Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Atheists, agnostics most knowledgeable about religion, survey says

Awhile back I wrote a post about similarities I saw among the skeptics with which I interact. One of the similarities was the fact that matters of religion and faith tend to be of great importance to them. They often were highly involved in religious life before their deconversion. A recent survey would appear to support this observation. You can read the article here.

The survey found that atheists and agnostics are significantly more knowledgable about the Bible than Christians. In the article the author writes, "American atheists and agnostics tend to be people who grew up in a religious tradition and consciously gave it up, often after a great deal of reflection and study, said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum."

Monday, September 27, 2010

Conversations with Dad

I visited my hometown of St. Louis this past weekend to celebrate my grandma's 90th birthday. The person I missed greatly at the party was my dad. He died four years ago this November while in prison. And no, he wasn't an inmate, he was leading Sunday worship there and died of a heart attack on his way out. It was quite a shock for the family. He fought cancer, renal cell carcinoma, for the last 10 years of his life, so we were certain he would ultimately succumb to it. We weren't prepared for his death to come so suddenly, particularly when his cancer was in remission. My dad was a retired elementary school principal, but he was an elder at church and preached quite a bit.

When I go home, I always like to spend time in his study. When I think of my dad, that's where I envision him. He was often there at night, either reading, writing letters to others, or preparing a sermon or Bible class lesson. Classical music was always playing on his record player. (He wasn't one to keep up with technology). I would often go in there and talk with him about any number of things. Often, it was religion and the questions I had about it. He was one of the few people who could handle discussing various viewpoints without becoming agitated or defensive. As an adolescent I was fairly obnoxious in my criticisms of church life, but he patiently listened to it all, while my mom and sister were understandably exasperated by me. I would sometimes dominate the entire mealtime conversation after Sunday morning church. I remember my mom giving looks to my sister which said, "I wish she would just stop talking!"

Over the weekend, I read through an old sermon of my dad's, written in 1978, just
before his 30th birthday. It was entitled "Doubt and the Christian." He addresses the passage in Hebrews which states "without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him." He didn't view this passage as a condemnation of all doubt. He thought it pertained to only "hostile, antagonistic skepticism." He believed that doubt was a natural, valued part of our human experience and faith walk, which has been unfairly criticized. (Of course, reading Biblical passages like the one in Hebrews might very well lead one to criticize doubt.) He believed questioning our faith could lead to clarifying our beliefs, improving communication of our beliefs, and producing a deeper set of convictions. He condemned evasiveness toward a challenge to our faith as well as "shallow defensiveness of smug dogmatism." I'm not sure whether my current doubts will lead in the direction my dad would have hoped for or not, but it's encouraging to think that he might value the faith crisis I am experiencing and, were he still here, willingly sit in his study and have another talk with me about it.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


The topic of the sermon at my mom's church today was idolatry. The main point was that we must worship God and not idols of any kind, be they statues of Aphrodite or money or status. I certainly agree that setting anything up as an idol in our life tends to lead to disastrous consequences. What we set up as the object of our affection, devotion, and worship often fails to deliver: our true love leaves us, our political leader is found out in some scandal, the stock market tanks, we lose our job. We may neglect other areas of our lives out of devotion to our idol.

I started thinking about types of idols not mentioned in today's sermon. For example, one idol of mine that has been smashed in the past year or two has been the Bible, as in the inerrant-word-of-God Bible. In many areas of Christendom, the Bible has replaced God. It's easy to see how this has happened. If you believe the Bible to be the very words of God and further, that God only speaks to you from the pages of the Bible, then reading the Bible becomes conversation with God. The Bible becomes God. And God must be protected at all costs. We expect that God speaks to us in a clear, direct manner, so there's no room for disagreement about what he meant when He said such and such. Our interpretation of scripture must be the correct one. We stop being able to have discussions about overarching principles and values and how they might be applied in our current culture and get lost quibbling over whether it is "scriptural" to eat in church buildings, clap during songs at church, let women pray aloud at church and on...and on...and on.

