An odd Christmas wishlist for the religious

R. Joseph Hoffmann is an interesting kettle of fish – he’s a biblical scholar who in his own words spends time fighting new atheists and old faitheists. Reading his blog, and wikipedia entry, he seems to be a bit of an angry man trapped in a theological liberal’s body.

The blogosphere would be much less confusing if people identified exactly what they believe about the topic they write about in their “about” page.

Anyway, Hoffman has posted a list of Christmas wishes that shows he probably has more in common with the atheists than the religious. Patronising lists like this annoy me.

1. All of you need to relinquish belief in heaven, hell. eternal reward, and eternal punishment. And of any God who participates in such abusive game-playing. These things do not exist except in your head. To the extent any of your conduct–towards virtue or towards killing infidels who don’t agree with you–is motivated by eschatology, you are living a dangerous fantasy and teaching your daughters and sons it is true.

Jesus believed in heaven and hell. He talked about it. You might as how I know this – I know this because I choose to trust the eye witness accounts as documented in history – some no doubt wish to reject these accounts claiming “special knowledge” or casting aspersions on the writers, their agendas, or any claim of some sort of absolute truth from historical documentation. I reject that premise and thus I embrace the accounts of witnesses and doctrines of heaven and hell.

These things exist outside of my head. In the Bible (and in many other religions). If I was making up a religion of my own imagination the benefits would be immediate and intangible. They’d be a psychosomatic peace or tranquility. That would be much easier to sell than the notion of loved ones sent to hell.

2. All of you need to grow up a little. Some religions more than others, some people within each tradition more than the rest. It’s no wonder that some of our best minds since the nineteenth century have compared religion to infantile delusion and childlike behavior. Sorry to say, most of the people who see religion this way have been semi-believers or unbelievers.

But who’d deny that the Taliban behave like two year-olds with guns rather than like men, whether they are beating girls or blowing up Buddha statues in Bamyan. The robust beards are only masks for the deep sense of masculine insecurity they mistake for obedience to God’s will. Their wives will know better.

I’m assuming that by “religion” this writer means “belief in God” – a common use of the word – if he speaks of the trappings that people with beliefs attach to their doctrines – then perhaps we agree.

But working from that hypothesis, I wonder who the “best minds” he speaks of are? That’s such a bold assertion to make with no evidence. I’m sure I could counter any list of “best minds” who think that way with a list of “best minds” who agree with my take on things. That’s pure subjectivity. Of course those people have been semi-believers or unbelievers. The nature of the claim. By claiming that such belief is delusion you distance yourself from that belief. This is an odd statement.

No one would deny that the Taliban are nuts.

3. Value secular learning. I do not know whether the truth will make you, or me, free. I do know that religious truth is normally a shortcut for the intellectually lazy, crafted and sustained by preachers who like one-book solutions to the manifold problems of a complex world.

Both the Bible and the Quran have served that purpose in their time. But Truth in the sense religions try to frame it–as dogma or superior knowledge–isn’t worth a confederate dollar. Knowledge of history, science, and the things of this world will get you a lot farther down the road to true salvation than religion will. Embrace it.

Who doesn’t value secular learning? It’s hard though, for those who believe in a sovereign God to completely remove his influence from human discovery. Once that is your null hypothesis then every scientific discovery is a revelation of the mechanics of this God’s works or design.

I understand that this sort of thinking is not the target of this piece – which seems to be those who are superstitious of anything thought up by humans. It’s hard though when you believe that humans are naturally inclined to try to remove God from the picture.

What purpose did the Bible serve? Why is it limited to a particular timeframe? This is what happens when you read the Bible as some sort of social control mechanism (which it never claims to be), or history book, or science text book, rather than theology. The Bible primarily helps us understand God. That’s it’s purpose. It’s right to understand the world through a lens of understanding God – but I don’t know any farmer who uses the Bible to understand how best to raise sheep – though there is an account of raising sheep in the Bible. Most believers are cluey enough to figure out what the Bible is for. It reveals a God who loves his creation, sustains it and shows mercy to those who follow Jesus Christ.

Learning these exciting secular truths this guy speaks of will no doubt be helpful in the short term – they won’t necessarily help you once you die – if death is all there is. I don’t understand the rational of trying to redeem helpful cultural parts of religion. If I rejected religion I’d do what the Bible suggests is the natural outcome of life without God – I’d eat, drink, and be merry.

4. Don’t rely overmuch on “interfaith dialogue,” the corporate certainties of the religious world, the merging of fantasies in favour of a grandly mistaken worldview and the substitution of “dialogue” for serious reflection and discourse. As religions grow less confident in the twenty first century, at least in terms of their ethical and explanatory value for human life,they will turn again to the arena of martyrdom as a proving ground for faith above reason. Do not be fooled.

Most people who genuinely hold on to a faith – be it Christianity, Islam or Judaism (the three Hoffman addresses in other lists within the post) – aren’t interested in “interfaith” dialogue in the sense of finding a common thread. Sure, there’s common ground on a couple of moral issues (like abortion) – but mostly we agree to disagree and seek to show people where they’re wrong.

Hoffman seems to be holding up strawmen from each belief he picks on – like the bearded Taliban member overcompensating for his emasculating religious beliefs.

All I want for Christmas is for an atheist/liberal/agnostic list writer to actually engage with the orthodox beliefs held by the people they attack rather than with the caricatures. I want them to deal with the thinkers from these beliefs rather than the loony fringe. That’s where the real discourse takes place.


Andrew says:

If I was making up a religion of my own imagination the benefits would be immediate and intangible. They’d be a psychosomatic peace or tranquility. That would be much easier to sell than the notion of loved ones sent to hell.

Exactly! On the one hand the argument is that it is all 'invisible friend' 'wishful thinking' 'God in our image' to make us feel better, and on the other hand it is 'barbarous' 'bronze age' and 'tyranical' and we 'obey out of fear'. I think they should at least make up their minds which it is. It seems to me that if anything is a case of 'God in man's image' it is liberal 'pick 'n' mix' Christianity.

If I rejected religion I’d do what the Bible suggests is the natural outcome of life without God – I’d eat, drink, and be merry.

I just read Tolstoy's 'Confessions' where he retells his journey from nominal Russian Orthodoxy to atheism and finally back to a kind of Christianity (though certainly not orthodox). His atheism led him to the brink of suicide – he reasoned that it was the only rational step to take if there was no meaning to life. He used an analogy of a man hanging on a cliff by a branch, with a dragon below and the hungry bear above (no matter whether he climbed or fell, it was death) and there were mice gnawing at the branch and would soon chomp through. There was honey on the branch, but he reasoned that he could not ignore the impending doom and lick and the enjoy the honey (which seemed to me to be like the 'spending Christian credit' idea of finding meaning in life even if there isn't any objectively)
Well worth reading. I was surprised at how much of the 'New Atheist' philosophy is hardly 'new'.