As a child I attended Catholic elementary school of a particularly traditional sort: I (along with my brother and three sisters) attended San Juan Capistrano Mission elementary school. This included going to mass in an adobe church every day, being taught by nuns (who I like to refer to as “frustrated women in the costume of a barbarian age”), and generally being inculcated with a sectarian world view. It seems like they did a rather poor job of it, at least in my case, since neither me nor any of my siblings have ever manifested even the slightest tendancy towards theistic belief once they reached adulthood, so fas as I can tell.
I was a very shy and isolated boy, and I didn’t have many friends. To amuse myself during breaks, I would often pretend that I was having a conversation with someone who knew absolutely nothing about humanity, such as an alien or a time traveller. I would imagine that this hypothetical conversant would ask me questions about the world, such as “why do you humans have war?”, and then I would go into a long discussion about the causes of violence and political tensions and so on. Of course, my knowledge of such things was rudimentary and naive, but in many cases I was able to give a reasonably logical answer to the question.
This mental excersize served a useful purpose, in that it helped me sort out my own knowledge, untangling all the kinks and reconciling inconsistencies in what I had been taught. It also served as practice for another sort of mental discipline, which is the knack of being able to step outside my own situation and try to look at things from the point of view of an outside observer – a really, far, far outside observer, one that is not even human. (Of couse, since I still possess human biology and instinct, I can never be 100% successful at this, but its still entertaining to try.)
In other contexts this is known as “jumping out of the system”. An example is playing chess: When you are playing chess your mind is caught up in a “chess system”, where your thoughts are concerned with the positions of the pieces, the opponent’s strategy, and so on, with little concern for things like world events or even the state of your immediate environment. However, when you jump out of the system, you are suddenly able to realize that you are in fact sitting in front of a chess board, playing chess with another person – and that you may choose at any moment to continue playing or not.
As a result of all this, I tended to view the things that I was taught in school from a slightly different perspective. For things like science and math, little internal examination was needed, since those things were clearly self-consistent and didn’t require much combing out of the kinks (and they even had live demonstrations – lab experiments – of the truth of what was being taught!) But other classes – history, geography, politics, and especially religion – required constant internal maintenance in order to keep my mind in a mostly harmonious state where everything made some kind of sense.
Now, all successful religions have methods for immunizing you against the fundamental logical inconsistencies of their sacred texts. One thing that I was taught – and I still believe this is true – is that you can’t make someone a believer (or an unbeliever) through logical argument. There is always a way to rationalize away the logical problems if you really want to – the key is making someone really want to. What I was taught was that the way to “convert” people is to be the kind of person that other people want to be – in other words, to behave so as to set a good example that other people will want to follow. Conversely, people who try to “convince” you that a particular worldview is true generally only succeed in coming off as obnoxious to the listener.
So I was never all that troubled by the logical inconsistencies in the Bible. What was far more troubling to me were the moral inconsistencies. It was clear to me, even at that age, that there were some things that I was being taught that were just plain morally wrong — wrong in the sense that they were in direct contradiction to the principles of “right and wrong” that were taught to me by the very same people.
For example, I was taught that it is morally wrong to unjustly cause suffering to other people and other creatures. At the same time, however, I was also taught that after death, some people will undergo an eternity of suffering in hell. I’m not talking about the watered-down hell that most preachers speak of today, which is merely “the absence of God”. I’m talking about real hellfire, lakes of fire, sadistic demons whose only purpose is to make you suffer forever, that sort of thing.
To this day I find this concept horrifying. What’s worse, is that my fertile imagination could conjure up far more horrifying torments than anything my teachers (or H. R. Giger, or H. P. Lovecraft) could describe. And of course, my perverse brain, like a rabbit caught in the headlights, could often find nothing better to do than to contemplate such horrors and invent new ones. Add to the list of human cruelties – teaching the concept of hell to an imaginative, creative child.
Now, suppose we even accept the idea that there is some sort of cosmic need for punishment (which I don’t neccessarily accept, but let’s take it as a given.) It would be “just” if the degree of punishment was in proportion to the degree of sin.
