Why I Don't Believe Your Religion

Copyright (c) 2009 by Kenny Felder

This essay is about why I do not believe in the basic teachings of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or any other religion.

Usually, when someone starts off with a sentence like that, it's because he feels intellectually and/or morally superior to believers. "That old Bible stuff is obsolete, science gives us all the answers we need, and what about the Spanish Inquisition, blah, blah, blah." Those arrogant people are not in my camp! I'm also not one of those people who uses the word "spirituality" to mean some benign combination of compassion and crystals. If you look through my essays (humility.html, scientism.html, and missionaries.html, just to name a few), you'll find that I have a lot more sympathy for the Bible-thumping fundamentalist than I do for the Darwin-thumping atheist.

But, precisely because I have spent so much essay-space defending organized religions, I think it's worth articulating the reasons that prevent me from joining one.

"It's All About Faith," as Billy Joel says

"Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see."
- Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)

Question: Why believe that the Bible is true?

Answer: There is no rational reason to believe it: it requires faith.

If God appeared on national news every night, parting a sea or stopping the sun in the sky, or even turning a few rods into snakes...if He did that, just anybody would believe in Him. But because He reveals Himself only in ancient texts and still small voices, you have to volitionally decide to believe in Him. You have to decide that Christianity is factually correct and Islam is wrong (or vice-versa). You have to go beyond rationality and make a leap of faith. (Douglas Adams summarizes God's position concisely: "I refuse to prove that I exist, for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.")

I have a couple of problems with finding the truth through faith. First and most simply, I don't seem to be constitutionally capable of it. (You may now decide that the rest of this essay is just a list of rationalizations built around my own incapacity for real faith, and I can't really blame you for coming to that conclusion.)

Beyond that, I don't see why this kind of faith is a virtue. Faith sounds silly to me, not meritorious. But I can't say that without trying to be very clear about the definition.

Where does that leave me? I don't have any compelling intellectual reason to believe in the Bible (see proof.html for my objection to the whole idea of "proving" that God exists). And I don't feel any moral obligation to believe in the Bible. So I don't believe.

That's the big argument: I don't believe in the Bible, or in an anthropomorphic God, because I don't have any reason to believe in them. The same argument prevents me from believing in reincarnation, karma, or any of the dogmas of the Eastern religions.

But there are two aspects of the Western tradition that are particularly difficult for me: hell, and heaven. Let me say just a few words about each of those in turn.

The Big Baby in the Sky

Here is the fundamental story that I grew up with, in Hebrew school. While my teachers certainly didn't word it this way, I don't think their account differed from mine in any important respect.

There was this guy, see, and he was a lot like me. Like me, he was egocentric: his primary obsession seemed to be making sure that everyone gave him the proper respect. Like me, he was moody: he could be loving and compassionate and wise, or spiteful and jealous and petty. He got lonely when he was alone for too long; he enjoyed expressing himself creatively; he had the habit of making plans for the future and then being very disappointed and angry when they didn't work out. He was like most of us, I guess.

But there were two key differences. First, he was completely and utterly alone. And second, he was omnipotent.

So he did what you or I would do if we were lonely and omnipotent: he created a universe, and populated it with people to keep him company. Being egotistical, he made sure these people were incredibly small and weak and stupid compared to him. Then, he let it be known that their primary purpose in life was to love, respect, and glorify him. He rewarded them when they did a good job of this, and punished them ruthlessly when they didn't.

Sound familiar?

Proponents of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam will protest that the figure I've described doesn't resemble their God at all. God is infinitely wise and good, not just infinitely powerful. All I can say is, He doesn't seem that way to me. "Eternity in hell" is not a learning experience: it's the ultimate act of spite, made worse because the poor damned souls were set up to fail from the beginning.

So now the Christian asks: who is Kenny Felder to judge the wisdom of God? And I answer: who do I have to be? I'm me. My standards of morality come from my little brain and my little world of experiences, both of which God gave me. I have to judge based on those finite, limited tools, because they are all I have.

If God and His hell really do exist (and I am not discounting the possibility), then it is not "Good News": it is the worst news possible. It is the news that, by Kenny standards, the universe is run by a petty, immature tyrant.

Or, if that God and His hell are actually the most wise and compassionate way to run a universe, then why did He create me with such a limited and backward moral code? Was it some kind of bizarre test? A test of what?

A Note about Heaven

The discussion of hell above is not at all meant to suggest that hell could not possibly exist. Maybe God exists, and plunges people into an eternity of burning lakes, and maybe they deserve it. I hope not, but it's possible.

I have a harder time, intellectually, with heaven.

The thing about heaven is, you're going to take a bunch of people—only the best of course, but still, real people—and you're going to put them into a situation where they will be eternally happy. How can you possibly achieve that? All my experience suggests that, no matter how wonderful their surroundings are, people quickly descend to petty bickering, ego battles, boredom, and a general sense that the grass must be greener somewhere other than here.

Now, again, God is omnipotent. He can change human nature with a flick of His galaxy-spanning finger, and maybe that's what He does: when you get into heaven, you are immediately transformed into something that is capable of eternal happiness. But how much of you actually remains? How much of your personality can be left intact and still enjoy eternal bliss? How much of your personality gets wiped away before we decide it isn't you in heaven at all, but just someone who looks kind of like you would look with a clean shave, a halo, and a pair of wings?

So, after all that, why am I a religious person?

Richard Dawkins, who has made a name for himself as a militant atheist, would probably endorse most of this essay. So it might seem odd to him, or to Hitchins or Carl Sagan or any of that lot—or to you—that I consider myself to be philosophically more aligned with fundamentalist Christians than with secular humanists.

Here's the reason: religion, to me, begins with a set of questions. Those questions are different from the questions that science explores. The religious questions include:

My personal favorite, which is really just a shorthand version of that last question, is "What should I do?" But my point is this: to be a secular humanist, as I understand it, you have to declare these questions to be either unimportant or unanswerable. To be a religious person is to declare that these questions are of the highest importance and build your life around finding, and living in accordance with, the answers.

I do not personally believe that these questions can be answered by science—which is to say, by any combination of empiricism and logic. I am not personally satisfied with ignoring these questions, or leaving them to faith. So I find myself drawn to the mystics, the weird holy men who attempt to find answers through their direct personal experience (see mystic.html for my poor attempt to describe this path). But I can still have a great conversation with a Hindu, or a Christian, or a Buddhist, or anyone else who seriously tries to build his life around these answers. Whereas, the other sort—the atheists, the secular humanists, and most of the New Agers and Unitarian Universalists—we tend to get bored of each other's conversation pretty quickly.


Some of the most interesting comments on this essay came from Alex Dunham. They were so interesting, in fact, that I took them, along with my replies, and separated them out into their own essay, called What do you Know for Sure? All the other comments on this essay are given below.

From: Georg Buehler
July 27, 2009

Not surprisingly, I don't have much to argue with in your essay. I, too, find the traditional monotheistic notions of God to be weirdly unbelievable. (Joss Whedon refers to God as "the Sky Bully.") Faith, at least as you've described it, is hardly deserving of praise. C.S. Lewis took a stab at describing faith in a way that could seem sensible, because he too saw no virtue in forcing yourself to believe something that was intellectually unacceptable. But Lewis saw it more as a matter of remembering truths you had found—"faithfulness," really, instead of "faith."

