Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Martin Gardner-The Wandering Jew and the Second Coming

When it comes to the bible and biblical interpretation a large portion of scripture is fairly flexible and can be reinterpreted to fit the social needs and beliefs at any given time. But there are those parts of the bible that are fairly black and white in their meaning and given the passage of time they have clearly exposed themselves as errors both with facts and moral values.

One example is when Jesus foretold that his return would occur within the lifetime of some of those people who were listening to him speak. That of course did not happen so Christians have had to come up with ways to explain this obvious error. This is an essay written by Martin Gardner concerning the legend of the wandering Jew. This legend developed in an attempt to address this mistake of Jesus’ and is a wonderful example of how far people are willing to go to maintain their beliefs inspite of any and all evidence to the contrary, in particular their belief in the inerrancy of scripture and infallibility of Jesus

The Wandering Jew and the Second Coming by Martin Gardner

The legend of a wandering Jew, unable to die until the Second Coming, is surely the strangest of all myths intended to combat the notion that Jesus was mistaken when he said he would return within the lifetime of someone then living. I have summarized its sad, colorful history in an essay that appeared in Free Inquiry (Summer 1995)

As the year 2000 approaches, it would not surprise me to see a picture of the Wandering Jew on the front page of one of the supermarket tabloids. Some intrepid photographer will spot him trudging a dusty road, with his sturdy walking stick and long white beard, and perhaps obtain an interview about his sufferings over the past two millennia

“For the son of man shall come in the glory of his Father, with his angels, and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you. There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death till they see the Son of man coming his kingdom.” Matthew -28

The statement of Jesus quoted above from Matthew, and repeated in similar words by Mark (, ) and Luke (-27) is for Bible fundamentalists one of the most troublesome of all New Testament passages.

It is possible, of course, that Jesus never spoke those sentences, but all scholars agree that the first-century Christians expected the Second Coming in their lifetimes. In Matthew 24, after describing dramatic signs of his imminent return, such as the falling of stars and the darkening of the moon and sun, Jesus added: “Verily I say unto you. This generation shall not pass until all these things be fulfilled.”

Until about 1933 Seventh-Day Adventists had a clever way of rationalizing this prophecy. They argued that a spectacular meteor shower of 1833 was the falling of the stars, and that there was a mysterious darkening of sun and moon in the United States in 1870. Jesus meant that a future generation witnessing these celestial events would be the one to experience his Second Coming.

For almost a hundred years Adventist preachers and writers of books assured the world that Jesus would return within the lifetimes of some who had seen the great meteor shower of 1833. After 1933 passed, the church gradually abandoned this interpretation of Christ’s words. Few of today’s faithful are even aware that their church once trumpeted such a view. Although Adventists still believe Jesus will return very soon, they no longer set conditions for an approximate date.

How do they explain the statements of Jesus quoted in the epigraph? Following the lead of Saint Augustine and other early Christian commentators, they take the promise to refer to Christ’s Transfiguration. Ellen White, the prophetess who with her husband founded Seventh-day Adventism, said it this way in her life of Christ, The Desire of Ages: “The Savior’s promise to the disciples was now fulfilled. Upon the mount the future kingdom of glory was represented in miniature…”  

Hundreds of Adventist sects since the time of Jesus, starting with the Montanists of the second century, have all interpreted Christ’s prophetic statements about his return to refer to their generation. Apocalyptic excitement surged as the year 1000 approached. Similar excitement is now gathering momentum as the year 2000 draws near. Expectation of the Second Coming is not confined to Adventist sects. Fundamentalists in mainstream Protestant denominations are increasingly stressing the imminence of Jesus’ return. Baptist Billy Graham, for example. Regularly warns of the approaching battle of Armageddon and the appearance of the Anti-Christ. He likes to emphasize the Bible’s assertion that the Second Coming will occur after the gospel is preached to all the nations. This could not take place, Graham insists, until the rise of radio and television.

Preacher Jerry Falwell is so convinced that he will soon be raptured—caught up in the air to meet the return of Jesus—that he once said he has no plans for a burial plot. Austin Miles, who once worked for Pat Robertson, reveals in his book Don’t Call Me Brother (1989) that Pat once seriously considered plans to televise the Lord’s appearance in the skies! Today’s top native drumbeater for a soon Second Coming is Hal Lindsey. His many books on the topic, starting with The Late Great Planet Earth, have sold by the millions.

For the past two thousand years individuals and sects have been setting dates for the Second Coming. When the Lord fails to show, there is often no recognition of total failure. Instead, errors are found in the calculations and new dates set. In New Harmony, Indiana, an Adventist sect called the Rappites was established by George Rapp. When he became ill he said that were he not absolutely certain the Lord intended him and his flock to witness the return of Jesus, he would think this was his last hour. So saying, he died.

The Catholic Church, following Augustine, long ago moved the Second Coming far into the future at some unspecified date. Liberal Protestants have tended to take the Second Coming as little more than a metaphor for the gradual establishment of peace and justice on earth. Julia Ward Howe, a Unitarian minister, had this interpretation in mind when she began her famous Battle Hymn of the Republic with “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…” Protestant fundamentalists, on the other hand, believe that Jesus described actual historical events that would precede his literal return to earth to banish Satan and judge the quick and the dead. They also find it unthinkable that the Lord could have blundered about the time of his Second Coming.

The difficulty in interpreting Christ’s statement about some of his listeners not tasting of death until he returned is that he described the event in exactly the same phrases he used in Matthew 24. He clearly was not there referring to his transfiguration, or perhaps (as another “out” has it) to the fact that his kingdom would soon be established by the formation of the early church. Assuming that Jesus meant exactly what he said, and that he was not mistaken, how can his promise be unambiguously justified?

During the Middle Ages several wonderful legends arose to preserve the accuracy of Christ’s prophecies. Some were based on John 21. When Jesus said to Peter “Follow me,” Peter noticed John walking behind him and asked, “Lord, what shall this man do?” The Lord’s enigmatic answer was, “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?”

We are told that this led to a rumor that John would not die. However, the writer of the fourth gospel adds: “Yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but if I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?” Theologians in the Middle Ages speculated that perhaps John did not die. He was either wandering about the earth, or perhaps he ascended bodily into heaven. A more popular legend was that John had been buried in a state of suspended animation, his heart faintly throbbing. To remain in an unknown grave until Jesus returns.

These speculations about John rapidly faded as a new and more powerful legend slowly took shape. Perhaps Jesus was not referring to John when he said he could ask someone to tarry, but to someone else. This would also explain the remarks quoted in the epigraph. Someone not mentioned in the gospels, alive in Jesus’s day, was somehow cursed to remain alive for centuries until judgment day, wandering over the earth and longing for death.

