Thursday, September 15, 2011

Doubting Thomas - Where are the grounds for mutual respect?

24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.
25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.
26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.
27 Then saith He to Thomas, Have you been feeding the poor? The widow, the orphan, the sick?
28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God, of course I have. It is what you command, and it is good.
29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, it matters not then whether I live. Believe what ye will, and do not be ashamed of that which ye knowest not, for belief is not a debt owed. Act in good faith in all you do. May no man demand any more from your heart and your mind.
30 And Jesus performed no signs.
31 But these things are written, that you might also see with your own eyes, and having not seen what others see, still do good.

I really do wish that something more like the above were what the Bible really said. It just isn't the case, though.

Somehow, the following always comes up: the importance of respecting beliefs, living, and letting live. The article this time is 10 Myths Many Religious People Hold About Atheists, Debunked, though there are many like it. Since the moderate is in favor of living and letting live, then you might naively expect them to welcome an article taking a step in the direction of clearing up hurtful myths about atheists. The sooner that portion of the theists give up their prized caricature of a lazy, wicked, miserable, shallow, deceptive, cowardly, and hellbound atheist, the faster amicable understanding can grow and the quicker the living and letting live can commence. An exceedingly naive reader might expect such a thing, but I know better by now.


As usual, a moderate-to-liberal believer expresses concern that the article is too defensive even though its explicit aim is to debunk negative myths a lot of real people actually hold about atheism. If the tone seems defensive, it's because the intention is to defend.


Another such believer trots out the line, "as long as it's not hurting anyone, why does it matter what people believe?" They're too busy being offended by the thought that they might be (falsely?) implicated by the post that they don't even seem to care that these myths are the product of the very faith that they're blithely assuming does no harm. To listen to them talk, you would think that Christianity at large had even a passive, neutral respect for atheists, and that atheists started a fight for no reason other than to be mean. You would think that a better article could be constructed from the same bullet points under the title 10 Myths Many Atheists Hold About the Attitudes of Religious Adherents Toward Atheism, Debunked.


Never, ever, ever do they say, "I am very sorry. I happen to believe in God, but I've heard what they say in those churches, and it just isn't fair. They lump us non-literalists in the same Hellbound boat too, so naturally I am just as offended by it as you are. If there is a god worth worshiping, it surely isn't theirs."


Never, ever, ever do they come out and say what it is that they actually do believe; I'd like to think it's something other than, "I agree that you are indeed going to Hell, but at least I'm polite enough not to talk about it in polite company." But I don't really know. If they believed what I wished they'd say, then I don't know why it would be hard for them to say it; I am only left to imagine that the truth is somewhere in between, and that bothers me. Maybe they think, "Ok, fundies think that I'm firewood, but you don't believe in God at all, and that's about equally scary, so let's please stop talking now."


Even though they're too embarrassed to talk about their beliefs, they feel it's legitimate to dismiss an atheism article for being too "defensive," probably not seeing any irony. All they want you to know is that the strokes of the article are too broad, that they feel condescended to, that they're actually just as smart as atheists, and the article just plain doesn't apply to them. And that the conversation should end without them saying anything specific about what they claim the truth of the matter is when it comes to gods and the grounds for mutual respect between believers, non-believers, and the rest. They won't say why they quite obviously feel implicated and even threatened by such an article, even though they pride themselves so much for not being that kind of believer. What gives?


The truth of the matter is that the founding text of Christianity has very little respect for atheism, agnosticism, doubters, or anyone else of less-than-100-percent Christian convictions (except as potential converts). At the worst, atheists are scoundrels, evildoers, and firewood. On the other hand, the most charitable view the Bible ever expresses toward atheists is that under some circumstances, they are objects of affectionate pity, to be prayed for and patronized, as long as they're impressionable enough to be receptive to that kind of thing.


It is definitely a mark of progress that some branches of Christianity either do not have that attitude, or at the very least are ashamed to admit to it. In liberal-to-moderate circles, it is a bit of a taboo to go on and on about how nice it would be if everyone were to find Jesus. (Most likely, I think they're dimly aware that other gods more or less fulfill the same role, and maybe that's sort of ok). But this awareness about the ickyness of proselytizing doesn't seem to have reached below the epidermal level of mere table manners to a depth that marks any kind of serious ground for fully accepting atheists in good faith on a level field. I do not hear much about pastors who say, "This fable is flawed beyond repair. Its emphasis on belief in signs and miracles is unacceptable, and not the least bit instructive. It is a fatal distraction from the messages about loving your neighbor. Either Jesus was wrong, or he was misquoted."* To the contrary, I suspect that this fable more or less continues to be cherished without reservation. Atheists might not be firewood, but they're just... not quite as blessed as the believer.