I also found Heaven to be a troublesome concept, but for different reasons. If Heaven is the ultimate goal and fulfillment of God's vision, why then bother with Earth at all? Seems like an awful lot of bother, seeing as how little of Earth seems to be preserved in Heaven. Some apologists think that Earth is our chance to make a free choice to love and accept God, but what with Hell in the picture, it seems like a free choice made at celestial gunpoint.

C.S. Lewis wrote an allegory called The Great Divorce that tried to envision Heaven and Hell, not as rewards or punishments imposed by God, but rather as natural consequences experienced by people as a result of the free decisions they made. In his view, people lived in Hell because they knowingly chose to live there—they were the architects of their own misery. While it's definitely not the traditional Christian conception of the afterlife, it made a lot more sense to me.

From: Kenny Felder
July 27, 2009

I did read The Great Divorce. Enjoyed it, as with all the C.S. Lewis I've read. But in the end, if I remember correctly, there is still a Cosmic Deadline: you'd better repent before that moment, or you're stuck for eternity. I think he kind of wanted to get rid of that concept, but found that he couldn't bend Christianity quite that far. And in any case, it's still a far more binary view of human nature than I can see. We don't live in a world where some of us choose heaven and others choose hell; we all choose some odd combination of the two.

Spock says "If there are self-made purgatories, then we all must live within them. Mine can be no worse than someone else's." And by the way, it is Kirk who answers the question "Who are you to judge?" with the question "Who do I have to be?" All of life's wisdom is in Star Trek...

From: Barbara Soloman
July 27, 2009

Despite my unshakeable attatchment to Judiasm, I do essentially agree with you. By the way, traditional orthodox Judiasm has no hell.

I suggest you read Kierkegaard's essay on Abraham (the man of perfect faith). It is very short and incredibly moving—but still even if God spoke to me personally, I would not sacrifice you!!!!

From: Kerry Anthony
July 27, 2009

I very much enjoyed reading this.

From: Kevin Gunn
July 27, 2009

Great essay, Kenny!

From: Trevor Hooten
July 27, 2009

Thank you.

From: Russell Williams
July 28, 2009

"I refuse to prove that I exist, for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing."

I remember reading this and thinking how clever it was. But when did Faith become God's mana pool? In the old testament, miracles were common enough that it seemed like all you had to do was go to the big city to see a few. Faith in that context seemed more like loyalty to one's team so you didn't switch to another god.

(God, God, he's our man. If He can't do it, no one can!)

The book of Job is also in the same vein. Job's not wondering if God's real, he's wondering why God's forsaken him.

Biblical times seemed to be the age of miracles. How then, do we explain the lack of God's overt hand in modern times?

I think (with no evidence) that the whole "proof denies faith" is a relatively modern invention to justify belief in god in an age where miracles are quickly debunked and discarded, and God's hand seems limp and lifeless.

Of course, maybe one day God told Satan "See, look at how they worship me!" And Satan said "Bah, that's only because you give them evidence of your power and love. Give me a few thousand years without your influence, and then we'll see."

"It's a bet!" cries God.

From: Kenny Felder
July 28, 2009

That's really cool! I like your twist on the Job bet, and I particularly like your idea that "proof denies faith is a relatively modern invention to justify belief in an age where miracles are quickly debunked and discarded." A few thousand years ago—hell, a few hundred years ago—the Autumn harvest was probably proof enough of divine forces.

So if you look at Job, or at Abraham sacrificing Isaac, the real faith being tested is not in God's existence, but in His wisdom: "He is right and I am wrong, despite all appearances." Now that I think about it, Aslan's tests of faith are similar. On the other hand, there are many other Bible stories, such as the golden calf in the desert, where the children of Israel—despite having personally seen the greatest miracles they could possibly ask for—seem to have just plum forgotten that God is there at all.

I reject a literal interpretation of all this, but I find a tremendous well of wisdom hidden just barely below the surface. In one of my essays (humility.html) I talk about how the book of Job forcefully and poetically makes the point that we cannot reduce the vastness of the universe to something we can intellectually understand and therefore control. I don't think I'm stretching the story, or reading too much into it, or modernizing it: I think that really is in the text.

But then, what are we to do with Abraham? Taken literally, the moral of the story is clear: "If you hear a voice out of nowhere telling you to kill your son, assume it's a good idea and head for the nearest mountain." Do whatever the voice tells you, no matter how horrific. (Kierkegaard says: Imagine a minister extolling the virtue of Abraham's faith, as they all do. After the sermon, a parishioner comes up and says "You were right. I heard the same voice, so I'm going home to kill my son." Suddenly the minister freaks out and says "No! That's not what I meant...exactly...") It seems to me that the story is really about how, if you pursue the highest truth with intense seriousness, you have to give up all your worldly identifications, including that of "parent." But in this case, I'm much less confident that my reading was intended originally.

From: Russell Williams
July 28, 2009

I've heard similar interpretations of Job, but I read it much more literally. Specifically, God's message is right out of Family Guy:

"Did you make the world? Huh? Did you set the stars in the heavens? Can you make animals? Because if you haven't, maybe you shouldn't really be QUESTIONING GOD!!!!!"

Looks like the usual old testament pettiness to me. Oh, and did God actually come clean and admit the bet with Satan? And if not, how were we mortals supposed to have heard about it to put it in the Bible?

I always hated the story of Abraham. It makes no sense in a "I'm a sane human in the real world." My major disappointment is that it's not another bet with Satan. Screw CS Lewis, my solution to "The Problem of Pain" is that it's always God settling another bet with Satan.

From: Kenny Felder
July 28, 2009

"Did God actually come clean and admit the bet with Satan? And if not, how were we mortals supposed to have heard about it to put it in the Bible?"

The Bible was given to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai. Now ya' know!

From: Russell Williams
July 28, 2009

Good, because I started having a lot more questions about the reporting on Adam and Eve.

From: Robert Bluestein
July 28, 2009

extremely thought provoking

From: Gary Felder
July 28, 2009

Some disorganized thoughts:

Several people have commented on the story of Abraham. I think the point of that story is not that if you hear a voice you should always believe it. Pretty much all religious traditions spend a lot of time and effort warning people about false insights, false gods, and the like. The old testament in particular is quite clear that there was "magic" in the pagan traditions that could look like miracles. For that matter it openly acknowledged that some people were just crazy. I think you have to view Abraham more in the vein of the mystic tradition as you describe it. He knew, in a way that we can not, that this voice was genuinely from God. The test was therefore not one of faith but of obedience. For what it's worth, orthodox Judaism is clear that prophecy was a direct connection to the divine that no longer exists in the world, and Abraham was one of the greatest prophets, so I don't think it's putting something onto traditional Jewish belief to interpret his story in a mystical way.

As for the comments about how miracles were so commonplace in old testament times, I've heard orthodox Jews try to rationalize their way around that. It's a tenet of orthodox Judaism that God eschews proof to allow faith. (Otherwise it's hard to explain why God doesn't bother making his existence more obvious.) So how do you reconcile that with a booming voice, a pillar of fire, parting the red sea, and so on? And how could those idiots possibly have moved on from those things to worshiping the golden calf? The answer that I was given at yeshiva is that all the stakes were higher then. The evidence was much stronger, but the urge to commit idolatry was correspondingly stronger. In other words, according to this view, human nature itself has been slowly changing over time. I found this one of the stranger logical stretches I encountered at yeshiva.