Who was this Wandering Jew? Some said it was Malchus, whose ear Peter sliced off. Others thought it might be the impenitent thief who was crucified beside Jesus. Maybe it was Pilate, or one of Pilate’s servants. The version that became dominant identified the Wandering Jew as a shopkeeper—his name varied—who watched Jesus go by his doorstep, staggering under the weight of the cross he carried. Seeing how slowly and painfully the Lord walked, the man struck Jesus on the back, urging him to go faster. “I go,” Jesus replied, “but you will tarry until I return.”

As punishment for his rudeness, the shopkeeper’s doom is to wander the earth, longing desperately to die but unable to do so. In some versions of the legend, he stays the same age. In others, he repeatedly reaches old age only to be restored over and over again to his youth. The legend seems to have first been recorded in England in the thirteenth century before it rapidly spread throughout Europe. It received an enormous boost in the early seventeenth century when a pamphlet appeared in Germany about a Jewish shoemaker named Ahasuerus who claimed to be the Wanderer. The pamphlet was endlessly reprinted in Germany and translated into other languages. The result was a mania comparable to today’s obsessions with UFO’s, Abominable Snowmen, and Elvis Presley. Scores of persons claiming to be the Wandering Jew turned up in cities all over England and Europe during the next two centuries. In the U.S. as late as 1868 a Wandering Jew popped up in Salt Lake City, home of the Mormon Adventist sect. It is impossible now to decide in individual cases whether these were rumors, hoaxes by imposters, or cases of self-deceived psychotics.

The Wandering Jew became a favorite topic for hundreds of poems, novels, and plays, especially in Germany where such works continue to proliferate to this day. Even Goethe intended to write an epic about the Wanderer, but only finished a few fragments. It is not hard to understand how anti-Semites in Germany and elsewhere would see the cobbler as representing all of Israel, its people under God’s condemnation for having rejected his Son as their Messiah.

Gustave Dore produced twelve remarkable woodcuts depicting episodes in the Wanderer’s life. They were first published in Paris in 1856 to accompany a poem by Pierre Dupont. English editions followed with translations of the verse.

By far the best known novel about the Wanderer is Eugene Sue’s French work Le Juif Errant (The Wandering Jew), first serialized in Paris in 1844-1845 and published in ten volumes. George Croly’s three-volume Salathiel (1827), later retitled Tarry Thou Till I Come, was an enourmously popular earlier novel. (In Don Juan, Canto 11, Stanza 57, Byron calls the author Reverend Roley-Poley.) In Lew Wallace’s Prince of India (1893), the Wanderer is a wealthy Oriental potentate.

George Macdonald’s Thomas Wingfold, Curate (1876) introduces the Wandering Jew as an Anglican minister. Having witnessed the Crucifixion, and in constant agony over his sin, Wingfold is powerless to overcome a strange compulsion. Whenever he passes a roadside cross, or even a cross on top of a church, he has an irresistible impulse to climb on the cross, warp his arms and legs around it, and cling there until he drops to the ground unconscious! He falls in love, but realizing that his beloved will age and die while he remains young, he tries to kill himself by walking into an active volcano. His beloved follows, and is incinerated by the molten lava. There is a surprisingly happy ending. Jesus appears, forgives the Wanderer, and leads him off to Paradise to reunite with the woman who died for him. The novel is not among the best of this Scottish writer’s many admired fantasies.

My First Two Thousand Years, by George Sylvester Viereck and Paul Eldridge (1928) purports to be the erotic autobiography of the Wandering Jew. The same two authors, in 1930, wrote Salome, the Wandering Jewess, an equally erotic novel covering her two thousand years of lovemaking. The most recent novel about the Wanderer is by German ex-Communist Stefan Heym, a pseudonym for Hellmuth Flieg. In his The Wandering Jew, published in West Germany in 1981 and in a U.S. edition three years later, the Wanderer is a hunchback who tramps the roads with Lucifer as his companion. The fantasy ends with the Second Coming, Armageddon, and the Wanderer’s forgiveness.

Sue’s famous novel is worth a quick further comment. The Wanderer is Ahasuerus, a cobbler. His sister Herodias, the wife of King Herod, becomes the Wandering Jewess. The siblings are minor characters in a complex plot. Ahasuerus is tall, with a single black eyebrow stretching over both eyes like a Mark of Cain. Seven nails on the soles of his iron boots produce crosses when he walks across snow. Wherever he goes an outbreak of cholera follows. Eventually the two siblings are pardoned and allowed “the happiness of eternal sleep.” Sue was a French socialist. His Wanderer is a symbol of exploited labor, Herodias a symbol of exploited women. Indeed, the novel is an angry blast at Catholicism, capitalism, and greed.

The Wandering Jew appears in several recent science fiction novels, notable Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), and Wilson Tucker’s The Planet King (1959) where he becomes the last man alive on earth. At least two movies have dealt with the legend, the most recent a 1948 Italian film starring Vittorio Gassman.

Rafts of poems by British and U.S. authors have retold the legend. The American John Saxe, best known for his verse about the blind men and the elephant, wrote a seventeen-stanza poem about the Wanderer. British poet Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton’s forgettable “Undying One” runs to more than a hundred pages. Oliver Herford, an American writer of light verse, in “Overheard in a Garden” turns the Wanderer into a traveling salesman peddling a book about himself. “The Wandering Jew” (1920) by Edwin Arlington Robinson, is surely the best of such poems by an American writer.

Charles Timothy Brooks (1813-1883) was a New England Unitarian minister as well as a prolific versifier and translator of Goethe and other German poets. His “Wandering Jew,” based on a German poem whose author I do not know, was reprinted in dozens of pre-1900 American anthologies.

The Wandering Jew once said to me,
I passed through a city in the cool of the year;
A man in the grader plucked fruit from a tree.
I asked: "How long has the city been here?"
And he answered me, as he plucked away -
"It always stood where it stands to-day,
And here it will stand forever and aye."
Five hundred years rolled by, and then
I traveled the self-same road again.

No trace of the city there I found:
A shepherd sat blowing his pipe alone;
His flock went quietly nibbling round.
I asked: "How long has the city been gone?"
And he answered me, and he piped away -
"The new ones bloom and the old decay,
This is my pasture ground for aye."
Five hundred years rolled by, and then
I traveled the self-same road again.

And I came to the sea, and the waves did roar,
And a fisherman threw his net out clear,
And when heavy laden he dragged it ashore.
I asked "How long has the sea been here?"
And he laughed, and he said, and he laugher away -
"As long as you billows have tossed their spray
They've fished and they've fished in this self-same bay."
Five hundred years rolled by, and then
I traveled the self-same road again.

And I came to the forest, vast and free,
And a woodman stood in the thicket near -
His axe he laid at the foot of a tree.
I asked, "How long have the woods been here?"
And he answered "These woods are a covert for aye;
My ancestors dwelt here alway,
And the trees have been here since creation's day."
Five hundred years rolled by, and then
I traveled the self-same road again.

