Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Andrew Sullivan talks death

Andrew Sullivan's latest reply to Sam Harris is up and it's called, "The Undiscovered Country."

Andrew says:
...I found myself a little embarrassed in retrospect by the forthrightness of my claims to faith. I feel an unworthy apologist for Christianity in many ways. I'm not a trained theologian nor a priest nor even someone who thinks of himself as a good Christian.

That was Andrew surrendering his faith to theologians he doesn't understand very well because of their vagueness, obfuscation and doublespeak. He'd rather do that than thinking for himself.

Sam, according to Andrew, argued that Andrew's:
...notion of God "doesn't have much in the way of specific content (apart from love)." I have indeed held back a little (although God-as-love is no small idea; it is an immense idea).

It's also an immense contradiction considering this God-as-love supposedly damns people to eternal Hell. In the Old Testament God's character is fairly consistent, the Bible portrays Moses as someone who talked God and took orders from him. This God then told Moses to go around and kill people for various absurd reasons, and that's in addition to his own previous terrorist actions like flooding the Earth. This is what the Old Testament tells us about how the Midians are killed, all of them except the virgin girls:

Numbers, Chapter 31

On God's instructions, Moses sent soldiers against the Midianites in response to some of the Israelite men having had sex with some of the Midianite women. Moses then ordered them to slaughter all the captives, saving only female virgins. The latter were apparently kept for purposes of rape. Verse 35 talks about 32,000 virgin captives; this implies that there were probably about 32,000 young boys killed.

Deuteronomy 7:1-2: ... the seven nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them.

Joshua 6:21: And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.

In the invasion of Canaan by the Israelites, after the walls of the city of Jericho fell, the soldiers ran into the city, and killed every man, women and child, even infants and newborns. Their goal was to entirely wipe out the Canaanite culture by destroying its people. It is, by definition, genocide. When Moses orders the worshippers of the golden calf killed it's an example of murderous religious intolerance:

Exodus, Chapter 32
Exodus 32:26-28: "Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the LORD's side? let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. And he said unto them, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour. And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men."

God had responded to the people's desire to change their religious beliefs by killing off thousands of them. This contrasts with the concept of "separation of church and state" in an extreme way. Current laws in most of the civilized world allow individuals full freedom to change their religion. It's only in a few of the Islamic countries where religious beliefs are enforced.

Mass murder of fighters for democracy:
Numbers 16:2-3: "And they rose up before Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown: And they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them, Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the LORD?"

Numbers 16:20-39: "And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment... the ground clave asunder that was under them: And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up..."

Num 16:41-49: "But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, Ye have killed the people of the LORD...And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Get you up from among this congregation, that I may consume them as in a moment..."

Fundamentalists don't appear to have a problem with the violence of God, assuming as many do, that God's wrath will not be aimed at them. However, the majority of liberal traditions in all three religions that are rooted in the Old Testament image of God do have a problem with this. They devise all sorts of complex theologies, obfuscations and Orwellian doublespeak trying to contain the poison. Christianity may have been the first attempt to contain the dangerous beliefs in an Old Testament God that lead Jewish zealots to their self-destruction.

Remember "1984" and the Party's slogan: "WAR IS PEACE." Using the term "GOD IS LOVE" is also doublespeak because if we look at God's behavior in the Old Testament he more often acts out of hate, he punishes and destroys. He drowned the world, flamed 2 cities, ordered Moses to kill thousands... He sends non-believers to hell for eternity in the New Testament. What is love if it is not nurturing and helping? What does punishment that last for eternity accomplish in shaping behavior? At the very least God's love is highly conditional. "FREEDOM IS SLAVERY" applies to Christian thinking too. While I might feel free doing what I want, it just makes me a slave of Satan. Believing eventually comes down to obedience out of fear, the same reason a slave obeys, but it is supposed to make us "free." The Old Testament is a record of the horror God supposedly inflicted, the New Testament is a promise of horrors to come when the Jews failed to inflict those horrors on the Romans and then got pushed out of their land in 70 AD.

This Christian doublespeak is used by politicians like George W. Bush now. Consider the way Bush throws around terms like "evil" as in "axis of evil." Like bin Laden he tries to paint a picture of a battle between good and evil. But "good" is NOT the opposite of "evil." The opposite of "good" is "bad." The opposite of "evil" is "'gracious,' 'nuturing,' 'merciful,'" etc.. The opposite of 'that which deprives of benefit' is 'that which shares benefit.' "Nothing is evil lest thinking make it so" and "evil" is simply an ungracious assessment of ungracious acts. Thus good and evil are relativistic unless we clearly defined the terms in ways other than "what God wants" especially if the only people telling us what God wants can't be tested for such communication. If this were not a Christian country more voters would have seen through Bush's Christian doublespeak.

