“If God tortures, maims and murders people just to see how they will react – to see if they will not blame him, when in fact he is to blame – then this does not seem to me to be a God worthy of worship.” –Bart D. Ehrman
Why do we suffer? This is perhaps one of the most commonly asked questions that humanity faces, and it is also one of the most difficult. We are constantly bombarded with an onslaught of physical and emotional pain on a daily basis – everything from stubbing one’s toe in the morning, to dealing with the normal stresses of staying alive, to confronting the fear, sadness, and grief that flood our minds from any number of mildly difficult to excruciatingly painful experiences that are the norm here on Spaceship Earth. But WHY are we made to suffer? To the best of my knowledge, there are only 2 explanations: the natural…and the Supernatural. In this first of 3 posts on suffering, I will discuss the latter.
Suffering is Punishment for Being Bad?
Many people who believe that a God created the world also believe that God punishes or rewards the members of His creation based on how well they do what He wishes of them (of course, just what exactly He wishes us to do is a major point of contention between differing religions and denominations and has ironically been the cause of an overwhelming amount of suffering). This claim of divine punishment is substantiated in holy books like the Bible. Just read Leviticus 26, or Deuteronomy 28, where God lays out a long and horrible list of punishments for not obeying his commandments, including but not limited to: plagues, disease, blindness, starvation, unquenchable thirst, slaughter by one’s enemies, mental illness, cheating spouses, painful skin sores, slavery, crippling fear and sadness, terrible storms, wild animals eating one’s children, etc, etc, etc.
Now, it is important to understand that the Jewish people who wrote the Old Testament did not believe in Heaven – they believed that one was rewarded or punished during one’s lifetime according to one’s ability to keep all of God’s 613 commandments. This eventually became a problem when they realized that in reality, bad things happen to good people all the time, and often the worst people lead long lives of happiness and success – and this just didn’t add up. The Jews later adopted the Greek idea of Hades and transformed it into the New Testament concept of Hell – where bad people who God perplexedly allowed to live happy lives on Earth would finally get their just desserts after death. Similarly, the idea of the Kingdom of Heaven eventually evolved into the concept of good people going to Heaven immediately following death – which most Christians don’t realize is a very modern idea and not described in the Bible.
But the idea that God sometimes punishes His people for disobeying Him stuck around, and to this day Christian leaders can still be found blaming natural distasters on things like abortion and homosexuality. However, it is clear that God only sends tornadoes and hurricanes during typical seasons following typical weather patterns, and earthquakes, storms and volcanoes often occur in areas where there is little or no human population, making God’s wrath seem rather…random.
The Eastern concept of Karma is also often brought up as a supernatural explanation for why bad things happen. However, it is clear that this idea also falls short of explaining reality, because again, bad things happen to good people and visa versa. This is where the loaded concept of reincarnation comes into play, where one’s seemingly unfair bad luck is explained as a result of punishment for wrongdoing in a past life. If that is true, then a person’s suffering should be seen as a good and essential thing, a way to cleanse one’s soul, and this unfortunate idea contributed to the caste system in several cultures, where the poor are generally not allowed to rise above their position or be helped, seeing as how they are serving out a fair punishment for past life evils. Thankfully, modern civil rights reforms have begun to disintegrate this system, but the lowest rung of society, or the “untouchables,” still face abandonment and abuse to this day in certain cultures.
Suffering is a Necessary and Good Thing?
Another common explanation is that God created suffering for a good and essential purpose. You know – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – that is unless it kills you. Or makes you weaker. Millions of people all over the world incur so much suffering that they succumb to mental illness and have to be institutionalized, or worse, they commit suicide or murder. How can that be a good or valuable thing? Or you may have heard that God created suffering because without it, we could not experience happiness. Seriously? The only way I can experience the love of another is if a woman is gang-raped in Afghanistan? The only way I can truly be thankful for my health is if people in the tropics are constantly dying of malaria and diarrhea? Or the only way I can appreciate eating good food is if millions of children die of starvation in Africa? Really? And the only way I can enjoy feeling safety and security is if somewhere, people are being murdered in a genocidal war? I’m sorry but that’s complete crap and a horrible way to view the world, much less design it.
This point of view also fails to take into account the massive amount of non-human suffering in the world. We now know that most animals, at least those with some form of a brain, experience suffering. Why would God create a world where billions upon billions of animals have existed for millions and millions of years, all experiencing suffering during every day of their existence, long before humans ever came on the scene? Why would He create a world in which nearly all creatures cruelly die of starvation, disease, or being eaten alive? Where is the good there? Where is the necessary lesson and perfection in that plan?
God is Not All Powerful?
