat embarrassing, and many of those same classmates would probably deny it, but let’s be fair — at age thirteen, some of you believed in things like “Bloody Mary” or “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board.”) If you draw a religious symbol that is NOT from Christianity on a Bible, it will start smoking. (Yes. A lot of us believed it. When the girl in class drew a symbol and nothing happened, there was a ton of laughter. Only some of it was teasing her. The rest was embarrassed relief.)
- A man killed his wife in front of their extremely young child. In the following years, she was placed into foster homes. One of them took her to church. In a children’s session, a leader held up a picture of Jesus and asked if anyone knew who it was. The child raised a hand and said, “That’s the man who held me when Daddy killed Mommy.” (This one is a popular one in Christian urban legends.)
- Would-be witches and Satanists put razor blades or poison into Halloween treats.
- In Communist Russia, authorities (depending on the story, possibly police or soldiers, but always armed) burst into a secret, underground church meeting and demanded that everyone in there prove that they were faithful to Communism by spitting on a picture of Jesus. A little girl, after seeing many others do so, started crying, and used her dress to wipe off the picture while saying, “I love you, Jesus.” The authorities were so moved that they repented of their sins and began following Jesus that day. (In the eighties and the early nineties, I heard multiple variations of this in a number of churches.)
- In Communist Russia, a group of authorities (see above) burst into a secret, underground church meeting and demanded at gunpoint that everyone disavow Jesus. No one did, and the authorities set down their guns and admitted that they, too, were Christians; apologizing for the horrible entrance, they explained that they were so afraid of being turned in that they had to pretend to be anti-Christian or risk execution. (Heard this one a few times, too.)
- Demon possession is pretty commonplace; we open ourselves up to it by [listening to rock music, meditation and/or yoga, just sinning in general, dwelling on lustful thoughts… lots of different reasons were expressed to me over the years]. (I had one friend in particular who came to school one day with pretty nasty rug burns on his arms and face, and bruises all over. He told me, casually, that over the weekend, he was feeling “weird, like I couldn’t control myself,” and when he starting twitching and cursing in Sunday school, one of his pastors realized he was possessed. The pastor and some elders had performed an exorcism, and during that he had been forcibly held down until the demon released him. I was skeptical of his story, but it so happened that I was visiting his church the next weekend. One of the pastors confirmed the story.)
The trouble with these urban legends is that the people who believe them do so usually without even thinking about it. There is a level of gullibility (gullibleness? gulliblation?) that, for me, casts doubt on anything they profess that they can’t prove.
And, being a Christian myself, I’m totally aware that one thing you can’t prove… is Jesus. You can’t prove anything about faith. By its very nature, true faith is believing in something for which you cannot present hard evidence. (If you have hard evidence, it’s not faith. It’s simply acknowledgement of reality.)
So if you go around telling stories like this, people who apply critical thinking — actual critical thinking — are likely to start considering you to be an untrustworthy source. And when those things are stated from the pulpit — it only makes matters worse.
Today, a friend of mine from high school posted from Twitter:
The leading cause of death in Haiti comes from voodoo spells that r cast upon other people — a Haitian missionary #spiritualwarfare
It took me a couple times reading it to realize that he was not suggesting that it was a Haitian missionary who was the one casting the voodoo spells (which really blew my mind; I just thought, “that’s not at all how one should be a missionary — someone should make him stop it”). He’s saying that the information came from a Haitian missionary.
So someone has sent a missionary to Haiti, and that person apparently has been keeping track of all of the death rates in a country of nearly 10 million people, many of whom are still reeling from the 2010 earthquake, and has managed to determine that more people are dying from voodoo curses than from malaria, tuberculosis, or HIV/AIDS — the three main health-based causes of death in that largely impoverished nation.
