Thursday, August 28, 2014

Why people are leaving the church: part two. What Joey Reid thinks.

So you know that I don't agree with anyone who claims that the recent decline in church attendance is in any way related to church programming or actions, that it is something changing in the apostates themselves. I came to this conclusion by examining a totally unscientific sample of one (i.e. myself). Of course, I am looking around at others who no longer participate in church, reading their blogs and their books, listening to them speaking, and trying to compare their experience with my own. In the end, I readily admin that anything I say here will be completely biased by my own experience. But enough dithering, and on to the real issue. I have been waiting for quite some time to get this off my chest.

The problem I see in Christianity is it's failure to deal with reality.

Deal with it. Reality, that is.

To put it bluntly, the whole religion is off in la-la land. But you're not reading this for me to leave it at that, are you? I will explain. I will also concede that I see some inroads among certain groups to incorporate attention to real-world-type "social justice" issues into their church, and some churches have come out on the right side in terms of human rights (specifically gay rights) and to monitor other secular issues. I'm proud to say that the last church I participated in was progressive when it comes to many of these things. Yet even in such a liberal environment, there is an ignorance that is sustained by both members and leadership that separates them from those outside the walls.

Years ago, there was one time in my church assembly when the floor was open for testimonies. One woman in the church who spoke up used her few minutes to rail against the teaching of evolution to our children. This is a pretty wacko point of view in my mind, but not one of us spoke up to correct her. We just let her craziness remain uncontested.

Now I understand that people can bicker over theology unendingly. Jesus has been gone nearly 2000 years, and Christians can't agree on whether you should  be sprinkled or dunked. But evolution is not a theological discussion: there is adequate scientific evidence to confirm it, and there has been for quite some time now. If a believer feels that evolution conflicts with their understanding of the Bible, then it's time that they had a new understanding of the Bible. And if other believers let that believer continue in their folly, they are making themselves look like idiots as well.

Yet churches I see still will not correct their people, even on unassailable matters of fact. It's not as if  I don't understand the reason why. If those in the church felt the need to administer a dose of reality to others in their midst, then they would have to take some medicine themselves. Every believer knows that there are ideas they believe geniunely which they would find indefensible if they looked it up. So in general, churchgoers set pretty wide boundaries around the things that they will not bother to question.

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

But for me, this honest questioning blossomed into an unraveling of my faith. I came by this honestly, and unexpectedly.

I was attending a church where belief in healing is a core doctrine. Indeed, the entire denomination was founded on what they called "Power Evangelism", the idea that God would demonstrate His power through healing, and this would in turn lead people to God. Fortunately, our pastor had a more diverse tradition, and spoke intelligently rather than hammer on the key principles of the denomination. Often he would verbalize things that many would consider off-beat. I still keep up with what he has to say online, since he is everything but mainstream :)

One morning during his second tenure with our congregation, he made an admission that I had never heard before. He confessed, "I have never seen a miracle".

Not a miracle.

This may seem like a small thing, and at time I didn't see anyone else in the congregation react. But it hit me like a ton of bricks. Despite all my charismatic blather over the years, I had to think about what healing, what supernatural visions, what prophecy; and what these spiritual phenomenon really amounted to. As I listened to him explain himself, that he was specifically conceding that he had never witnessed a supernatural event that couldn't be reasonably explained as natural, I was instantly faced with the realization that neither had I. I had believed in it, but had never asked myself why I believed. Despite a degree in philosophy that necessitated a familiarity with the writings of Hume, I had persisted in believing something that I knew was not true.

This is how it started for me. Penn and Teller will explain that every magic trick is 100% trick, 0% magic, why should other miracles be any different? I've written in the past that I don't believe in magic. Miracles are magic. Healing is magic. Not in a metaphorical sense, but in the real sense that they violate the physical laws of this world. Newton described the mechanics of our world over 300 years ago, laws we have been testing ever since; we know that the miraculous simply doesn't happen.