Andrew knows that his...
...refusal to say outright that because I believe that Jesus was and is the Son of God, the tenets of other faiths - Islam, Buddhism, Judaism - must be logically false. Mine, you insist, is a solid truth-claim that requires being addressed, especially because these mutually contradicting truth-claims are the source of so much conflict and dissension. You're right, I think, to judge me "a little evasive" on this score.

That is a remarkable confession Andrew just made about his own evasiveness. Unfortunately when Andrew tries to get a little less evasive this is what he says:
As a Christian, I do deny Islam's claim that Jesus was not actually divine. I deny Judaism's claim that the Messiah has not yet come. I deny any other number of truth-claims held by people of other faiths.

Interesting how he puts it in the negative frame and leaves it as minimal as possible. He doesn't like his Christian dogma, does he?

…nature of the phenomenon we're discussing - faith - has no universal rubric upon which to rationally decide one claim over another.

The idea that faith has no "rubric" is Christian doublespeak. The rubric would be things like trust and promises and duty. The idea that faith and trust between people needs to be earned is somehow left out.

"IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH" is a reverse of "Knowledge is power." The New Testament tells you faith is more important than the world's logic or knowledge: 1 Cor.1:19 "For I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent." 1:27 "But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;" The dependence on faith and seeing doubt as a sin is an attack on gaining knowledge.

I am very much aware that humans have no common rubric by which to judge these religious truth-claims except their internal coherence, their congruence with historical data, their longevity, and one's own conscience.

Isn't internal coherence and congruence with historical data enough to shoot down biblical claims?

For example, I pointed out in my review of "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" how one of Ted Koppel's theologians started arguing for the bodily ascension of Jesus into the sky. So, where did his body go? Does he think heaven is up in the sky? What's up there is 350,000 feet worth of atmosphere and then the vacuum of space and the Van Allen radiation belts. Where did Jesus' body go? Is Heaven hiding behind a cloud?

The idea of the bodily ascension of Jesus into the sky is based on an ancient and very wrong model of our world where they actually thought that heaven was upstairs in the sky, either beyond the crystal spheres or the dome of the sky. It shows up in other biblical stories, like when God comes down to smash the tower of Babel because it's getting too close to heaven.

… a pragmatic and a religious move - pragmatic because I want to live in a peaceful world (I like my iPod and my civil society), and religious because the violence such certainty provokes violates the very teachings of the God I worship. I'm tolerant because I am a Christian.

Does Andrew think he would be less tolerant if he were not a Christian? And where does he get tolerance from his Christianity? From a God who would damn all who don't believe in him? From a God who orders Moses to kill whole nations, including their children?

... all these alternative modes of understanding - science, history, etc - are as contingent in the human mind as faith itself.

No, Andrew, as you know, science is not as contingent in the human mind as faith. That's a bald faced lie. Faith should be earned, honestly earned, by all who ask for it. What other institution and book would you give such faith to in the absence of evidence and with so many overt contradictions and divisions over interpretation?

… some avenues of knowledge are less contingent than others. And you have a point there. The question soon becomes one of relative contingencies. Is scientific thought less contingent than theology?

Yes. Science is remarkably less contingent than theology. That's why it's the same science across the globe, but the religions are different.

I was intrigued, as I'm sure you were, by the recent piece, "Darwin's God," in the New York Times Magazine, that posited an evolutionary origin or a neurological accident for the universal human tendency to believe that something is "out there" when, empirically, it isn't.

Sullivan might be unaware of the debate Scott Atran and Sam Harris have had over at

My own faith came alive most fully when I believed I was going to die young. It came alive as I watched one of my closest friends die in front of me at the age of 31. During that "positive hour," to quote Eliot, I also experienced religious visions, I heard a voice inside of me with a distinct tone that seemed to me divine, I experienced a moment of terrible doubt followed by a moment of complete, unsought-for relief. Maybe all this was a function of fear and existential panic. Maybe it was all a coping mechanism.

A function of fear and existential panic? Andrew seems to admit that it is the fear and denial of death that drives his faith. But what is to fear in death? Death is a reason to be sad, you're saying good-bye to everything or to a loved one, but it is Christianity that has tried to make us fear death with its threats of Hell.