And I found there a city, and far and near
Resounded the hum of toil and glee,
and I asked, "How long has the city been here?
and where is the pipe, and the woods and the sea?"
And they answered me, as they went their way,
"Things always have stood as they stand to-day,
And so they will stand forever and aye."
I'll wait five hundred years, and then
I'll travel the self-same road again.

In England, Shelly was the most famous poet to become fascinated by the legend. In his lengthy poem “The Wandering Jew,” written or partly written when he was seventeen, the Wanderer is called Paulo. A fiery cross on his forehead is kept concealed under a cloth band. In the third Canto, after sixteen centuries of wandering, Paulo recounts the origin of his suffering to Rosa, a woman he loves:

 How can I paint that dreadful day , 
That time of terror and dismay, 
When, for our sins, a Saviour died, 
And the meek Lamb was crucified! 
As dread that day, when borne along 
To slaughter by the insulting throng, 
Infuriate for Deicide, 
I mocked our Saviour, and I cried, 
Go, go, ‘Ah! I will go,’ said he, 
‘Where scenes of endless bliss invite; 
To the blest regions of the light 
I go, but thou shalt here remain— 
Thou diest not till I come again’

The Wandering Jew is also featured in Shelley’s short poem “The Wandering Jew’s Soliloquy,” and in two much longer works, “Hellas” and “Queen Mab.” In “Queen Mab,” as a ghost whose body casts no shadow, Ahasuerus bitterly denounces God as an evil tyrant. In a lengthy note about this Shelley quotes from a fragment of a German work “whose title I have vainly endeavored to discover. I picked it up, dirty and torn, some years ago…”

In this fragment the Wanderer describes his endless efforts to kill himself. He tries vainly to drown. He leaps into an erupting Mount Etna where he suffers intense heat for ten months before the volcano belches him out. Forest fires fail to consume him. He tries to get killed in wars but arrows, spears, clubs, swords, bullets, mines, and trampling elephants have no effect on him.


The Worrywart

The simple fact is that Jesus, according to the Gospel writers, made some clear prophecies about himself, which failed to come true and so Christians have been left scrambling to figure out a way to fix Jesus’ error. I enjoy this legend because it demonstrates that people throughout history have understood the problem presented by Jesus’ clear mistake and they have sought to fix it. But the way Christians in the Middle Ages into the modern period chose to fix it, through the story of the wandering Jew, is a way that most Christians today would reject. Rather they would offer new interpretations to explain what Jesus “actually” meant all the while refusing to just acknowledge the simplest and most obvious answer; Jesus was wrong. And what I find funny about this is that their new interpretations usually require a far more complex twisting of Jesus’ words then the legend of the wandering Jew, which at least accepted Jesus’ words to be as clear and straightforward as they were. So while most people can now see this legend for what it is, a legend when they then examine the issue for which the legend was meant to address, Jesus’ prophecy, they once again become blind to the obvious truth; he got it wrong. Truly, few things show the fallibility of humanity as greatly as their belief in the infallibility of the divine.  

Monday, December 20, 2010

Can a Good God exist? An Atheist and a Christian Debate the Problem of Evil

This piece serves to begin a dialog with a fellow blogger concerning the question: does the existence of evil disprove the existence of God traditionally defined in the West as all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good? As the atheist I will be arguing that it does, or at least that it makes the existence of such a God so implausible that it is irrational to believe such a thing. My fellow blogger as the Christian theist will offer his solutions to the problem of evil (theodicies) to demonstrate not only that this God could exist but that it is rational to believe that he does. Each of us will be posting on our own blogs so that after reading this piece one would need then go to his blog (http://wolfhartscharger.blogspot.com/) to read his response then back to mine and so on. As each response gets written I will add the links to my pages to make it easier to get back and forth. For my part I will likely only be responding to this dialog once or twice a month due to the amount of time that needs to be put into such an important topic and of course due to other obligations in my life and work.

As we begin I seek simply to lay out what the problem of evil is and then allow my dialog partner to offer his responses and we will see where it goes from there.

I believe the problem of evil truly is the strongest proof against the existence of the traditional concept of God and it was the number one reason that led me after years of struggle to reject my Christian faith. Dr. James F. Sennett a Christian philosophy professor has said, “By far the most important objection to the faith is the so-called problem of evil-the alleged incompatibility between the existence or extent of evil in the world and the existence of God. I tell my philosophy of religion students that, if they are Christians and the problem of evil does not keep them up at night, then they don’t understand it.” I agree and I can tell you I have lost a lot of sleep over this problem.

The problem is fairly easy to lie out. David Hume described it by saying: “Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, X) Basically if God is all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing then why the heck is there evil in the world and why is there so much of it? An all-good God would desire to eliminate evil; an all-powerful God would be capable of eliminating evil; and an all-knowing God would know how to make it happen. So the fact that evil exists suggests that there is something wrong (lacking) with God’s goodness, power, knowledge or that he simply does not exist. The last one is by far the simplest answer and thus I would say the most reasonable.

Now the problem of evil can be separated into two parts the logical (deductive) problem of evil and the evidential (inductive) problem of evil. I will look at each separately to show how both make belief in this God unreasonable though I will focus more on the evidential problem. One must also understand that there are different categories of evil. There is moral evil resulting from the choices of moral agents (people) such as rape, murder, bombings, molestation and so on. There is natural evil, which is suffering resulting from natural physical phenomena such as earthquakes, hurricanes, blizzards, diseases, birth defects and so on. And there is a non-moral category of evil resulting from unintentional accidents due to human inaction or neglect such as a car accident. All of these categories of evil must be addressed by theists in order to prove there is any rational reason to believe in their God.

The logical problem of evil seeks to demonstrate that there is a logical inconsistency between the existence of evil and the existence of God. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy lays it out as follows;

  1. If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
  2. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
  3. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
  4. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
  5. Evil exists.
  6. If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn't have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn't know when evil exists, or doesn't have the desire to eliminate all evil.
  7. Therefore, God doesn't exist.
That this argument is valid is perhaps most easily seen by a reductio argument, in which one assumes that the conclusion — (7) — is false, and then shows that the denial of (7), along with premises (1) through (6), leads to a contradiction. Thus if, contrary to (7), God exists, it follows from (1) that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect. This, together with (2), (3), and (4) then entails that God has the power to eliminate all evil, that God knows when evil exists, and that God has the desire to eliminate all evil. But when (5) is conjoined with the reductio assumption that God exists, it then follows via modus ponens from (6) that either God doesn't have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn't know when evil exists, or doesn't have the desire to eliminate all evil. Thus we have a contradiction, and so premises (1) through (6) do validly imply (7). (link)

The argument is that simple. It should also be noted that the amount of evil in the world is not relevant to the logical problem of evil because the argument is that the existence of God is logically incompatible with the existence of any evil at all. Now this basic outline can be combated by theists and there are different versions offered by atheists but this simple version gives a good starting point for discussing the logical problem of evil.

