Saturday, December 16, 2006

Christmas Sermon for Heathens

Religion has been a force in American politics for years now. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, James Dobson's Focus on the Family have all had enormous influence on the Republican Party and thereby the country. For better or for worse. (Okay, it's for worse, actually). In comparison, nonbelievers (and politically liberal believers) have typically kept a low profile (so low that there is not a single prominent atheist politician).

However, there seems to be a trend in the last year or so for atheists to become more outspoken about religion. Biologist and blogger PZ Meyers (his blog is Pharyngula) has been especially scathing in his denunciation of religious belief, which he dismisses as superstition. Other famous atheists that have been in the news recently include biologist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), philosopher Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon), comedian Julia Sweeney (Letting Go of God), Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation), and Brian Flemming (The God Who Wasn't There). Are we heading for a showdown between atheists and believers? Believers have the advantage when it comes to numbers (less than 10 percent of the population of the US identify themselves as atheists), but atheists have the advantage when it comes to brainpower (among top scientists, believers are in the minority).

One thing that both religious conservatives and the New Atheists agree on is the role of belief in religion. To be a Christian means at a minimum that one accepts the following factual claims:
  • God exists, and He created the universe and watches over all its creatures.
  • There is a second life waiting for us after death, that will either be a reward or a punishment.
  • Jesus was the son of God. He performed miracles, was put to death, and arose from the dead.
In contrast, though, my mother never thought that religion had anything really to do with belief in such factual claims. My mother is as good a Christian as I have met, and she doesn't believe in any of that. She doesn't literally believe that there is a personal God who created the world. She doesn't literally believe that Jesus performed miracles, or that he arose from the dead. She doesn't literally believe that good people spend eternity in Heaven or that bad people spend eternity in Hell. In spite of these heresies, she has for her whole life attended church regularly, participated in the choir, taught Sunday school, and raised her children and grandchildren to be Christian. What does that make her?

It isn't as if she has been pretending all this time. She wasn't the type to harangue others with here philosophy, but she would quietly tell you her thoughts if you asked. But mostly to her, being a Christian was not about beliefs at all. It was about an attitude towards the world. Love your enemies. Love your neighbor. Be a Good Samaritan. Seek out the poor, the unloved, the misfits, those who society rejects. Love even those who don't love you back. Her goal was to live as she believed Jesus taught us to live. What is important is how we treat each other in this life. The miracles, the Virgin birth, the resurrection, Heaven and Hell are all just stories whose only purpose is to open our hearts to the possibility of miracles in this life, and to encourage us to become part of the miracle.

I've tried to live up to my mother's religion; to be good without the bribery of Heaven or the threat of Hell. This religion does not divide Christians from Muslims from Jews from Buddhists from atheists. If you love the world and the people in (that word always included animals for her), then you and my mother are on the same team.

Merry Christmas!


Blogger RichM said...

So that's how you were raised to be such a mensch.

But mostly to her, being a Christian was not about beliefs at all.

That's the noncreedal approach, which seems to be in line with he kind of thing that the historical Jesus actually preached. He didn't seem to be going on about creationism or heterosexuality or patriarchal families so much and I don't think dogma is what inspired the early followers.

When Pam went to theology school there were classes in systematic theology, moral theology, and pastoral theology along with biblical studies. It seemed as if the pastoral courses had the most life to them, more of the "this is the point of it" kind of feel, compared to the more rigorous theoretical ones.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Kyle McCullough said...

I wish I were as good a Christian as Mom.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

God bless you. That's true religion, which transcends creedal distinctions.

"He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8)

Or, as George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) said in 1656:

"This is the word of the Lord God to you all, and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God; be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you."

Let your life speak.

12:21 PM  
Anonymous Dim Limey said...

What I liked was your question about how many people have been converted by one of Dawkins's rants. You cd also ask how many people have been converted to his "Bright" organization. If ya don't belong to it - you're DIM!
How childish.


8:19 AM  

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