1 Corinthians 13:11
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.
Once upon a time I was a relatively devout Catholic, it wasn’t even that long ago that I stopped being a Catholic and lost my faith completely. It wasn’t a lightning bolt moment, waking up in the night and thinking, “OMG, I’m an atheist”, it was a gradual thing that happened quietly and peacefully in my head (thankfully I didn’t stress about it one way or the other overly).
The reason that this post has suddenly become relevant is that I’m reading “Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell” by John Shelby Spong (a retired Episcopalian (Anglican) Bishop from the USA). It is an interesting book, the first half makes perfect sense to me as Spong deconstructs religion and declares that god is dead. The next section was far harder to comprehend where he attempted to argue that god is within each of us and that by knowing ourselves we know god, and that all the mystics are pretty much right. Then he talks about the Jesus story through this lens and how this has affected his personal journey.
I have a few problems with the book which are fairly easy to summarise.
Spong, in his recounting of evolution and why religions were formed, uses self consciousness as the basis for what separates humans from animals. The fact that humans are aware of death and plan for the future, makes us different from animals he argues, and the corresponding fear of the unknown and death began the rise of religion in early human history as a form of security.
That may all be true, but there are animals which are aware of death and who can plan for the future, two key parts of what Spong says separates humans and animals. Elephants are very aware of the death of members of their herd, and mourn when one dies, knowing at the same time that they must keep moving to get to food or water to continue the survival of the herd. Dogs, apes and some monkeys are also aware of death, though less good at the planning for the future bit. Dolphins and whales would appear to be conscious of death and plan for the future also.
I know that Spong is an Episcopalian Bishop and has grown up in the Christian traditions, however I felt that in his writing, although he acknowledged other religions, returned to Christianity as the one true religion. He hasn’t stated it directly, but clearly to be involved in a religion means that the other religions are wrong or incorrect in some fashion (wrong god/s, wrong worshipping practice/s, wrong dietary requirement/s, wrong clothing, etc). Little was done to address any other religion’s views on life after death, to look at mysticism in other religions, to even compare the fact that the Jesus story appears in many other religions, and that there appears to be little historical proof to support Jesus’s existence. Ultimately this reinforces the privileged position that Christianity holds in Western nations. His use of “religion” to generally also only describe Christianity also doesn’t help.
Belief and non-belief
The biggest issue I have with the book is that Spong states that the death of old-school religion (that currently practised by most Christians around the world), is just the stepping stone through to enlightenment and self-knowledge. It did feel, while reading this part of the book, that those of us who state that there is no god, are lesser beings, as Spong states that those who have moved into new belief are effectively superior (though he probably means superior to traditional Christians). In my opinion, stating that god is dead should be the end, and enlightenment is where you step free from the need to have any religion.
Currently I haven’t finished his book, so I’m not 100% sure what the end result is going to be in regards to what he believes that faith is going to be like. The first third to half the book is an excellent argument as to why people should not believe in any god/s. It details a lot of issues and questions I thought my way through when I started losing my faith, such as:
- Why would a loving, all seeing, all present deity allow suffering and pain in the world (particularly in big environmental disasters)?
- Why must we cajole and praise a deity in order to have our prayers answered? (Much like whining children getting what they want)
- Why are there poor and homeless people, and why aren’t their prayers being answered?
- Why must people who do not believe, but who live a good life, go to hell?
- Why are the traditions/rules of this religious institution telling me that X is good and Y is bad, when both X and Y are neutral?
- What do you mean women are lesser creatures?
- If there are so many different religions, how can I know which one/s are actually correct?
- If there was a god, surely there would only be one religion.
The standard responses to suffering, pain and misfortune in the world by religious leaders: they deserved it; it is god’s will; karma; etc, are all non-answers really. No one deserves to have themselves or their family killed in a monsoon/earthquake/bombing/train crash/bushfire/flood, and any god who willed that such a thing should happen, is not a god that I could possibly respect or worship.
One last note. Whenever I write about religion, it will typically be about Christianity because that is the religion I grew up in. I will not spend time critiquing other religions because I know little about them.
ADDENDUM: I realised over lunch that I haven’t said all I want to say on this topic, and that there are some very good excerpts from Spong’s book which might also help me get to the other bit of the point I was attempting to make. Basically, there will be another post on this topic when I have time. The worst bit about writing when busy, is that I tend to forget the points I had neatly ordered in my head.