Mike Baker submitted a few comments to DI over the past few months. Then, after I published yet another installment of my favorite quotes (read: I took a night off from actually writing), Mike offered me his substantial collection of provocative quotes (we’ve published them here and here, and there’s more to come). We started an email correspondence a few weeks ago.
When Mike told me that he was formerly a Christian, but no longer, I asked him a few follow-up questions. It turns out that there is an unexpected twist to Mike’s story. He is no longer a Christian, but he believes in God. Yet he believes that organized religions are generally harmful to society. Yet he also admits that good things are sometimes accomplished by religious organizations.
After a few rounds of back and forth, I asked Mike whether he would be willing to allow me to share his thoughts with the DI community, and he agreed. I think that you’ll enjoy reading Mike’s genuine thoughts and his engaging writing style. Without further adieu, here is that email conversation:
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on religion in that five-part essay you wrote. As a person who has always called himself a Christian (albeit a loosely wrapped one), I’ve recently walked away from my “faith”. In large part by the inactions and apparent acquiescence of “Christians” to G.W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Feeling somewhat “lost”, I began reading Bertrand Russell, Sam Harris and C. Hitchens just to name a few. I was totally engrossed and amazed too at what is not discussed in church. I now see religion (almost all of the brands) as a brake on human advancement at best and quite possibly the catalyst for civilizations’ destruction at worst. I guess you could say I am in the Sam Harris camp there. I do agree, however, with your summation that bridges need to be built.
Here’s a little on me. My mother grew up in Nazi Germany and brought me up to fully appreciate the meaning of our Constitution and what true freedom and democratic principles represent. Much to my mothers chagrin (something I didn’t fully understand at the time) I joined the Marine Corps after high school and served for eight yrs. Believing that we were the “good guys”, bringing peace and freedom where ever we went I served proudly. Time and a better understanding of history have taught me that that is not always the case.
[More . . . ]
Personal gripe time. This is one of those instances where I believe The Market is a hydrocephalic moron and people who put their undying faith in get what they deserve.
Shortly after the 4th of July just past, a St. Louis radio station changed hands. KFUO 99.1 FM had, for sixty-plus years, been our commercial classical station. Before the first Gulf War, our local NPR affiliate, KWMU, was largely a classical music broadcaster, but after that first foray into Mid east adventurism they became pretty much All Talk All Day. Mind you, I like some of what they offer—Fresh Air, Talk of the Nation, Diane Rheem—but I am a lover of music. My youth, in regards to radio, was all about music. I cannot tolerate most of Talk Radio, especially the right wing stuff, but I’m not overly fond of the left wing blatherings, either. Give me a good solid news show twice a day and then fill the airwaves with music.
This has become a subject of nostalgia for me, because for the most part the music scene on radio has devolved into mind-numbing banality and repetition. Catering to The Market has the net result of leavening out at the lowest common denominator, so instead of fascinating, new, or just first-rate music, we get the cuts that will appeal to the greatest number of whatever demographic a given station thinks it’s playing to.
After KWMU went All Talk, little by little I began listening to KFUO. They did not do as good a job, overall, as KWMU—I am a firm believer in airing complete works, so when I am offered A Movement of a symphony or what have you I am turned off; I want the whole damn thing or don’t bother (this is also true of other genres as well: I once got into a shouting match with a DJ over his insistence of playing the three-minute version of an Emerson, Lake & Palmer track that, in its fullness, ran to twelve minutes, and he demanded to know who wanted to listen to all that synthesizer soloing, to which I replied “people who like ELP, you moron!” Needless to say, I lost that one, but I resent the whole assumption that the attention span of people will never exceed five minutes—if you assume that and that’s all you give them, you train them to have short attention spans)—but it was classical music, and I find myself, aging that I am, more and more indulging in that genre (if genre it is) out of sheer boredom and impatience with most other forms. At least, on the radio.
So KFUO became my car station. (At home I listen to albums. I would eliminate DJs and commercials if I could. Playing my own discs, I can.)
Due to the demands of The Market, the impatience of shareholders, etc etc, management at KFUO—the Lutheran Church, basically—sold the station. It is now Joy 99, playing contemporary Christian pop…stuff.
