An Atheist, a Buddhist, and a Christian Walk Into a Bar

Listen in on a conversation between three people with very different beliefs…

Carter: Religious Liberals and Religious Conservatives both have an apocalyptic narrative. It just differs in the how and why.

John: Lets hear it.

Carter: Religious Conservative believs man is so sinful and bad, that eventually God will have to judge the earth and destroy everything. The righteous will be whisked up to heaven and the wicked will be tortured forever in hell.

Liberal Conservative believes man is so dumb and self-centered, that he will use up all the resources polluting and destroying the earth, and/or killing his own kind in endless conflicts. Everything will die.

John: So what does that make me since I agree with both?

Carter: Depressed? I guess I have a positive outlook. I don’t believe in a God that will come back and destroy and torture people. I also am hopeful that human beings will learn to both control and co-exist with their environment. I have no guarantees, but I’m hopeful. I “have faith”.

Sam: Once you learn how evolution works and you actually investigate the evidences and witness them first hand (bacteria and virii evolve much faster than humans, we can witness it happening), you then realize two things:

1) Humans are not sinners. We are a product of millions of years of evolution. Everything that Christians refer to as sinful nature is either something arbitrary that cavemen were trying to find a way to control OR a primal instinct that our brains still have intact.

2) In several million years there will be no more humans. Like the Dinosaurs and Neanderthals behind us, humans will disappear as we know them, replaced by yet a new product of evolution.

John: No thanks, Sam. I’ve been evangelized by plenty of evolutionists already.

And yet I’m not depressed, Carter. Go figure.

Carter:  I’m glad you’re not depressed. For me personally, I found the Fundamentalist Christian Narrative of millions of people burning in hell extremely depressing. How could I as a Christian be happy being saved knowing strangers, friends and family are being tortured? Similarly, I find the liberal ecological doomsday narrative depressing. My hope is that we’ll find a middle way out of that scenario, by conservation and technology. 

In any case, though I disagree with your religion, I can be glad it doesn’t “depress you” and that you have found a way to be happy and compassionate through it.

John: I think you have misunderstood my belief system. I’ll summarize with this: I hold my eschatology loosely because the future is not written about with the same level of factual certainty and detail as records of present and past activity. Visions of the future are described the best way possible by a guy nearly 2,000 years ago who would have had no frame of reference for what 2015 would look like or 3015 or whenever the events are to take place. 

Depression is probably not the word you are looking for. I do experience sadness when I think of people missing the opportunity to know God. I also agree with Scripture that says “The heavens declare the glory of God.” I believe it when leading scientists admit that their work in science re-confirms the obvious conclusion that there is a master creator. 

I think all of Creation points to its Creator, and if we are really ready to set aside our judgments and offenses toward what our reality would indicate about a god who doesn’t prevent pain and suffering, we can find him when we search. 

I am far more optimistic or positive when I look to the future than almost every Christian I’ve ever met. Most Christians I know have no value for ecological preservation or ecological endeavors because “It’s all going to burn anyway.” 

As I see it, God spoke worlds, stars, and all living things into existence. This planet is a masterpiece. God loves this planet, unlike most who claim to follow Him. I love this planet, and I take seriously the commission to humanity to govern and steward it. 

Rather than turning to scientific mutations of life, I turn to a mixture of ancient and modern approaches to not only foster “sustainable systems” but to take the next step forward, which is “Regenerative Agriculture”. We are making great strides in the realm of regenerative agriculture (see the work of regrarianssilvopasturing, perennial agriculture, permaculture, food forestry, and more).

Sam: I‘m going to give a little harsher answer than Carter so forgive me. But I find it to be quite offensive that someone believes they are going to live in eternal bliss while the majority of every person that ever lives is simultaneously being tortured – for infinity! Any God that would do such a thing is not only evil, but undeserving of any worship. 

And any human that would OK with simultaneously sitting on their “heavenly beach drinking heavenly margaritas while the angels sing” as their friends and relatives are being tortured is not a good person. Rather they are sick and twisted. And I haven’t even touched on the morality of an infinite punishment for a finite crime.

Carter: You are definitely walking to the beat of a different drum, John, and I envy and respect your approach to agriculture and the environment. I also know its not for me. Thank God (if he exists) for folks like you, looking to make the least impact on the earthand to help realize a sustainable civilization. I also respect that you don’t claim to have all the answers in regards to the future. That too is very refreshing. 

