Author’s note: This article is the first part of a five-part series examining fundamentalist Christianity from an existentialist perspective.
From time to time there has been interest on this discussion board in existentialist ideas as they pertain to fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity. Since existentialist philosophy was extremely important to me during the course of my own de-conversion, I thought I would take this opportunity to expand on this issue.
This post will serve as part I, a brief overview of existentialism, which many people have only a cursory familiarity with. This will help orient us to the more specific discussion of fundamentalism from an existentialist perspective, in future installments.
Existentialism was a philosophy that flourished during the early part of the twentieth century. It typically is thought to include such thinkers as Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, in the late 19th century, and later individuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel, and Martin Heidegger. (There is, of note, no universal agreement as to who was an “existentialist” and many of those individuals listed specifically rejected the label)…
In my previous blog, Can an Atheist be Spiritual?, I showed how we non-theists can borrow, from religious liberals, what I think is a beautiful and evocative language to talk about spirituality – without buying into the ontology that is tacked on to it. For my part, I consider myself a religious naturalist, meaning I do not believe in any supernatural being, but I nevertheless find religious language uniquely suited to capture and evoke that wonder and beauty and goodness – there is no better word than “holiness” – that I find in the world. In this post, let me briefly elaborate on my own experience (as the case study I personally know the best) about non-theistic spirituality.
When I left Christianity, I found I suddenly had to face the world without all the comforting illusions evangelical Christianity had provided for me. I was no longer “special” in that Christian sense – no longer one of the elect, who “got” the world as no other group did, who was destined for eternal glory. Moreover, I could no longer expect rescue or protection from life’s most painful truths: we are finite and vulnerable, we all die, we are all alone in the world, we are responsible for our own lives with no one to blame, that we must find our own meaning in life.
Yet it was exactly in that encounter with these existential “givens” in life – with the tenuousness and frailty of human life – that I, for the first time, saw its true value. For the first time I could see just how infinitely precious human life really is…
Can an atheist be spiritual? This question comes up a lot, and I think it is a fair and natural one. As one of the many who has traversed the difficult road out of Protestant Christian fundamentalism, I would like to offer my own answer to this question. In short: absolutely yes…. but it is important to understand just what a non-theist might mean by “spiritual”. Let me start by looking at how the word “spiritual” is usually understood.
For conservative religionists, “spirituality”, to the extent that they use the term at all, has to do with participation in a supernatural orthodoxy – things like adherence to official doctrine, official sacraments and rituals, being “saved”, revivals/worship, singing hymns, reading the Bible, one’s “walk with God”. Their spirituality is revelation-based. For them, it is God Himself who instructs us how to relate to him, and that is the only avenue seen as open to humans for “spirituality.” God, in short, tells you what the rules are; you either do it or you don’t.
Religious liberals (and, to some extent, moderates), by contrast, are relatively less sure about the next world and more sure about this one. Liberals generally feel that whatever we might know about “God” (however they understand that term) is necessarily filtered through human interpretation and thus, human experience. Thus they tend to accept the methods and findings of both science and the historical-critical approach to religious texts, and will likely see our views about God as at least somewhat (if not entirely) culturally-dependent. They usually have no problem seeing religious myth as myth – i.e., not tied to literal, historical fact – and can find it illuminating and valuable nonetheless…
I wrote this essay a few months ago and have been waiting for a sign (or wonder) that it was time to post it. Given that in recent days we have been discussing this very issue, “divine hiddenness”, and in honor of upcoming April 15th, it seems like this would be a good time. In order to avoid excess length this article has been split into two parts. Part I: Why doesn’t God make things clearer?
I begin by saying: if there is a God of evangelical Christianity, he would appear to be less capable than the IRS(*).