Over at Richard Beck's Experimental Theology blog, I've been having an interesting discussion on the role of women in church. I described a bit of my experience as a woman in a denomination that I believe tends to idolize the Bible. Here's part of one posting:

When my husband and I were first married, he preached at a tiny congregation. The one where there were only a few men present, forcing these poor men into roles I swear God never intended for them to be in....We'd rather experience the madness of awkward men with poor reading skills leading scripture reading, men with no singing ability leading singing, boys with no Sunday school teacher because they were baptized and suddenly can't be taught by the woman who single handedly teaches all the children (well, except baptized boys), 10-year-olds passing communion trays to women who pass them to the person in the pew next to them......After awhile it becomes difficult to maintain a worshipful attitude in a scene like that.

To me, when our behavior starts looking foolish and feeling incongruent with what we know and feel makes sense, we should reevaluate. We just might be serving an idol.

I also wonder if most (or all) of our conceptions of God amount to idols. Projections of ourselves and worldviews onto a large or small deity we worship each Sunday. The preacher today made the point that the gods of ancient cultures were clearly false projections as they reflected the petty, divisive, quarreling nature of the men and women who created them. I couldn't help but reflect on the images of God held in any number of cultures today. Images which lead people into acts of terrorism against each other. Images which lead people to hate, to be divisive, to oppress, to stigmatize, to be intolerant, and even to be intolerant of intolerance. If there is a God, how can we know we have a concept that comes close to being an accurate one of God? Our images seem hopelessly flawed and continually adjust with each culture and over the passage of time. Maybe this continued adaptation of our concept of God will eventually lead to the truth. Maybe humanity isn't ready yet to understand the mind of God. Or maybe it's just not possible to know God in any human way. Maybe He/She/It is beyond finding out.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Will Hell Be Empty?

This first week of fall, instead of cooler temperatures, it's been in the mid to upper 90's here in Memphis, so it seems like an appropriate time to do a post on hell! Right now, my studies are confined to the resurrection, but a friend of mine, Casey, who is a Presbyterian minister, gave a sermon recently where he answered questions about hell. I listened to it online and include it here if anyone wants to listen or read the text. He and I have been in dialogue via email since i listened to the sermon. I have to give him a great deal of credit for being one of the only ministers I've come across who willingly address difficult questions regarding faith. He engages my questions with humility and honesty. He is not threatened or uncomfortable discussing my doubts and disagreements. His personal experience in wrestling with faith issues as well as his depth of knowledge make him an especially valuable conversation partner. As an aside, all of these comments aptly describe his wife, a good friend of mine, as well.

To fast forward to the end of his sermon, which I realize ignores important material, he concludes by saying, in effect, it is for God to decide who will be in hell, though he won't be surprised if the love of God results in hell being empty. When I asked if he was a universalist, here was his response:

Am I a universalist? Technically, no. Functionally, yes. Along with
many reformed folks, I buy into that old saw we use (in a hundred
different formulations), "Because I believe in the love of God, I dare
to hope God will save everyone. Because I believe in the justice of
God, I don't cross that line." In terms of soteriology, I come from a
tradition that leaves everything up to the grace of God. God alone
chooses who to save. It is a gift. It can not be bought with good
works. It can't even be bought with belief or a confession of faith.
God simply gives us an afterlife as God has given us this life.
Because of this strong strain of God's prerogative, I tend to respond,
"I don't know" when someone asks who God will save. But, if pushed, I
tend to use the logic of Karl Barth, who said that God has judged
Christ in our place and has left to him the question of who will be
saved. When I look at Christ, I see someone who was reconciling the
whole world to God, that he was sent because God so loved the world, I
see someone who seeks out the lost sheep. I see someone who I suspect
will save all, but again, it is his prerogative. And I'm okay with that.

Well, I suppose that right now, I'm okay with God being a universalist, or perhaps with a hell that actually reflects the sort of justice with which I'm familiar: one where punishment is commensurate with the crime and/or where punishment is given for the purpose of rehabilitation. Casey clearly starts with the belief that God is good and understands hell within that framework, trusting that God will do what is good and right in the end. Given that everything I believe about God is now in question, I don't start with the same premise. I'm reevaluating my old presuppositions, so now when I read the Bible and come to the passages on hell, I wonder what kind of God, if any, exists who would include passages about eternal suffering in His Holy Word, particularly when those individuals sent to an eternal hell would appear to have little, if any, control over being sent there. I've written more about this in an earlier post on hell, so I won't expound on this point further here.