On the God and Creation thing, many of the same groups of scientists that claim to believe in God, also still believe in evolution and natural selection including Francis Collins, an evangelical christian and leader in the study of the human genome. 

Scientists also tell us that the earth is not the center of the universe, that it and our sun will someday die as Michael mentioned above, that natural selection over millions of years through animal death and suffering are what created us and that galaxies regularly collide and wipe out entire star systems. 

Much of the universe, both here on earth and in the greater cosmos, seems random, chaotic and not catered to a concern for human well being. Letting go of our judgments about suffering, as you put it, is just impossible for some of us. The debate between theists and atheists to me seems like a “glass half empty vs glass half full” sort of scenario. 

The theists see connection, order and design, the atheists see chaos, disorder and accident. I see both. My answer? “Does not compute!” So I don’t know what to think.

But, Sam, you used to believe all that. Were you sick and twisted at the time? Are your friends and relatives that still believe those things? Was it a simple manner of just letting go of all those silly superstitions, or a journey you alone had to make before you came to those conclusions?

Sam: Good call out Carter. I have to say a little of both. I have found religion to be an “information virus” of the mind. So a simple answer would be. Yes. I was sick and twisted, but I was unaware that I was so.

Actually, you bring up a good moral question. In law, ignorance of the law is not a defense. What about morality, religion, etc? Just because you’re unaware of the damage your religion is doing to others does that make you innocent?

John: I’m sorry that the idea of God is so offensive and painful, Sam. I would defend Him if I could but truth be told He is still such a mystery to me. I’ve barely scratched the surface of His ways.

The best I can offer comes from my own marriage. I want my wife to do things the way I think they should be done. But I love her and I do not force her to obey, submit, or agree. The value of our intimacy is demonstrated by her in manipulated choice to know me. To love me. To spend time with me when she could do anything else instead. 

She can reject me. She can hurt me. She can hurt others. I don’t attempt to control her for the sake of other people who are affected by her. So if she chooses to be selfish and arrogant and self-important, she may do a lot of damage to me and others I love. 

I could never speak of Gods love if he forced me to do what he wants. And if he doesn’t force me to comply, I am free to hurt others. And if he were to always stop me from hurting others, he would be controlling what I’m allowed to choose. And if he controls what I do, I can never come to Him freely and experience his love. 

It’s not a happy go lucky answer, but it’s what I have.

Sam: But you didn’t tell her “you can choose to love me out of your own free will” and then say “but if you ‘choose’ not to I will lock you in the basement of our home in a torture chamber forever”. You wouldn’t do that because it is wrong and immoral. And because you wouldn’t you just proved you’re more moral than Yahweh.

John: I understand that perspective. I see the prospect of “eternal damnation” much differently. I don’t believe that the Americanized version of hell is actually biblical. The word “hell” was chosen during translation from the original language. 

I may not know much, but my view of eternity, or the tiny speck I can imagine, revolves around the majesty and pleasure of the uncreated One. He is splendor and glory and beauty and light personified. Glory and beauty emanate from him, and to encounter him at the judgment seat and to be judged as one who has not accepted the blood payment for one’s sin means one’s sin has not been atoned for. And sin cannot exist in the presence of a holy God. 

There is no imperfection in His being. And so, from my perspective, “damnation” has less to do with flames and Dante-like torture as it does have to do with perfect memory and separation from the most comforting, loving, beautiful being in the universe which you have the opportunity to encounter at judgment. The torment of separation may not be an affliction at all, but rather the absence of everything you always dreamed of, never had, suddenly experienced, and now have to exist without.

I wouldn’t sentence my spouse to physical torture. But if she betrayed me, at some point there could be permanent separation. She would never again know the comfort of my presence and the security of our covenant relationship being uninterrupted.

One last thought… Since God is light, being cast out into utter darkness doesn’t imply a place of torment prepared for them so much as it means being placed somewhere/somehow (time/space may not be what I understand now) beyond the experience of His presence. That’s not a fully developed thought. It’s just where I am right now. 

I don’t claim to have eternity wrapped up in a nice little theological package. I simply don’t. There are two things I don’t do that many of my fellow Christians do: Hold to a tightly formed escatology and interpret dreams for other people. Both are couched in symbolism, and symbolism requires interpretation. I am not an experienced judge of interpreters, so I don’t go there as a general rule. 