Still inserting images to divert from the heavy subject matter by injecting a little humour. Is it working?

Healing, of course, is a key part of charismatic churches. Never mind that there is no evidence that people who are prayed for heal better, or that there has never been a documented instance of spontaneous healing via prayer. It is mandatory to believe that God can heal, and if you question this in those circles, your questions are usually dismissed by some anecdote about so-and-so's bad back improving after somebody prayed for them. We have a psychological desire to think God's helping us out, so we associate any improvement with the prayer that preceded it. Never mind that it makes no logical sense for a God to allow us to suffer, and then intermittently choose to alleviate that suffering for some, but not others - seemingly at random. Tim Minchin explains this exceptionally well in his song "Thank You God" (NOTE: If I haven't offended you yet, then watching this video should do the trick).

No one in the church wants to deal with the reality that healing is an imagination, because it will cause them to ask other, deeper questions. In this day and age, if you are willing to ask questions, and humble enough to admit you could have been fooled, there is no dearth of information available to work out the answer to those questions. There are studies on the effectiveness of prayer in healing (spoiler: it doesn't work). There are also lots of stories, as you would expect when people want to believe in something. But no evidence. Of course, if someone is just looking for answers that affirm what he or she has already decided, that can be found too. But for those who are honestly seeking, with a critical eye, the truth is easy to find.

So I can't believe that God heals. I've seen no evidence of it, and it wouldn't make sense anyway. But this is really only one item of many where believers are expected to ignore their better judgement. Evangelicals think they needs to tell everyone about Jesus, despite the fact that any useful God should be able to administer his own communications, especially with a matter as important as eternity. Catholics believe that bread and wine turn into flesh and blood (or they are supposed to). There's a whole lot of nonsense that just gets accepted without hesitation. There are often convoluted explanations to back these ideas up, but they are generally more difficult to defend than the initial proposition. In the end, it all comes back to the Bible.

It's not even what the Bible really says, it's what everyone thinks it says. Those who are in the church seem to only use a small selection of phrases from the Bible. Ever. If they spent too much time on some other verses, they would have to be confronted another problem with their faith: there are lots of things in the Bible that God could not have possibly written or inspired. These writing are flatly wrong, and it is not a matter of interpretation. When a writing contradicts known history, known archaeology, known science, and even itself, yet is still being held up as the word of omniscient, all-powerful god; there has to be an intellectual disconnect. But this information doesn't seem to have gotten back into our churches. I could write a whole series about how the church misunderstands the Bible - maybe a part three will be pending.

Maybe I do this to a Bible next. Who knows?

To be fair, it's not like the general populace is immune to accepting wrong ideas as fact. Far from it. I see unreasonable stuff whizzing by on my Facebook feed from all kinds of people daily. Not everyone is a good researcher. Not everyone is a skeptic. There are even non-religious people who still think God wrote the Bible (which blows my mind!) For my part, it would be naive to claim that I am not in the trance of any illusions myself - I'm sure I must be. But at least outsiders don't have a built-in reason to deny reality like the church does in the Bible. I personally want to believe as many true things as possible, and as few false things. When there is a book that claims to be the truth and all are discouraged from questioning it; this is a recipe for willful ignorance.

I hate writing this. It was painful for me to come through this process myself, and I know that just describing my own changes to others is going to seem like a personal attack on people in the church. Please believe me, it is not. Remember that I am talking about myself here, because for many years I was there too. The church is an institution with a set of beliefs that will not be questioned. When I was a part of the church I lied to myself, I ignored things that I knew were true, all because that is what was required to take part. That was easy to do when my experience of the world was smaller, but I couldn't keep it up in the information age, and neither can many others. These are the people that the church is losing and who they will never see again.

Another former believer, riding off into the sunset.