Now while the logical problem of evil did cause me a lot of headaches as a believer it was never a deal breaker because even though I never found a suitable theistic response to the logical problem of evil I was not willing to reject my personal relationship with God for what at times felt like a word game being played by philosophers. As an atheist I think the ultimate weakness of the logical problem of evil is that while it has a way of engaging people’s minds it doesn’t seem to shake their hearts because it keeps the problem of evil abstract and thus very impersonal. It allows those discussing evil to keep it at an arm's length and avoid the true horrors of moral and natural evil and as such I think it is easier for theists to simply dismiss it. Where the real weight of the problem of evil can be felt is in the evidential problem of evil. It is the evidential problem of evil that made me toss and turn in my bed and ultimately walk away from God. The evidential problem of evil is the problem that I just don’t see any theistic answer to, the best they can do is side-step the issue or simply throw up their hands and say “I don’t know but I still believe.”

The evidential problem of evil moves away from the logical problem of evil, which was questioning God’s existence due to the existence of any evil in the world to now questioning God’s existence given the existence of so much evil in the world? So even if we grant that it is logically possible for both God and evil to exist the sheer amount of evil in the world serves as evidence against the rationality of such a belief. The question theists must now answer is not how God could let any evil exist but how could God let such a great amount of evil exist? Richard Swinburne, an important Christian theologian notes the danger of the evidential problem of evil saying it is, “the crux of the problem of evil…It is not the fact of evil or the kinds of evil which are a threat to theism; it is the quantity of evil—both the number of people (and animals) who suffer and the amount which they suffer.” So when dealing with the evidential problem of evil it’s not enough for theists to offer good reasons for how some evil can exist in the world rather they must demonstrate that there are good reasons for all the evil that exists in the world both past and present. No evil can be left unaccounted for because if any suffering can be shown to be superfluous or unnecessary then the all-good God himself becomes superfluous and unnecessary. And I believe the vast amount of evil plaguing the world both currently and historically makes it fairly clear that meaningless and gratuitous evil exists and thus God does not.

William L. Rowe lays out the evidential problem clearly. Rowe says (1) There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse. (2) An omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse. (3) Therefore there does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

Now a theist can claim that no one can prove proposition number 1 with absolute certainty, which states pointless suffering exists and while that may be technically true one can easily demonstrate that there are rational grounds for believing that such meaningless evil exists. I would go further and say not only is it rational to believe meaningless evil exists, it is quite irrational to deny it. So if this first proposition is true taken with the second proposition you are led to the simple conclusion that God does not exist. All one has to due to assert that meaningless evil exists is to assert that there has been at least one earthquake that could have been prevented, one life that could have been spared, one rape that could have been stopped or even one cold that could have not been caught without preventing some greater good or avoiding a greater evil. Theists must deny all those possibilities to protect their beliefs.

Evil (suffering) is real. Histories pages are filled with suffering. Around 75 million people died in Europe during the pandemic called the Black Death which was between 30% – 60% of Europe's population at the time. 300,000 Jews were stripped of their positions and forced out of Spain in 1492 while those who remain were forced to convert to Catholicism. The Great Lisbon earthquake (1755) killed near 100,000 people. By 1860 there were almost 4 million slaves in the United States. 6 million Jews were murdered in the holocaust a quarter of them being children and including all the other people, who weren’t Jewish, at least 11 million people were killed during Hitler’s reign. Conservative estimates of today’s children’s slave trade counts 250 million children enslaved worldwide. Nearly 40,000 people, mostly children, die of starvation every day. Almost 33 million people have AIDS. Timothy McVeigh’s bombing killed 168 people and injured 450 (1995). And 15 people were killed in the Columbine shootings (1999).

And least the impersonal numbers dull one’s feelings a man named Jose Stable slashed the throat of his 12 year old autistic son Ulysses and left him naked in their bathtub. (link)  Sixteen men have been indicted for the use and maintenance of a protected Internet forum about child pornography, which includes thousands of images and videos as well as advice on how to beguile children into participating in sexual activity. (link) Robert Burdick is a 40 year old man who has been convicted of multiple rapes in multiple cases. He was accused of raping at least 12 different women in the last 14 years. (link) So please don’t forget that we are talking about real people not numbers when we are discussing evil and suffering.

Again a theist when presented with these evils must maintain that they all serve some greater purpose, whether producing greater good or preventing greater evils, for to admit to any evil that does not serve a higher purpose is to admit in the existence of meaningless suffering an idea that is completely at odds with Christian theism. One must believe that Jose Stable’s son Ulysses could not have been spared or that there could not have been even one less child molested and photographed for that Internet forum or that Robert Burdick could not have raped one less woman without somehow ruining some greater good in the world.

Perhaps the easiest example of pointless evil that no theodicy seems able to address is the existence of animal suffering. What greater good is served by animals suffering? Animals existed millions of years before humans and were hunting and killing one another long before we showed up due to the fact that some of them desired the flesh of other animals to eat. Why didn’t God just make all animals herbivores? What purpose does a carnivore have in expanding goodness or preventing greater evil in the world?

So that is the problem of evil and I lay it out there so as to begin a dialog with a fellow thinker who maintains the rationality of belief in the existence of God. I look forward to hearing his thoughts and hope others will take the time to see where this conversation might take us. And no matter what side one ends up on let’s keep in mind what we have in common, which is the problem itself. Both sides see evil and suffering as a real problem because we both understand and share the belief that all people genuinely matter in and of themselves and suffering should be limited as much as humanly possible.

Click here for the Charger's response

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Separation of Church and State-A Wall Still Waiting to be Finished

When looking at the history of the United States and the issue of the separation of church and state one can see that the debate over what role religion should or should not play in the government has existed since the beginning. (1)

Today religious conservatives complain that religion has become too far removed from politics and that we must get back to the “original values” (Christian) this country was built on. More liberal and secular citizens claim that the founding fathers established a complete separation of church and state and thus religion should play no part in politics. Now there are no quick and simple answers but by looking at the past I believe we can gain a greater confidence both about what was originally intended for the relationship between the church and the state and more importantly how we should approach that relationship today.

When looking at the history of United States the fact is that there has never been a complete separation of church and state. The wall of separation that most secularists speak of is an ideal that has never been fully realized. The line of separation was created early but it was less of a wall and more like a fence with holes in it allowing for the kids on one side (religion) to play in their neighbors’ yard (state). The Christian religion has played a massive role in our history, both good and bad, and that cannot be ignored nor should it be. But I will argue that while it was never achieved or codified those who are considered the founding fathers of America desired to point the country towards a future where the church and the state would be completely separated. Further looking at the modern world I will argue that the complete separation of church and state is the most rational and best way to ensure the continuation of liberty and protection of human rights for everyone both in this country and the rest of the world.