Yet another explanation for all the suffering in the world is that God created the world….and then immediately started fucking things up. Again, this comes up in the Old Testament, where God regretted having made man on the Earth (Genesis 6:6), so much so that he sent a flood to murder, well, pretty much every living thing (overkill, much?). He goes on to choose many leaders who end up failing him, and in the New Testament His plan is revealed in Revelations to (once again) destroy everything He created in order to make it all better. How can a perfect God with a perfect Plan have regret, or make mistakes, or even be surprised and angry when things go wrong, when He Himself supposedly had this all planned out from the Beginning- and knew what was going to happen?
This brings us to the concept of Free Will. Many people say that God created the world and put humans on it with the freedom to do as they please. (I will write a future post about the incompatibility of a Divine Plan, Free Will, and Prayer.) But even if that were true, it doesn’t explain why God would create the conditions for so much suffering to occur in the first place. For instance, He apparently created things like mental illness, sexual lust, greed, and hate in the human mind, tempting us at every turn to do evil. Oh that’s not God, that’s Satan, you say? Then why did God create Satan, and why has he let Satan cause evil all over the world for thousands of years now? And again, that still fails to provide a supernatural explanation for animal suffering. Maybe God really is a failure. I mean, running a Universe has to be pretty hard I suppose. That is, unless, you had the power to create it exactly how you wanted it. And if God did indeed create such a suffering-filled world on purpose, that leads us to…
God is Not Good?
There is, of course, the possibility that God does indeed exist, and He is, in fact, evil. Again, the Bible backs this up in Isaiah 45:7, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” Not to mention that there are 2,821,364 documented murders by the hand or under the command of God in the Bible (and that’s not counting all of the deaths in the Flood). And one has to only browse through a few of the moral doctrines that the Bible puts forth to see what kind of monster Yahweh must be. This is all punishment for Original Sin, you say? Then why did God make the damn Tree in the first place, or an evil talking snake for that matter, and not even warn Adam and Eve about evil talking snakes? Or why didn’t he just kill Adam and Eve and start over, like he did with the Flood, instead of punishing billions of people for the mistake of 2 people thousands of years ago? And really, how could Adam and Eve be held responsible for committing evil…before they ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil?
Of course, the standard explanation from most Christians is that God had to create and then have His own Son murdered…so that He could create us in Heaven and then send us to suffer on Earth…where we would be tempted to sin….so that He could forgive us…for the sins that He predisposed us to commit…so that we could eventually make it back to Heaven…to be with him. Or we could choose to not believe in the story of Jesus and be sent to burn in Hell. But if God made His Divine Plan from the Beginning of Time, and He knows who will accept Jesus and who won’t, then that means He knows exactly who will burn in Hell way ahead of time- and that’s billions of billions of people – knowing full well that they will burn in Hell…and yet He creates them anyway just to watch it all happen. Epic fail, God.
Or perhaps the proper explanation is that there simply is no God.
After critically examining the evidence, it is clear to me that supernatural explanations simply fail to account for the suffering we see in the world. In fact, modern science has met with ancient wisdom to actually describe the natural reasons why we suffer, and the good news is there is hope in eventually overcoming it.
More on that in my next 2 posts. In the meantime, remember that no one truly suffers alone. At least we have each other. Reach out to others, and just keep breathing.
***Author’s Note: This post was inspired by the works of many others, but in particular by an awesome series of videos by Youtuber Todd Gates. You can check out his excellent book, “Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer” here for an even more in depth look at many inconsistencies in the Bible and Christian thought.
***Author’s Note: Some of you may know that I used to play in a band here in Austin, and recently I was asked to write an album review. Therefore this post doesn’t have anything to do with Humanism or any of the other topics I’ve covered–it’s an attempt to both stretch my writing muscles and to give back to the music community that welcomed me and my music in once upon a time. Thanks for reading.
Bands like the Heard Theorem are exactly why I love living and listening to music in Austin. With their debut EP “No, Of Course!”, The Heard Theorem, with Eric Heard at the helm, has honed their craft and unified their sound, creating a unique blend of the familiar and the experimental. Think 80’s and 90’s Alternative meets Indie Pop Rock with a hint of singer/songwriter thrown in for good measure. The rhythm will get you moving in no time, and the passion with which Heard sings his honest lyrics will make you listen.
The first song, “Cliffs”, simply has one of the coolest intros I’ve heard in a long time. It quickly escalates into a hard-driving anthem of loss, painting a stark picture of a moment that unfortunately many of us have had to face– moving out of “that apartment”, where it all went down, the final symbolic blow of a relationship beyond repair. I’ve had to leave that apartment and “that girl” myself, and the band definitely captures that swarm of emotions here, especially with Heard’s incredible range of vocal performance woven together with refreshingly inventive guitar work.
Listening to “Failure”, there is pain here, especially in the rather dark intro, with Heard easily communicating this anger at the ironic struggles of modern life. However this is not a song stuck in the mire, but rather it evolves into an upbeat and self-reflective take on perseverance, even in the midst of our own self-created failures. It speaks of finding a balance and trying not to get in your own way (a positive message for any up and coming band striving for acknowledgment). And yes, as the song relates, sometimes you just have to say Fuck It.