No one wants, in particular, to pay their taxes. Almost everyone would rather keep their money. Most people, however, do pay their taxes, and presumably there are a variety of reasons why. For most, it is simply the law and they are in a habit of obeying the law. For many, perhaps, there is also a conscious fear of the consequences of not doing so. A few noble souls may perhaps see that government, for all its flaws, nonetheless does some good, and requires money to run, and thus they pay taxes out of a sense of civil duty. Some attempt to cheat, a few succeed. But most everyone is highly motivated to minimize or avoid paying taxes, if possible. Most everyone would love it – love it – if the IRS just flat did not exist.
But equally, no one – and I mean no one – actually denies the existence of the IRS…
I always find it interesting seeing what sorts of experiences and argument were most instrumental in moving a given person out of fundamentalist Christianity. For some, it is Biblical contradictions or Biblical atrocities. For others, it unanswered prayer. For me, it started with a kind of experience and ended with a question.
The experience was this: I moved away to attend school. I fell in with new friends there and, well, they weren’t evangelical Christians like me. Some were liberal or “cultural” Christians, some were outright atheists. In any event they totally disagreed with my view, on a pretty basic level, about Jesus, and salvation, and all the rest.
But the existence of disagreement, and especially of nonbelievers, has always required explanation in fundamentalism. This is because the “Truth” of Christianity is supposed to be obvious and unmistakable – indeed, virtually self-evident. Any fool can see it. After all, it is God’s own Truth. So, then, it stood to reason, to me, that those who didn’t see it had something wrong with them. And, really, there were only a couple of reasons why someone might not accept this obvious and self-evident Christian truth: he/she is stupid, or he/she is willful, unable, or unwilling. What other answer could there be?
But that wasn’t what I found. My new friends were decent and kind, thoughtful and compassionate people…
Welcome to the End of the World! Er, well, um… maybe not quite yet.
For 2000 years Christians have been expecting the end of history. If you’re reading this and you haven’t been whisked away (and you have had no strange new microchips implanted), then odds are it hasn’t happened yet. In Robert Price’s new book, The Paperback Apocalypse, he gives us a look inside the sausage factory of that belief system – its origins, its theology and, even more, the implied psychology. What we see is as fascinating as it is appalling.
Price is something of a folk hero to former Christians. His Beyond Born Again has been a springboard for many who are struggling to extricate themselves form the Christian faith – serving, as it does, to encapsulate and put to words many of their thoughts, and point them toward a brighter, better way. He manages to avoid the shrillness of many currently popular writers that are also critical of religion, because he understands, I think, what fundamentalist beliefs mean to and do for people. And he graciously made the whole book available for free online.
Christian apocalypticism has become immensely important to modern evangelical Protestants, and in particular came to widespread prominence with Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth which was the number one “nonfiction” bestseller for the 1970′s (and the fact that it predicted the End in 1988, and yet still sells, is emblematic of the whole phenomenon). In its highly popular modern incarnation, the Left Behind series of books novelize the unfolding of this myth…
As mentioned in my previous post, God, Zombies, and the Meaning of Life, when I was in the long process of leaving Christianity, one of the most overriding questions on my mind was this: if there is no God, what meaning is there in life? Christianity, as we all know, teaches that the saved are integral players in a grand cosmic drama, the unfolding of the telos of all Creation. Giving up on that illusion is, to say the least, jarring. It cannot help but leave one wondering how one’s life can have meaning at all, if it is not given from on high.
More psychologically minded individuals may reflect on a deeper way in which Christianity seems to provide the meaning in life. Children learn that they are important, that they matter, just by being seen – i.e., acknowledged and attended to – by their parents. Hopefully, of course, that attention will be loving and positive. But even if the attention is negative, critical, or even abusive, it is, from the child’s point of view, usually better than being ignored. Children will almost invariably prefer any attention to no attention, because that says that they are at least worth criticizing. So it is not hard to imagine how simply being seen by God is enough, in and of itself, to infuse one’s life with meaning and a sense of worth. It’s how many people support their feeling that they are valuable: you matter because God takes note of you. Giving up God, then, is clearly – viewed from this additional perspective – a powerful loss…