Carter, I will be vulnerable enough to tell you this: I assumed for the first 10-12 years of my faith that Jesus would return in my lifetime within the next 5-20 years. I believed that. And while I believed this, I felt no responsibility for this Earth. I tried not to litter because it was against the law and I was trying to honor God-ordained authority, but I wasn’t compelled to do or feel anything because why invest in something that will go away so soon? It’s like getting a free pass to be a slob. 

Then something shifted. I can’t explain the process, but I came to believe that I have a responsibility to plan for even 7 generations, and be the man who paves the way for land, food, opportunity, family culture, standards, ethics, and leadership in our community. I hold that role. My great great great great great grandchildren shouldn’t have to start their lives as clueless as I did. 

So I have assumed the responsibility to begin a new culture in our historical line. We will learn how to be useful people with useful skills and not depend on corporations for our food. We will work to become not only recession-proof, but hubs of generosity and creativity in our community. If/when times are tough, our neighbors can come to us for help because we have been wise to invest in a cutting-edge knowledge of perennial agricultural systems and regenerative landscapes. 

That is my vision. It’s lofty. But I set my sights high.

Carter: John, your vision of heaven/hell is definitely more humane than many Christians. I myself toyed with similar ideas when I was a Christian reading stuff like M Scott Peck and C S Lewis. The only problem I had with it at the time was so many other Christians, historically and modern day believed in the literal torture part, and Jesus himself used similar language in multiple places in the gospel. Therefore, I felt the torture scenario was more biblical, though I desperately wanted to believe in the other. 

However, even the other scenario smacks of unfairness. Why should someone be excluded from the community of love in the afterlife, because of what they believe or don’t now? Given how many religions are out there and other worldviews like humanism and atheism, it seems exceedingly hard and unlikely to “earn” salvation and much more of an accident of birth than by design. Why do some people get ready access to forgiveness and others don’t if none of us deserve it at all? 

For myself at least, I would love to know of a perfect God and to make my acquaintance with him. I love God, at the very least as a symbol of perfection and love and your description of him is beautiful. But again, for me at least, this image doesn’t compute with the Christian idea that God can’t be in the presence of sin, that he has to (“has to?”) reject people if they don’t find this One True Way to forgiveness, that he has no tolerance for our messiness, waywardness and capacity for Evil, especially since he created us in the first place. 

In my mind, the default attitude of God would be that of forgiveness and compassion, of healing people and curing of them, rather than an exception to the rule of Damnation for All for a tiny elect that got the Right Answer. I have also on many many occasions tried to reach out to God, because hey, maybe my finite mind is just too stupid to understand this whole sin and redemption thing and maybe God could enlighten me. 

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I didn’t get an answer. And simply throwing my hands in the air and just accepting it al on faith didn’t work, because you can do that with anything you find illogical or immoral. Again, don’t take this as a judgement on you or your journey. You have come a long way and your answers won’t be my answers and that’s fine. 

Anyway, my spirituality such as it is, isn’t about trying to Get the Right Answer(TM) anymore, or become Enlightened, or Get Saved, or anything else along those lines. I’ve mostly given up finding the answer or perfection and instead am trying to teach myself to Surrender. Surrender to the things I can’t control, surrender having my way over others, surrender to the questions I can’t ever answer even though the questions are still super interesting to me. 

Not that I’m just going to lay down and die or give up on life or trying to be a better person…to the contrary. We spend so much time trying to judge or fix things or figure things out all the damned time (see what i did there) that we forget to rest and be compassionate to ourselves and others. I believe, thats part of why we are in the technological mess we are in now. It took me a long time to come to this view and I have a ways to go.

Sam, in answer to your question about who is innocent, I would say that since there’s no sin and no free will (at least, not in the Christian sense) we are all in some sense, innocent. In another sense, we do have a moral obligation to others and to the truth. I know these two points of view sound contradictory but I don’t know how else to express it. And no, while the law may not give exceptions for ignorance or intent to those that break it, I do not thing the same applies to ethics and morality. 

The fact is that we are all prisoners of our experience. The KKK member may be hateful and destructive and we should rightfully call him out on his bullshit. But in another sense, we should affirm his humanity, that he is just another confused and bewildered human being like the rest of us, lost in a sea of ideas. 

I also sympathize with those that have strong religious beliefs that I disagree with, because I know first hand, how compelling those can be especially when everyone you respect and care about share those same beliefs. So I try to be patient with even the Jehovah’s Witness that show up at my door this morning or the fundamentalist Christian trying to convert me because I know, “there but for the grace of God go I” har har. 

