Which is More Powerful? God? Or Belief in God?

The word “atheist” is fluorescent light clinically accurate. Here’s the formula:  a [without] + theos [god] = without god. Godless. God not present, not in thought, word, deed, or intent. Add ist [one who is, does, or makes], and an atheist is someone without god — a godless person. Add ism instead [system, doctrine, practice], and atheism is godless practice.

I never thought I’d be without God, a godless person, or engaged in godless practice. But now I’m all three.

“Atheist” usually calls up the notion of belief or lack of it – we say that an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God. The corollary assumption is that God is out there, existing in divine perfection apart from our opinion on the matter, waiting for us to get with the program. If we don’t get with it, we’re an atheist.

That’s the way it usually goes down. It’s not the way it was with me.

“Without God” is risky. You need to be careful of your surroundings. Aatheism is punishable by death in thirteen Muslim countries. Hindu regions offer up lots of gods you can get crosswise with and ways to make you pay if you do. In a quarter of countries around the world, being an atheist won’t get you killed, but don’t go having an attitude about it or the anti- blasphemy laws will get you – which is currently the case in Pakistan, where it’s okay to be an atheist but a 26-year old woman was recently sentenced to death by hanging for posting caricatures of Mohammed on her WhatsApp account, joining 80 other prisoners currently held under sentences of death or life in prison for violating anti-blasphemy laws.

Here in the USA, patriotism is the state religion, fueled lately with heavy doses of Christian Nationalism. We have our own iconic images that you don’t desecrate – some of which are caricatures of themselves – like football field sized American flags or the line “one nation under God.” As for God, we, like the Muslim countries, aren’t too concerned with offending Vishnu, Brahma, Krishna or the rest of that bunch, but mostly concern ourselves with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – minus the Muslim modifications and plus the Christian ones.

You really need a good guidebook if you want to practice safe religion.

But belief is invisible, so how could anyone know what somebody else believes? Well, they could make like Pope Sixtus IV and authorize Ferdinand and Isabella to round up Jews and Muslims who acted like Christians but were obviously faking it, and let the Grand Inquisitor’s 28 Articles torture the truth out of them. The Inquisition started in 1478 and didn’t end until 1834. That’s a long time to torture the invisible belief out of people. The USA declared itself into existence about fifty years before the Inquisition finally ended, and several former colonies passed laws banning atheists and ministers from public office to ensure separation of church and state. Presumably a minister would admit to being a minister, but I wonder how forthcoming the atheists were. It took a couple hundred years, but the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared those laws unconstitutional in cases decided in 1961 and 1978, but some of those laws are still on the books, and lately Republicans have been trying to get the minister ban lifted. The atheist part? Not so much.

And then of course there’s always the Taliban to keep the world pure.

Moving right along…

About the time the Inquisition had gotten several decades of brutality under its belt, French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote an essay in his Pensées (thoughts) that deals with the high stakes God vs. without God issue. His resolution is known as “Pascal’s Wager,” and people still rely on it (although I’m guessing most don’t know it by name – I never did, not until I became on atheist).

“God is, or He is not. But to which side shall we incline?” Pascal asked. Trouble is, “Reason can decide nothing here.” Uh oh. At least in this country we like to do our own research and make reasonable decisions (on things like Covid vaccination vs. horse de-wormer). But now here’s this French guy telling us we can’t reason our way to God. Yes, there are people who claim they’ve done it, but somebody else always comes along and makes them look stupid. So now what? “Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is,” Pascal suggests, “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.”

Ironically, although you can’t reasonably determine that God exists, it’s reasonable to bet that He does. (The Bible’s God definitely uses male pronouns, and with initial caps – kind of like referring to yourself in the third person.) Since we can’t know if God exists, we can save ourselves by believing that He does instead. It would be unreasonable not to, since the consequences of not believing are so bad. If God exists, we’re good, and if he doesn’t then nothing ventured nothing gained. But if God exists and we don’t believe, we’re seriously screwed.