I went through a period where I felt like a hypocrite, standing in front of my dearest friends and playing in the church band, sing songs of praise to a Jesus who I didn't believe was a god, if he ever even existed at all. For a while I kept playing and simply stopped singing along. I couldn't tell anyone how I was feeling about it. There are prepared words that they have in the church for those who have doubts, but not for those who simply reject the message - they don't know what to say to those people; it's keep your mouth shut or get out. In the end, I quietly left. I was forced to keep either my beliefs, my standing, and my social network, or my intellectual honesty. I chose the latter, and I do not regret it.

I still maintain close friendships with many people from my church family. But I have avoided discussing any of these things with them. It's a shame, because I love to talk about the Bible. It is a fascinating book, and so misunderstood. I revel in debating philosophy and morality and science and history, and for better or worse the Bible is a source on all of these subjects. There are so many smart people that I know from the church but they won't be able to have an honest discussion on those subjects, because they are required to pay tribute to a book above their better judgement. Maybe by publishing this I will be making myself visible to church people who are open to examining these things. I hope so. Either way, I will continue to write about these topics, because it's what I love. Now that I'm laying it all out, perhaps it will be easier for me to share more of what I think.

You have been warned.

I think it is possible to be honest about the nature of the Bible and the nature of our world, and still have a faith of some kind. Bishop Shelby Spong seems to be a teacher who is willing to cope with the Bible honestly, and I know that there are others. My friend David Hayward is someone who manages to reconcile these ideas and who helps others to do the same. But I don't know how to do it myself. For the most part, whenever I find a Christian author or blogger that appears to "get it" (and I have tried), I find myself waiting until they open their mouth and insert their foot so far they could kick their own behind. To be honest, I am simply no longer interested in belief in Christian theology. I am certainly interested in it in an academic sense - it is part of my culture, and do and will always find it fulfilling to unpack the different components that make it up. But I am not looking for something to believe, because I am happier when I am dealing in reality.

Some of us just want to know what's real more than we want to believe what might be.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Why people are leaving the church: part one. What John Pavlovitz thinks.

A number of my friends shared a blog post last week, which I couldn't help but read. According to this guy, the following are the reasons why people are leaving the church:

1) Your Sunday productions have worn thin.
2) You speak in a foreign tongue.
3) Your vision can’t see past your building.
4) You choose lousy battles.
5) Your love doesn’t look like love.

He lays things pretty squarely at the feet of the people in the church. I can really only respond to this one way.


Even Picard finds this unreasonable.

I don't mean to be overly harsh. But, maybe John should try talking to someone who has actually left the church. It sound to me like Christians stay in the church in spite of all of those things listed by him. You may still be in the church and find these things to be problems, and you may hear this kind of thing from people who are between churches, but I doubt someone that has truly left the church cares about most of this.

Conveniently for you, I am someone who has left the church. Therefore, I do know a little about this. If you are still in the church and want to really know why your numbers are getting smaller, I'm here for you. You may have accepted John's explanation since you have trouble understanding it yourself, but if you think about his reasons they make little sense. They are somewhere between the same stuff I have been hearing in the church since I was in the youth group myself, which itself amounts to mostly naive guesswork.

Come on, RED!!!

Just to be clear on all of John's points:

"1) Your Sunday productions have worn thin." Honestly, I really liked Sunday mornings, and I miss them. I had an opportunity to see my church family every week, hear live music (I actually performed in the band, which was one of the highlights of my week), and talk over coffee. There are a million different ways to "do church", and each and every one of them has it's merits. John complains that it somehow doesn't reach into the rest of the week - I honestly don't know what he is expecting.

"2) You speak in a foreign tongue."  This can be a barrier to getting unchurched people to join the church, but I don't see how it would drive anyone away. I spent 20 years involved in the church, and I found some discussions easier with church people precisely because they knew my code. If I have a hard-earned legacy of vocabulary from the church, why would I want to throw that out?

"3) Your vision can’t see past your building." Some churches are involved in their communities, and some aren't. But every church member can decide individually what they do outside the church doors, and they do. I can see why someone would leave a church because of this, but not the church.