To determine what ideals or values this country was founded on or what the original intent for the relationship between the church and the state was one must first decide whose opinions are being given the most authority to answer that question. Usually when people discuss this issue they tend to focus on the ideas and opinions of the men who were leaders in the Revolution and the framers of the Constitution and refer to them as the founding fathers. So while their opinions are not the only ones of value and should not be the only ones examined in the history of this issue for the sake of this piece I will inspect their ideas the most closely. With that said I contend that the majority of these men hoped for a complete separation between church and state even though it was never accomplished. To demonstrate this I will examine a few important political works of the time, the actions of the early presidents and the religious context of the day.

Now the relationship between the church and the state was a significant issue during the Revolutionary era even before the war began but it became particularly important after the war as the individual states began drafting their own constitutions. There were many people who desired for the church to maintain a role in the government just as it had in England and every other European nation since the time of Constantine. But there were two groups that came together to try and establish for the first time ever a true break between the church and the state. What’s amazing is the fact that the two groups that banded together were the two furthest apart on the religious spectrum. It was the Enlightenment rationalists and the Evangelical Christian denominations who first wanted to draw a line between government and religion. Now both groups had very different motives for wanting this separation. The rationalists fought for separation to guard the government against the often negative influence of religion while the Evangelicals fought for separation to ensure that the government and other denominations did not interfere with their churches. So while both groups were vital to beginning the process of separating the church from state the men who are considered the founding fathers tended to fall into the first group of the Enlightenment rationalists who desired to protect the government from the church as much as protect the church from the government. And while they never fully succeeded in creating a hard separation between church and state they were able to at least aim the country towards that goal with their political writings and deeds.

The first issue that must be examined to understand the complex nature of the relationship between church and state is the difference between the state governments and the federal government during this time period. The federal government was not the dominate force that it is today rather it was the individual states that held the power to determine what the relationship between the government and religion would be for their particular state. Each state was established separately and most had some form of religious rules built into their laws as well as a state sponsored church. After the revolution the states began to draw up their own constitutions and the issue of what role religion should play in the government was dealt with differently in each state. This is one reason it is difficult to say what relationship between church and state was “originally intended” because it varied depending on what state you were in. In each state those who fought the hardest against the idea of separating the church from the state were the members of the state sponsored churches who wanted to maintain their existing privileges most importantly receiving state taxes. These people used a lot of rhetoric about how Christianity (their form) was a necessary part of any form of good government but when one examines it closely one finds that the main issue was that these people wanted to keep their churches’ coffers full. So in each state it was the more secular groups and the smaller, less powerful churches, many of which tended to be evangelical that banded together and fought for the separation of church and state.

To get a glimpse of this I want to look at what occurred in the state of Virginia. Before the end of the war Thomas Jefferson proposed a bill for the state of Virginia in 1779 that would guarantee complete legal equality for citizens of all religions, and of no religion. Jefferson made it very clear that his bill was, “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, The Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and the infidel of every denomination.” (Mahometan=Muslim and Hindoo=Hindu) This was the first call for separation between religion and government in any of the 13 states and it was an extreme one. Jefferson did not hide behind religious language but rather called for a complete and total separation of church and state. What followed was a fierce debate that would last seven years before a revised version of Jefferson’s bill was enacted. It was in 1786 that Virginia passed the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom and this bill was truly innovate in the history of politics and it was the model used for drafting the federal Constitution.

In Virginia it was the Episcopal Church (the denomination that broke off from the Church of England) that was the official religion of the state. Its members fought hard to maintain their status as the official church of the state. During the debates various “compromises” were offered trying to soften Jefferson’s bill. Then in 1784 Patrick Henry introduced a new bill that he thought would better serve the state and make more people happy. The bill would tax all citizens for the support of “teachers of the Christian religion.” What this meant is that the bill would simply give more denominations the right to the state’s taxes. So instead of the Episcopal Church being the single church receiving tax money there would now be multiple denominations receiving tax money. This idea pleased many people because it seemed to allow for a certain a level of religious freedom while also affirming that the government should support Christianity and its churches and most importantly it meant money for more churches. So many people who originally supported Jefferson’s idea of a complete separation of church and state switched sides once they saw they could get their hands on the state’s tax money. But the fight was not over. Along with Jefferson James Madison was strongly against this calling instead for a complete separation between church and state. In his “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments” he noted that historically religion has mainly had a negative effect on government and it has never aided in maintaining people’s liberty. He said, “If Religion be not within cognizance of Civil government, how can its legal establishment be said to be necessary to Civil Government? What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of Civil authority; in many instances they have seen the upholding of the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberty of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it [liberty], needs them not.”

Jefferson and Madison valued reason above all other virtues and saw it as the tool to establishing a just government. They believed that the God that existed had created man to use reason, not faith, to structure life, both politically and socially. So while their ideas clearly appealed to other secularists and freethinkers they also influenced many nonconformist and Evangelical Protestant groups (Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists and Quakers) to join the fight against mixing religion and government. These groups began to believe that the separation between the church and the state was the system that would best allow them to live out their beliefs and increase their numbers. Most Evangelicals believed that there should be no mediator (Church or State, Priest or King) between the individual and God and thus any interference from the civil government would serve only as an obstacle between them and their God. Perhaps even more importantly Evangelicals wanted the freedom to be able to proselytize and spread their beliefs without worrying about oppressive laws or systems being set up against them and they certainly didn’t want to pay taxes to other denominations who they believed did not properly follow God’s laws or understand his will. So again despite their differing motivations the Enlightenment rationalists and the more evangelical branches of Protestantism agreed that the separation of church and state was the best way to go.

This combination worked well so that by the time of the General Assembly in 1785-86 Patrick Henry’s bill was rejected and Jefferson’s bill was again taken up. Jefferson’s bill did not make it through the assembly untouched rather it was revised in certain areas to lessen the overtly secular language of Jefferson. In the original bill Jefferson praised reason before God saying, “Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free…” The bill was then revised to minimize Jefferson’s praise of reason and place God first reading instead, “Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free…” Despite this change the assembly did overwhelmingly rejected the attempt by some to name Jesus Christ in the bill verses a nonsectarian deity. Jefferson would later say that the rejection of mentioning Jesus proved that the law was meant to protect believers of any religion and nonbelievers alike not simply Christians. And despite the mention of God no person had to affirm any religious belief to run for public office in Virginia. The bill made itself quite clear saying, “Be it enacted by the General Assembly of Virginia that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities…” This fact, that one did not have to affirm any religion, doctrine or creed to run for office was truly ground-breaking in the history of politics and was extremely influential both to the other states and ultimately to the very lay out and language of the Constitution.