It’s not reasonable to think God exists, but it is reasonable to avoid punishment. And oh by the way, that punishment happens on the other side of death’s door, so there’s also no reasonable way to know if it’s actually waiting for us when we snuff out.

Seriously?

Pascal’s Wager is Basic Childhood 101 – the religious version of “Wait ‘til you father gets home.” The threat of being eternally subjected to the Grand Inquisitor? No way to know. Better play it safe.

Just take the Wager, Dude. It’s not that hard. Anybody up for pizza?

I never heard of Pascal’s Wager when I was a Christian, and never settled my God issues that way. I just unthinkingly bought the assumption about God being out there waiting for me to get with the program. We used to claim that our faith was reasonable, but looking back at it, it was reeaonable only in the same way that Pascal’s Wager is reasonable – you start with belief, and reasons steps in to clean up after that fact. It’s reasonable to believe in order to acknowleddge the existence of God, which can only be done by believing. After that, every “reasonable” thought falls in line with what belief got started.

Okay. I think I got it.

But then the unthinkable – the unreasonable in light of beief thing – happened:  I became an atheist, but not by choosing to not believe in God anymore. God vs. not God was never the issue – not when I became a Christian and not when I un-became one. The whole thing went down the way Screwtape told Wormwood it would:  “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one, the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” It all happened — slow and ( not always) easy like. Life changed, I changed, and along the way God just kind of… went away. It was like being on a road trip, taking a rest stop, and realizing a ways down the road that God hadn’t gotten back in. For years I tried to figure out how to go back and find him, haunted by a proverb I’d heard at church– “If God feels far away, guess who moved?” If God hadn’t gotten back in, it was my fault. (That’s how it works in Christianity – it’s always your fault.)

I never did find the way back. I went seeking for it but did not find it. I thought maybe God would do the seeking and finding – you now, flag down a passing motorist and chase me down – a modern version of Jesus’s parable about the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to look for the one that wandered off.

Apparently the expiration date on that parable had expired.

In the absence of finding or being found, my life made a slow motion U-turn from “with God” to “without God” and neither God nor I seemed to mind.

Years later, I had the most stunning thought:  I made that happen by not believing.

I know, duh. But stay with me.

Belief was the common thread in all of that torturing and law passing and philosophizing, also in my first believing in God and then not believing anymore. None of that happened without belief or lack of it. Either way, belief rules – by its presence or by its absence. God goes away if there’s no belief in him. That makes belief more powerful than God. I bring God into my life by believing in him. I delete God from my life when I don’t believe anymore. God present or God absent, and all the things the human race does and has done in the name of God – all of it depends on belief. Belief is more powerful than God – it can bring God close or send God away.

The Inquisition? Dying for lack of belief in Allah? Laws against blasphemy that threaten you with death by hanging? Laws against ministers and atheists holding public office? None of it needed God to happen. None of it needs God to keep happening. Belief made all that happen., and belief can take it from here. Belief does all the work. There doesn’t need to be a God out there, existing in divine perfection apart from our opinion on the matter. By believing, we rule.

I didn’t abandon God. He wasn’t out there, existing apart from my opinion on the matter, waiting for me to say I was sorry and take the first step, rev up the belief again, reach out to him and reconcile. I thought God would care, would make the first move, but he didn’t. Now I realize I did all the work, by believing or not. God was irrelevant, absent.

Hell wasn’t on the other side of death’s door.

My old man wasn’t going to come home and give me a whoopin’.

And Pascal just probably needed some time off.

The self-helpers and life coaches love this stuff about the power and primacy of belief. They’ve been telling us we can believe the Italian villa with the Lamborghini out front into existence for some time. But let’s not go gently into the good night of Napoleon Hill’s “whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” It’s dark over there. Belief has a dark side that poses a greater risk than Pascal’s Wager.

Let’s talk more about it next time.