A question I never got around to asking Casey is this: if hell winds up being empty, then what is the point of discussing it in the Bible or of it existing at all (I have no idea what it means for it to exist, but I have no other words with which to ask the question)? I'm very interested in the answer to this one.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Today's sermon at church was on the hope we have in the resurrection of Christ. Our preacher made a comment along the lines of "if you are without hope, then something is wrong with your thought process. The answers you've found to your questions are obviously wrong." Really? Does hope=truth? Hope certainly feels better than hopelessness, but can any conclusions be drawn about its veracity?

I understand that many times we despair when there actually is a way out of some dark place in which we find ourselves. I know it's my job as a therapist to maintain hope for my clients when they can't feel it for themselves and to help them see a way through difficult times. However, I also know what hope in impossible dreams, half-baked plans, and uncontrollable events looks like too. It can be catastrophic to one's faith, sense of self, and trust in others when what is hoped for does not become reality. People quit believing in God when prayers aren't answered. They waste time on relationships that will never work. They put their hopes in a career they just don't have the aptitude for. Hope may be what propels us forward and enables us to persevere, but I don't think it can be used as an indicator for truth. In fact, sometimes, we may be closer at the truth when we are less than hopeful. Therapy isn't always about tears, deep dark secrets, and painful insights. There's also laughter, encouragement, and rejoicing in triumphs. However, it's often easier to help individuals make significant changes in their lives when they come to my office with a sober appraisal of their situation. When they float in on cloud nine, like an engaged couple completely infatuated with each other, they are often so filled with hope (and hormones) that they see no potential problems to address.

My faith doesn't offer a great deal of hope to me right now. I don't know what I think of the resurrection of Christ or of eternal life. I don't have a clear sense of that Christian hope my preacher described. However, I can't say I feel particularly hopeless either. What do you think? Should feelings of hopefulness or hopelessness be an indicator of the truth of our beliefs?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

What to do with Family?

This time next week, I'll be up in St. Louis celebrating my paternal grandma's 90th birthday. Several family members from both my side and my husband's side of the family live there. Additionally, uncles and cousins will be flying in from Detroit, Seattle, and Atlanta for the occasion. My sister and her family will also drive up from the south. I'm certainly looking forward to the party and to the family reunion. I've never visited my dad's side of the family as much as I've wanted as he grew up in Detroit, meaning that visits during my childhood were generally confined to a 2 week long trip each summer. It was a time to enjoy Vernor's ginger ale, which hadn't made it way to the south back then. I haven't returned to Detroit in several years because my grandma had a stroke and moved to St. Louis to live with 2 of my aunts. All this to say, I'll be catching up with many family members next weekend.

Which brings me to my question for today: How do I handle my changing religious beliefs with family members who are overwhelmingly church of Christ Christians with a fairly literal interpretation of the Bible? In my family, on both sides, as well as my husband's family in fact, you basically either attend a church of Christ or you don't attend at all. And most attend. I'm not saying I'm planning on bringing anything up this weekend, because I don't think I will. But, I do feel uncomfortable with the fact that I haven't shared a very large part of my life with the people I care the most about in this world. It makes me feel a bit disingenuous and disconnected in some of these relationships.

For my part, I no longer feel like this reevaluation/deconstruction of my faith is a dark blot on my soul that must be hidden from others out of embarrassment or fear for what it means about me. I feel much more comfortable in my own skin and my doubts have been normalized by others, including many of you reading this blog. Nonetheless, I have little faith that family members would be so accepting or understanding of what I'm experiencing. I haven't heard anyone else talk about a faith crisis. Here I'm talking of my closest family. I've certainly witnessed aunts, uncles, and cousins stop attending church for a time, so certainly some must have gone through a type of questioning process.

I realize my family might surprise me with their level of understanding and acceptance, as several friends have done, but one of my friends summed it up well in an email he wrote. He said, "And one of the challenges of a deep faith crisis is that it threatens the most dear communities that we have (read: family) with a challenge to their own faith and the dislocation of one of their primary meaning
makers (read: you)." When any of us are threatened, we tend to respond defensively, out of anxiety, and it's not typically pretty. I know that my faith crisis is not so nearly threatening to friends as it is to family.

How have you addressed this issue in your life? What thoughts do you have on addressing the reevaluation of religious beliefs within our communities?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

What Illusions Have You Lost?

