Friday, October 29, 2010

The Myths of New Atheism - Part 2b – People are good, religion is evil

The myth of the New Atheism is that it’s not a myth.

I’m using the term “myth” loosely to describe a tenet or dogma that’s not supported by observed fact or deductive reasoning. I have my dogmas, and I’m not ashamed to name them. I wish atheists had the honesty to do likewise.

Last week’s blog was the first installment about the myth that people are good, but religion is evil. I argued that “true” or “pure” atheism had no basis on which to judge something to be objectively “good” or “evil” and that the whole hypothesis of good and evil rests upon a theistic foundation. Without God, “good” and “evil” becomes nothing more than my self-interests verses yours. If you want to call people “good” in an objective sense, then you need to do it in a theistic context, which, of course, the Christian Gospel provides.

So, I agreed broadly with the statement about people being “good”, but I don’t see how it is compatible with pure atheism. It’s more at home in a Christian context.

I’m going to do the same with the statement that religion is evil. Again, I’ll ask that you please follow me carefully here because I’m going to argue that religion is neither good nor evil of itself; it can be (and has been) used evilly, but, more to the point, it cannot deliver.

What’s more, I believe that Jesus and his followers knew this; that religion cannot deliver. It was the major impetus behind the writing of the New Testament. To support this hypothesis, I’m going to have to take you on a journey through some Biblical theology.

The Bible is a big book. In fact, it’s a collection of writings that was put together over a long period of time by a large number of people (contrary to the urban myths that in one of my previous blogs). It’s an unfolding story, and the people in the middle didn’t live to see how the story ended.

Incidentally, one important feature of the story of the Bible is that the later authors could not change what the earlier authors had written because the earlier writings were already in circulation, which blows holes in the commonly held misconception that the Bible had been radically re-written to suit the particular agenda of a minority group some time after Christ (the Catholics, for example).

A legitimate reading of the story from Genesis to Revelation is that it’s the story of the Temple. I know Evangelical Christians like to read it as the story of God’s interactions with humanity, but I would add that the theater of these interactions is the Temple. We understand these interactions better if we see them played out in the context of the Temple.

What’s this got to do with religion? Well, if by “religion”, we mean the rites, self-identity, habits, culture, focal point, authority and legitimacy of a community, then the Temple is the personification of religion.

One problem us Westerners have here is that we’ve got no first hand experience of how the Temple operated or what it meant in the ancient world. We’ve got some vague notion that it was the place where worship happened, but it was much more than that. Here are my observations on some of the important, but overlooked features of the Temple;

• The Temple was the focal point of the city. Think of the Acropolis in Athens. Ancient cities grew up around Temples and they drew on the resources of the surrounding lands to sustain and maintain the activities that revolved around the Temple. They were built on high places as a statement to the worlds, saying “We are here, and these are our gods”. (See Jesus’ assessment in Matthew 5:14 “…a City on a hill cannot be hidden.”). The Temple was the expression of civic pride.

• The Temple symbolized the presence of the gods among the people in a tangible, practical way. The Temple was perceived as the incarnation of heaven on earth.

• The Temple housed the important treasures of the King and his people. Part of the reason Temples were guarded so jealously, was that they were the “banks” of the ancient world. Guarding the Temple was synonymous with national financial security. In this respect, the Temple was like Fort Knox.

• The Temple was the source of fresh meat and food for the city. The livestock that was slaughtered there was divided into ritual sacrifice (burnt offerings and the like), and consumption. In this respect, the Temple was something like the supermarket sitting in the center of town.

• The Temple was the repository of knowledge and the forum for communicating that knowledge to the people. The writings were secured in the Temple, and they were read out and preached to the people in the Temple. In this respect, the Temple was the central library; it was the central repository for the Word of God.

• The Temple was the place of forgiveness, cleansing and healing.