Wild and Free

I live in a tiny mountain town in the middle of nowhere, not on the way to anywhere. But we do have three coffee shops.  I went to one yesterday. A guy was just leaving the order window. He had a pistol strapped to his side. First time I’ve seen that here. You read about that happening in places like Texas. But here?

My first thought was to get out of there. But I didn’t want a different coffee shop. I wanted this one. I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to shoot me, or anyone else. He was with his wife, they were meeting another couple at a table as far away as possible. Probably safe. So I stayed.

So did the gun.

I kept my eyes on it. And on his hands – whether he reached for it unconsciously, making sure it was still there, still ready.

He didn’t.

I wondered what kind of fear makes someone pack heat in broad daylight in a tiny coffee shop in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, not on the way to anywhere.

The answer is, high stress fear. Survival-level fear. Fight or flight level fear. The kind of instinctual fear that shoots adrenaline and cortisol through the system, puts everything on high alert and never shuts it off.

Hair trigger fear.

Shoot first ask questions later fear.

The gun was how he makes his declaration to the world:  “I’m free. Free means I’ve taken matters into my own hands.” The gun was his Great Wall of China, his Maginot Line, his moat full of alligators around his castle. His gun isolates him, sets him apart. He’s always one up on the rest of us. Try anything, and we’re dead. His gun makes him safe. He’ll survive. He’ll be the last man standing.

It made me wary. Where I live, you need to learn what to do if you see a wild animal on the trail – bear, mountain lion, wolf, bull elk. Stay calm, still. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t run. Make yourself as big as you can. Carry a bear bell, maybe pepper spray. And all the rest.

It’s not that wild animals don’t like you. That’s not why they attack. They do it to stay alive. You’re a threat by definition. They can’t take chances. They’re not going to play nice, make friends. You invade their space, they’ll let you know it. You don’t get the message, they’ll take you out.

You don’t win an attack like that.

It’s like when I was a kid, and my friend told me about going to the state fair in the big city and the tough guys who hung out, picking fights with the country rubes. Don’t ever look at them, he advised. He grabbed my shirt, pulled me up close. “You lookin’ at me, kid?” he snarled.

No provocation. You’re at risk just by being there.

At one point the gunman left, got something from his car, came back, passed my table in both directions. I watched his eyes, where he looked, listened to how he talked There was a self-consciousness about him – like a kid who knows he’s being watched, who’s thinking “look at me” and “don’t look at me” at the same time.

The barista closed up shop for the day, hung the “closed” sign. The guy with the gun and the rest of the people at his table got up to leave. He looked for a place to toss his cup. He went up to the window, knocked on it.

“I think they’re closed,” I said. Bad move.

The barista opened back up, took the cup.

He passed our table.

“Have a blessed day,” he said. He pronounced “blessed” with two syllables, offering a benediction that completed the equation. Not only was he armed, he was a soldier in the army of an angry God — like I’ve seen on a T-shirt in a local shop:  a cross, an assault weapon, and the words, “Come and take it.”

He was wild, he was free, and he had God on his side.

I was at risk, just by being there.

I kept still, silent.

Inside, I deflected his blessing. “No thanks,” I thought. “No blessing for me from your God.”

I kept my eyes averted, said nothing.

He went off to the rest of his wild and free day.

I went home, grateful that I know what to do when I meet a wild animal on the trail.

Start With Anxiety, End With Regret: The USA’s Chronic Systemic Stress Legion

“When Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. And crying out with a loud voice, he said, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he was saying to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ And Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion, for we are many.’”

Mark 5 ESV

“My name is Legion, for we are many.”

A Roman Legion was 4,500 – 6,500 soldiers. That’s a lot of demons. You and I will never see something that awful. Let’s hope, anyway.

But what if we already are?

What if something like that is already going on around and in us, that we don’t see?

There is.