“Governor Ego” is an unflinching social criticism of one of politics’ most polarizing figures. Though his name is never actually mentioned, the band’s clever use of soundbites makes it obvious that the central character referred to is the fellow living in the Big White Mansion in the Heard Theorem’s home town of Austin. But more than a criticism of a governor, the song angrily attacks the hypocrisy and ignorance of modern politics itself, which is something both sides of the Aisle should certainly take heed of.
As a native Austinite myself, I love the reference in “Moontower” to the city’s classic Moonlight Towers, first installed in the late 1880s to light the city at night, and featured prominently in the keg party scene in the film “Dazed and Confused”. Again the band combines heartfelt ballad-like vocals with an uptempo beat and driving guitar, this time testifying to the confusing intricacies of human relationships, successfully wrapping up an EP recording that is definitely worth having in your collection for many repeated listenings. And if you like what you hear, be sure and check out one of the Heard Theorem’s awesome and energetic live performances too.
My heart aches for the victims of the recent school shooting, as well as for the direct and indirect victims of any such violence, which includes each and every person on Earth. Unfortunately, this event has triggered many people to blame the secular movement, posting and saying things like, “The reason this happened is because we took God out of our schools.” I would appreciate your consideration while I explore this horrible notion. If I have left anything out or said something incorrect in your opinion, please feel free to let me know. I could be wrong.
First of all, if you believe in God, then you first have to ask yourself if you believe:
A.) That God has a direct influence on events here on Earth, so that he can make certain things happen or prevent certain things from happening (at least some of the time). Or,
B.) That God created the Universe with certain physical laws and moral guidelines, but then he stepped out of the creation process and does not have a direct influence on events.
Now, if you believe that God just created us with certain potential and now he just sits back while the game of Earth plays out, then the shooting did not happen because we took God out of schools, but simply because God created us with violent tendencies and mental illness, and these things will continue to happen no matter what until we figure out how to best deal with that.
If, however, you do believe that God, by virtue of his willpower, his almighty hand, mental influence, or angels and demons, does in fact have a direct influence on events, then God could have prevented this tragedy, but did not. So let’s look more closely at what that means.
If the claim that “removing God from schools caused the Newtown tragedy” is true, then that means that either:
A.) God caused or let this tragedy happen because it was part of his divine plan, or
B.) God caused or let this tragedy happen as punishment for removing religion from schools, or
C.) God caused or let this tragedy happen because we asked that His presence be removed from schools, and therefore he politely obliged by removing his protection.
If you believe the first option, that this violence was part of God’s plan, then frankly I find that sick. Why would God kill so many innocent victims and cause so much suffering just to suit His own needs, or to make more people believe in Him? In the Bible, God realized that people wouldn’t believe in him unless he performed miracles to bend the laws of physics or to instantly heal suffering (Exodus Chapter 4, John 20:24-31), so he made sure that his prophets, like Moses and Jesus, could perform such miracles to convince the masses of His existence. Why doesn’t he just allow these types of miracles to be performed today (he could even put it live on liberal media TV just to convince everyone), instead of using the death of children to promote Himself?
If you believe the second option, that God used this mass murder of innocents as punishment for taking religion out of public schools, then again, frankly that is sick. Why would God punish innocent people to pay for the sins of others? He could have simply caused mass shootings to happen only to people who supported the separation of church and state, which would have sent a clear message, but he didn’t. He killed Christians along with everybody else. And if God used this event as punishment for Christians who sat by and allowed religion to be removed from schools, then why didn’t he send mass murderers to kill only adults who are old enough to actually make those kinds of choices, instead of murdering children who can’t?
If you believe the third option, that God simply let this happen because we removed his protection by taking religion out of schools, then that doesn’t fit with the evidence we have about how the world works. First of all, Christians are critical of the secular community for asking that things like set times for public prayer, religious symbols, and religious acts like songs and plays be removed from the shared school property and curriculum. The secular community has adopted this position, because doing so would ensure that no religious belief is favored or marginalized, including not believing in religion. The idea is that school is for learning about things like math, science, history, literature, etc, not religious worship.
It is important to note that removing a set time for communal prayer in school does not forbid anyone from praying on their own. In fact, the Bible discourages people from praying in public just to be seen by others, (Matthew 6:5), so I see no problem with individuals praying in private or silently in public during school. It should also be noted that not teaching the Bible at school doesn’t forbid people from reading it on their own time. And just because there is a lack of crosses on the walls, or because the school play is about winter and not Jesus’ birthday, that doesn’t mean that children and teachers can’t live and act according to Christian principles and values, even during school time. Additionally, it should also be noted that by removing public prayer and religious activity in school, no one is actually asking for God to remove his protection. Or are Christians insinuating that learning in a secular building creates some kind of “force field” that somehow blocks the prayers of Christians from getting to God? I can’t see the logic or love in a God who would remove his protection from an entire school with faithful Christians in it, simply because there’s no pictures of Jesus or no prayer over the speaker system.
