Okay, so first off, I haven't blogged in awhile. After having moved to Austin to be with Russell, I've had to spend less time chatting online with him, and therefore less time on my computer writing stuff. I'll try to improve that… by just blogging more that is. It took me awhile to get this one out, but it is a long and good story.
The occasion I've had that has brought me out of hibernation: Easter Sunday.
Russell and I had been intending to go see a church service and blog about it for awhile, but we're both lazy and often have Ben (who doesn't want to go.) Well, we finally decided to get around to it.
I liked the timing of going on Easter because there would be plenty of new faces to facilitate blending in. Also, Easter should be the day the priests bring out the big guns when it comes to convincing people to believe and stay.
Russell had friendly enough relations with Kyle Miller, senior pastor of Great Hill Baptist Church, and since Kyle was kind enough to sit in on an AE show and even make a guest spot on the show, so we decided to return the favor.
My first impression of the church was that it was huge; I've never seen California churches that big, and the entry hall was the same size as my old church's chapel. With the huge domed ceiling and the blasting AC, bookshop and coffeeshop, it felt more like the central hub of my college than a church. I marveled at how they paid for it all, although not for long after the church mentioned their "Raise the Roof to Lower the Debt" fundraiser. Russell pointed out that they were like one of those businesses who expanded during the good times, and is now facing the recession.
I have to say that the pews were sparsely populated. They packed about as many as my small church had back in California. This wouldn't have been especially noteworthy except for the fact that it was Easter, the day when the place should be brimming. I want to consider it a triumph of encroaching atheism to thin the numbers so, but then again it was the 11:00 service, which is usually the least attended.
We got to meet with Kyle before and after, and he was as cordial and kindly as ever. I always feel nervous around especially kindly christians, because either: 1. They are being kind because God has told them too, which means they don't really like you but are just tolerating you because their god has told them to, or 2. They really are that friendly and a nice and outgoing person, but then give credit of their demeanor to God. Kyle seemed quite keen on getting to meet again with Russell, and I imagine he wouldn't mind being the one who converts such big game as a host of the Atheist Experience. Of course, he is just a really nice guy to get to meet with.
The service started off with the typical monotonous Christian Rock sing-a-long. The purpose of this of course is to pump endorphins and encourage those warm fuzzy feelings. Before I get any further with this, I want to touch on something important that I don't think gets brought up enough. Often and usually these manipulative tactics aren't made deliberately, exactly the same way genes aren't selected consciously. These are just memes that have ended up working. So when a manipulative tactic is used, it's not necessarily that the pastor has decided, it's just something that has worked and survives.
So it started off with the music, which was blaringly loud. I couldn't even hear the voice of the other people singing around us, which I hope to take as a sign of lack-luster. Russell and I were the only ones sitting. I hate being made to stand for anything when you are in a sitting environment, it's just silly. I couldn't force myself to pay much attention to the song lyrics, but I did catch everyone's disgustingly favorite metaphor in this line: "I know I'm sinful man covered by the blood of the lamb". Looking back on Christianity, I can't believe how disgusting that is and how I just accepted it.
After alluding that the sermon would be about Lazarus, the preacher came up and the preaching started. The preacher awkwardly complimented everyone for looking pretty and dressing up today. It felt like a half-hearted attempt to flatter us and make us feel accepted, except for the fact that he wasn't talking to anyone of us in particular so it just sounded like a lie. Not to mention that he sounded uncomfortable when he said it, making it seem even more of a lie. Since Churches really only have lies and emotional manipulations as their tools to bring in the crowds, if this is the man's best attempt, then I can understand why the place was almost empty.
He started off with some awful child story about why lilies bloom. His kid came up with the answer - that they bloom because they are like Jesus - they start off as a seed, but then are magically transformed. Of course, the parents were all proud of this answer. I'm disappointed for multiple reasons. First of all, that is not why lilies bloom. The parents have just taken a teachable moment of plant biology and replaced it with God Did It. No longer satisfied with the god of the gaps, their god's taking over even the things as well-documented as seed germination. No doubt the little girl gets rewarded with affection for giving god credit instead of actually finding out the real answer. Disgusting. Additionally, saying that lilies are like Jesus still wouldn't answer why they bloom. Imagine if you asked why glass is hard and I said that it's because it's like a rock. Is that an explanation? No, now that's just shifting the mystery to why rocks are hard. Furthermore, the pastor admitted that many people take creative license with children's stories, but assured us he hadn't. Yeah, right.