Think of it as a deal you’re being offered. It begins with a foregone conclusion that you are inadequate. Failure is certain. You lose. Period. You’re born that way, but that doesn’t let you off the hook – everything is still all your fault. But never mind that, it’s all up to you to get it right. You can’t fail. Everything rides on your success. It’s all up to you. But wait, I just said there’s no way you can do it. If you try and fail, it was to be expected. But you still have to try, and you have to stay positive – you owe that to the rest of us, and we owe it to you. What’s to stay positive about? Well, um, not much. When things don’t go the way they’re supposed to (they never do) it’s all your fault.

Some deal.

Suppose you take it. Then what?

You live in a state of constant anxiety. You can never get it right. Failure vs. success is the ultimate issue in life. Nothing is more important. Your survival depends on it. So does your ability to move beyond survival – being able to thrive, not just survive. But remember, it’s all up to you. You can’t count on getting any help. So good luck out there. But there is no luck. You’re on your own. And that’s a good thing. The best thing. A thing worth everything. A thing worth dying for. The right to do it all your way, even if you can’t. To take survival into your own hands. To be able to say “I did it my way.” – even if everybody else can see the game was rigged.

It’s rigged because the deal is a fraud — all lies, all promises made and broken at random. Everything is always subject to change without notice, and every change works against you. You can and will be overruled. Bait and switch is the norm. There are no ethical codes, everything is at whim, arbitrary. Someone higher up always calls all the shots. You’ll be told what’s good and bad, right and wrong, what’s rewarding and what’s not, what to embrace or avoid… all of which is always changing, so you’ll never really know. But no problem – you’ve got your self, remember? The self that you’d rather rely upon. The self that’s responsible for everything, even if your self was born to be inadequate.

But surely there’s a reward?

Well yes, kind of, sort of – I mean, you have to take it on faith, because you’ll die before finding out for sure, and once you’re dead, you can’t tell the rest of us one way or the other. In the meantime, stay positive, keep your attitude up – that’s your duty, too. Let your guard down, you seal your own fate. Keep believing, that’s the thing. Keep on keeping on. Keep the faith, baby. You owe it to the rest of us. We’re doing our best all the time, too. We’re working hard, just like you. Hard work is the way we can all agree we’ve got good sound character, the right stuff.

How’s that feel? Well, um, it’s a lot of pressure. But you’ll do your best, mean well, want to please, even though you can’t and never will. You’re a loser from the get-go, remember? If you ever let down your self-reliant, positive attitude guard, you’ll feel guilty and ashamed, full of regret. You’ll try to make amends, make sense of confusing and contradictory instructions. Meanwhile your brain will be stuffed with all the times you screw up, embarrass yourself, fall short again and again and again. You’ll have to constantly confess your faults — all of which are held against you, whether you admit them or not. Every conversation will begin with saying you’re sorry, you don’t deserve anything but the worst. Next comes begging for mercy. Self esteem? Not a chance. You’re a worm – a conniving, weaseling worm.

No wonder you’re afraid, stressed out, overwhelmed, despairing. No wonder you’re full of regret.

Some deal.

Would you take it?

I did.

So have millions, billions of others. It’s what people do all around the world, but I don’t live all around the world, I only live in the USA, so I’ll only talk about my home country.

What are we talking about? An abusive relationship? The boss from hell? Yes, that. And much, much more. Way worse.

Welcome to the USA’s Chronic Systemic Stress Legion.

Life in the USA is characterized by systemic, chronic stress. Ubiquitous, unrelenting stress. Stress so everywhere and all the time that we don’t even know it’s there or what it’s doing to us.

We’re talking about the American Way.

The deal is the American Way.

