A few months back I was sitting at a potluck of a religious group I know. Actually, it was a “formerly religious” group since almost all of us had left the religious communities of our youth.
The conversation at the table turned to the fact that secular thought is growing around the world. The third-largest religious group on Earth, or 1 in 6 people worldwide, is “unaffiliated.” Many of the unaffiliated retain spiritual beliefs, but others do not. Some are actively hostile to religion.
The Jewish woman sitting to my left told of visiting her daughter and family in the UK. While she was there a friend came by and noticed on the floor a small toy ark along with toy animals. The friend was appalled. “You let your children play with those?” she gasped.
People around the table nodded. We’d all heard of Europe’s famous secularism, especially the freedom-from-religion experiment of France. At various times I’d heard more than one person at that potluck say with feeling that the world would be a better place without any religion at all.
Religion and empathy
Recent scientific research backs them up. A study published by the University of Chicago last fall of more than 1200 children across 6 different countries found that religiously unaffiliated children are likely to be more generous and empathetic and less punitive than children brought up in either Christian or Muslim families. Research in 2012 on the compassion levels of atheists and believers showed that atheists are more likely to help others than religious people are.
Clearly people do not need an idea of God in order to be good people.
Hostility to God often runs highest among those who grew up in authoritarian religions. When my parents were coming of age in rural Ohio, their Mennonite bishop could dictate the length of sleeves on women’s dresses and discipline those who didn’t comply. My parents carried emotional scars from this rigid control, and, lacking tools to address and heal it, they in turn tried to impose it on their children. Most of the people at that potluck came from authoritarian religious milieus as well.
Is God the culprit?
To many, God is the culprit. They think the world would be better off without one. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion says his goal is to convert every reader to atheism, and he has good reasons—wars and atrocities and rapes and pillages all committed in God’s name. Many people have been burned—sometimes literally—by God, or by those who claim to speak for God.
(Just as true is that belief in God has motivated social justice movements and leaders such as Sojourner Truth and Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.)
Those who hope for an end to religion may think that secularism will ensure democracy, freedom, and tolerance. No God, no tyranny, right? But the political record says otherwise. Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol tells of his father being arrested in the 1980s for speaking out against authoritarianism. The Turkish regime that imprisoned and tortured him was a secular one, following the thinking of Turkey’s secular founder, Atatürk. Akyol says in Islam Without Extremes,
I, as a Muslim kid, faced tyranny not in the name of Islam—as some Westerners would have readily expected these days—but in the name of a secular state. As I grew up, I observed even more examples of the same trouble. Instead of “religious police” forcing women to cover their heads, for example, I saw “secularism police” forcing women to uncover their heads. (36)
With Turkish secularism, Akyol argues, came an intolerant nationalism, just as in secular regimes of the past, fascism or Stalinism moved to the fore. It is an “illiberal mindset,” Akyol concludes, rather than religion or secularity itself, “that is the problem” (Islam Without Extremes, 36).
Making war on God
I’ve been reading Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, a wildly imaginative multiverse tale in which the freedom-loving characters are beginning to mass against God as the ultimate culprit. Across several worlds they are mounting a cosmic war against the Creator for inspiring his followers to narrow-mindedness and cruelty. (No spoilers, please! I’m only halfway.)
But I find myself wondering, What if the God they feel burned by doesn’t exist? What if he (pronoun intended) is a straw man? I keep wanting to ask those cosmic freedom fighters, Why make war against God? If people’s attitudes and mind-sets are the problem, wouldn’t it make more sense to transform beliefs about God instead?
Responses to Burned by God?
I am currently reading Imagine Heaven which is about near death experiences. I find it fascinating to read the accounts of what so many have shared about seeing a being of light. The idea that God may not exist is a good thing to ponder because we should each seek our own answer to that question. Don’t let anyone decide or dictate to you whether God does or doesn’t exist. I have always appreciated free will and the opportunity to seek my own answers about my faith. And I am a firm believer. From a creative perspective I can’t even imagine this life without our Creator.
The research on NDEs is fascinating, isn’t it? I remember listening to the “Fresh Air” episode with Dr. Sam Parnia, a specialist in resuscitation medicine: http://www.npr.org/2013/02/21/172495667/resuscitation-experiences-and-erasing-death. Terry Gross was acting as the skeptical journalist, and Dr. Parnia kept repeating, “These are not ‘near-death’ experiences. The people are flat-lined. They’re objectively dead.” Yes, feeling the support of a Creator or the Universe is a tremendous help in life, especially when the going gets rough–and it does for everyone. At the same time, reality is so multifaceted, so subtle and beyond human grasp, that we should not hesitate to imagine it in different ways than people have before. Scientific models of reality keep changing; why not spiritual ones too?