On a side note perhaps my favorite part of the bill is when the members of the assembly acknowledged that people in the future would have the right to change the bill but that if they did and thus minimized or revoked the freedom of conscience enabled by the bill they would be wrong. They wrote, “And though we will know that this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such act will be infringement of natural right.”  This bill was a clear example of what Jefferson, Madison and other major founders (Adams, Monroe, Franklin) desired for the relationship between the church and state both on a federal and state level.

To see how revolutionary Virginia’s bill was one need only look around at the other states and their slow development towards any separation of church and state. Massachusetts’ constitution (1780) only extended equal protection of the laws and the right to hold office to Christians. Catholics were only allowed to hold office if they took a special oath renouncing papal authority in any matter, “civil, ecclesiastical or spiritual.” The New York State constitution gave political equality to Jews but not to Catholics. Catholics were not allowed to hold public office until 1806. Maryland gave equal rights to Protestants and Catholics but not to Jews, freethinkers or deists. In Delaware officeholders had to take an oath affirming belief in the Trinity. Jefferson had a right to be very proud of Virginia and during his travels in Europe Jefferson he wrote, “it is comfortable to see the standard of reason at length erected, after so many ages, during which the human mind has been held in vassalage by kings, priests, and nobles, and it is honorable for us, to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare, that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions.” Jefferson was clear men did not need God’s (any version) direct involvement to form a proper and just government rather they only needed human reason.

The battle in the individual states raged for years but if we look at the development of the federal Constitution one sees that it is the bill from Virginia, not any of the other states that served as the model for the Constitution and helped instill in it an openly secular tone that should not be ignored. Now just as in Virginia there was a debate over the issue of what role religion should or should not play in the federal government but compared to other issues like slavery and protecting states with smaller populations from those with larger ones religion was not the most pressing issue at the time so the debate was not as fierce as it had been in Virginia itself. Now most people know the first amendment and most people view the amendment as a way to protect religion from any government interference and often the discussion ends there. Far fewer see it or the rest of the Constitution as also trying to protect the government from religion. Yet the overall tone of the Constitution seems to be calling for both. Article 6, section 3 follows the lead of Virginia and states that federal officials, elected or appointed, “shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Again to people today this might not sound like much but for the time period it was significant and carried great weight. Almost all public offices at the time required religious oaths or tests. By doing away with these tests the Constitution was showing that it never intended religion to affect one’s ability to hold public office or what one did once they got into that office. No one should be swearing on a bible or swearing to God instead the door was open to any and all comers regardless of their beliefs. Public office was not meant to be limited only to men from certain Protestant denominations although in actual practice it has been for most of history. To best understand what this clause meant at the time one only need look at those who opposed its inclusion in the Constitution. At the Massachusetts convention one man argued that if the President was not required to take a religious oath, “a Turk, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, and what is worse than all, a Universalist, may be President of the United States.” (And God knows that you can’t be a good leader of a democracy intended to protect people’s human rights if you don’t believe that most of them are going to burn in hell for all of eternity)

Beyond article 6 perhaps the most telling and obvious thing that proves the Constitution’s secular nature and its authors’ intentions to make it such is the fact that no where in the entire document is the word “God” ever used. There is no mention of God, Jesus Christ, Christianity, a Creator or even Providence. Even Virginia’s bill had included reference to a nonsectarian deity but not the Constitution. Many people today argue that this is because God was such an obvious part of the founders’ beliefs and motives in writing the Constitution that they didn’t even have to write it, it was just assumed. That is of course ridiculous just by the fact that some reference to a God or Creator had been placed in all the other political documents of the time period. Further if one doubts the magnitude of leaving God out of the Constitution one must again only listen to the opponents of the Constitution. Reverend John M. Mason said the exclusion of God from the Constitution was, “an omission which no pretext whatever can palliate,” and if Americans became as “irreligious” as the Constitution then, “we will have every reason to tremble, lest the Governor of the universe, who will not be treated with indignity by a people more than by individuals, overturn from its foundation the fabric we have been rearing, and crush us to atoms in the wreck.” The writers of the Constitution knew the implications of what they were doing when they left God out of the Constitution. It wasn’t an accident it was an obvious statement that God (any version) was not needed and did not belong there.

Eventually the other states took notice of Virginia’s bill and the federal Constitution and began to follow suit separating the church from the state. South Carolina and Georgia removed all religious barriers to equal rights between 1789 and 1792. Delaware stopped requiring its officeholders to take an oath affirming belief in the Trinity. Pennsylvania changed its constitution to allow Jews (but not atheists) to hold office. Still most of the states took a long time to change. Connecticut didn’t disestablish the Congregationalist Church until 1818 and did not provide equal rights to Jews until 1844 while Massachusetts did not remove all religious restrictions from the law until 1833. Before these changes Jefferson had said that these two states were, “the last retreat of Monkish darkness, bigotry, and abhorrence of those advances of the mind which had carried the other states a century ahead of them. They still seemed to be exactly where their forefathers were…and to consider, as dangerous heresies, all innovations good or bad.” Jefferson did not live to see Massachusetts finally change but did write happily to John Adam after Connecticut disestablished the Congregationalist Church, “this den of the priesthood is at last broken up, and that a protestant popedom is no longer to disgrace the American history and character.”

Now while changes in the laws were extremely slow all the states did move towards creating some sort of real separation between church and state so that a person’s religion at least did not affect the protection of one’s political rights (being able to vote, hold office, etc) serving as proof of the direction the founding fathers had desired the country to go. So while the fight over where that line should be drawn, especially concerning moral issues has never been resolved when it comes to the views of those men we have built monuments to and placed on our money and called our founding fathers it is clear that they placed reason above religion and pointed the nation towards the ideal of a total separation of church and state. Still it must be noted that the Constitution and Virginia’s bill of religious freedom were not all encompassing rather they could only serve as examples to the other states of what they should do and what direction the country should move towards in the future. The complete separation of church and state was never forced upon all the states rather it has been a long and slow process growing towards that ultimate goal that our founders desired.

Moving beyond the political documents of the time the actions and words of the early presidents serve as further proof that the founding fathers ultimately envisioned a complete separation of the church and state. In a letter written to the Jews of Rhode Island in 1790 George Washington wrote, “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunity of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens…May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be non to make him afraid.” This was said years before most states even gave Jews equal rights with other Christian citizens (43 before Massachusetts and 54 years before Connecticut) and yet Washington is clear that the government was meant to protect the complete freedom of conscience for all men. This meant that no religion can be permitted to control the government.