What do we get for the deal? Here’s a short list, from the Mayo Clinic:

Anxiety
Depression
Digestive problems
Headaches
Muscle tension and pain
Heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke
Sleep problems
Weight gain
Memory and concentration impairment

Here’s a longer list, compiled from other sources:

Becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody
Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control
Having difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind
Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless, and depressed
Avoiding others
Low energy
Headaches
Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
Aches, pains, and tense muscles
Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
Insomnia
Frequent colds and infections
Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet
Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
Clenched jaw and grinding teeth
Constant worrying
Racing thoughts
Forgetfulness and disorganization
Inability to focus
Poor judgment
Being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side
Changes in appetite — either not eating or eating too much
Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities
Increased use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
Exhibiting more nervous behaviors, such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing
Mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and personality disorders
Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, and stroke
Obesity and other eating disorders
Menstrual problems
Sexual dysfunction
Gastrointestinal problems, such as GERD, gastritis, ulcerative colitis, and irritable colon

Good stress is when our “executive function” — the thinking, planning, organizing part of our brain — goes to work on a specific task and motivates and instructs us how to get it done. We feel some pressure, but we need that kind of stress. We rise to the challenge. We take it on. We make it happen.

That’s not the kind of stress we’re talking about. We’re talking about chronic, survival-level stress that’s everywhere, all the time, always in and around us, always shaping and warping and plaguing our outlook on life –- the kind of stress that pokes our lizard brain until it wakes up, snaps its chains, and lashes around, making a mess of us and everything and everybody else – stress that sounds the amygdala’s fight or flight siren and never shuts it off.

That’s systemic chronic stress.

Chronic stress becomes systemic when it’s pumped into moment-by-moment life by innumerable invisible psychic energy sources – thoughts, emotions, accusations, judgments – that function like the supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy:  it shapes, defines, organizes, sustains identity and worldview, culture and custom, behavioral norms and character-defining criteria  – how we view life and how we respond to it in all the ways that make us instantly recognizable as the people we and the society we live in think we are.

When stress is both chronic (always) and systemic (everywhere), it floods us and our lives with harm, individually and collectively.

It creates the Legion that torments us.

How did this happen?

It didn’t happen. It’s always been this way, since the beginning. It came to the New World on the first boat. We’re just seeing the latest, most fully developed version. Legions don’t stay static, they progress. Our Legion is cultural – chronic stress is the American way, how we do life, our worldview and modus operandi, how we create and evaluate the world and ourselves and our lives in it. It generates what we see and feel and taste and touch, how we think, what we value, what we believe. It tells us how we’re doing.. It’s also cellular – rooted in our brain cells and the cortisol, adrenaline, epinephrine, norepinephrine producing organs of our bodies. We’re so immersed in chronic stress, and it’s so embedded in us, that we don’t even notice.

It comes from our founding ideologies – Protestant Christianity and the Protestant Work Ethic. They’re so intertwined that “God and Country” and “One nation under God” seem like natural and obvious things to say.

Let’s take a quick tour.

Christianity.

“Peace on Earth, good will to men” might be the biggest lie ever told. Want the truth? Try this:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” Matthew 10:34-36 ESV

What does Christianity want from us?

Perfection.

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48 ESV

That might be the scariest verse in the Bible. Perfect like God is perfect? The God of the Bible is the brutal, blood-lusting, war-mongering, hyper-nationalist, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic, totalitarian, authoritarian despot who arranged Jesus’s murder by torture and has committed himself to the final destruction of the world and the eternal tormenting of its people.

Some kind of perfection.

Be perfect, just like that.

You’ll need that sword.

Only trouble is, you’re a sinner. You screwed up before you were born. Ever since you’ve been making things worse.

As it is written, ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’” Romans 3:10-12,Psalm 14:1-3,Psalm 53:1-3 ESV

You want to get a deep look into Biblical stress, check out Psalm 22 ESV. Christians think it refers to Jesus. Talk about somebody who got a raw deal. Here’s a taste:

“I am a worm and not a man” Psalm 22:6 ESV

Yeah, that about sums it up. If it was written about Jesus (centuries ahead of time), then this is God’s beloved Son we’re talking about, remember? The one whose loving Father arranged for him to be tortured to death – which is another thing that’s all our fault. He’s the one who told us that we can believe anything we want into existence.