As for your basic point in the essay, I agree completely. Unlike you I do feel a strong connection to Judaism, but I don't see any reason to believe in the cosmology of orthodox Judaism any more than that of any other religion, and I certainly don't have much use for faith in the sense of deciding to believe something because you want to. It is true, nonetheless, that as mom points out the Jewish conception of heaven and hell addresses some of your objections. Hell does exist, but it's a temporary place of purification rather than a permanent punishment. Judaism is strikingly vague about the nature of heaven, but I know at least some orthodox Jews believe that it is not a place of static bliss but of eternal growth and learning. The question of whether it's still you if you could be eternally peaceful is an interesting one, but it raises a much larger one. Am I still me now that I've thought about the things to write in this message? If you identify yourself as your personality (which you seem to be doing here) then it's a pretty fragile thing to begin with. It seems that any serious notion of you as an individual existing for eternity would have to involve a different kind of identity. I'm not claiming that I can conceive of what that would be, though.

From: Kenny Felder
July 29, 2009

The huge insight that I feel like I have gotten from Rusty's response, something I absolutely never noticed before, is that faith in the Old Testament always means obedience rather than belief. Abraham was my example, but he brought up Job, and you can just as easily look at Eve (bad) or Moses (good): none of their belief was being tested. Rusty argues, and I think I'm convinced, that our definition of faith (the one I give in the essay) is a recent invention.

Regarding your question of identity and heaven, I actually have a whole essay on exactly that point at immortality.html.

I have a deep problem with the yeshiva's idea of taking the Bible literally, and concluding from it that human nature is different now—a problem that really goes deeper than just saying "it doesn't make sense." My problem is, it renders much of the Bible useless.

Take the commandments against building and worshipping idols. If I take them at face value, then my response is to say "OK, I don't have to worry about those. I haven't bowed down to a graven image in weeks!" The story of the Golden Calf becomes nothing except an interesting treatise on how weird people used to be.

I don't want to go all the way to the other side, either, and start to wonder about the symbolism of calves, and gold, blah blah blah. I can take the story as a very direct allegory for my own life. The children of Israel have every reason to focus their energies on God, but instead, they focus all their hopes on false creations that cannot provide any real fulfillment. Put that way, it applies perfectly to me. I spend more time "worshipping" money and sex and worldly success, than I do the spiritual quest that I claim to believe in. I can relate perfectly to John Donne when he writes, "I throw myself down in my chamber, and I call in and invite God and his Angels thither. And when they are there, I neglect God and his Angels for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door." That's how I meditate. More importantly, it's how I live my life. And most importantly (for the moment), it's the same thing I see in the Golden Calf story.

From: Gary Felder
July 29, 2009

Rusty's point is a fascinating idea and I'm still thinking about whether I can think of old testament stories that hinge on whether or not someone believed in God. So far I can't, which makes me think you and Rusty may be right. But the way you've framed it can only be true if by "recent" you mean "more recent than 1000 BC." Much of what we think of as Jewish and Christian tradition dates to the middle ages, and those thinkers were definitely concerned with faith in the sense of whether or not you believe. Maimonides makes faith in the sense of belief a cornerstone of his philosophy, and I'm pretty sure a lot of Christian thinkers did as well. For that matter, I think you can take this back to the new testament as well. They didn't talk much in the gospels about believing in God, but believing or doubting the divinity of Jesus was a big theme, and is really what separated the Christians from the Pharisees. (The story of Judas is of course about a very different issue.)

As for heaven and identity, I had forgotten about that essay, but it was close enough to what I said that I have to suspect I was being influenced by it.

Regarding your literal and symbolic interpretations, I'm not seeing why they are mutually exclusive. Nobody is saying that human nature has changed qualitatively in such a way that the same lessons wouldn't apply now that did before. They're just saying that there have been quantitative changes in our urges that cancel out the much weaker evidence that we are asked to base our faith on. I should also note that I usually try to distinguish between things that are canonical views of orthodox Judaism, things that are part of the belief system at Aish HaTorah, and things that some orthodox people believe. This is in the latter category so far as I know. I don't know for sure one way or another, but this was simply something that I heard one person saying rather than something that was presented as traditional belief.

More importantly, though, I think every orthodox jew would agree that the proscription against idolatry applies to subtler things like idolizing money or fame. They talk about that a lot in fact. For them, however, it also has its literal meaning. So someone who outwardly obeys the commandments but puts all his energy into getting rich is definitely missing the point, and the analogy of the golden calf is used a lot to talk about that case. However, someone who is 100% focused on attaining spirituality through praying to their statue of Shiva is, according to Jewish belief, also idolatrous. What makes this particularly interesting is that Judaism, unlike Christianity, does not say everyone ought to be Jewish. According to Jewish belief a devout, spiritually focused Muslim is fulfilling the will of God, but a devout, spiritually focused Hindu is not.

From: Larry Iversen
July 29, 2009

An Approach to Faith (in 3 Phases)

Phase 1
Like so many things, faith in God seems to me to be nothing more than a flimsy proxy for faith in one's self. We create a notion of God, which includes "His" unknowability, then we muster up something we call faith to bridge the resulting knowability-gap. But since we are responsible for conceiving of God in the first place, then the thing in which we are placing our faith is this exiled fragment of ourselves to begin with. It becomes an exercise in self-trust. (Which let's face it, we could use all the practice we could get.) But we have this tendency to get caught up in the externalization, forgetting that we created it in the first place.

Phase 2
Think of it this way: We invent an entity, endow that entity with certain attributes, and then surrender ourselves to it ("faith" = "surrender" as in something along the lines of "willing suspension of disbelief," right?). But really, how are we surrendering ourselves to anything other than this personal conglomeration of attributes? How are those attributes anything other than our attributes—our inner divinity—talking to us through the cognitive convenience of this externalized entity? Faith will only occur once we have adjusted both ourselves and our notion of the thing we are trusting to the point which they sync up. And at that point, how are we not just realizing our own inner conception of divinity?

I mean if God is unprovable—and He may not just be unprovable, He might well be the very Essence of Unprovability—then He has to exist only as an idea, right? And that can ONLY exist in my head, right? Ideas don't have their own plane of independent existence, do they? As an embodiment of pure Meaning, how can He be anything other than the Meaning I give Him?

Phase 3
So, we possess this faculty called "faith." Why? I don't know, but maybe it's because sometimes our rational mind needs to do things in the absence of the known/provable/knowable—in short, in the absence of what the rational mind recognizes as "rational" certainty. (This shouldn't be too surprising—"rationality" is a late comer to the party, evolutionarily speaking—there's probably all kinds of cognitive activity going on outside the ego (I'm being disingenuous; a wealth of research as well as reams of esoterica support this supposition). And, of course, some argue "certainty" itself is practically a mirage—but that's a different conversation.) Call it intuition, belief, trust, faith or whatever—it's the mechanism by which ordinary "awareness" connects with capabilities we fully possess but which lay outside whatever you want to call our day-to-day conception of who-we-are (what we're capable of).

So no I'm not going as far as the most blatant reading of the old "You make your own reality" saw. I fall in the middle. I believe there are "truths" and there are "meanings." Truths are things like 2+2=4 and gravity pulls downward and not upward. Meanings are things we choose, like whether to regard ("label") an illness as an affliction or an opportunity, for example.

(Interestingly, I recently realized that since you cannot choose a truth, truths are inherently meaningless. And of course, on the flip side, then, meanings are—or, "Meaning is"—inherently "truthless." I'm still trying to figure out the implication(s) of this idea. But it might be something like: You can't un-decide a truth, and at the same time, you can't claim "truthiness" for what things mean to you.)