Of the first five presidents John Adams, the second president, was the closest to what modern conservative Christians would consider a Christian. He was a Unitarian. Unitarians are most commonly associated with rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity. Concerning their other doctrines they have changed over time but by the 18th and 19th century Unitarians (sometimes called rationalist Unitarians) had questioned more and more of the traditional doctrines and ultimately rejected the inspiration of the bible, miracles, the virgin birth and the resurrection. Many even became universalists. During his presidency Adams signed the Treaty of Tripoli (1797). The treaty was signed with the country of Tripoli which was a Muslim nation. Article 11 of the treaty said outright, “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” So, “the government of the United State is not in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” that is about as explicit a statement as one can make to demonstrate that the intended foundation of the United States was never meant to be Christian and interestingly enough it is found in a treaty written with a Muslim country. This treaty is fairly short, easy to understand and was read aloud to the Senate and it was unanimously approved without objection. Afterward the treaty was even printed and distributed with Article 11, which demonstrates that there was a fair level of acceptance of the idea that the United States was not a “Christian” nation. But opinions did change. This treaty expired after eight years and article 11 was dropped in the new treaty.  

The secular nature of the Constitution and of many of the founding fathers themselves often gets swallowed up due to the strong backlash against rationalist and secularist thought at the turn of the 19th century. Two powerful factors in this change are the French Revolution and the Second Great Awakening. While these topics are books unto themselves they are worth noting. News of the French Revolution was at first celebrated by most Americans. The storming of the Bastille and the publication of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man were seen as victories for the spread of liberty. But as the French Revolution became more and more violent people’s opinions began to change. Many religious leaders blamed the violence in France on the secular and anti-religious thoughts swirling around the Revolution. Basically they argued that the terror in France was an example of what would happen to any government that removed God too far from its center. The Second Great Awakening was more a social movement then a political one as numerous spiritual revivals spread throughout the country. It was characterized by massive gatherings that featured preaching about the second coming of Christ, individual salvation (anti-Calvinist), and living godly (biblical) lives. The services also included prayer meetings, worship services and faith healings. Church memberships soared especially in the more evangelical churches. These events affected the attitudes of people towards the constitution and what the separation of church and state meant or at least what it should mean. While rationalists and Evangelicals maintained their political alliance for a little while longer, both helped to get Jefferson elected, they soon parted ways setting up the dichotomy people are more familiar with today; Evangelicals on one side demanding noninterference from the government with their religion while maintaining their right and duty to try and enact religious laws over the whole country and secularist/rationalists on the other side trying to finally achieve the full separation of church and state begun by the founding fathers meant to protect the government from the church’s interference and thereby protect the rights of those who dissent from the religious conservatives and their efforts to turn their beliefs into laws.

A further hindrance to fully understanding the founding fathers opinions about religion and God is that what they said in public and what they thought in private did not always match up. This is due to certain elitist attitudes associated with the Enlightenment thought both in Europe and America as well as their lives as politicians reliant on the votes of the wider public. Despite their ideas about natural rights and liberty for all most of the founding fathers felt that the philosophical and religious issues that they discussed with each other were above the heads of the common man and even dangerous in their hands. Men who were more open about their deist views (few were openly atheist though many were accused of that) were shunned by both the higher and lower classes. Thomas Paine is a great example of this. Benjamin Franklin, himself a deist, warned against the circulation of cheap pamphlets accessible to the common person dealing with divisive (dangerous) topics like religion. Franklin told a young correspondent who had pamphlets with arguments against the existence of God, “not to attempt unchaining the Tyger [Tiger], but to burn the Piece before it is seen by any other Person.” Basically free thought was okay for those, like Franklin who could handle it but the lower classes with less education could be dangerous if given such information. And beyond this potential “danger” these men ran for public office and they needed public support so they kept certain ideas to themselves and avoided certain issues that might cost them votes and honestly some of them just didn’t care that much about religion, especially about the personal, biblical God of the Evangelicals.

But to truly appreciate and understand the secular nature of the documents and writings of the founding fathers one must understand the religious context of the day and the vital issue of conflicting vocabularies. The fact of the matter is that the God of most of the founding fathers is not the same God as that of modern religious conservatives. When modern religious conservatives and Evangelicals read the word God written by the founders (Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Monroe, Adams, etc) in the 18th century they immediately think of their God and all the baggage that God brings with it. They think of Jesus Christ, original sin, the Trinity, atonement, divine revelation through scripture, the virgin birth, miracles, the resurrection and so on but that is not the God the authors of those documents were thinking about when they used the word. Most of them were some form of deists, Unitarians or more liberal versions of mainline churches and their God served chiefly as the Creator. He created man gave him the gift of reason and then stepped back. God did not intervene with history or give divine commands that must be followed. Man had to use his reason, not revelation, to determine what was moral and good both in society and in government. The God of the bible was not their God so people today who see the word God used by the founding fathers and believe that it refers to Jesus Christ and the God of scripture are mistaken therefore the idea that the founding fathers would now support various conservative Christian agendas to control social behavior along biblical lines are simply wrong. The bible should not be codified into laws in the United States for that by definition infringes on the religious freedom of those who do not accept the bible as some divine manual for life.

The other word that people often misconstrue when they read it is the word Christian. Just like with the word God people today read the word Christian and believe it refers to whatever version of Christianity that they accept or are most familiar with. Most people simply have no concept of the history of Protestantism and the vicious battles that were fought among the denominations. The separation between Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Baptist, and so on have been greatly diminished. People used to die over the differences in these churches’ creeds and now many people don’t even know what the distinctions between them are. Why did Presbyterians used to kill Baptists? Most people simply don’t know. And perhaps this complete lack of knowledge about the historical differences between most Protestant denominations really serves as proof to the positive influence of secularism upon the church. Yet it also serves to cloud modern Christians’ understanding of how essential the idea of the separation of church and state was during the Revolutionary period. In the past each denomination knew what happened when other churches controlled the government it meant persecution and oppression for themselves. There were no “Christian” states or governments rather there were Anglican governments and Lutheran ones and Presbyterian ones and Catholic ones. So separation was not only important to secularist who believed freedom of conscience was a vital part for maintaining true liberty but also to all the smaller churches of the Revolutionary Period (mostly evangelical ones) who believed it was vital for protecting themselves from other denominations and allowing them to live their lives according to their God’s will.

Lastly I will point out that one of the best things about the American system of government is that it was made to be adaptive and correctable. The founding fathers were not perfect, not even close, though most Americans treat them as such. So while it is important to look back and try and understand their ideas and where they were coming from the fact is that just because they thought or wanted something in the 18th century does not make it right or applicable to America in the 21st century. So even if one could prove that the founding fathers envisioned America as a Christian nation to be governed by the religious tenants of some version of the Christianity, though I think it’s clear they cannot, that does not make that idea right or good for America today. The fact that throughout American history God/gods have always pushed their way into politics doesn’t mean that they should be allowed to stay there. Rather we should continue the fight to fully separate religion from our government, like the founding fathers hoped for, so that we don’t just protect religion from the government but also protect the government from the negative influence of religion. John F. Kennedy (He was a Catholic and the first/only non-Protestant president) understood this and believed in a clear and hard separation between the church and the state. In an address given to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960 he said, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote – where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference – and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
            I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish – where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Chruches or any other ecclesiastical source – where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace of the public acts of its officials – and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all” One can only wonder what America would look like today if Kennedy had not been assassinated?