I’ve attempted to listen to some of it, but I find it unremittingly boring. And I am pissed. Where can I now go on the radio to get classical music? Well, KWMU has taken advantage of the new high definition broadcast tech to split itself into multiple channels and has one dedicated to classical music. But I can’t get that in the car. Can’t get at home on my stereo, either, unless I buy new equipment, which is a source of resentment as well. We live in an age where if one does not have the latest, most up-to-date Thingie, at a cost of X hundred dollars per widget, one cannot partake of the goodies available—and the media changes often enough that buying new Thingies is now every couple, three years.
Pardon my expression—Fuck That! This is the Microsoft model taken to extremes. It is a form of class division, based on tech-savvy and money. You don’t have to pass laws to keep the so-called Unwashed out of the Club, you just have to make sure they can’t afford the newest Thingie.
Ahem. Excuse me, that was paranoid of me. I have no reason to believe this is intentional. This is The Market, in all its lobotomized asininity.
Back for a moment to the new KFUO. It is boring. (I am beginning to recognize a pattern. Christian pop sounds somewhat to mainly Country. The southern lilt to the vocals, the excessively forced emotional warbling, twisting notes through laryngeal gymnastics for no reason other than to make use of a single chord for a few moments longer. Never mind the lyrics—I didn’t have a problem with groups like Creed, at least not initially: the music was interesting, the lyrics showed a modicum of ingenuity—just the American Idol approach to hyped emotionalism as substitute for actual content. But I really cannot abide dull music. Even when, initially, this stuff sounds like they’re getting down with some passion, it’s really just arrangement and playing with the compression. The simplest chords, the over-reliance on melody—almost always in major keys—and the deemphasizing of anything that might distract from the primary message of the lyric content. Now, KFUO, having been a Lutheran station, played a great deal of sacred music. Most of which was GLORIOUS. Beautiful, sonorous, majestic, interesting! Composed by musicians who saw no reason to muffle their strengths, but put what they had into such compositions because the music itself was a form of worship, an offering to what they believed, honest and unhampered passion. Modern Christian rock seems to do everything it can to apologize for being rock. Of course, there’s a reason for this, since a good deal of what these folks espouse is a typical American attitude that sensuality is an enemy to faith, and let’s face it, rock is all about sensuality. So, too, is jazz, perhaps even more so, which may be why one hears almost no Christian jazz.) Boring is inexcusable, I don’t care what cause it is in the name of.
Somehow some one or more “consultant” companies told the new owners that this will attract a larger market share than what KFUO had been doing. For all I know, they’re right. I have little faith in the taste of the masses, as a mass. Most of the people I have ever known as casual acquaintances have exhibited appalling taste in the arts. You have to be aware to be sensitive to nuance, to passion, to genuine merit, and it seems that most people move through life barely conscious of their surroundings.
(I once had the most frustrating interchange with a woman at a party who kept complaining that everything I was putting on the stereo was “depressing.” Her word. Depressing. What was I playing? Flim and the BBs, Grover Washington, McCoy Tyner, things like that. I couldn’t figure it out until she demanded, somewhat drunkenly,”Where’s the singing?” Unless there was singing, it was depressing. Of course, by singing she didn’t mean opera, she meant anything she could sing along to. This was more music as sport than art.)
So after a couple of weeks of listening the all this strained pseudo-music sung by earnest C & W types against the most singularly undifferentiated backgrounds, I am officially peeved. I’d like my classical music back, please. I don’t care about demographics. There are dozens of other stations where one can hear similarly banal excrescence, albeit possibly without the juvenile nonsense worship lyrics. KFUO served an audience that is now not served at all, and I can’t help wondering if this is at least partly propagandistic. That this is as much an effort to force a single voice onto the airwaves, driving out the specialist, minority voices, as it is to maximum returns on investment.
Of course, that would be a bit paranoid, wouldn’t it?
Except that over forty years of listening to radio I can’t help but notice that every instance of a station or a show that reached a bit higher, took a chance on quality, played the unexpected or occasionally controversial—all those stations were, one by one, taken over and dragged back down into the stew pot of “popular taste” at expense of anything genuinely challenging or interesting. Regardless of genre. Mediocrity is the hallmark of the largest market share.
Of course this is just me expressing the idle-time thoughts in my head as I simmer in resentment over another source of something worthwhile going the way of the proverbial dodo. There really isn’t a plot of this sort.
There doesn’t need to be, though. Does there? The Market, the “invisible hand (or ear)” will do it for us.