Also, if communal prayer, reading the Bible, and putting up crosses afford buildings God’s protection, then why do priests abuse children in churches, and why do churches full of good people succumb to lightning strikes, fires, explosions, tornadoes, hurricanes, and, tragically, violence? Sadly, one of my own family members was killed in a church shooting a few years ago.
Now, there is also another group of thought regarding the reasons for this tragedy. Some Christians say that God does not literally cause or allow these types of tragedies to happen. For this group, they see God as having less of a direct influence on events, but rather that he influences the minds of humans through his Book, his followers, and as a presence in human minds. Some of these types of Christians also believe that taking God out of schools causes school shootings and other bad things to happen. However, they attribute this to the fact that children in secular schools are influenced by other things besides religion, and that being in school without worshiping or learning about God causes them to be sinful and violent, or that they eventually grow up to be so. These Christians are asking us to believe that children who are not constantly having religion crammed down their throats while learning Algebra and American History cannot be good Christians, or have less of a chance of being good Christians.
This is obviously not true, because secular schools produce both faithful Christians and non-believing atheists, and turn out both well-behaving and misbehaving kids, just as religious schools do. However, even if it were true that keeping God out of schools negatively influences Christian behavior, then I would see it as the responsibility of families and churches to be even better at religious education when kids are at home and at church. And if you believe that a religious school produces better kids than public school, then there are plenty of private religious schools that your children can attend. If these schools are too expensive, then maybe you should be an advocate for making more affordable religious education available, instead of blaming the secular community. All we’re saying is that public money shouldn’t be used for religious purposes in public schools. It should also be noted that children will unfortunately be subjected to bad things no matter what their upbringing– religious or secular. I personally think believers and non-believers should be working more together to remove bad elements from society as a whole.
So to sum up my position: if God exists but does not have a direct influence on events, then tragedies like this cannot be solely blamed on secular schools. If, however, God does have a direct influence on events and allowed this tragedy happen as part of a greater plan, as a punishment, or because He equates secular education with asking Him to remove his protection of individuals, then God is obviously a sick monster, flawed in His ways, or of course as I see it, simply not real. Additionally, if you insist that constant religious education is essential to protecting children from the evils of this world, then I recommend private religious schools. I do acknowledge though that religious people need their religion especially at times like this to cope with the pain and fear that we are all experiencing, and I completely understand and respect that. However, if people are using this event to blame secularity or the non-religious community, I certainly feel the need to respond.
So why do I believe tragedies like the Newtown school shooting happen? In the aftermath, people will blame this on lack of gun control, and too much gun control, and the religious and non-religious will blame each other, and everyone will blame drugs, tv, movies, the internet, and video games. But the real reason things like this happen is because two people have sex, and then make a baby, and that baby grows up and isn’t taught how the world works and how to handle the complexities of modern life and how to responsibly handle the natural thoughts and emotions that we as humans have to deal with in this life. It also happens because some people, most through no fault of their own, have broken parts in their brains, and tragically they go unnoticed, ignored, untreated, or mistreated. Until we get these issues figured out, mass killings like the awful events in Connecticut will continue to happen, and with increasing frequency.
I’ll leave you with a post from Facebook that I actually DID think might be helpful during this time:
Should healthcare plans be required to cover birth control? Should abortion be legal? Should the government fund planned parenthood? Should Creationism be taught in schools alongside evolution? Should prayer be allowed in schools, football games, or the Oval Office? Should homosexuals be allowed to marry? Is being an atheist unpatriotic? Should the 10 Commandments be displayed in government buildings? Should public policy and law be based on Christian values? Is America, in fact, a Christian Nation? These are the tough questions our country is facing these days, and these concepts are being hotly debated across the land in committee meetings, courtrooms, social networks, and the public media. Divisive as they may be, these are issues that we will have to come to some agreement on before we can move forward together as a nation in this rapidly changing world.
The Separation of Church and State
These questions all revolve around the idea of separation of church and state. This phrase was coined by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 in a widely-printed letter discussing the First Amendment with the Danbury Baptists, a religious minority in Connecticut who were concerned about the prevalence of the Congregationalist Church in that state:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their “legislature” should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”
As an example of this separation, in 1796 the Treaty of Tripoli was signed under President John Adams to bring peace with North African Muslim pirates, and it intended to show that the United States was not like other nations, like England for example, who had established a State Religion of Christianity and were thus perceived as a threat to the Muslim faith. Article 11 reads:
“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”
The Declaration of Independence was a document adopted by the Continenal Congress on July 4th, 1776 to declare America’s separation from England, and it was written almost entirely by Thomas Jefferson. God is referenced 4 times:
twice in the Preamble:
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
and twice in the final paragraph:
“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,… And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
It is important to note that the Declaration of Independence was not, nor was it ever meant to be, a founding document to design the laws and regulations of our country. It was a moral plea to England justifying why America should be an independent nation, a self-evident right (not referred to as a “Biblically-evident” right, by the way) that the founders believed came from God. It is also noteworthy that “religion” is not mentioned once, much less “Christianity”, and that the terms “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” and “Divine Providence” were all common Deist terms, and certainly not representative of Christianity alone.