The spiritual being of God doesn’t change. He is the same now as He always was. The spiritual changes are within us as humans as we grow in wisdom and understanding through our relationships and experiences both here on earth and in the spiritual realm. Everyone has a foundation of faith and understanding that they build on throughout their life’s journey. What they have faith in is their choice. As I seek and grow in my own spiritual experiences I can honestly say that my spiritual wisdom is vastly matured from the religious knowledge of my youth. Be still and know that I am God has a wealth of meaning that I learned in life rather than in a church.
Yes, there is plenty of room for human understanding to grow! We don’t know the half of the mysteries of this universe. At the same time, the idea that God doesn’t change is a statement of faith, a belief about how things are. It’s a belief that, as I see it, tends to drive in deeper the wedge in people’s thinking between nature and God. If change is the nature of things in this universe—the nature of nature—maybe we need changing ideas of God as well. Maybe other conceptions of God will help humans reconnect with our nature-home and provide better foundations for addressing the ecological messes we have gotten ourselves into. Stay tuned, Sandra, I hope to write more about this!
Priscilla, I want to say that I appreciate your thoughtful essay, “Burned by God?” I am not good at writing succinctly, but want to comment on several things… I think I resonate mostly with what you state, and of course, have had quite similar experiences in my growing up years as you did (same church!), with a mother who tried to keep especially her daughters in dress and appearance as a decent Mennonite girl ought to, which did not make for a smooth household at all times! It was around my upper 30s, while getting to know a guy about my age, who came to the U.S. by invitation from a city in Ukraine, and had not grown up religious (mainly under Communism), when I began to seriously allow a worldview such as his to pretty much turn my world upside down, to pull the rug of my “certainties” from under my feet. I remember the realization that things are not necessarily what they seem had felt terrifying to me. He never insisted that I should think like he did, so much as his simply being and living out who he was, what made sense to him. And I had never before met someone with such little to no familiarity of religious terminology or understanding of biblical phrases or stories that many of us in the Christianized/Western world have grown up with or assumed, even if we may not accept it at all. Neither was he was supportive of Communism, and was basically a-religious. Yet interestingly, I would readily say that he made a pretty good Anabaptist/Mennonite, questioning the rightness of behaving violently or taking part in war, living as peacefully and respectful of others as much as he could. And living this way with no prior religious teaching! I began to realize that I could completely accept him and his journey without having to try to change his beliefs (or non-belief!). I realized, too, interacting with someone whose first language is not English made for more complexity in our communication and understanding each other. He once told me simply, among other things, when I asked him about his faith/beliefs, “I listen to my inner I”, and I began to wonder if that’s the “God” we actually imagine or live out ourselves. Anyway, the encounters with him was the beginning of an ever-expanding journey that grew into a hunger and desire to keep on going, learning, expanding my horizons, perhaps doing a lot of unlearning. It has opened a huge and wondrous universe(s) for me! On the other hand, a reality for me is living in a small community, where my spouse and I continue to keep in touch with a group of Mennonites (and others), and many of them, when it comes down to asking them, are on their own journeys, not afraid to keep asking questions. I’m not sure what the difference is between “religious” and “spiritual” necessarily, and maybe you can enlighten me on that, Priscilla. Perhaps I am rather inconsistent (even a bit hypocritical?) with truly living out the symbols or concreteness of what I do believe. For example, during a Sunday worship service, I may in my mind “redefine” or modify a number of the symbols expressed perhaps in a sermon or in music. And I’m not really sure why, but I find prayer to be a powerful thing to engage in, in various ways. I suppose as long as there is enough room for expression of the sense of mystery and wonderment of the unexplainable with at least some in this group, I find benefit with relating to this (religious) community. Besides, I still love to sing many of the songs with this community, some old songs, and many new. I like to think of “both/and” rather than an “either/or” way of believing. Kind of a universalist way of believing, as each of us has our own imaginations or fantasies or myths. I am well aware of knowing (more and more) that I don’t know, although I still find the overall Bible story as one moving toward healing and wholeness with all creation. I believe we can each add to this large story with our own stories and expressions, and continue the Bible story. Perhaps “burned by God” can be seen as a positive and refining experience, even if long and slow, sometimes bumbling and painful. Finally, thanks again for your stimulating thoughts; they give me some things to chew on!
Gwen, thanks for sharing your story so thoughtfully here. I don’t have anything to add, just to underscore a few things that jumped out at me. One is the terror of letting go of old ways of seeing the world. I experience my own versions of that, and you’re inspiring me to write another post about it.
Another is your friend’s way of talking about the journey: “I listen to my inner I.” To me that’s the essence of being awake—just listening for what is real and paying attention to what arises from the heart. Is there any better way to be? Some traditions call it listening to “the observer” or “the Self” or “the heart.” In a nature spirituality or shamanic tradition, this inner Helper often shows up as an animal or other being, like an “inner guru.” It is my great joy to mentor people in the art of listening to their Helper and allowing that relationship to blossom.
What you put so beautifully—”the sense of mystery and wonderment of the unexplainable”—may everyone’s life be rich in this experience!
Priscilla, Thanks for your response. I’ll look forward to a future post of some of your experiences with the terror of letting go…