Sometimes something is worth preserving just because it is good, whether it sells well or not. I think most people would agree with that. Where the breakdown comes is in the lack of appreciation of how those good things will inevitably fade away unless we stop praying at the temple of The Market. In that respect, the advent of a “new” Christian Contemporary radio station is deliciously ironic, as clearly someone thinks that Christianity is a marketable commodity and will command market share. The moneylenders have a cozy home in the temple these days, in the American version of Christianity, in which the hallmark of god’s love is a positive bank balance and a healthy hedge fund.
I can hear the protest, “Well, it must be good if it sells well!”
Pet rocks sold incredibly well. So did shares in Enron.
On the other hand, maybe I’m just annoyed at seeing something I found special axed in the name of the bottom line. Again.
Those who have not seen the light and built a home temple to the ALMIGHTY GOD ZEUS will soon feel his wrath. Zeus is the one true God, the Protector who will watch over you but only if you cast aside all others and turn to Him in thankfulness and supplication.
Come to Him now because WHEN you get hit by one of his lightning bolts (and it WILL happen!) you WILL know the truth!
I’m being facetious of course.
I am an atheist but this is a challenge to believers of all kinds. Why DON’T you believe in Zeus or any of the thousands of other gods from the past? Please tell me the process by which you examined the faith of the ancient Greeks and decided to reject it.
If you can examine yourself and find the reasons why you feel that Zeus is not the god for you, or if you would even go so far as to say “He doesn’t exist” (Gasp! Please forgive them oh Wielder of Lighting Bolts!) then you have repeated some of the same process by which I turned my back on Catholicism and Christianity many years ago. You too are an atheist, as far as Zeus is concerned.
One of the greatest and most intellectual civilizations ever to be known accepted wholeheartedly the supremacy of Zeus. The innovations of the Greeks were immensely influential on language, politics, educational systems, philosophy, science, and the arts. They inspired the Islamic Golden Age and the Western European Renaissance! By rejecting the God of the Greeks are you saying that you are smarter than they? Do you know something the Greeks didn’t know?
Just because the stories of Zeus (all glory and power to Him) are from an ancient past doesn’t mean they are any less true. In fact, Zeus was around BEFORE your Jesus and your Muhammed. Those guys are newbies compared to The Almighty Zeus! So, explain yourselves Christians and Muslims. Why not Zeus?
Has the U.S. military been proseletyzing the civilians of Iraq and Afghanistan? Apparently so, according to Newsweek:
[A] civil-rights watchdog group, Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), says . . . a cadre of 40 U.S. chaplains took part in a 2003 project to distribute 2.4 million Arabic-language Bibles in Iraq. This would be a serious violation of U.S. military Central Command’s General Order Number One forbidding active-duty troops from trying to convert people to any religion.
Lots of disturbing details regarding what appears to be the Christianized military of the United States.
For now, I shall leave alone the good knight’s contention that Hitler was a “Darwinist atheist” (certainly not a Darwinist and arguably not an atheist, given his obsession with Nordic mythology and the occult, not to mention those SS belt-buckles that said “God is with us”), as well as his claim that “Atheists struggle with morality, it just doesn’t sit well on their worldview, even though they sense God’s law on their hearts, like we do.” Both are baseless and false and not worth any decent person’s time. I shall answer his questions though, and with as little snark as I can muster, given that I know I’m answering someone who believes I may have “fascist tendencies” (bah – I’ve never once advocated a merger of state and corporate power) and struggle with morality even though I apparently really do believe in God, even though I say I don’t – but obviously I’m just rebelling against our heavenly father like I did against my real one when I was 15. Really, if Christians wish to have an open dialogue with atheists, these tiresome myths must be left at the door.
Anyway, on with The Interview (I have sent this post as an email to the good knight and eagerly await his reply:
1) Do you believe that the universe was brought into being out of nothing by a person (agent)? Is it possible that this agent could communicate to us, or that we could discover something about that agent? (i.e. – does God exist, is he knowable)
No. However, if an agent powerful enough to create the universe existed, you’d expect such an agent to be able to communicate with us in some way we could all understand, all at the same time. Also, if such an agent wanted anything about itself to be discovered, surely that agent would know the best way for us to do so. Revealing himself to a small number of people and letting them fight amongst themselves about who was right about what for two thousand years doesn’t make a lot of sense.
2) Explain to me in which religion you were raised by your parents, if any. How did your parents approach religion in the home? (strict, lax, etc.)