The United States Constitution was adopted on September 17, 1787, by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and was put into effect on March 4, 1789. God is never mentioned once, except in the signature section, where it says, “Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven,” which is of course was a common notation and not a religious reference. Religion is only mentioned once in Article VI where it states that “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States,” meaning that anyone could serve in public office regardless of their religion or lack thereof. It should be noted, however, that this applies only to federal office, and several state constitutions do require a religious test to hold certain offices, although this is rarely enacted.
The Bill of Rights consisted of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution and was presented to the First U.S. Congress by President James Madison and came into effect on December 15, 1791. The First Amendment states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The part about religion is called the “Establishment Clause,” and it specifically states that the United States government cannot establish an official religion or stop the free exercise of religion. This is the clause addressed by Jefferson in his “Separation” letter, and clearly shows that neither Christianity nor any other faith can be a national or official religion. This idea has been held up in many Supreme Court cases throughout our nation’s history. It is also important to remember that the Framers of the Constitution were just a few generations removed from the Puritans, who escaped to America to practice their religion freely, which they could not do under the official state-declared Church of England.
Was American’s Government Based On Christian Values?
So the founding fathers clearly established separation of Church and State and did not declare Christianity as the official religion, but did Christianity influence their ideas? Of the 55 delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, 51 were most likely Christian, which no doubt influenced their morality and worldview. Many of the early leaders held prayer during government meetings, declared religious proclamations, and attended church services at the Capitol and apparently did not see these as violations of the Establishment Clause.
However when the founding fathers set out to design a nation, they looked to Roman and Greek thought (as in Plato’s The Republic) as well as deist philosophers like John Locke and David Hume, among others. Deism and theistic rationalism were two schools of thought that developed out of the Age of Enlightenment, which helped influence both the American and French revolutions. Many of the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson, were clearly heavily influenced by these principles, which focused more on reason and observation as well as reverence for the natural world, and less on religious literalism, dogma, and supernatural claims. Jefferson even famously assembled the “Jefferson Bible,” which consisted of the New Testament Gospels, omitting nearly all supernatural claims including references to the Holy Trinity, angels, miracles, the Resurrection, and Jesus’ divinity, all of which were notably doubted as being factual by most deist thinkers.
It is also clear that democracy is not a Biblical ideal, since God’s chosen people were commanded to be ruled over by kings who earned their position through birthright, including Jesus himself, and not by popular vote.
In God We Trust
So if Christianity isn’t America’s official religion, and if its government wasn’t directly based on Christian principles, why is “In God We Trust” the national motto and on all of our money? Well, “In God We Trust” didn’t appear on U.S. coins until 1864, during the Civil War. Eleven northern Protestant churches, during a time of turmoil and deep religious sentiment, lobbied for a statement recognising “Almighty God in some form in our coins,” and Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, with an act of Congress, obliged.
E pluribus unum, latin for “out of many, one,” was our nation’s unofficial motto when the Great Seal of the United States (both sides of which can be seen on the back of a dollar bill) was adopted in 1782. In 1956, during the height of the Cold War, the official motto was changed to “In God We Trust” by Congress under President Dwight Eisenhower, in part to differentiate the U.S. from atheistic Communist countries. The phrase was added to paper money in 1957. Some secularists view these changes as illegal and a violation of the Establishment Clause since they favor monotheistic religions, but the language has been held up and reaffirmed by the government over time. It was also during the scare of Communism when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 by Congress, 12 years after the original secular version of the Pledge was first officially recognized.
A Christian Nation
The majority of Americans, between 76 and 80%, consider themselves to be Christian. I would say that alone defines America as a Christian nation. I think that it is also completely fair to say that most of the founders of our country, from the Puritans to the leaders of today, have been Christian or at least subscribed in part to Christian ideals. However, I believe that I (along with many others) have demonstrated that America was not designed around the Christian religion, and that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution intended for there to be a distinct wall of separation between church and state.