Anyway, I don't think you can will a spoon to bend necessarily, but I think people can and do will a lot more into being than we are used to thinking, because the assignment of meaning so often seems so self-evident as to seem as though the meaning resides in the object and not in the observer. I think in the case of faith there may not be a more perfect example than the victorious athlete you see so often profusely heaping sweaty praise on the Lord for the fact that he just did something he'd only been training his entire life to do.

From: Kenny Felder
July 29, 2009

Wow, how cool! Given that one of my primary goals in writing these essays is to get people to think about these issues in a new way, it sounds like this was a big success!

My only response, off the top of my head, is that my greatest hope in life—the hope that defies all logic, but that seems to me to be the ultimate and most crucial issue—is that "truth" and "meaning" are not as mutually exclusive as you paint them to be. I can't defend that in any way except to say that I need it to be true. How's that for faith?

From: Larry Iversen
July 29, 2009

Interesting. That's Mighty Funnytm to me, because I find the possibility that they ARE separable to be the terrifyingly wondrous alternative. I guess the way I laid it out looks to you like extreme relativism, and you are looking for moral absolutes—is that what I'm hearing?

I think what we have in common is we both look at the world and see suffering which we both think traces back to poor thinking. In your case you see an anything-goes, me-first generation who think they can get away with whatever they want w/out consequences. In my case I see self-righteous know-it-alls trying to tell everyone else what's Right and Wrong.

The Really Interesting Question is could we synthesize an approach to the world based on alleviating both, or are we on irreconcilable sides of a fundamental fence?

Interestingly, I look at myself and see my most basic personality flaw(s) as failure of conviction, lack of confidence/self-esteem, conflict-aversion, and so on. Consequently it should come as little surprise that my philosophical Holy Grail would center around Willfulness, Intentionality, Assertiveness, &c. I wonder what a similar examination would look like on your side!?! :-)

From: Kenny Felder
July 29, 2009

No, I'm not trying to prevent suffering by saving the world from relativists. The problem is, if you accept a complete relativism, then even saying "I want to alleviate suffering" is no better or worse than saying "I want to place things on top of other things."

One of the essays I'm planning on writing is a forceful rejection of the idea that happiness is the goal of life. I feel like I can demolish that idea very cleanly. But once it is gone, what are you left with?

From: Larry Iversen
July 30, 2009

Whoa there, cowboy...Way to take an interesting conversation and shoot it between the eyes! *laughs*

I didn't say anything about happiness (and I'm completely up to speed on your disdain for it as a life-goal). I happened to mention alleviating suffering (which is a very different thing), but even so I only threw it out there in passing. I don't care why you choose to write your essays...if it helps, just think of the spot I brought it up as PLACEHOLDER-FOR-WHATEVER-KENNY'S-REAL-PURPOSES-ARE.

You said something about "making people think." Ok well, here we are thinking. To what end? I can only assume it's because you think thinking is better than not thinking...Ok, fine, I took a stab at why you might think that, but whether I guessed close or crazy-far doesn't matter at all; everything I have to say about the mechanics of faith—remember faith, the original topic?—are still on the table.

So...can we put down the happiness-grenade and come back to the conversation? Or is there something else we need to talk about here...? (This isn't one of those cry-for-help things, is it?)


From: Kenny Felder
July 30, 2009

Sorry, it seemed absolutely pertinent to me. Remember my comment that you suggested drew the clear line between us: "my greatest hope in life—the hope that defies all logic, but that seems to me to be the ultimate and most crucial issue—is that 'truth' and 'meaning' are not as mutually exclusive as you paint them to be." You interpreted that to mean "the way to alleviate suffering is to rid the world of anything-goes, me-first relativists." I'm saying that it means something much more like "there might be some kind of goal which, unlike the mere alleviation of suffering, is actually worth pursuing at all."

From: Larry Iversen
July 30, 2009

Ok, it's really quite easy to trace my thinking from your statement to a pogrom on relativism (and it has nothing to do with happiness or suffering—we're done with that whole sidetrack)—

You say "my...hope...is that 'truth' and 'meaning' are not...mutually exclusive."

I equate "meaning" with choice, free will, intent, conviction, judgement, opinion, values, &c.

I equate "truth" with ontological necessity, objective reality, intrinsic self-evidence, the sensory world, &c. (As such I equate truths with "higher authority" in the sense that they impose limits on the observer's free will—their independent truthiness takes away the observer's luxury of choice regarding the content of their observation. "Higher" in this sense just means "prevailing," and is not meant to imply God...at least not yet.)

So, I think of morality as a form of meaning, and absolute-ness as a form of truth, and therefore a hybrid of meaning and truth could be considered to constitute a "moral absolute." That's how I got from your statement to mine. (Finally, I think of relativism as the opposite of such an absolute (duh), so that's how I got to there.)

So am I mistaken or can we basically agree that this boils down to wanting a solution for the mind/body problem? (Also, no big surprise there.) Would such a solution imply a moral absolute?

Which I'm sure then leads you to where would it exist? True meaning in the material world? Well, never mind the physics problem that brings up, you have the logical problem of how can it be "true meaning" when the observer's ability to choose it ("own" it) is impaired? But then what's the alternative—a "plane" of pure meaning which has "higher authority" but somehow without compromising free will? Heaven? But how does that exist without the individual somehow being a participant in it, at which point we're getting dangerously close to the "You are a (fragment of) God" which then gets dangerously close to "You can make your own reality" which you are quite keen to avoid.

So.......How am I doing? Am I staying on target so far this time around?

From: Kenny Felder
July 30, 2009

When you go from my hope that "truth and meaning are not mutually exclusive" to say that I am looking for a "moral absolute," you're absolutely correct. What I was objecting to, I think, was an attempt to position such an absolute as merely a means to an end, with the end being the alleviation of suffering, which is how I read your original message. You're right that what I want is a moral absolute, a cosmic Good that is completely independent of anyone's opinion.

And I can't begin to defend the idea that such a thing exists, or might exist. I can't begin to explain what form it would have, or how it would fit with Physics or minds and bodies or anything else. All I can say that if it does not exist, then existence is itself a meaningless collection of protons and neutrons, bouncing around in ways that are so complex that they occasionally act as if there were some point to it all—a giant version of the old computer game of life, with no one watching.

From: Larry Iversen
August 5, 2009

Ok, so, my brain is going 20 different directions off of this conversation now. Let me see what I can latch onto here...

1st of all, we've pretty much put the faith thing to bed. We're in general agreement that religious faith is a dead end, although for different reasons—yours being that faith is a poor way to discover Cosmic Meaning, and mine being that I'm skeptical of the existence of Cosmic Meaning.

Now it's somewhat interesting that in one place you declare the questions of religion to be of a fundamentally different nature than the questions of science, yet when it comes to approaching them you fall back on the same toolkit of inquiry, but I consider this a minor quibble. If faith is the leading challenger, I can see why you wouldn't find it very enticing. You would probably agree that faith's primary value would most likely be as a tool of self-discovery as an almost meditation-like mental exercise, and while possibly useful, you're on record as looking for something bigger than yourself, and meanwhile faith is counterproductive to inquiry, by definition.

Which brings us back around to the nature of Cosmic Meaning (a phrase I'm completely comfortable with, btw, because it embodies the precise conflict between external—Cosmic—and internal—Meaning—which I find irreconcilable).