 “All things are possible for one who believes.” Mark 9:23 ESV

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” Mark 11:23 ESV

“All things.” Nothing left out. Carte Blanche . Believe what you want, don’t doubt, and it’s yours. You can move mountainsNothing will be impossible for you.

So let me get this straight – the beloved Son who was really a worm and no man said the rest of us can make mountains move by faith, as long as we never have any doubt about it, but then God arranged to have him killed.

Right. I think I got it.

So I’m supposed to never doubt I can throw a mountain into the sea.

I don’t even need to be a sinner for that to be a set up to failure.

Let’s look at another set up to failure.

Capitalism

No, not all capitalism. The kind of capitalism that pulled us out of the Depression, set up a massive social safety net of health care and retirement benefits and worker protections, won a war, rebuilt the USA and world economies, floated all boats, built the middle class, made Horatio Alger upward mobility a reality, sponsored the Civil Rights Movement and a Great Society, and even made a Republican President propose a universal basic income… that kind of capitalism worked just fine.

Today, capitalism like that would be called “Socialism” – the ultimate insult to anything that would look like government for the “general Welfare,” like it says in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. But never mind, government like that is bad now. Today, government’s job is to sponsor capitalism for capitalists (only). We’ve got that thanks to the “free market”  version of capitalism  — another contender for the Biggest Lie Ever. Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics said it was science and they had proved it. It wasn’t, and they hadn’t. What they did was to come up with clever equations that they proved mathematically, and never mind real life. The equations were so smart that smart people won Nobel Prizes for them, so they had to be good.

Then along came Reaganomics and the Gipper’s “trickle-down” economists. Make the rich richer, and it will be good for everyone – another contender for biggest lie ever that explains why we now have economic inequality as bad as what brought on the Great Depression in the first place. We’re repeating history, just like we’re supposed to, and this time the version of capitalism that bailed us out back then is available because it’s not capitalism anymore, it’s socialism. (Shudder when you say that.)

All of that was supercharged in the Bill Clinton/Tony Blair era of we don’t need no stinking social safety net and besides if we privatize everything it will all work.

Then we “won” the Cold War, which proved that Communism was a bad idea (it was) and meant that everything that wasn’t free market trickle down bless the rich economics was socialism (it isn’t). Which trashed the old style capitalism and gave us today’s interplanetary version.

So now we’ve got half the country who thinks “Freedom” means “I by God get to do anything I want and the gummit better keep its hands off my guns and its needles out of my arms, and if I still think Trump won, then he did.”

Well at least they’re right about one thing.

The American Can-do Spirit

America used to be the land of can-do. We got behind stuff –went to the moon, did the impossible (just like Jesus said). But then can-do metastasized. Christian faith moving mountains became think and grow rich, which became the power of positive thinking, which became self-help, which became believe whatever the hell you want, it’s all fake news anyway. Meanwhile capitalism metastasized into entrepreneurs and corporations making gazillions of dollars, paying no taxes, and duking it out to be the first to colonize Mars.

So now we’re got a bunch of believe-whatever-you-want, gun-toting warmongers bringing the Kingdom of God to the USA, and it sure as hell ain’t socialism. And now “work” – i.e., holding a job at low pay and no benefits or promises – is considered a certificate of good character, and if employers can’t get away with it anymore, not after COVID gave their work peons a new outlook, it means that “nobody wants to work anymore.”

Meanwhile, politicians on both sides of the aisle still believe in bootstrap social mobility. Anybody else remember this?

“It’s a simple fact:  The more education you’ve got,
 the more likely you are to have a good job
 and work your way into the middle class.”

Pres. Obama, 2013 State of the Union Address

Good job?! Middle class?! Not anymore, not in 2021.

And education? Say no more.

But the Democrats still believe it.

The Republicans used to believe it, too. Now they just believe in Donald Trump (that was their 2020 “platform,” remember?).