However, public attitudes have been changing about this Separation and what it means, primarily as a result of a movement that gained steam in the late 1970s called the Christian Right. This right-wing informal coalition, mostly founded around a core of white Evangelical Protestants, has had a growing heavy influence on governmental policy and social thought through political and social groups like the Moral Majority, The Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, the 700 Club, and the Family Research Council. Unfortunately, these groups have been shown to spread misinformation and harmful ideas, mainly through public figures like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson. Falwell and Robertson in particular have been criticized for their remarks blaming certain natural disasters and the 9/11 attacks as God’s punishment for homosexuality and secularism. Other proponents have declared that the theories of evolution and the Big Bang are the direct result of Satan’s influence. Some have even said that you cannot be a true patriotic citizen if you don’t believe in God.
Most people who agree with the views of the Christian Right believe that the Theory of Evolution is false and that Creationism/Intelligent Design should be taught in schools, that abstinence rather than safe sex should be taught to teenagers, that homosexuality is both a choice and wrong, that gay marriage should be illegal, that birth control should not be covered under health care, that abortion is wrong and should be illegal, that stem cell research is unethical, that morality comes from the Bible, that Christian teachings from the Bible should be reflected in U.S. law, that the conflicts in Israel and the Middle East are a sign of the End Times, and that Jesus will be returning sometime within the next 50 years to issue in the Apocalypse. Many people, both secular and religious, see all of these ideas as direct threats to reason, personal freedom, and national safety.
I personally hope to see a return to a more secular understanding of our government as the original founding fathers intended, one where our freedoms are not restricted by any one religion, and yet one where everyone has the freedom to believe whatever religion they choose, or to choose not to believe at all.
As John F. Kennedy famously said, “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”
For more information, start with the following:
Islam means “voluntary submission to God,” and Islamic adherents are called Muslims. The defining belief of Islam is that there is only one god, Allah (known as Yahweh in the Bible), and that Muhammad was his final prophet. Muslims comprise nearly a quarter of the world’s population with nearly 1.7 billion followers. Islam is the 2nd largest religion behind Christianity, though as one of the fastest growing religions, it is predicted to take the top spot within decades.
Islam and the Bible
Muhammad (whose name means “praiseworthy”) is claimed to have been born around 570 C.E. in the Arabian city of Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia. Muslims believe that Muhammad, believed to have been a decedent of Abraham, was the last in a long line of prophets, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and others. Muslims view Muhammad and all of these prophets, including Jesus, to be mortal humans and not divine, although some could perform miracles. They believe that the Bible (both the Old and New Testament) is a divine and true revelation from God, but that it has been corrupted by men over time, and therefore God had to give Muhammad a new revelation to correct the message.
This final revelation and only existing literal word of God was revealed to Muhammad over 22 years and written down as the Quran sometime after Muhammad’s death in the year 632 C.E. Quran means “the recitation,” and Muslims believe that the only pure form of the Quran is when it is recited out loud in Arabic. Muslims also consult the “hadith,” a collection of Muhammad’s sayings, actions, and characteristics (written down 200 years after his death), which is considered to be an essential supplement to the Quran.
According to Islamic belief, Muhammad was a merchant and a shepherd in Mecca until the age of 40, when he claimed to have begun receiving a revelation from God through the angel Gabriel and continued to periodically receive such revelations for the next 22 years of his life. He preached these revelations to his companions, who memorized them and helped spread them throughout the territory with the intent of driving out paganism. He became a military leader of his followers, leading battles against Meccan tribes who were hostile to his teachings and followers. By the time he died in 632, Muhammad had conquered Mecca, destroyed all the pagan idols in the city and had united the many tribes of Arabia under a single Islamic faith.
Muslims collectively believe that the Quran is the literal word of God, and that Muhammed was his last and most important prophet. They believe in angels as divine messengers of revelation. Muslims also believe in the “Day of Resurrection,” when God will resurrect everyone that has ever died and judge the living and the dead according to his or her own deeds in life. There are several sins that could condemn one to Hell, but forgiveness is possible if repentance is made. Those deemed worthy will enter Paradise, where everything that you have longed for in this life will exist, including servants, hangover-free wine, jewels, and yes…virgin wives. Muslims also believe in predestination, the idea that nothing good nor evil can happen without God’s permission, although paradoxically they see humans as having free will in their personal actions. Angels, on the other hand, do not have free will, although a third kind of being that God created, called jinns, do have free will. Iblis is a Shaytan, or bad jinn, who casts evil suggestions into the hearts of men.
The Five Pillars of Islam are the five basic obligatory acts that all Muslims must perform. 1) The Shahadah, or basic creed of Islam, must be stated as follows: “I testify there are no deities other than God alone and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” 2) Ritual prayer, or Salah, is performed 5 times a day, with Muslims kneeling in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, mostly reciting Quran verses in Arabic. Muslims meet to pray and study together in Mosques. Jurists, the clergy of Islam, are considered less of a divine authority and more of a class of highly educated Muslim scholars. 3) Alms-giving, or Zakat, is the duty to give a fixed portion of your accumulated wealth (if you can afford it) to the poor and needy and to help with the spread of Islam. 4) Fasting from food and drink is done from dawn to dusk every day during the holy month of Ramadhan. 5) Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it must make the pilgramage, or Hajj, to Mecca at least once in their lifetime, including walking 7 times around the Kaaba, the supposed first stone house of worship built for Allah toward which all Muslims pray.