So here's something to consider: Meaning has the happy side benefit of presenting the possibility of validation. If your sense of self is predicated from an early age on figuring out the "rules" and then following them better than everyone else, you are naturally going to crave some cosmic stamp of approval, and you are going to be threatened by the possibility of there being no Ultimate Rulebook.

This is why I said previously that where you're coming from is an important consideration when trying to see where you're going—at least part of your cosmic quest seems like a reaction to what you see around you as a world full of rudderless souls who just go around doing whatever they want with no accountability. Whether you want to "help" them or not, your way of dealing with this perception is the same as it's been since you were 10.

Which finally brings me entirely back around to (a slight variation on) the point I started with in my very first reply to your original essay: that your Cosmic Meaning is a substitute for what I consider to be the ultimate faith, which is the humanistic faith that in the absence of any "higher authority," we will nevertheless do the Right Thing(s). In other words, believing and trusting that we ultimately know what's Right, intuitively.

Now, I've had a little break-through while I've been thinking through this very message. The problem with my line of reasoning has long been why should I have any confidence that if left to our respective own devices, your conception of Right will bear any resemblance to mine? If they don't, then my faith in mankind is misplaced and my whole ethical paradigm collapses. However, I just realized there is reason to believe they could, and it's been lurking in another branch of my thinking for quite awhile now, though it only just hit me to connect the threads.

The connection lies in the underlying mechanics of thought itself, which I somewhat preposterously think of as "Abundance Economics." [Some of this is gonna sound real familiar to you, because I know I've lobbed a couple of the key pieces past you on at least 2 previous occasions.]

What is Abundance Economics? Quite simply put, it is a mathematical description of a system in which a copy function is cheaper than a move function. In the physical world, it is much easier (from multiple resource standpoints) for me to take your chair than it is for me to build myself a copy of your chair from scratch. (Hence the need for property rights—a consensus fiction; ie, a deliberate intention, significantly.) The economics that governs the world of chairs is aptly called Starvation Economics. (Economics itself is nicknamed the "dismal science" precisely because it has always been identified as applying only to zero-sum domains, much the way pre-non-Euclidean geometry was just called "geometry.") In a system governed by Abundance Economics, not only is it NOT harder for me to copy your chair, it is in fact noticeably easier. An example of such a world is the world of virtual reality. It is also the world of thought, as well as the world of genetics, and some aspects of finance. In short it is any world of information because when resources are "abundant" (ie, effectively infinite) they can be freely placed into arbitrary reproducible arrangements and their reproducibility allows them to be assigned meaning and these meanings, in turn, value.

Interestingly, the values of virtue which seem so contrary to existence in Starvation Economics are natural in Abundance Economics, and vice versa. For just a few examples, consider Generosity, Patience, Hope and Justice versus, on the flip side, Greed, Laziness, Fear and Aggression. All of the latter are actually completely reasonable "strategies" for success in Starvation Economics, whereas the traditional "virtues" don't make much sense. On the other hand, when the relative value of meaning greatly exceeds the value of the medium out of which it is constructed, then Abundance Economics obtains and suddenly the virtues make sense and the vices become deprecated. Interesting that what is traditionally thought of as Heaven looks so much like the ultimate Abundance Economics environment.

So you want Ultimate Meaning? Ultimate Meaning is just what makes sense within the context in which meaning itself is capable of manifesting. Meaning is what looks good from the point of view of meaning. That's why I have reason to believe we'll all converge on the same definition of Right in the end.

Now, whether my argument makes this version of "Ultimate Meaning" more attractive to you or less attractive, I actually can't anticipate, which is amusing. It's that problem you already alluded to: If Ultimate Meaning has ontological necessity—ie, if it stops being a matter of choice—are you still interested in it?

From: Kenny Felder
August 6, 2009

The first thing I want you to know is that I did take the time to very carefully read your email—several times—and really try to understand it. I say this because I'm going to be replying to only one part of it, but I don't want you to think I just blew off all the time you put in. But I want to focus on one sentence:

"Cosmic Meaning is a substitute for what I consider to be the ultimate faith, which is the humanistic faith that in the absence of any 'higher authority,' we will nevertheless do the Right Thing(s). In other words, believing and trusting that we ultimately know what's Right, intuitively."

Here I think we find the heart of the matter, and it may or may not be a merely semantic difference between us. You are saying "I don't need Cosmic Meaning, all I need is my belief that men know what is Right and will act on it." And I am saying, "Without Cosmic Meaning, the statement 'men know what is Right' is either meaningless (because nothing is Right), or tautological (because Right is whatever we say it is)." For the statement "men know what is Right" to be meaningful in any way, there must be this thing out there called Right-ness for men to know, or not know. That's all the Cosmic Meaning I want.

From: Larry Iversen
August 6, 2009

You are exactly correct; I couldn't agree more, and in fact I say more or less exactly that in the very next paragraph (tell me if I'm wrong), and proceed from there to attempt to construct just such a reference point. The trick for me is I want to accomplish it without having to invoke some separate and additional ad hoc element or presence in my universe, but rather derive it as a natural outgrowth of known quantities.

If you want to know my underlying bias (or one of them, anyway), it's this: Not that I'm saying I don't want it to take work, but I want morality to be a natural state, not an unnatural state.

At any rate, I think I've provided the starting point of just such an approach, and I think it's a rather radically novel one if I do say so myself. At least, it doesn't seem like I've ever heard of anyone proposing quite the specific agenda that I have, and I know a lot of people have been looking for something like this for a long time (us included).

From: Kenny Felder
August 6, 2009

OK, let's go back to your message-before-last, the long one that I read several times, and I'll tell you what I did and didn't get out of it.

You did say that you want to believe that different people will tend to arrive at a common moral law. To me, that is not the same thing I'm looking for at all, which is a sense that there is a correct moral law. Different people will all tend to come to the conclusion that the Earth is flat, independently of each other, but they are all wrong. An analogous moral idea might be "slavery is a perfectly fine institution," which I think would have received pretty universal approbation up until modern times, but we now tend to believe they were all wrong. We do still endorse the near-universal rule that "you shouldn't have sex with your sister" but we may now regard it as practical advice, akin to "don't eat those little red berries," and quite different from "don't pick on people who are weaker than you, even if no one is watching."

Beyond that, you launched into a discussion of Abundance vs. Starvation Economics, which I found quite honestly fascinating, and I will remember for a long time—but I'm not clear on its relevance. Still, I think I was clearly following you.

And then came this phrase, which stopped me in my tracks: "when the relative value of meaning greatly exceeds the value of the medium out of which it is constructed..." I read that over and over, feeling like if I had followed everything up to that point, I should be able to follow that too. Here's a pile of gold, or a book, or a lover's embrace...and the "value of the meaning" of this thing exceeds the "value of the" gold itself, or the book...nope, nope, can't make heads or tails of it. From that point, the whole thing fell apart for me.

From: Larry Iversen
August 6, 2009

Ok that's awesome feedback, because that's just a case of bad writing on my part and it can completely be fixed. I'm not trying to say anything complicated or for that matter anything you don't already know: to wit, that whereas a canvas and some paint can be gotten cheaply, a Monet has enormous value. I was just being sloppy with the way I was saying it and confused you needlessly.

Does that clarification pull (at least that end of) the essay back together for you?