"4) You choose lousy battles." This is the closest John comes to making a valid point. He is essentially pointing out that the church has chosen the wrong side in the homosexuality debate. But not all churches have made this mistake, and it appears to be more of a geographical phenomenon. There are other factors in play here. Regardless, this issue has been a huge embarrassment to liberal Christians, and I can certainly understand a churchgoer leaving their congregation if their minister or members have chosen to stand on the wrong side of history. But there have always been liberal churches to go to, so I don't see how this would make someone leave entirely.

"5) Your love doesn’t look like love." This is utter crap. People will always assemble with others who share their values - rich white people will go to churches with other rich white people, hippies will hang out with other hippies, etc. This is basic sociology. I don't think anyone ever looked around their church and said "Whoa, these people are too much like me, I'm outta here". If they find they have too little in common with the others, they will just find a place where they do fit, or often even start their own. But regardless of social situations, I never felt like the people in the church loved me any less than people anywhere else.

The bottom line is, there is no sociological reason why the church is faltering. There are a lot of smart pastors out there, and they do whatever they can see to get people in the doors. John is telling the church "You are the problem."

No, John it's not you - it's me.

You're damn right it's me!

Look; I don't speak for everyone that has left the church. But I have to think that people who have left the church for the reasons described above are probably coming back if they find a church doing those things right. And it's not like those places don't exist. In the mean time, maybe they're going to spend some time saying that they are "spiritual, but not religious" or "it's not religion, it's a relationship", or "I'm doing church on my own, just me and Jesus". Then they will show up at some church across town 6 months from now. When I hear someone say "leaving the church", I assume they mean for good. I say this because I left over 3 years ago. And it's not because the church was using the wrong techniques, it's because I changed.

But it's not just me. Our society is becoming less religious as a whole. You don't have to be a stats guru to see which way the line on the graph is going.

So if none the things above are the reasons why people have left the church, then what are the real reasons? There's a part of me that doesn't want to say, because doing so will affect my relationships with people. I have a lot of friends who I know from all my years in the church, and many of them probably figure I'm just taking a time-out. If I tell the truth, they will know once and for all. Furthermore, church people are really, really sensitive about criticism of their faith. They are usually dismissive of doubts and doubters. Once again, I am trying not to be offensive - please remember that I am speaking as one who was there myself. I know the thought process, because this is how I used to think.

If you are an open-minded church-goer, I invite you to read the second part of this, which I will post soon as a separate entry. If you don't wish to go there, I won't hold it against you, but please don't hold my honesty against me.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

I sound my barbaric YAWP over the rooftops of the world.

I ended up working from home this week, because I ruptured my eardrum last week. This injury sucks, but this does mean that I can watch TV while I sit on my couch with my laptop doing my work (yes, I am still doing my work, smartass). Given the our great loss yesterday, I saw it only fit to make the subject of my viewing one of my favorite movies of all time, "Dead Poet's Society".

To be fair, it has been many years since I last watched the film, but I remembered what a profound effect it had on me as a young man and a student of literature, and it was the first thing I thought about when heard that Robin Williams had passed away.

I was a bit overwhelmed, although not surprised by the outcry on Facebook and Twitter over the news. No matter who we are, we can all name a character that he played that reached us at a deep level at some point in out lives. Maybe it's Patch Adams, or maybe Adrian Cronauer, or even the Genie from Aladdin. Robin Williams found a way to put some expression into every role he played that was irresistible. Of course I never met Robin Williams, and now I never will - but I felt like he was my family because of the way his characters seemed so real to me.

"You got to suffer if you want to sing the blues." - David Bromberg

Robin Williams was so compelling because even as a comedian, with the frantic, spinning, gut-paining joy he made us all feel, there was a sadness that could not be hidden. Not a bitter sadness, but the sweet pain of a wounded man who smiles anyway to make you happy, and to let you know it is alright.

It is no secret that Robin Williams struggled. He fought with drugs. He battled with depression. Robin was a man hovering over a cliff for his entire life. I am sad that he's gone, but my consolation is that he held on as long as he did. We could have never had the great legacy of work that we do, performances that have touched us all. But we do. Yet that seems to make us even more sad - or better yet, morose.