If you read ancient mythology you can see humanity's idea of the afterlife evolving. You can see how the theologians kept simplifying and pumping up the volume on their portrait of the afterlife. The Egyptian afterlife was a complicated mess where kings had multiple souls and multiple afterlives. No other civilization devoted as much attention and resources to their dead as did the ancient Egyptians. Their elaborate funeral rites, their painstaking mummification technology, their vast Necropolis and their huge and complicated literature about the afterlife, all are witness to this fact.

In earlier Egyptian civilization, it seems only the Pharaoh and his family had an afterlife, and they became gods. The massive pyramids constructed during the early dynasties happen here. By the end of the sixth dynasty, the afterlife is expanded to include nobles. Then, with the cult of Osiris, the slain and resurrected god, in many ways a very Christ-like figure, the democratization of the afterlife is completed, and all were given souls.

As Egypt began to decline their view of the afterlife was simplified, the mummification got cheaper and faster, the rituals less involved and less expensive. As this happens the Greeks take over and there is some crossbreeding between the religions. In the ancient Greek religion, Tartarus was the closest thing to Hell and it was only for the especially wicked characters and enemies of the gods. That's where Sisyphus must repeatedly push a boulder up a hill for eternity and where Tantalus is kept just out of reach of cool water and grapes for sharing the secrets of the gods with humans. Tartarus is where enemies were cast after being defeated by the gods, including the Titans and Typhus. Elysium, or the Elysian Fields or Elysian Plain, seems borrowed from Egypt and it was the closest thing to a Heaven in their religion and it was inhabited at first only by the very distinguished, but later by the merely good. There are no streets of gold or pearly gates. Instead the Elysian Fields are characterized by gentle breezes and an easy life like that of the gods.

When Rome takes over, Tartarus became the eternal destination of sinners in general. Then Christianity pumped these threats and promises up to maximum volume with a Heaven and Hell and the ultimate simplification presented in seemingly the vaguest language possible.

Before Christianity we can see that death was not feared as much by how the Romans and Greeks treated death.

Maybe these psychological and spiritual experiences are simply the best way that humans have devised through countless millennia for coping with their own conscious knowledge of their own mortality.

Man's attitude toward death has changed. Christians force their fear of death on the rest of us. Consider the right-to-die advocates like Jack Kevorkian. Proponents of physician-assisted suicide have been advocating its legalization for those who are terminally ill but our Christian society resists. Some of us think a suicide is the best way to die if you're terminally ill. You have choice. You have control. You’re ready.

And how can we not be human? And who would want not to be human?

Being human doesn't mean you have to let some priesthood pull your puppet strings with phony hopes and fears.

What you are asking for, as I have argued before, is salvation by reason.

There is no salvation of the kind you're asking for, Andrew. There is only living better and dying better. There is only facing the reality that death is the end of us.

But even after you have been saved by reason, you will die, Sam. And what will save you then?

He will say good-bye to everything he knew and then he won't care about anything because there is no him to care any more. This is the same thing that will happen to Andrew in spite of all his faith.

How does this trackback work?


Logicel said...

I really appreciate your concise summary of how the melding of previous religious tenets morphed into 'God's only truth' that is still plaquing mankind at present.

Elfstone said...

I am mystified by Andrew Sullivan. It is mind-boggling that he would support a world-view that considers him an abomination. You need to do some serious cherry-picking and compartmentalization of your mind to achieve this.

Anonymous said...

Norm, this a good analysis of Sullivans latest Post. I am amazed by his apparent inability to accept 'death'. We did not live for many billions of years and we will again not live after our last breath. So be it. Of course, because of death, I might never know the answers to some 'deep questions', like 'Will The Netherlands ever become World Champions in Soccer', which is tough, but not sufficient reason to dream up an afterlife.
I was intrigued about one sentence in your post: 'one of Ted Koppel's theologians started arguing for the bodily ascension of Jesus into the sky'
Apart from the 'sky-problem' I always wondered why Christians so dearly want 'a bodily ascension'. Ordinary humans are supposed to leave their remains on earth and just move their 'soul'. If there is no need for their bodies in heaven, why did Jesus need one ? Have you ever come across an 'Christian' explanation ?
PS. I post this anonymously, because I have mislaid my Google account data.
Gerrit Bijl, The Netherlands

Anonymous said...

discussing death and the concepts of the old covenant would take entirely too much time. you already have your mind made up anyway. realize this though. 1st Timothy 2:4 who will have ALL MEN to be saved and come to the knowledge of truth.

there is purpose in all God does.


Awcelent. And great art.

Anonymous said...

ah at last, I found this post again. You have few [url=]useful tips[/url] for my school project. Now, I won't forget to bookmark it. :)