From: Kenny Felder
August 6, 2009

'fraid not. I understand that there is a value chain, and a spark plug is worth more than so much scrap metal, and a car is worth more than so many car parts. But I can't connect the dots. A car has "value" to me insofar as it helps me get from Point A to Point B, presumably in the pursuit of going to work, which in turn helps me make money, which in turn helps me put food on the table...When I pursue that chain of objectives back to the start, does it slam into anything more substantial than "because that's what I was evolved to pursue?"

From: Larry Iversen
August 7, 2009

There's a straight line from Starvation Economics to impulses like Greed and Jealousy and Sloth &c because they are actually successful strategies under those conditions. When you set up the rules of a system in such a way that my gain is your loss, then those imperatives all fall out as natural consequences of the system itself.

By the same token, it's a straight line as well from Abundance Economics to the virtues—Generosity, Justice, Compassion, &c. Abundance Economics is a necessary pre-condition for the phenomenon of Meaning to occur (and I happen to suspect that the sensation of consciousness is actually an epiphenomenon arising from the creation of Meaning). You have to be able to store and transmit information in order to create/assign Meaning to it, and information is only possible when physical resources (bits in virtual reality or electrical impulses in grey matter) are so cheap relative to the value of their arbitrary arrangements that A.E. obtains. So although we evolved the faculty to generate meaning as a strategy for success in a Starvation Economics context, I believe it is fundamentally shot through with the biases of Abundance Economics, and when detached from Starvation Economics imperatives (say, for example, when asleep), those biases show through.

Thus "we" (conscious, meaning-producing agents) want to prefer things like Compassion because they are inherent in the Abundance paradigm that gives rise to thought (meaning-generation) in the first place, even though they are counter-indicated in a S.E. context. Ergo, we "feel" one way while our physical selves seem pulled in another—the whole mind/body schism is just the discrepancy between "copy" and "move."

From: Richard Felder
July 29, 2009

Great essay, excellent comments.

My only quibble is with your effort to establish your objectivity by noting that you're down on atheists, secular humanists, new agers, and Unitarians even more than you're down on religious fundamentalists. Some members of the first group don't ask all the questions you think they should be asking, but they don't harm anyone. Most members of the second group argue that they are morally superior to everyone who doesn't agree with their specific creed, and some of them—mainly of the Christian and Muslim persuasions—justify killing nonbelievers in the name of their God. (Jews used to do it too, but they've been pretty much out of that business for the last few millenia.) When you say you have more sympathy for the Bible-thumping fundamentalist than the Darwin-thumping atheist, what do you have in mind? It's a pretty big leap from saying that you can have more interesting conversations with the fundamentalist to saying that you're more in tune with him philosophically or emotionally or in any other way.

Besides, many secular humanists and new agers are asking most of your questions—who am I, why am I here, how should I live, etc.—and they're every bit as ethical, moral, and philosophical as many of their more mystically inclined counterparts. So they're choosing a different path of inquiry than the mystics. Should that rank them below someone who thinks that people who don't believe in the virgin birth are all going to burn in Hell, or someone who thinks that someone who kills an abortion doctor is going to rejoice in Heaven? By what ranking system?

From: Kenny Felder
July 30, 2009

Oh my goodness, I certainly wasn't trying to establish my "objectivity." I also wasn't trying to make any comment whatsoever about anyone's morals, good or bad. I was talking about who I feel most simpatico with, intellectually. If someone says "my whole goal in life is to live according to the teachings of the Bible," I don't agree with him (for the reasons I stated), but I understand it and we can have a great conversation about why that is so very difficult, and so on.

From: Richard Felder
July 30, 2009

I just don't get it. You're taking one attribute of the fundamentalists (their absolute belief in something you don't believe in), ignoring all the other attributes that seem to me to be much more significant (like demeaning or condemning to eternal damnation or killing people who don't buy into their unprovable dogma), and putting yourself on their side relative to people who choose to base their morality on non-metaphysical concepts. Surely "simpatico" means more than being able to have a fun conversation.

From: Kenny Felder
July 30, 2009

I'm sorry, I'm not doing a good job of being clear. This is good for me to have to try to really articulate this for someone who is coming from a very different perspective and really willing to engage.

First: although I have known, been friends with, and had wonderful conversations with, a number of fundamentalists, I have never known anyone who killed people about it. I suspect I wouldn't get along with them so well, for the most part.

Second—and I said this before but I think it bears repeating—I am not making a moral statement. Bertrand Russell, the patron saint of modern atheism, was (from everything I understand) a tremendously moral person, willing to make real personal sacrifices to bravely stand up for peace and justice. And at the risk of sounding defensive, but this really is true, some of my best friends are atheists.

So, "religious people are nice and atheists are mean" is one thing I am not saying. Let me try again to express what I am saying.

I had a conversation once with a Christian—a good friend of mine, actually, but I don't think you know him—anyway, his sister was about to have a lesbian union. He loved his sister very much, and he wanted to be supportive. His sister claimed that the Bible is not actually against homosexuality, and pointed to several Web sites. So he checked out those Web sites, hoping to find that she was right, but much to his disappointment, he found them unconvincing and even disingenuous. The more he looked at the evidence (which for him means the Bible), the more he was convinced that God does not approve. He did not try to kill his sister, or cut her out of his life—he would have considered these to be very unChristian acts—but he could not support her decision.

Now, of course, I'm in a similar situation, and I am completely supportive of my sister's lesbian union, and I am really grateful that I don't happen to believe that the Bible is the ultimate source for truth. On that level, my Christian friend and I are completely different. But on what seems to me a deeper level, we are exactly the same. We are both trying to find that ultimate truth, and then live our lives in accordance with it, with all the very difficult decisions that entails.

Let's look at the other side. Suppose I'm talking to a Unitarian Universalist, and he says, "Martin Luther King was a real Christian, because he was struggling for equality and justice. But Rick Warren is a poser, because he is prejudiced against gay people." And I say, "Why do you believe that Jesus wants black/white equality and gay marriage?" And he responds, "What are you, racist, homophobic, or both?" And we kinda stare at each other, not sure where to go from here. My hypothetical opponent is starting with certain political convictions, and then judging all religious matters based on whether they conform to his politics. He will affirm strongly that real Muslims are in favor of universal health care and equal rights for women, although he has never read the Koran. Real enlightened gurus favor abortion rights. In his mind, religion is not about finding the ultimate truth of the universe, but about lending weight to the political truths that he knows as dogmatically and uncritically as the Christian knows the Bible. He may even consider me to be on his side, since I tend to agree with a lot of his politics. But from the perspective of our core intellectual approach, I cannot understand him at all.

Does that make more sense?

From: Richard Felder
July 30, 2009

Sorry, it really doesn't.

I think your friend who can't support his sister's choice is cherry-picking the things in the Bible that he chooses to subscribe to and ignoring the ones (like not allowing a witch to live—so much for all those nice Wiccans) that he doesn't. Many nonbelievers have had great fun pulling absurd and contradictory things from the Bible that fundamentalists cheerfully ignore, for all their professed belief in the Bible's inerrancy. It's hard for me to understand how you feel an intellectual kinship with people who are ready to ignore logic and the evidence of their senses in service of a belief system that rejects both—and the fact that you made the intellectual case against religion as eloquently as you just did makes it even harder. Do you really feel more intellectually attuned to, say, the fundamentalist Jerry Falwell, than to, say, the agnostic Bertrand Russell?