The Israelites were not unique in having a Temple, nor were they unique in claiming that it was divinely commissioned. Even so, their Temple was unique in at least two respects;

• The God it housed was the God of the entire cosmos, not just the city kingdom centered on the Temple

• The Israelites candidly recorded the careers of their Temples (and those records made their way into the collection of writings that we now call the Bible)

It’s this last point I’d like to follow. In brief, the Temple started out as a mobile tent until Solomon got to build a permanent structure in Jerusalem around 950 BC. Though the Temple building was a national success for Solomon, it’s fortunes waxed and waned from there on, mostly waning, despite the warnings of the Old Testament Prophets, until it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC, and the people taken into exile.

Upon the return from exile, a chastened remnant of Israel rebuilt the Temple and consecrated it in 515 BC. Again, it’s fortunes waxed and waned under successive empires until Herod the Great decided to rebuild it in 19 BC (this is the same Herod whom Matthew holds responsible for the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem in Matthew 2:16-18). Herod’s vision, or perhaps the vision of the Jews, was to reform and reconstitute Israel around the New Temple and they embarked upon a lavish building program and missionary effort to impress the importance of the Temple on the Jewish people.

Maybe it was this resurgence of national pride and its inevitable opposition to the powerful Roman Empire that prompted a re-think of what it was all about in Galilee. I can imagine the Pharisees coming up to the provinces from Jerusalem, reading their scrolls to the synagogues, and some of them wondering whether the lessons of the past had been truly learned. Didn’t they know that pride goes before a fall?

Jesus and his followers, I believe, must have pondered this question, and the solution they came up with was truly revolutionary – a stroke of pure genius. They believed that Jesus was the true Temple.

Remember all the functions that I listed for the Temple above. Every single one of these functions is fulfilled in Jesus, according to the New Testament. That is why the writer to the Hebrews writes about the true Temple that cannot be touched and that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:18-28) and John writes in Revelation 21:22 that “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” Finally, Christians had an eternal Temple in which God’s name would dwell forever (see 2 Chronicles 7:16), unlike the stone buildings that had been successively raised and razed in Jerusalem.

OK, so we’ve established that having a Temple cannot save you, not even a God-ordained Temple replete with all the proper rites and furniture. Religion, we can safely conclude, cannot deliver. Furthermore, it will get you into trouble, as the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70 and the diaspora of the Jews testifies.

But why is this so?

The main reason why, and this is an opinion I might actually share with the atheists, is that religion gives a person a sense of entitlement. If I subscribe to this religion and go to that Temple, then I am entitled to land, honor and riches.

If there is one thing the Bible rails against more than any other, it is this sense of entitlement. It persistently and repeatedly warns us against relying on our own sense of worthiness, from Deuteronomy 9:4 “do not say to yourself, "The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness”, to Matthew 3:9 “And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” to Galatians 3:11 “Clearly no one is justified before God by the law” to Ephesians 2:8-10 "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast."

Get the message? You cannot rely on your religion. Those who did so got slaughtered and exiled and they had their Temples destroyed in front of their own eyes, before they got their own eyes gouged out. You’d think we would have learned it by now.

Religion does not deliver. But what does?

Christians like to call Jesus the Son of God. One rather odd feature of the Gospels is that Jesus preferred to call himself not the Son of God, but the Son of Man (Bar Enosh – strictly, the son of a human being). On a quick counting at, the phrase “Son of God” appears about 30 times, in various contexts, including the pejoratives used by the demons. “Son of Man” appears 76 times in all four Gospels, mostly in the context when Jesus is talking about himself.

The reason this is important, I think, is because Jesus wants to impress on his followers that what’s important is not a system of religion, but a person. To put it in religious language, the center of God’s plan is not the system of religion, or a Temple; it’s a person. That person, uniquely, is Jesus Christ. However, he is the true human being as his favorite epithet states. In him we find our true humanity and we become the people we were created to be. Can he deliver? According to the logic of the New Testament, he has already passed through death and having done so, we can pass safely through when we are in him. Jesus delivers when the Temple does not.

There’s much, much more than this brief summary provides, so I just want to return to the question in conclusion; is religion evil? Atheism cannot answer the question, but the Christian Gospel can, and does in spades.

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