But human lives are finite, and the amount of sin we are capable of is also finite. Even if Hitler and Stalin, the greatest mass murderers in history, were to be held accountable for each death for which they were responsible, eventually that list must come to an end; Eventually one must cry “enough”. But hell is, or so I was taught, infinite. An infinity of suffering. There is no escape from Dante’s inferno. How is that justice?
Which leads to another problem, which is how are the people in Heaven supposed to be happy and joyful if there are these people down below being tortured? Don’t they have any compassion? Or are they so mean-spirited that they rejoice in the suffering of others? That doesn’t sound like any Heaven that I want to go to.
And then there’s this whole business of Christ dying for your sins. It doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice when he gets rezzed three days later. Oh, sure you’ll go to jail for me, but you’ve already got a “get out of jail free” card? Oh, it’s a few hours of pain on the cross? I’ll admit that the Romans were pretty good at the torture biz, but women all over the world experience long hours of intense suffering during the process of childbirth every day.
And what does the suffering on the cross have to do with my sins anyway? Is this like one of those fictional hostage situations where the hero says “let them go, and take me instead”? In that case, who is the hostage taker? Why are they taking hostages in the first place, and if so, why would they allow an arbitrary substitution of victims? “I don’t care who gets punished, someone is going to suffer for this!”
And don’t get me started on the notion of original sin. How can a sin be “inherited”? That hardly seems like justice.
During my teenage years, all of these internal dilemmas caused me much misery. I knew for sure that I was destined for eternal suffering because I couldn’t force myself to accept the moral contradictions of the religion I had been taught. I worried myself sick over the fact that I wasn’t a “good person” – despite the fact that in every other aspect of my life I was good to a fault. (Well, perhaps not so much “good” as merely meek, unaggressive and generally cowed by a society of peers that didn’t seem to understand me very well.)
The only solution, for me, was to “jump out of the system” – to try and step outside the whole mental construction of religion and consider that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t true. It took a long, long time for me to be comfortable with the idea that the whole thing might just be a story, and I cannot tell you how much of a relief it was to me once I accepted it.
A small digression: One of the things that helped me view religion as a social construction was reading fiction novels such as Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. The irony here is that I was first introduced to the book by a devout, evangelical christian – a self-proclaimed “jesus freak” who I knew briefly in high school, and who saw the book as supportive to her faith.
The views that I hold today are a reflection and an outgrowth of these experiences. As a result of my upbringing, I know far more about the Bible than most people realize. And – because of my tendancy to try and look at things from a non-human perspective – I can see that the Bible is a very human kind of book. And not just any human – it’s a book written by, and for, classical and medieval humans.
The Bible “feels” to me very much like the kind of story that humans in primitive societies would make up. For example, the notion that there is some kind of Cosmic Alpha Male, a “Lord” (meaning “Landowner”) seems to me the kind of thing that a person living in an authoritarian society might project onto the nature of the universe. The idea of a Kingdom of Heaven might make sense for a person who is used to living in kingdoms, but it doesn’t resonate with any of my experience.
If you subtract away the human perspective, there is nothing in nature that conforms to the “celestial kingdom” model of organization. Rather, the rule in nature is not one of top-down, authoritarian control, but rather bottom-up, emergent flows of competition and cooperation. Although some animals instinctively form themselves into authoritarian hierarchies, even these are dynamic systems, in which the alpha wolf can be challenged and replaced by a newer, younger model.
The stories in the Bible are stories about human nature – about love, and revenge, and politics. Some of the stories – such as the book of Job – are quite subtle, reflecting a fairly sophisticated calculus of right and wrong that is far more complex than the simple elementary-school morality I was taught. But even these books are based on a set of underlying premises that are at heart primitive and tribal.
To many of us, the idea of God seems reasonable and natural because we are surrounded with it from childhood, and because we are taught the idea from people who we love and respect. But only a human could dream up such a fantastic notion.
And only a human could believe it.