There are 2 main holidays in Islam. Eid Al-Fitr is celebrated at the end of Ramadan, and Muslims usually give zakat (charity). Eid Al-Adha is celebrated at the end of Hajj, and Muslims usually sacrifice an animal and distribute its meat amongst family, friends and the poor.
Criticism and Extremism
Immediately following Muhammad’s death in 632 C.E., Islam split into 2 factions. Those that believed that Muhammad had appointed his son-in-law as his successor became known as Shias. Those that instead believed Mohammad claimed no successor wanted Muhammad’s father-in-law to be the new leader, and became known as Sunnis. Today, 75 to 95% of Muslims are Sunni, while 10-20% are Shia, and there are several other small factions and denominations. These groups have been engaged in perpetual argument and war against each other ever since their inception.
While Islam has given humanity many great works of art, architecture, music, and culture, there are plenty of things to criticize about this self-proclaimed religion of peace. Muhammad himself was either crazy or a liar for claiming to talk to angels. He was known to have several wives, including one who became his bride at the age of 10. He owned slaves and led armies in battle who killed many Meccans. the Quran itself, although it has many verses prescribing peace and virtue, also endorses violence, slavery, spousal abuse against disobedient or unsubmissive wives, and apostasy– the idea that the penalty for leaving the Islamic faith is nothing less than death. As author Sam Harris wrote, “The truth that we must finally confront is that Islam contains specific notions of martyrdom and jihad that fully explain the character of Muslim violence.” Check out the online Skeptic’s Annotated Quran for plenty more examples of such violent and repressive principles.
Unlike the secular government of the United States, many Muslim countries incorporate religion into their governments through Sharia law, which is based on precepts of the Quran and the hadith. These laws address all aspects of Muslim life and are considered the infallible law of God. There are many concerns from reasonable people about Islamic law’s harsh, oppressive, and at times incredibly violent views regarding women, homosexuals, slavery, human rights, and free speech.
While of course not all Muslims are terrorists, and though the majority are peaceful and non-violent, Islamic extremism still abounds and has been terrorizing the world for centuries. Terrorists use the more violent aspects of the Islamic texts to justify extreme violence and jihad holy war against anyone they perceive as a threat to the Islamic faith. The United States is seen as a Christian Nation (Muslims consider Christians to be pagans because they believe in the Holy Trinity), and the U.S., along with all of Western Culture in general, is perceived by many as a direct threat and insult to Islam. In addition many Muslims are resentful of American occupation of their lands. Muslims are particularly enraged by any blasphemy of their prophet, causing many to protest, attack and even murder over such things as poorly made movies and harmless cartoons. All of these hostilities led to the attacks of 9/11 on American soil and the recent attacks on America’s foreign embassies, and they continue to be a direct threat to freedom of speech as well as global safety.
Again from Sam Harris: “It is time we recognized—and obliged the Muslim world to recognize—that “Muslim extremism” is not extreme among Muslims. Mainstream Islam itself represents an extremist rejection of intellectual honesty, gender equality, secular politics and genuine pluralism. The truth about Islam is as politically incorrect as it is terrifying: Islam is all fringe and no center. In Islam, we confront a civilization with an arrested history. It is as though a portal in time has opened, and the Christians of the 14th century are pouring into our world…
“…Our press should report on the terrifying state of discourse in the Arab press, exposing the degree to which it is a tissue of lies, conspiracy theories and exhortations to recapture the glories of the seventh century. All civilized nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilize much of the Earth. Muslim moderates, wherever they are, must be given every tool necessary to win a war of ideas with their co-religionists. Otherwise, we will have to win some very terrible wars in the future. It is time we realized that the endgame for civilization is not political correctness. It is not respect for the abject religious certainties of the mob. It is reason.”
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Israel has certainly had its share of attention in the news lately. How often do we hear about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and for how many years now? Is that really STILL going on? Each political party’s position on Israel and the authenticity of Jerusalem seemed to be a key point of each platform in this election year. Why the heck is that a factor? And now we hear that Israel is threatening to attack Iran before Iran attacks Israel, and many think that Iran may be developing a nuclear weapon. How are we somehow mixed up in the middle of all this? Confused? I was too, so I set out to try and make sense of all this nonsense. Keep reading and I’ll explain why Israel matters so much, why everyone seems to be talking about it, and why it will matter even more in the near future.