My parents didn’t raise us in any faith. I became a Christian at a young age after being exposed to it at primary school (age 5-12). Religion didn’t come up in conversation at all at home (let alone positively or negatively). We were, however, taught the importance of empathy, politeness, generosity, respect and decency (both directly and indirectly, by our parents’ examples). Both my parents are fine moral people, having proudly served their family and community their whole lives. My father was a public school science teacher (now retired but continuing to serve with Meals on Wheels). My mother was a long-time public servant and both parents were tireless social campaigners in our local area, defending our community hospital and local bushland reserves against corporate and government interference.
3) What events in your past affected your beliefs about God’s existence and knowability? (e.g. – I studied biology, comparative religions or anthropology, or I met a girl I liked)
From primitive animists to the legends of the first gods, battling like irrational cloud-inhabiting humans over the cosmos, Wright tells the story of how war and trade, technology and human interaction slowly exposed humans to the gods of others. How this awareness led to the Jewish innovation of a hidden and universal God, how the cosmopolitan early Christians, in order to market their doctrines more successfully, universalised and sanitised this Jewish God in turn, and how Islam equally included a civilising universalism despite its doctrinal rigidity and founding violence.
Fundamentalism, in this reading, is a kind of repetitive neurotic interlude in the evolution of religion towards more benign and global forms.
“Christian” marriage is outlawed by the Bible. I’m not exaggerating. You’ll find all of the stunning details, along with citations to the Bible, at Dwindling in Unbelief. How does the Bible outlaw traditional “Christian” marriages? Here are some of the Bible rules listed:
- The Bible says that Christians should not marry.
- But if a Christian man decides to get married (which he shouldn’t), he can have more than one wife.
- And if he doesn’t like one of his wives (like if she’s unclean or ugly or something), he can divorce her.
- If a Christian man gets married and then discovers on his wedding night that his new wife is not a virgin, then he and the other Christian men must stone her to death.
- Christians shouldn’t have sex (even if they are married, which they shouldn’t be).
- Christian parents must beat their children (which they shouldn’t have, since they shouldn’t get married or have sex).
- Good Christians must hate their families.
(If they abandon them for Jesus, he’ll give them a big reward.)
This list list only includes the first seven rules. Go to Dwindling in Unbelief for the details and the pinpoint citations. Don’t just trust me on these rules. Go read the Bible. These rules are all there, clearly stated.
Conclusion: We need to march to America’s heartland and start picketing traditional Christian marriage because it is clear that traditional Christian marriage contravenes the clear teachings of the Bible.
Our minds are big bags of tricks, many of them helpful out in the wild, but prone to deceive us in the modern world. Princeton Psychologist Samuel Wang points out that two of our mind’s heuristics, “source amnesia” and “bias dissimulation” (confirmation bias) account for the persistent belief of many people that Barack Obama is not a Christian, in the absence of any evidence supporting this claim.
Gods with anuses? This post concerns some of the elaborate ways humans seem to compensate for their anxiety about death.
A 2008 Harris poll shows that 61% of Americans believe that Jesus was born to a woman who was a virgin. Thus, by a landslide margin, Americans believe that a woman named Mary got pregnant without any of that icky sperm/penis/vagina stuff (whether a human ovum was involved is keeping theologians busy ). To keep the Savior pure and holy, I can only assume that Jesus emerged into the world through some sort of Divine Cesarean rather than out of the vagina, but the Bible is not clear on the actual method of delivery. Ever since the alleged birth of Jesus, Mary (who was “without sin”) has been referred to as “Virgin Mary,” despite her long marriage to Joseph, suggesting that she kept Joseph sexually frustrated for the rest of his life.
All of this uneasiness our animal nature is typical of many religions. In order to keep people focused on the other-world, religions work hard to convince people that human animal existence is vulgar and vile. According to many religions, our earliest “ancestors” were taught that human bodies were shameful even as they were being unceremoniously booted out of the Garden of Eden.
Rather than considering our bodies to be exquisite machines that constitute and sustain us, many religions portray human bodies as ungainly, oozing, disgust-inducing earth-bound vessels from which we will eventually escape, thanks be to God! We are to God as slugs are to us. Rather than embracing the marvelous functioning of human bodies, many religions disparage them though, paradoxically, they attribute the “design” of our sordid bodies solely to God, not to natural selection. Thus, there is one notable exception to the general rule: only when Believers are trying to fight off Darwin do they consciously strive to appreciate the exquisite function of human bodies. Oh, such a tangled web religions weave . . .