Moreover, many fundamentalists put a criminally weird spin on certain Biblical passages (like the Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Scientists who allow their sick children to die rather than letting them get life-saving transfusions because a passage in the Bible prohibits eating blood). The lunatics who believed they were obeying the word of God when they butchered innocent people and your friend who condemns his sister for the same reason differ dramatically in degree but not in principle. You may say that on a deep level you're exactly the same as him and fundamentalists as a class because you're all trying to find ultimate truth, but I see you as totally different in the even deeper sense that your spiritual beliefs don't lead you to hurt people knowingly. Not hurting people knowingly when it can be avoided is one of MY core principles—not because it's divinely ordained, but because the world would would clearly be a nicer place for most people to live if everyone subscribed to it.

As for Unitarians and their fellow humanists, many of them are seeking The Truth as ardently as you are and much more ardently than most fundamentalists, who believe they already have The Truth with no effort having been required to get it. If your illustrative Unitarian's response to your question is the best he can do, you need to hang out with different Unitarians.

I'm perfectly willing to concede that you aren't intentionally making a moral statement when you say you're more sympathetic—philosophically, intellectually, and/or emotionally—to fundamentalists than to humanists. The key word is intentionally. Making that statement would imply a ton of moral judgments to most readers, given all of the baggage fundamentalists drag along with them. If you have to go through all sorts of verbal gyrations to parse your meaning—to say "I didn't mean that I buy into this fundamentalist belief or that fundamentalist practice...I was only talking about my conversational comfort level."—then perhaps a bit more specificity up front might serve your purpose better.

From: Felicia Bridges
August 3, 2009

Another very interesting essay! You have a knack for exercising my brain with your writing which is quite exhilarating (and reminds me of our old Bible Studies at Misha and Ellen's place!). That being said, I must say that if I defined 'faith' in the way you've identified as #3, I wouldn't want anything to do with it. I have found tremendous evidence to believe most of what I read in the Bible, so I find it only a small step to believe those things for which I haven't seen the proof. I've found nothing that is incompatible with the truth that I believe is found in the Bible—except where 'facts' have been interpreted according to the bias of those representing them. An example might be finding aquatic fossils atop mountains...it's a simple fact that they've been found at high elevations, but what exactly that means is somewhat open to interpretation based on your worldview. If you believe the earth has been around for billions of years, you may say that these mountains were once under the ocean but through geological upheaval are now elevated. If you believe the Bible, you might say that these mountains were once covered by a worldwide flood. Since neither of us were there, we cannot 'prove' either view. Another example is finding ape fossils amid evidence of fire used for cooking...one person might interpret that as evidence that ape-like creatures had learned to cook while another might see it as humans cooking gorillas to eat. Point being—many of the facts that are available are a snapshot that do not prove anything in and of themselves. In addition, in my own life, God has performed a number of 'miracles' unique to my own circumstances (no he hasn't repeated any of those from the Bible...at least that I can think of off-hand!). Each time I turn a situation over to Him, He proves Himself again, strengthening my faith. He knows, I certainly couldn't do the 'hold on and hope it's true' kinda thing!

Naturally, as predicted, I have to say that your big baby in the sky does not resemble the God that I worship...but not for the reasons you identify. I don't find anything indicating that God was lonely, or bored, or in any way lacking in anything. You said he was completely and utterly alone...actually, He wasn't. First, He had perfect fellowship within himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit—complete. Second, he obviously had angels which he had already created. He simply chose to create us...not to fill anything that was missing, but as a means of expressing His love. Nor is God ever disappointed with us (which is sometimes hard for me to grasp) because He is aware of every choice we will make....and loves us anyway. This is where I believe Christianity differs from any of the other faiths you've mentioned. As C.S. Lewis once said when asked what separated Christianity from other religions, he immediately replied, "Grace." God loves us so much that HE CAME in the person of Jesus Christ, to suffer and die so that we could be reconciled to Him. Unlike any of the other religions in the world today, my relationship with God is all about what He already did and not about what I do. Now, admittedly, this grace is abused by some who see it as a license to sin.

Eternity in hell is not about spite at all, it is about giving people the choice that they have made. By rejecting a relationship with God, they have chosen to be separated from Him. Separation from Him is eternal Hell. There is a story I've seen go around in email about a farmer who is sitting by a warm fire when he starts hearing a thump on the glass window...it's these birds that are freezing outside in a blizzard...he tries various things to get them to come inside to survive and they won't do it, so finally he starts acting like a bird and they follow him in...the gist is that this is what God did in coming as Jesus...he became like us to show us the means by which to enter heaven. All analogies fall short, but you get the picture. God allowed Himself to be tortured and his physical body killed in order to save those that were willing to be saved. The farmer didn't grab any of the birds and through them inside and lock the door....but neither did he slam the door and keep them out.

The reason that heaven is such a difficult concept is that all we have ever known is earth...and you very clearly described the basic reason that it is foreign—we are used to sin. All the things you mention as essentially the sin of this world. But, and yes I know this is cliché but nevertheless—it is not the BEST who will be there!! It is those who have recognized the WORST in themselves and recognized that in and of themselves they have NOTHING worthy of heaven. If it weren't for Christ dying on the cross for my sinful self, I'm bound for hell and completely deserve every moment of torture for eternity. If I lived a million years it would not be enough to do enough good to outweigh the evil that has been in my heart, mind and actions. Thank God, it doesn't depend on my good outweighing the bad. Yes, we will be transformed (in an instant, in the twinkling of the eye, the Bible says) and in that transformation all that will be left is what is good in those who have trusted in Christ. I hope people will recognize me! It will be me without any sin...so maybe they won't!

I can't speak for all Christians, but I do hope that gives you a better understanding of what we mean when we speak about God and faith and heaven and hell.

From: Kenny Felder
August 3, 2009

I really appreciate your reply, Felicia. I was really surprised that most of the "comments" on this essay were objections to the last part, rather than objections to the main body of the essay. It's good to have a real Christian viewpoint articulated so well.

That being said, the place where "giving people the choice that they have made" becomes "spite" for me is the point where you say, "It's too late!"

Let's say someone willfully trots up to God, in heaven, and spits in his face, and says, "Throw me in hell, I'd rather burn down there than have to spend another stinking minute up here with you!" And God says, "Are you sure that's what you want?" and the sinner replies "Hell, yeah, pun intended!" And they go back and forth like this for a while until, eventually, God obligingly throws him into hell. So, after a while in hell—which could be years, or centuries, but with burning lakes I suspect it would be more like microseconds—the sinner looks up and screams "I've changed my mind! Heaven was great compared to this! Please get me out of these burning lakes!" If God looks down and says "Hey man, you had your chance, and you made your choice, and now you are stuck for eternity," that's spite: the childish urge to say "I told you so," writ infernally large.

Incidentally, I think it says something that you chose to read this essay, rather than all the essays with which you would agree much more readily. It says something very interesting about you, and, if I may say so, very positive.

From: Felicia Bridges
August 4, 2009

Thank you for your encouragement about what I wrote and about my having chosen this particular essay. I think I'm drawn to topics like this because I really do want people to understand (to the best of our ability—the whole God/dog thing) the God that I worship. If they choose not to believe in Him, that is their choice, but I don't want them to choose not to believe in Him because those who do have so poorly explained or represented Him! Favorite t-shirt: Forgive my hypocrisy if you had to read this shirt to know that I'm a Christian.