After that supposedly heartwarming story, he launched into the meat of the resurrection message. God has standards, we don't meet them, Jesus stepped in front of God, Jesus absorbed God's wrath intended for us. This was of course a "great demonstration of the love of god". The ridiculousness of this message has been pounded into atoms so many times, I even hesitate to waste time on it. A loving god tortures someone else so that he doesn't have to torture you. Because you deserve it. He glosses over this part because everyone already knows it, and if you think about it too much, it starts to not make sense.
After this humbling message, we get a bit of a lecture for not attending (apparently all the regulars talk about us behind our backs! The scandal!), also we get introduced another message of the day: God wants you to give 100% to him. He makes a point of making 50% and 90% inadequate. While he harps on this point again and again, it has to be said that he doesn't actually believe it, and he can't. He has nice clothing, a nice family, assuredly a house, etc. He knows that this standard is too high, but he's trying to have really high expectations that we rise up a little bit to meet and maybe just come to church once a week, I guess. The problem is that the demand is just so ridiculous, that everyone there had to have just ignored it. They might agree, but then they will turn and use their cars to go home and sit in the nice AC. Later he goes one step further and says that in your life your kids are not the most pressing issue - belief is. I was appalled. Floored. That's just straight-up cult material right there. What a galling thing to say - that you should put your faith in a lie over your children. There were plenty of children there too who got to hear this message: you are not as important to your parents as god is.
After harping on the importance of being a 100% dedicated Christian, he addresses their fears that people will call them idiots for giving up so much of their lives to God. This is an important point right here, and it ties nicely into Pascal's Wager. Pascal's Wager says that if you believe in god, you lose nothing. Well, this pastor is calling on people to give up 100% of their lives to Jesus. Surely, people won't give up that much time, but there's still the message that the more time and effort you give up to God, the better of a Christian you are. Later he acknowledges that this contradicts the message of grace by faith. He addresses this contradiction with a long and elaborate 'nu-uh' about how faith and works are really the same thing. This also speaks volumes of the mental gymnastics of preachers. They recognize the weak points of their religion - that Christianity is foolish - and they address those weak points by assuring their congregation that the weak points don't exist or by not actually addressing the question. People will call you an idiot? Well just say that God expects everything. Faith and works are two different things? Well faith will make you do works! That was his answer, by the way. Not any reasons, just God. Nothing every actually gets answered in this sermon, most likely because it can't.
By now, I'm getting bored. He went into the story about how Jesus raised his buddy Lazarus from the grave, selfishly pulling him out of heaven's eternal bliss to spend some time stinking like a zombie on this wretched earth. The funny part for me was the many parts of the story sounded like it had been an elaborate hoax: Jesus purposefully avoided his friend while he was ill, he wasn't bummed when he heard Laz was dead, he made a huge deal out of making sure that everyone there believed in him before the miracle, Lazarus's hands and feet were bound, Lazarus wasn't confused about where he was, there was a huge crowd watching, etc etc. If something like that happened now, I'd say it was a hoax for media attention. Since it happened so long ago, I'd say it probably never happened at all. The moral, of course, is that even though Jesus goes through all this trouble to give other people evidence of his powers, you should just believe it after hearing a story of him showing other people his powers. So. Dumb.
The most poignant part of the sermon came when he tried to address intellectual issues with the belief in God. Russell and I both braced ourselves. The Atheist Experience show has long been seeking the silver bullet argument for religion, perhaps this would be it! The answer was… God is under no obligation to clear up intellectual issues. He then goes on to say that you need to believe first, then seek to understand the bible. It would be laughable if it wasn't so sad. He is admitting that God doesn't make sense. That the bible has contradictions and evil that can only be understand through the rose-colored glasses of believing in God first. This was clearly the most disgusting and vile part of the message. This is the reason why even moderate religion angers me. It encourages a lapse of judgment and discourages independent investigation. The worst part is that this argument got an "Amen" from the crowd.
He ended the sermon with a story about some missionaries who got killed after the cannibals they were preaching to ignored their proselytizing efforts and stabbed them. While their lives were clearly wasted (another point against Pascal) when they could have been doing something positive for the world, the preacher just assures us that they didn't waste their lives. More salt in my intellectual wound created by this day.
After that, we got a nice benediction by Kyle calling us "broken hurting people". While he really was just restating the cult-meme that 'you are unlovable and thank goodness God tolerates you aren't you lucky?' If you think about it as him referring to the congregation's ability to reason when it comes to their own religion, then I guess he must have been right.