It is merely assumed that the atheist is supposed to take it for granted that everyone means something else, even though they don't. Theists get to keep the real Bible verses, and the moderates get to chide the atheists under the hidden assumption that my fake Bible verses above are what is actually there: religion is about community and being nice, and nothing more.


But there is more. Being nice is number two, and belief in God is always the main and ultimately only thing. When I went to church growing up, our pastor was not a moderate or left-leaning interpreter. He didn't hint at some vague, semi-metaphorical Heaven to which believers of all sorts probably have some undefinedly better chance of going. He told us the following quite explicitly and often:

If you don't believe in God, you will go to Hell. If you believe in the wrong God, you will go to Hell. If you do good things for your neighbors, but you don't do it in the name of God, having received His salvation, then you will still go to Hell. Even worse, you will be a hypocrite on top of your other sins, and a liar, because you tried to fool God. But God is so much smarter than you, and as the Bible says, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; it is by grace we are saved through faith, not by works, lest any man should boast.

If you don't find Jesus, then you won't ever be happy. No one can be happy without Jesus. If you don't believe, then you can briefly find a shallow shadow of pleasure that you mistake for happiness, but in fact you're rotting away in misery. Your life can't even begin until Jesus transforms you into a new creature, and until then, you are hopeless and lost.

And when you're saved, you have to be very careful how close you get with non-believers. You must always love them and be kind and helpful to them, but you can never date them or otherwise get caught in their self-imposed misery. They need to be saved before you can truly bond with them, and if they will not be saved, then you should pray for them, but you should not let them in to hurt you.

This is not live-and-let-live. This is not a "no harm done" teaching with no implications. This is not a case of atheists throwing the first stone and raining on a nice, friendly, wholesome parade for no reason at all.


This is playing at scare tactics. This is bullying. This is righteous posturing. This is control. This is isolation. This is the church putting itself first always. This is the church breaking people while they're impressionable to manufacture demand for its invisible product. This is the bitter-sweet sigh of your aunt praying for the Doubting Thomas of the family, never to have her prayer answered.


It really happens, and it happens a lot. They don't respect us. They're afraid of us, they're afraid of becoming us, and they want us to be just as afraid as they are.


Don't feed the hungry. Don't play the piano. Don't sing. Don't dance. Don't draw. Don't play. Don't try to be happy. Don't fall in love. Don't go to college or have a career. Don't feed the hungry. Don't help your neighbor. Find Jesus first, and then you can think about these other things. Without faith, you are nothing. Without faith, everything is nothing, and everyone is no one. Without faith, good deeds are evil, kind words are lies, and love is vanity.

These are not strawmen or exaggerations. This is the constant pulse of the pulpit every Sunday morning of my entire childhood. Eventually, I found the third way - I no longer dutifully hang on for signs. I do not hold my breath in anticipation that the circle may be squared. I do not come to their church humbly seeking guidance, longing for a way to see what they claim to see, eager to be taught by their Teacher.

Now I merely call the bluff and walk away. Though their stories gave me no role models for it, I figured out how to stand up and walk away somehow all the same. The only path available was not adorned with flower petals or the glimmering sequins of destiny, virtue, and belonging, or bathed in warm, everlasting daylight. I had to slide off the celebrated pages of the Christian suburban fairy tale and into obscurity and otherness, taking on an aura of dissonance, grating against defied expectations and thick, tacit disappointment that might never go away. I was trained by professionals to feel it all the way down that life couldn't ever start this way, but somehow it had to anyway, and I had to do it alone, becoming a prodigal son forever whether I return home in body or not.

All of that just to earn the right to not believe in a fable.

The faithful can easily accept the meek transitional Doubting Thomas, but they can not accept the principled Thomas who flatly disbelieves for good reason. Such an acceptance would destroy them. The born again has no biblical model for how to accept atheists, and so they fail to do so in any meaningful way. Many moderates clearly don't seem to be able to accept them, either, choosing instead to beseech the atheist not to be too entrenched; please, take up the role of Doubting Thomas, and play the uncalled-for role of Thomas the Principled Disbeliever no longer. It is up to the atheist to conform to the familiar role of the loveable and submissive Doubting Thomas, and it is all for the greater good, for this is the cost of the shallow harmony so deeply craved by the moderate.

The cost is your identity and the prize is amiable pretense. The faithful do not respect us. Everyone knows it, and we are not to blame merely for bringing it up in polite company.

If you want grounds for mutual respect between believers and unbelievers, then you must build upon the demolished remains of the fable of Doubting Thomas.


(* - Perhaps John Shelby Spong would be willing to go that far, but as far as I can tell, he is a rare case.)

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