Sadly Kennedy’s rational view and clear understanding of the need for the full separation the church from the state has been largely ignored due to the growing power of the religious right and the political leaders they have been able to elect. George H. W. Bush had no qualms about allowing religion into the government as he said, “I don’t know that atheists should be considered citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” This quote demonstrates both Bush’s comfort with the idea of allowing the church to control the government and also his ignorance of history not only of the ideas of the founding fathers but also just the simple history of the pledge of allegiance whose author Francis Bellamy never wrote the line “one nation under God” rather it was inserted over 50 years later in 1954s (see here). But like with much of the past Evangelicals have found ways to rewrite history and make it appear as if their religious views have always been vital in politics and supported by important leaders of the past. But it’s time to grow up and see Evangelical politics for what they are organized attempts to codify their religious beliefs into laws and force them upon others, which funny enough they have been doing ever since they first fought for the separation of Church and state to ensure their own religious freedom. It seems the conflict cannot be avoided because most Evangelicals’ refuse to limit their interpretation of God’s will to their own lives but must also place it over everyone else’s. Their God says he must be your God too. So whether it’s fighting for Sabbath laws, temperance, placing the 10 commandments in public school, fighting against the teaching of evolution, opposing sex education and contraception, or legislating against the natural rights of gay and lesbian Americans these religiously motivated agendas should not be supported and forcefully shoved upon those who do not bow in submission to the same all powerful (small-minded, insecure and hateful) God as the modern Evangelical Christians do.

There has never been a complete separation between the church and the state in America but that does not mean the founding fathers did not want one and it certainly doesn’t mean there should not be one. And while I am just an atheist and as such I apparently cannot be a patriot and should not even be allowed to be a citizen I am also a student of history and agree with James Madison’s statement, “What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of Civil authority; in many instances they have seen the upholding of the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberty of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it [liberty], needs them not.” So let the wall of separation between church and state be fully completed and respected so we can protect the government from religion as much as we protect religion from the government.

(1) I’ve studied American history and more importantly American religious history both for my undergraduate degree in history and my master’s in theology but I’m by no means an expert so fell free to take that into account when judging this piece. Also I acknowledge that this piece suffers from a lack of proper research. One of the worst parts about living here in Korea is the fact that a majority of my books remain at home in the United States. This means my resources for this piece were far more limited then I would like and while I feel quite confident in all my points the piece would greatly benefit from more direct source material. I used online versions of the Constitution and Treaty of Tripoli. Most of the material concerning the state of Virginia, the points on the federal Constitution and the individual states’ constitutions came from Susan Jacoby’s book “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism” 

Monday, December 13, 2010

God-The Ideal Father?

When I look at the model of what most people consider a good father I see someone who is there for his kids, spends time with them, takes care of them, plays with them, teaches them, helps them grow up to no longer need his constant help and he makes sure that his kids know that he loves them. But I find it amazing that the God of scripture who is considered the ideal father shares almost none of these qualities. Instead the God of scripture hides himself behind mystery, he uses his power to justify any of his actions, he doesn’t speak directly to his children rather he only does it through a long game of telephone that extends through centuries (the bible), he never intends to teach his children enough to grow up and he chooses to place the majority of the responsibility for maintaining a good relationship upon the shoulders of the child instead of himself. And perhaps worst of all he never takes any blame for the shortcomings of his kids.

I’m not a parent but if I ever am one I hope I’m nothing like the Abrahamic God but rather like my parents. My parents have always been there for me. They have told me they loved me. They have never intentionally concealed themselves from me but have openly talked with me and have let me see them. They didn’t hide behind their power but rather sought to always explain themselves to me so that I could understand why things happened the way they did and why they made the choices they made. And they taught how to be on my own and make good choices without their help. The fact is I don’t have faith in my parents or their love for me rather I have knowledge in my parents and in their love for me. Put simply I don’t believe in my parents I know my parents. Faith is not needed in our relationship and if I’m a father I will do everything I can to make sure it is not needed by my child. Why make your child believe or hope that you’re a good parent and not be around when you can simply let them know you are a good parent by being open and honest and participating in their lives with them?

If the God of scripture is the ideal father I hope I fall far short of that ideal so that I can instead be a good father.

An Atheist Obsessed with God

Even though I no longer believe in God’s existence (Abrahamic God) I often find myself still thinking about things I would say to him if he ever spoke to me, showed himself to me or at least sent me a talking donkey like Balaam (Num. 22:28-30) and Shrek. And one of the funny things is the fact that if I stood before God ready to be judged I could honestly say to him that while I no longer had faith in him I was, in a way still dedicated to him and that despite my rejection of him my entire life has been devoted to him, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael and Jacob.

My whole life has revolved around God (evangelical Christian version). It began in the 5th grade when I chose to become a Christian (not that there were any other choices). Then in 8th grade was when I first read through the entire bible. In high school I spent all my time bouncing around from bible studies to prayer meetings to outreach events all in the name of God. In college I majored in Jewish history because of the biblical studies it entailed and its religious focus. Then I went to seminary to study theology and in my first year I began researching various monastic orders hoping to become a monk. My beliefs and focus changed greatly during these times but I can honestly say I’ve poured every ounce of myself into the study of God and religion beginning as a passionate believer to then becoming a doubt-filled Christian to now being a fairly content atheist. And while I am now an atheist I still spend most of my time reading, writing and thinking about God and religion. There have been times I’ve looked back on my religious life and had regrets thinking that I’ve wasted most of my life on something that’s not even ontological real (God) but most of time I’m glad of the journey I’ve taken and still enjoy pondering about spiritual things.  

And yet despite all my devotion, passion and effort to understand God and religion (mine and others), based upon orthodox Christian doctrine I would be sent to hell for no longer believing the right dogmas or being part of the Church. I’ve noticed that as an elementary school teacher I value the wrong answer of the child who thought about the problem and tried hard to understand the material over the right answer of some kid who just guessed or looked at their neighbor’s paper because they’re the ones who actually gain insight and skills in the topics being studied but sadly this God does not share my standards as he values conformity over knowledge and obedience over inquiry.

Still I remain the oddity of being an atheist obsessed with God. I will continue to ponder religious and spiritual issues and if one day I stand in front of God discovering that Christianity was true and he asks me to give an account for myself I will tell him that truly he has always had my devotion both with and without my faith but that I am extremely disappointed to discover that he is real and that Christianity was the best he could do for it will simply confirm what I feared that he is not worthy of my love, worship or even attention. 

If one reads the comments to this post one finds that another blogger and I decided to begin a discussion on the problem of evil. If one is interested in that discussion look here