I know I am late in offering my tribute to this man. Today, things move at internet speed, and a eulogy must even be delivered as the corpse is still warm. I can't compete with that, but I can at least offer my most heartfelt condolences to all who need them. But I will not cry too long for Robin Williams (although I may cry again watching this stupid movie. Damn you, Robin Williams and your constant tug on my heartstrings!). It is the same thing that took him away from us that made us love him. Rather than mourn his passing, I will rejoice that we had him for so long, and I will try to - in his honour - help all of those who feel that they cannot continue the fight. Because the fight is real, and it is worth it.

Carpe Diem, my friends.


Here are a few other pieces about Robin Williams that I found especially profound.

Robin's daughter, Zelda writes a post.

Norm McDonald tweeted out on his timeline.

Russel Brand.

Daniel Fincke from Camel with Hammers

Friday, August 1, 2014

I don't know if I can love Lucy

I am a fan of Luc Besson's work. I can't count the number of times I have watched "The Fifth Element". "Leon the Professional" is one of my favourite movies. I don't think I need to say anything about "La Femme Nikita". I can only imagine how much money the Transporter series has made. This man has put together some great stuff.

If you don't respect Luc Besson, Liam Neeson will find you...

Then I heard about his latest movie, Lucy. I really want to see it, but I'm honestly put off by something. Something like, maybe the entire premise of the movie.

I hate to make judgments before I see something, but I always do anyway. It's human nature to have a reaction to something, even based on limited data. I wrote a post (not a review) on the movie "God's not Dead" without having watched it, based completely on my feelings (and I'm still getting flack for that). I'm not the only one who does this: we come to everything with preconceptions. I think we need to be honest about these feelings, and be willing to change out mind when we review more information.

Couldn't have said it better myself.

That being said, I just can't get past the premise of "Lucy" based on the advertisements. If you are unaware, the idea is that humans make use of only 10% of our brains - on the other hand, Lucy is able to use 100% of hers. Obviously this involves some new technology or an equivalent plot device (described by Morgan Freeman, no less) to "unlock" the additional 90%. This gives her supernatural powers like telekinesis and telepathy judging from the advertisement. Honestly I'm fine with all this. Fantasy is one of my favorite genres.

But why, oh why, must it rely on the old  "humans only use 10% of their brains" myth? There are so many other ways to introduce super-powers: why did Besson have to go there?

Sorry, what were we talking about?

I'm no neuroscientist - I don't even play one on TV. But I'm pretty sure that we don't have all this unused brain capacity. Evolution would make sure of that, let me tell you. After all, having a large brain is very costly, in the economics of evolution. Human need to prepare their food using tools or by cooking it to reduce the amount of chewing we must do because our jaws are so small: this is a tradeoff to make room for our big brains. Before modern methods of childbirth (including the C-section), having children was a very dangerous affair for the mother, since the size of a newborn's head often couldn't make it out the birth canal. In fact, the human skull starts out in several pieces so that it can partially collapse during childbirth. There is just no way I can imagine that we would have a noggin full of the ol' grey matter the size that it is if we weren't actually, you know, using it.

Of course I could be wrong. Some things just don't motivate me to run out and do the research because I think that I can extrapolate from my current knowledge. And I do see other people making the same objection, so I suspect I'm in the clear on this one. If I'm wrong, I'm sure someone will let me know.

Always with this guy...

But this is really tangential to my objection, which is not that Luc Besson is not a brain surgeon - it's that my immediate reaction is one of dumb-found awe at the implausibility os the core premise of this movie. It ruins my joy. I did talk a bit about suspension of disbelief when I discussed the Life of Pi - I'm more than willing to give a story some leeway. But I'm not sure I can get my brain into the mode where I will be able to enjoy this movie. I dunno, maybe it's because I'm only using 10% of it.