Thursday, May 6, 2010

Belated Easter Tidings

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.


  1. He then goes on to say that you need to believe first, then seek to understand the bible.

    And in a nutshell, this is the appeal of religion to the Great Unwashed. It takes no effort, unlike learning and education. Intellectual laziness and indifference becomes equated with moral virtue. You're right, it's just plain sad.

  2. i love it that we're at the point where visiting church is like visiting cheronobyl or outer space and writing travelogues about it

  3. I had the strange fortune of observing a parish service and during that same event this also came up. "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." In this case, it wasn't cannibals, but a highly rivalrous set of tribes who killed each other often. I could barely contain my fury at the reference and why it seemed even important to the congregation -- the event described was essentially an anthropoligcal disaster. Of course, for the dominionist aspect of the preaching I'd listened to, the fact that the tribe eventually became Christian (and stopped killing one another) gave the preacher some sort of hook to talk about it.

    Except that instead of sending in stupid explorers to mission to these people, they could have been given a civilizing influence that might not have set off their social triggers. Especially because while these missionaries may have been fairly good people, they didn't do much to separate themselves from others nearby who had been harassing and killing tribesmen, making them easy targets.

    This tribe would have been civilized. Nearby cities would have encroached on them and actual outreach by the neighboring civilization could have been done; but instead these missionaries felt the need to go out to them and spread their religion rather than takig them on as human beings. The end result: the loss of five lives and an insipid talking point for preachers forevermore.

    Turned me off going back to that congregation again for a while. I may be an anthropologist and I'd love to study these people; but I wasn't there officially and had no reason to subject myself to that. At the same day, I received a phamplet that spoke of missionary efforts to the Native American tribes nearby as well, and I felt like it was very bad taste that this sermon got told within the same breath of "let us go out and spread our religion to the local tribes."

    I am still disgusted.

  4. Something that suddenly came to mind... after the preacher goes out of his way to tell you that all people everywhere are vile, sinful, lying scum who are completely worthless?

    Why should we then trust anything he has to tell us? You can't start with the premise "I'm a giant turd who can't be trusted..." and end with "...but you should believe everything I'm telling you today without questioning any of it." You can't have it both ways: if people are inherently bad, then anything they produce is suspect INCLUDING any and every "god" claim.

  5. I don't understand how so many people go to church, soak this bs up like a sponge, and walk away feeling just as good about themselves and their faith as ever. The last time I went to church, I think I gave the impression that I was possessed by Satan because I was straining so hard not to get into a debate with the pastor. It's insanity!

  6. I'm the same way now, whenever I happen to be in a church service, with family or whatever, I just automatically deconstruct everything and wonder how this wasn't obviously transparent when I was younger.

    I still like going on occasion, so let me know if you guys go again.

  7. "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. "

    Nonsense! They made great strides in stopping hunger

  8. Really interesting post. In the last ten years, I have only been to church for 1)the baptism of my godson and the Christening of my wife's goddaughter, 2)weddings of friends and my own, and preparation of said own wedding and 3)Easter. It probably has changed now, but a bit less than ten years ago, the Catholic church I went to was crammed for Easter. It was more festive than what you have seen, I think.

    Anyway, preparing for my wedding got me sick of Christianity big time, the liberal brand as much as the conservative one. A superficial note first: I hate, hate, HATE Christian rock. It's rubbish, and there are lovely pieces of classical religious music that are actually quality, why not play those? Why would God tolerate talentless twits to claim they were inspired by him, writing such crap?

    And this lead me to a more important point: what struck me in ALL religious ceremony I have been to in recent year is the awful intellectual poverty of all. The music they play, the songs they sing are asinine, the prayers they say are worse, the sermons are devoir of any intellectual rigor or honesty and they often have speakers who cannot speak about ethics or morals beyond clichés lines.

  9. Crap Christian "rock" is another argument for Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

    Sure, much of their music is dreadful as well but - except those terrible years of "hip" churches in the 70s - it's also ancient and weirdly interesting. And the less Greek or Latin you know, the better it gets.

  10. @George From NY-The great opera singer Natalie Dessay, who is a Jewish convert because of her marriage (and I suspect, at best a deist, if not an atheist), said something interesting in an interview about singing Catholic Masses, that she did not identify with Christian spirituality and for her the music was going beyond the particulars of the faith. I think one can appreciate great music as a totally aesthetic experience (and therefore a physical one). But yes, the fact that it is in Latin makes it better. I always preferred it to the modern crap with juvenile poetry.

    Oh, and incidentally, I got my experience of children Christian music today, as my wife and I spent the weekend with some family still religious (liberal C of E). The five years old child had some on an I-Pod, he knew them by heart. It is dire and much nastier than the stupid songs I used to sing at the same age.

  11. "Furthermore, the pastor admitted that many people take creative license with children's stories, but assured us he hadn't."

    In other words, these stories preachers tell are usually embellished, but this one actually happened!

    When my dad died a couple of years ago and my sister arranged to have a preacher that he'd known a long time conduct the service, he told a story during the service that obviously (to us kids) was not true, but he thought it demonstrated some kind of lesson. After the funeral, my sisters were upset about it, but I wasn't - I told them that's what preachers do.

    Oh, and regarding Christian rock: as Bart Simpson said, everyone knows all the good bands are affiliated with Satan!

  12. Hm, you mention in the Lilies story that it could have been a good teachable moment on plant biology. I wonder if you have any advice on how to do this? My grasp on plant biology is really weak, but this is the kind of teachable moment I'd love to have in the future.

    Also, now I'm free of religion, I'm amazed at what I used to swallow without even thinking twice about it. The pastor says it in a way that makes sense at the time and you digest it without ever stopping to think about it. As soon as you try, it seems hazy and out of reach, so you shrug your shoulders, say 'He must have been right' and go on with life.

  13. Well, Curt, now I'm curious. What was the story and what 'point' was the pastor trying to make?

    And to Valerie, good question. I've studied germination quite a bit, and sad to say I've forgotten most of it. What I'd probably say is that seeds they have enough energy and the genetic blueprint in them to make a baby plant, and if they're lucky enough to get good sun and water they will grow up into an adult plant. Probably the important message here is to convey that plants use the carbon dioxide in the air to get bigger, I think children are more likely to embrace the fallacies of plants "eating" dirt to grow, or just growing bigger out of nothing.

  14. @Everything Else Atheist

    Is the alternating generations and the nitrogen fixing bacteria symbiots too advanced for kids? Cause those are the best parts IMHO.


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