A Brief History
In the Bible, Israel was the land Yahweh gave to his chosen people, the Jews, through a covenant with Abraham, his son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob, who was renamed “Israel” by an angel of God after the angel was unable to defeat Jacob in a late-night wrestling match (Israel means “one who wrestles with God”). Jacob, or Israel, had 12 sons, who became the direct ancestors of the “12 tribes of Israel”. It was these chosen descendants of Abraham that Moses, Jacob’s great, great grandson, led out of slavery from Egypt back into the Promised Land of Israel, also known as Canaan or Palestine.
Judaism flourished in the area, followed by Christianity. The land of Israel was conquered and re-conqured by numerous tribes and empires throughout the ages, including the rapidly-expanding Islamic empire in 635 C.E. Islam is the third great Abrahamic religion, stemming from Judeasim and Christianity, and is largely focused on the revelations of the prophet Mohammed. The region remained under Muslim control for 1300 years. This bloody piece of real estate then changed hands many times during the Crusades of the Middle Ages and was eventually taken over by the Ottoman Empire, which then lost the land to the British after World War I.
Zionism, a Jewish movement of nationalism that encouraged displaced Jews to return to Israel and form an independent state, began to grow, especially after the horrible atrocities of the Holocaust during World War II. In 1948 Israel declared its independence from the expired British rule and was recognized as a democratic state by the United Nations in 1949. Immediately after declaring independence, Israel went to war with the Arab nations surrounding it, and the area has remained in perpetual conflict ever since.
A Nation Divided
Today, this region is fiercely divided between the Jewish-controlled state of Israel, the West Bank and Eastern Jerusalem controlled by the Islamic Palestinian Authority, and the Gaza strip controlled by Hamas, a terrorist offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamic State of Palestine declared its independence in 1988. However, while Palestine is recognized as an official state by two thirds of the world’s countries, it is not recognized by the United Nations or several Western countries, including Israel and the United States.
The city of Jerusalem is literally at the heart of this conflict. During its history, Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times. Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Jerusalem was divided with Jews mainly in the western part and Palestinian Muslims and Christians mainly in the eastern part. Following the 1967 Six-Day War, the eastern part of Jerusalem came under Israeli control and was annexed by Israel. Most of the international community and the United Nations declare this annexation illegal, however today both the Jewish State of Israel and the Islamic Palestinian National Authority claim Jerusalem as their capital city. The United Nations, as well as the United States, does not officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and instead favors it becoming an international city, or at least a peaceful shared capital between both Israel and Palestine.
Jerusalem is such a hotbed of violence mainly because it sits at the exact intersection of the world’s three great Abrahamic religions that all originated there, with each faith laying claim to several historical sites of significant religious importance. According to the Bible, King David established Jerusalem as the capital city of God’s Holy Land, and his son Solomon built the first Jewish Temple there. Modern Jews consider the entire city holy, and many make pilgrimages to the Western Wall or “Wailing Wall” in the heart of the Old City, believed to be the remaining wall of the second temple built by King Herod. Jerusalem is important to Christians as the site of many significant events in the life of Jesus, including the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. Muslims believe that the prophet Mohammed was carried from Mecca (in modern day Saudi Arabia) to the temple in Jerusalem on a magic flying horse, where he ascended to Heaven to receive Allah’s holy instructions. The Islamic shrine the Dome of the Rock was built on top of the Jewish Temple Mount.
America, Israel, and the End of the World
The United States and Israel have become strong allies due to shared democratic and religious values. Israel is also one of only 2 non-NATO allies in the Middle East, making it an important strategic ally. The U.S. has generally supported the Zion movement and was instrumental in helping Israel attain statehood. Additionally, the U.S. has supplied Israel with military weaponry to defend itself, and Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. aid since WWII, receiving $3 billion a year from us since 1985. The Democratic party even came under fire this year when it originally neglected to mention Israel at all in its official Party Platform.
Many find this favoritism dubious, and it has caused added tension with many of the world’s Islamic nations. Iran’s President Ahmadinejad is sympathetic to Palestine and has publicly threatened Israel with annihilation, and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has implored the U.S. to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Israel has also threatened to preemptively attack Iran if the U.S. does not intercede. We are being dragged into a fight.
Some people actually see potential military conflict over Israel as a good thing! Both the Old and New Testaments predicted that God would gather the scattered Jews into a nation once again, and in 1948 when U.S. President Truman cast the deciding vote for Israel’s statehood, Israel’s Chief Rabbi claimed that Truman’s vote had fulfilled a 2500 year old biblical prophesy. The Bible also predicts that Israel will be horribly attacked one last time, triggering the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, Armageddon, and God’s Final Judgement, followed by the renewal of Jerusalem and Heaven on Earth. Indeed, many conservative Christians believe that we are living in the End Times right now, and that WWIII would be a welcomed signal of the return of their savior. Do you find that as terrifying as I do?
I see the whole situation as nothing more than a bunch of whiny children fighting over control of a sandbox, arguing over whose version of their imaginary friend is more real. The only problem is, the children have nuclear weapons to play with, and their silly squabble could destroy us all.