As for Donald Trump, there’s no evidence he believes in anything other than he was born to be king, and the best way to fulfill his destiny is to rally Christian “dominion theology” fundamentalists and keep his “base” enraged and free enough to bring down American democracy – the final blow to which is officially scheduled for the 2022 elections. That’s when it ends. After that, it’s just a matter of time before King Donald takes his throne.

I wish I was making that up.

The Legion Howling in the Tombs

That’s life in the USA in 2021.

We’re talking about the world’s biggest religion, its dominant economic system, and its most powerful country. Christianity. Capitalism. The USA.

Stress. Anxiety. Fear. Uncertainty. Insecurity. Frustration. Unworthiness. Regret. And all the rest of the list.

That’s how we live in the USA. We’re a nation of cortisol, adrenal, epinephrine, norepinephrine junkies. We have to be, to survive. Nobody’s got our back – except for the people taking aim at the targets we’ve got painted there.

But how about the people who are supposed to protect us?

Don’t trust the protectors, all I’m sayin’.

How’s that working for you?

Oh, you know – opioid addiction, obesity, the other stuff on the list. Just normal — our steady self-destructive diet, the polluted air we breathe, the rocks we cut ourselves with.

But we deserve it, remember?

It Takes a Different Person…

… to be a Christian.

… to be a Christian and then an atheist.

Not different like, “Um… that’s different.” Not a different kind of person — a different person, period – a person who’s been transformed into somebody else.

That was message losers like me got when we became Christians. It came in stentorian tones, right out of the Bible:

“Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

Romans 12:2 ESV

Transformation is the ultimate makeover — a change to our form – how we’re shaped, constituted, put together. Transformation alters self and life by rewiring our brain and all the biological functions that feed it. It starts in our “mind” – sense of identity, worldview, perspective, biases — what we see and don’t see, the way we habitually experience the world — and extends from there to the entire ecosystem that is who we are and how we live, inside and out. On the inside, transformation is biological, neurological, physiological, chemical, hormonal. On the outside, transformation is sociological, communal, societal, institutional.

Formation is growing up and growing into. Transformation is growing out of and into something else. Transformation gets started lots of ways — trauma, financial and job stress, health issues, moves, big decisions, surprises — but belief might be the most powerful.

Belief is transformational by definition. Belief conforms us to its realities — we don’t just believe this or that, we become people who believe this or that. Once we become those people, we carry on life accordingly, alongside other like-minded believers. Belief shapes our minds individually and collectively, which shapes our behavior so that we think, do, see, say, and are the right stuff. Belief results in a constant, moment by moment steeping, soaking, marinating, saturating of the brain and the rest of our neuro-biological architecture with all the requisite doctrines and dictates, rites and rituals needed to generate conforming actions, experiences, thoughts, impressions, responses, and sensibilities, which in turn generate conforming identity and behaviors.

While that’s happening on the inside, everything on the outside goes with it. Life reshapes itself –environment, community, culture, customs – around what we believe, informing what we see, hear, and feel, what we’re surrounded with and immersed in, what we think about, our assumptions and expectations, how we respond emotionally, how we dress and decorate ourselves and our environments, who we hang out with and who we avoid, where we live and don’t live, what we own and don’t own, what we eat and don’t eat, what we wear and won’t be caught dead wearing, what we do for work and fun and… the whole package.

We learn to believe by growing into it physically –belief takes up residence in our cellular structure. The more we practice what we believe, the more our biological selves conform our experience of “reality” to what we believe. Since that belief-based “reality” authenticates what we believe, we believe it more fervently. And around we go in a self-reinforcing loop, becoming stronger and more rooted in our belief, inside and out.

Belief fully formed sinks its roots into the deepest, oldest, most evolutionary and instinctive parts of our brains, where it becomes a survival skill. At this point, our lives depend on what we believe. When our beliefs are threatened, we are at risk.

We believe, we live. We don’t believe, we die.

That’s why we hold our beliefs so fervently, defend them so ferociously — doubling, tripling, quadrupling down on belief keeps us safe. Belief does all that for our own good.