In youth we feel richer for every new illusion; in maturer years, for every one we lose.
– Madame Anne Sophie Swetchine, mystic (1782-1857)

Where I'm At Today

Today I was able to sit through worship without giving myself a headache. I don't know why precisely. However, it may have a bit to do with the fact that I'm trying to put more energy into living my life in a way which is meaningful to me, whether or not I know why or how I'm here on this earth. I can choose to love and share with others who can't give back, be patient with the cashier who discusses each item I purchase, teach my children to look friends in the eye and say thanks, enjoy bike rides with my family, and sit in the backyard at night appreciating the few stars visible in the city. Whether or not there is a God, whether or not Jesus died for me, whether or not the Bible is the inspired word of God, I choose to live this way.

Today at church I still found myself disagreeing with the minister and sang songs I wasn't sure I meant, but I wasn't so irritable and disconnected. Maybe I will be next Sunday. However, today I actually completed a form agreeing to assist in some aspects of the children's ministry. Now, I'd still have difficulty teaching the creation story or Noah's flood to children, but I can help the childrn's ministry with efforts to let kids provide care for those in the inner city. I'm the sort of person who tends to be involved and invested in the communities of which I am a part. but, I've felt increasingly like an outsider at church and someone who doesn't give enough back to warrant being there. That's a role I don't enjoy or want. Until I reach a point where I am no longer attending my congregation, I'd prefer to find a way to stay connected to it. Though my disagreements with the standard doctrines of my denomination are numerous and ever increasing, I still value much that fellow church members tend to value and promote at church: love, generosity, gratitude, benevolence. I like that my congregation spends time, money, and sermons on improving the quality of life in the community, with a special concern for the poor. I'd hate to become so absorbed in wrestling with my beliefs that I neglect opportunities to serve and care for others around me. Eventually I may need to carry out this service in a completely different setting than my current congregation, but for now, this is where I am.

Monday, September 6, 2010


I have a confession to make. This noble "quest for the truth" of mine is getting a bit out of hand. It is what I think about in my free time, composing blog posts in my mind while driving home from work, or while playing with my kids, or while sitting in the pew at church. I read commentaries when I should be writing progress notes for work, or emailing a friend back, or having a conversation with my husband. I peruse the blogs of skeptics and Christians alike when I should be sleeping, or cleaning the kitchen, or volunteering to have my neighbor's children over.

This quest is highly important to me, and will continue to be. But, I feel myself withdrawing a bit, even from those I care about. I don't feel the desire to call my mom and catch up or check on friends via Facebook like I use to do. My husband called me on this recently and said he feels disconnected from me. I'm not surprised. It hasn't been easy to connect with me lately. I told him that we don't have alot to talk about since he doesn't feel comfortable discussing the subject that continually preoccupies me. Neither of us want it to be this way, this isolating. So, we went on a date Friday night. I was grumpy and irritable, mainly due to work stress and the fact that our oldest sobbed and wailed relentlessly when we dropped him off at Kid's Night Out. However, my husband valiantly maintained a good mood throughout it all. Towards the end of the evening, my crankiness subsided and we were finally able to talk in that easy way we normally have with each other. We discussed some touchy subjects and even managed to laugh with each other a bit.

I realize that this vexing doubt of mine is here for awhile, maybe forever, so there's no need to let it take over, like a new best friend who goes everywhere with you, leaving you no time for anyone else. I'll have to learn when to talk to it like the neighborhood children, "It's time for you to home for now, but you can come back tomorrow."

Friday, September 3, 2010

Religious Experience Linked to Brain's Social Regions

I read a post at Wired Science entitled "Religious Experience Linked to Brain's Social Regions." Researchers studied MRI's of people with differing beliefs in the western view of God. Here's what they found:

People who reported an intimate experience of God, engaged in religious behavior or feared God, tended to have larger-than-average brain regions devoted to empathy, symbolic communication and emotional regulation. The research wasn’t trying to measure some kind of small “God-spot,” but looked instead at broader patterns within the brains of self-reported religious people.

Of course, this study is only correlation, so we can only speculate on what the causal chain may look like. These enlarged brain areas, vital for social interaction, may have given humans the capacity to conceive of another being. Researchers suspect that this capacity may have evolved in brain regions which govern our ability to understand other people and animals.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Are We Living Inside a Black Hole?

Trying to understand how we and our universe came to be is a fascinating study. One of the latest proposals by a cosmologist is that we may be the product of a black hole and are living inside one right now. Read the summary of his conclusions here.