Sunday, March 21, 2010

Book 17: Godless

This is the toughest posting I've done to date. The subject matter in Godless is something very personal to me and something I've struggled with for the last few years. I've made peace with my beliefs, and I'm still fascinated by the subject. There's so much that occurred to me as I was reading this book. I do tend to write in my postings about how the work affected me specifically and I intend to do that here as well. I'm doing my best to not turn this into a manifesto or say so much that the posting takes ages to read.
In Godless, Dan Barker recounts his journey from growing up an evangelical Christian, to becoming an evangelical minister, and eventually becoming an Atheist. I found myself underlining sentences in the book, making notes in the margins, and even digging up a bible here at the house to check the cited verses and their context for myself.
In his days as an evangelical, Barker would assign spiritual significance to everything. He recounts how if he lucked upon a parking space, he'd thank God for providing him a place to park; if he had to walk six blocks, he'd be grateful to God for the lessons in patience (pp 29-30).
When he began to question his faith, Barker explains that it wasn't as if a switch flipped but a "slow, sometimes wrenching, halting, circuitous process." That is true. It takes a lot of effort and work to figure out what you believe and why. It is painful to realize that what you learned as a child, no matter how well-intentioned the teachings, just doesn't work for you as an adult.
Barker's doubts began innocuously enough. He realized he could no longer reconcile the inconsistencies in the bible with what he knew to be true from a reasoned perspective and his own experiences. This was the part of the book that I really enjoyed, and where I found myself looking up passages and verses to check my own perspective. More often than not, I found myself agreeing with Barker. I don't like the God of the Old Testament. As a "loving father" how could he ever ask another parent to sacrifice their child for him? Most people will say it was a test of faith for Abraham, and that he got a bye in the end, and Isaac lived. But Jephthah, in Judges 11, received no such reprieve. There's a litany of examples like this throughout the book, and I won't cite them all here.
Part of the book is a bit more mmmm, academic, I'll call it. Barker provides an analysis of God's omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence, explaining how omniscience and omnipotence are somewhat at odds with each other. He also explains the fallibility of the concepts, as an example. The book got rather deep when Barker presented analysis around the incongruity on the origins of God.
I learned a lot reading this book. I did not know until now that the last verses in Mark regarding the resurrection were not in the original text of the gospel, and were added some years later. I also did not know how much of the story of Jesus shares its origins with many of the pagan religions- it really is all quite fascinating.
Another part of the book that I found interesting was Barker's exploration of the need for religion in determining whether or not a person will be moral and/or ethical. I don't think religion is required to determine morality. Consider the number of different religions and their differences, yet the similar moral code shared by many people regardless of their faith. I have many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim friends who are moral and ethical people. But I know several people who are very vocal Christians who engage in immoral and unethical behavior. Their religious beliefs do not preclude this behavior. I single out Christians here merely because most of my friends profess to be of the Christian faith. I don't mean that statement to say that only people of the Christian faith would be immoral or unethical, I only say that having faith doesn't give one a lock on being a "good" person.
Parts of the book I did not like. Barker spends a fair amount of time explaining why faith/Christianity/Religion is wrong and trying to convince readers to move to atheism. I think faith- or lack of it- is a very personal journey. I applaud Barker's efforts to encourage free thinking and reason in determining what one believes, but I almost felt a bit- pardon the pun- preached at in the book. I'm happy to discuss my beliefs and my questions with anyone who asks, but I am not on a mission to convert anyone else into thinking like I do. As long as one's belief is reasoned, I'm very respectful of differing viewpoints.
Many people get a great deal of comfort from their faith, and if that works for them, I'm happy to hear it. I prefer to think of myself as a free thinker, accountable for my actions. I do believe in good and evil, and I think that we all have some capacity for both in us. Great things have been accomplished in the name of religion, but so have terrible atrocities. It is an interesting journey to start questioning faith. Some people end up in the way of Dan Barker, turning away from their beliefs. Others have their beliefs strengthened by questioning. It completely fascinates me.
From an enjoyable read perspective, I liked Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America better. But from the perspective of more detailed analysis of why a number of precepts of the Christian faith don't hold up under study, Godless provides a lot of good, factual information.
I've no idea what I am going to read for Book 18. Potentially Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth but I may also go for some fiction as well. There are some books that have been sitting around the house for a while that I've not read yet.

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