I know these are well meaning, but confused people that are concerned for my soul. I know while their views are destructive at times, their intent is not. I also know that screaming at them, literally or figuratively, about how stupid they are to believe these things, does nothing. I can share, gently, what I think I know, and try to enlighten them a bit, but I can’t cram my non-theism down their throats any more then when I was a Christian I could cram the Bible down the throats of my atheist or muslims neighbors. 

Conscience can’t be forced. Beliefs cannot be purged using Atheist Logic Anti-Virus. The best we can do IMHO is reach across the aisle and have respectful dialogue with those we disagree with, not drag them kicking and screaming across the aisle to our side. They have to make the journey on their own, wherever they are going. They only have to be stopped if they are explicitly breaking the law or hurting people in tangible, visible ways. 

So the faith healer that doesn’t let there kid go to a doctor should be prosecuted, the same as I would, for neglect. But if my in-laws believe that praying for me will help, I’m not going to call them stupid or ignorant. Go for it. If they ask why I don’t believe in prayer, I’ll be glad to explain my point of view in a gentle, respectful fashion, but again I’m not going to bash them over the head with my Humanism. 

I’m done being an angry agnostic. I want to be at peace with myself and my neighbor. I’ll be glad to discuss or even debate theology, philosophy, politics, whatever, but I’m tired of getting angry at people for not living up to my supposed enlightened standard and I don’t like it when they call me stupid or sinful, so I should return the favor.

Sam: I’m not done being angry. I don’t have anything to apologize for. I’m not sorry for leaving “the faith” and I don’t have respect for anyone who thinks less of me for being an atheist. That may sound mean but I’ve had one too many religious person tell me what a heathen I am. And the Christians who give me religious books like “the case for faith” but won’t agree to read an atheist book of my choice seal the deal. They’re not interested in truth. 

They’re interested in continuing the BS that is their religious doctrine that they won’t even consider is irrational and illogical. I don’t discount that I too was part of their organization for more than two decades. But I still don’t believe ignorance of truth absolves a person from judgement.

John: Carter, you always impress me with your approach. I count myself privileged to know you. Sam, you seem passionate about your beliefs. I respect passion. The alternative is not very interesting.

Just so anyone reading this is clear, I have never personally asked Sam or Carter to read any books. It is true that I wouldn’t likely ever read a book about atheism because it wouldn’t be an efficient use of my time. While I don’t have a systematic theology of sorts, I have a relationship with God, and because of that, reading about why He doesn’t exist would be like reading a book about why my wife isn’t real. 

I have two shelves worth of books to read that will further me in my passionate pursuits already.

Sam: I used to feel the same way as you. Before I made the commitment to challenge every belief I hold dear. That’s the only way to find truth. The second you become unwilling to challenge a truth is the second you’ve lost truth.

John: I understand what you mean, Sam. I have challenged my beliefs. That’s why I no longer go around touting a stout and heady theology that is based solely on heresay. I know a few things about God, and I leave plenty of room for mystery. 

It would be mere conjecture for you to assume that a person with strong beliefs hasn’t thoroughly challenged their beliefs already. By all means, examine your beliefs and put them through a rigorous testing ground. But when that is done, and your faith is solid, it is meaningless to spend the rest of one’s life asking if random book XYZ or teacher ABC might hold the key to tearing down one’s strong faith. 

My goal isn’t to live in a constant state of guessing whether there’s a possible thought or idea or statement out there that might somehow cause my world to come crashing down. My goal is to start off with the basics and to grow into more mature aspects. From milk to meat, as they say.

Sam: That only works if “the basics” are valid. The more a lie is told the more we believe it is true. As much as it is said, and as many people that believe it doesn’t change that it is a lie. The truth is available only to those who are willing to question everything they’ve been taught and to relentlessly challenge their assumptions.

John: Sam, I’m more than willing to carry on a civil conversation, but it does me no good to respond further at this point. I don’t need you to agree with me. I’m not threatened by what you believe. I appreciate having this conversation with you and Carter.

Sam: Hmm. I find your response quite interesting. You’re not threatened, but yet “it does you no good to respond further.” I’m also unsure how my challenge to question is uncivil.

You know its quite interesting. I have had several Christian friends ask me to read books. I’ve even had people mail me anonymously “The Case for Faith”. I’ve told each and every one of these people that I would read their book, if and only if they would read a book of my choosing and then talk about what we read afterwards. 