And that’s despite the fact that Haitian Vodou, which does admittedly bear some resemblance to the popular New Orleans-style voodoo that deals much more heavily with curses, is practiced as a syncretist belief, usually combined with elements of Roman Catholicism (over 80% of Haiti proclaims itself to be Catholic, and 95% Christian of one kind or another, while 50% practice at least one Vodou ritual — mostly a single ritual that has nothing to do with curses). And that Haitian Vodou is at its heart a religion about generosity and fellowship, and not black magic. Now, to be fair, I’m not going to claim that all followers of religion only embrace the positive aspects. I know enough about religions to know that some Muslims really do want to subjugate all other people, and some Christians pray for the deaths of those who believe differently, so perhaps some Vodou practitioners have some sort of ritual for causing death in others. And perhaps — I’m really trying to reach for it here, but go along with me — perhaps these practitioners of the dark side of Vodou have managed to tap into a supernatural force that I personally can’t begin to understand, and have managed to be so successful with their curses that it really is the leading cause of death, and maybe even disguises itself as malaria, tuberculosis, and/or HIV/AIDS so that people like me are blinded to the spiritual warfare going on in Haiti.
Perhaps. I’m open to a heck of a lot of things being possible.
I keep coming back to these three things.
One: how would this missionary know that this is the leading cause of death? Does he/she have numbers to back that up? Or just anecdotal evidence? And if anecdotal, what reason does he/she have for believing it (other than confirmation bias)?
Two: why would my friend, who is indeed a pastor, repeat this information? Is it just assumed that if a missionary says something like this that it must be true? Is it a willful lack of information on how bad malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS really are down there? Is it, again, confirmation bias? And since he is a pastor, how many people in the congregation will accept this information without questioning it, and repeat it? AND, again, even if I take the huge leap of faith that this information is true and there are mass-murdering Haitian black magic Vodou sorcerors slaughtering thousands without detection, I’m right back to point one — where are the numbers to support this? Am I being asked to believe the missionary on faith alone? Was he/she told this by God? That last question is not meant to be facetious — I really want to know if that’s the reason I’m supposed to believe the “statistic.”
Three: If, after close examination, I determine that I find that statement to be non-credible… then what? Isn’t it still a nation with phenomenal poverty and illness? Isn’t it still a place that needs our attention? It’s always nice to have a bad guy to fight; we like our movies with clear-cut villains, as I’ve said many times before, because we like to envision ourselves as heroes. Imagine, for a moment, that the statement was completely true — that “voodoo curses” are the leading cause of death. And imagine that you’re a Christian, and your God can overcome any dark powers there are. And imagine that you know that God works miracles like this through those who believe in Him. Isn’t that exciting? The idea that perhaps you can rush in and through prayer and calling on Jesus’ name and the willpower to be committed to God, you could save thousands of lives! You don’t even have to be some kind of superninja who will take down these evil people with brute strength! No, you just have to risk some unspecified danger, show up, pray, talk about Jesus, and things will get better — or, things will not get better and you will die because martyrs are kind of cool too. (Nobody ever imagines their martyrdom being something really drawn out, like “I went to Haiti to fight the voodoo people and I didn’t die, but I did contract malaria and I broke my leg and I spent all my money on health care and now I have a nasty cold but I can’t afford to go to the clinic.”) But what if that’s NOT what’s going on down there, and really you’re needed to just go and try to do good work? Find ways to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to sacrifice your time and energy to build actual relationships with people and to attempt to make life better… keeping in mind that you might get sick and your bank account might take a pretty big hit, and some of the people you help will squander that help and go right back to miserable lives, and no matter how hard you work you will never solve it all. That’s not as glamorous. That’s not as fun to imagine.
And I’m pretty sure that’s more in line with what Jesus was expecting.
I may very well have burned a bridge or two here. I certainly didn’t tell my friend what I thought of his post, and while I doubt he reads my blog, word has a way of traveling. I may have alienated him and several others. I won’t be surprised if it gets back to him that I was bothered by that one tweet and the implications it has for our blindness toward the day-to-day spiritual warfare in our quest to see a conspiracy theory of evil. Jesus never told us to go out and fight magicians who were causing chaos. He told us to take care of our widows and orphans and the poor.
I think that sometimes we’re afraid, as Christians, that if we admit that there’s no grand conspiracy, no massive orchestrated effort of evil, because frankly evil doesn’t need to be a concerted effort — it leaks in like rainwater wherever there’s a space for it — that we’ll lose interest in following Christ. Much like the Jews in Jesus’ day who thought their Messiah was going to take over by force, we want to have big efforts and big goals. We want to storm the tower, when really Jesus just has us walking toward the tower, tidying up the littered roadside on the way.
Personally, I pray for the day we all turn our spiritual swords into plowshares.