I think that you are right about the 'it's too late' seeming like spite, and why wouldn't God give them the opportunity even in Hell to repent and come to heaven? Interestingly enough (and I chalk amazingly coincidental timing up to more evidence that God exists and that He cares about us!) just last week, our Pastor was teaching on Wednesday night and made the following statement, which took me totally by surprise: Those in Hell will never choose to repent. They will not be there saying, 'If only I had one more chance, I would fall on my knees and beg God to forgive all my sin! I know now that I deserve this Hell, but if I had it to do over, I would accept Christ and live for God!" Notice in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man does not repent. He asks for mercy, but never acknowledges his own sin. He is concerned for the welfare of others—possibly for the first time—that they would know the truth. The reply, "If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded even though one rise from the dead" indicates that those who have made up their minds to reject God, will never change their minds.

Those who end up in hell might be unhappy with the results, but they will never recognize their own responsibility or truly confess or repent (confess meaning to agree with God about what He says is right and wrong and repent essentially meaning to turn away from it). If you read in Revelation chapter six, the people recognize that God is bringing judgment and cry out for the rocks to hide them from God...but all they would have to do is repent and ask for God's forgiveness—recognize that they were wrong! But instead they would rather have the rocks crush them than admit they're wrong. Revelation 16:10-11 says that "...Men gnawed their tongues in agony 11and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done." Although this is not talking specifically about Hell, I think that is a good description of how the inhabitants of hell will feel.

This was not the primary lesson and so we didn't delve into it deeply and it was really the first time I had ever heard that postulated—there is so much cultural baggage that interferes with understanding God, from the cartoon with the elevator going down to hell where Satan rules with a giant pitchfork to the idea I had and that you express of someone begging to be forgiven there. But if we look to scripture, neither of these ideas has any foundation. See, the change of mind that you describe as taking microseconds will simply never happen...for eternity they will continue to curse God but refuse to repent of what they have done.

I believe that the very fact that you ask these questions and earnestly seek the answers proves the existence of God. I believe that He created within us a desire, or even a need, for Him. It's been called a 'God-sized hole' by many—a need that we invariably try to fill with everything from money, to drugs and alcohol, to sex; but which can only be truly satisfied forever by a relationship with the One who made us. This also ties into your comments about the Israelites and the golden calf—they placed their faith in things they could see rather than in a God they could not see....and this only shortly after having seen the evidence of His power, if not seeing God, Himself! But we do the same thing all the time when we place our trust in money, homes, jobs, the stock market (ouch!)...none of these things are permanent as many of us have seen.

From: Kenny Felder
August 4, 2009

Thanks again, Felicia. One thing that might surprise you is that I completely believe in the "God-shaped hole" that people try to fill up with all the wrong things, and that can only be filled by God. I see that one every day—in other people, but even more, in myself.

From: Michal
February 7, 2010

Hi! My name is Michal.

I was puttering around on the internet and got to thinking about my days when I had to attend Christian Church services and that got me searching for reasons people truly believed in religion. Anyways, I found your essay "Why I don't believe your religion." I thought it was the most profound thing I had ever read. Ever since I was a little kid I though that religion was not explicitly correct. I couldn't really research that at the time cause I wasn't allowed to! Now, I am older (24), and I am getting over the "religion is the devil" phase that probably came about from the freedom I obtained at 18 to do what I wanted and think what I wanted without having to hide it from my parents. I read a lot of the other essays once and plan on reading them again. I just had to email you first! Practically everything you said is what I have been thinking for awhile. Each essay I read smacked of "rightness." And the best part about that is that you don't really say anything that I didn't already think I knew. That is probably because I have a hard time getting my hands, and mouth for that matter, to put my thoughts into medium. In fact I had big plans for this email, but I find I am losing them cause I am using too much brain power controlling my hands.

My only response, off the top of my head, is that my greatest hope in life—the hope that defies all logic, but that seems to me to be the ultimate and most crucial issue—is that "truth" and "meaning" are not as mutually exclusive as you paint them to be. I can't defend that in any way except to say that I need it to be true. How's that for faith?

When I first read this, I had to read it again and again. I am pretty sure that what I am looking for in life is in that statement. I think what everybody is looking for in life is in that statement. The problem, of course, is: "What is it?"

"The Truth is out there." said Mulder. The truth for some is easy and knowable. Rhetorical question: Why are we, the truth seekers, cursed with a drive to know the Truth? The Truth hurts and the Truth is real. Hopefully, the quest for truth isn't the Truth. Although, if we figured that out to be the Truth then I guess the journey would be worth it. (That's a lot of Truths!)

I then moved on to your What do you know for certain? essay.

I know I haven't really said anything of any merit. My ideas are childish and not explained very well. Like I said, the ideas are there I just can't get them out of me very well.

To conclude this email that I now can barely even type. I want to say thank you for your essays. I really feel that we are on the right track. If we ever find what we are looking for it will be a great day!

Thanks for reading! I'm gonna go and find a copy of Old Path, White Clouds! That passage you quoted was awesome!

From: Kenny Felder
February 8, 2009

Just a few comments back...

Good luck in your searching! The truth out there is far more strange and wonderful than anything Mulder and Sculley ever dreamed of...

From: Vanessa Lopez
September 28, 2014

It's interesting that I agree with many of your points, though I have come to quite different conclusions. One main difference I can site is that I do not find a good definition of faith in any of the three options you provided. I find faith to be a difficult concept to define in general. The closest word I MIGHT use is hope, but that doesn't really explain all that faith is to me because there is an element of knowledge as well. I am convinced though that faith is as essential to every person's existence as breathing. From my perspecitve you have faith even though you do not recognize it or name it is such. In fact I would say the aethiest has faith, because faith is not necessarily about God. Faith is the driving element that causes you to consider the big questions you mentioned. Even the aethiest at one point considered the questioned. So the choice is not whether to have faith or not, but actually where to place your faith (yourself, nature, God, magic, logic, ect.)

Another difference is in our view of God's character. I would not say that God is like me, but rather I am like him. I know that seems a suttle difference, but it is to me an important distinction because it indicates that there are some aspects of God which I am unable to comprehend or imitate. From there it is easy to conclude that there may be times when certain things look bad or mean to me which are actually good. My children have helped me see this principle quite clearly. Imagine my four year old yelling at me, "you're mean!" because I will not let him have another bag of gummies after he's already eaten several snacks. From his perspective I am withholding something good, but from my perspective that bag of gummies is actually bad because his body has already had more sugar than it needs in one day. My desire is that his body grows strong and I know he needs good nutrition to achieve that. I also know that while one more bag of gummies will not ultimately be the death of him I have to set up a healthy boundary to keep him from reaching a catastrophic place in his eating habits. I think it is a mistake to try to identify God's actions as primarily good or bad because it is too subjective and circumstancial. I define God as loving. It's easy to find examples of things that don't look loving in the bible, but I am much more interested in the number of things which I can find that are loving in the Bible since I have already conceded to the fact that my understanding of God's ways is limited and finite. I don't feel a need to explain "why God didn't give me the bag of gummies".

One final thing I will add. I think it is difficult to understand the Bible becuase so much of the text and meaning is lost in translation from the original manuscripts. Having taken Latin in high school I totally understand the difficulty that comes when trying to translate documents. Often times when I am struggling to make sense of something I find in my reading I utilize different tools to go back to the original text. This ussually helps me, but not always.

 Kenny Felder's Essays and Commentaries

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