So far I am at a 100% decline rate on my offer. One person going so far is to say “What in the world makes you think I would want to read some atheist book?” As if they can’t see how arrogant their statement is, and that I might feel the same way about their book. It also solidifies what I’ve said all throughout this thread. 

It’s a one way street with Christians (it seems). They’re not interested in truth or learning, if they were they’d accept my challenge. Quite the opposite, they’re afraid they might find out they have been wrong all along, and that is a scary proposition. I know, I went through it. 

I was a Christian for 30 years before I finally started questioning. It was during a period where I decided to actually read the Bible, cover to cover. I always tell my Christian friends that the fastest path to Atheism is to read the Bible cover to cover.

Carter: I certainly don’t think you need to apologize for becoming an atheist. As far as respecting those that think of less of us for being atheists or agnostics, there’s a thin line there. Certainly, you don’t have to sit there and listen to someone who is being uncivil or rude, as they berate you for not belonging to the True Faith(TM). 

Sometimes, you just have to quit the discussion and I have done that from time to time. But I do respect people’s humanity and personal dignity. I respect everyone’s humanity, or try to. 

I was angry for a long time so I understand where you are coming from. I still get angry from time to time, when people badmouth homosexuals or demonize skeptics like us as if we’re trying to destroy society. When I analyzed this anger, I realized from time to time, that it had almost the same motivation behind it as when I was an angry fundamentalist christian. 

Part of it was a bit of fear and insecurity, because the people still in the faith I had left were a threat to me with their beliefs. Trying to change them meant that my beliefs would be more justified if I “won” the argument or shamed them somehow. Part of it was self-righteous anger towards them. 

I had found the new Truth, the truth of my skepticism and humanist worldview, and they were deceived and evil people who had to be redeemed. When you look at all this, I was repeating the same behavior I had but merely substituting a Skeptic narrative for the previous Christian one. The contents of my beliefs had changed, but the mode of my believing and behaving had not. I believe this happens with most people, whether coming to Christianity from another or no religion, or converting out of a religion to atheism or agnosticism. 

I also believe this is why folks coin the term “fundamentalist atheists” because the M.O. of the atheist has not changed from when he or she was a fundamentalist Christian, only the contents. Fundamentalist atheists aren’t a real thing (they obviously aren’t fundamentalist in the religious sense) but they are merely atheists who are acting the same way that religious fundamentalists do: angry, self-righteous, judgmental, uncritical of their own tribe’s flaws, and demanding that others conform to their worldview. Our psychological patterns are simply hard to change.

It wasn’t like I was doing this all the time, every day, but I seemed to be repeating the same cycle over and over whenever I got into these conversations. The anger frankly, was annoying and painful. I got frustrated over and over that people just couldn’t see the light and repeatedly got defensive, angry and would attack me. 

I also noticed other atheists and agnostics acting just as bad or as work in their arguments with Christians. I finally resolved to stop repeating this cycle and have been trying ever since. I don’t always succeed. But I do try to focus on the positive instead of the negative. I wanted to be one of the good guys. 

We still have to make judgments about people and their beliefs…this is human. But if someone is not hurting others, I try not to be too judgmental if they believe things that I frankly think are a bit crazy. I also try not to be judgmental because as someone who is still open to new evidence, I might eventually change my mind again. 

I changed my mind in the past, who is to say I might not in the future? I hold my skepticism tentatively, as I do all of my beliefs, until new evidence shows up. 

So while the Truth is important to me and I want to spread what little truth i’ve learned, people are more important to me. Compassion is more important to me. I’d rather connect with as many people as possible and engage with them with respect and compassion. 

Which is easier when I remember that I was once in their shoes and it was not a simple manner of just waking up and deciding to question or abandon all my religious beliefs. I have also found that this mode of conversation are frankly, more effective. I got a homophobic christian to admit that he was being homophobic and prejudicial. I have better feelings about myself and other people. I don’t hide my agnosticism but I don’t (usually) try to cram it down others throats. 

There’s more that I could say about this, about how meeting liberal, non-fundie, accepting Christians through the UU Church helped, how my Zen meditation and community helped me understand spiritual experience without a belief in a deity, yet also understanding the compelling nature of those experiences for those that DO believe in the supernatural, my understanding of compassion through Buddhist thought, yada yada yada. Those are stories for another time.

Sam: I believe “rigorous debate” is good and healthy for our species.

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