Belief makes sure we are assimilated.

Belief makes sure we stay assimilated.

And yes, resistance is futile.

We transform only when we have to. Transformation is about adapting and reacting, but our brains trend to status quo and predictability. Their default setting is entropy, the current trajectory. Left unchecked, transformation is ongoing, in constant movement. Our brains won’t allow it. So we hunker down, settle in, dig in, calcify, resist, isolate, polarize, fortify.

It takes psychic dynamite to dislodge our beliefs.

I had to become a new person to be a Christian. When I drifted away, I had to become a new person to not believe anymore. It’s not that the Christian person I used to be somehow came up with a different opinion about God. Instead, I became a different person –zapped, scrambled, rearranged, shifted – and God became irrelevant. To my former self, “atheist” was never an option. I didn’t choose it, I became it. I became a different person in a new place, with no way to get back. That different person was an atheist — a nonbeliever, one of the godless, the faithless, the backslidden. I didn’t decide my way into that much change. I had to be transformed to get there.

Transformation is change too big to be measured, described, or understood, — change that rampages, doesn’t respect, isn’t abashed. It had no problem propelling me to where I could never have possibly gone.

“Transformation” sounds so spiritual. We have this idea that it’s going to be cool – we’ll be more aware, enlightened. So we take vacations and patronize spas, head to a monastery for a week of silence. Churches sponsor retreats, corporations lay out five-star spreads for off-site strategic planning. It works: put yourself in a new setting, you think new thoughts, feel new feelings. What used to be unthinkable and impossible becomes your new to-do list. The new normal is imminent, yours for the taking — transformation on demand.

Then comes re-entry. Go away and get inspired, then try to take it back to the shop and everybody wants to know what you’ve been smoking. The old normal can’t tolerate it.

You forgot something. You can’t just paste all that newness on your old self, your old life. Do that, everything rips apart. You need to become new. The reason you’re not already doing the new thing is because you’re not a person or organization that does the new thing. If you were, you’d already be doing it. Duh. You want to do the new thing, you need to be transformed. You need to be made new so that you can do and be new. Trying to mix old and new just isn’t going to work. That’s in the Bible too:

“No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

Matthew 9: 16-17 ESV

Books about new wine and new wineskins were making the rounds in my early Christian days. They were books you could use at retreats – fodder for earnest conversations and strategizing — new spurred on by resounding sermon moments about how very Gospely everything was going to be.

Every now and then somebody would find out about St. John of the Cross and his “dark night of the soul,” and quote it in a sermon. You didn’t have to know who he was or actually read anything he wrote — the poetic phrase stood on its own. Apparently transformation could be a major downer. Well, maybe that worked for a 16th Century mystic, but the rest of us had jobs.

On the way out of Christianity I crashed for awhile in the self-help world and thought it would be cool to be one of those speaker, writer, consultant dudes. I got as far as writing some blog posts and making a few trips to do workshops. I got great reviews – earnest, beautiful “this seminar changed my life” reviews. But then I started to think I was actually ruining people’s lives, which is pretty much what had happened to mine. Transformation is messy, mean, uncaring. I didn’t wish it on anybody, so I started telling attendees that they would suffer if they tried to make big changes – they would find themselves in the throes of transformation. I warned them not to use the material because I knew it would work, and when it did they would regret it. I got the impression people thought I was doing a reverse psychology number on them. After awhile I quit doing the workshops. It was unethical to give people a great retreat experience and send them home knowing they would get clobbered and give up.

Who would submit themselves to the kind of transformation that would turn a commando Christian (me) into an atheist?

In a word, nobody. Not even me.

But then I did.

I’m not bragging. You can’t brag about an accident.

We all know we don’t change unless and until we have to. Which means the usual transformation catalyst is…

Trauma.

Me too.

We’ve all seen the major stressors lists. Mine were career, money, health. For starters. When trauma gets rolling, it likes company.

Trauma brings grief. Grief rewires our brains – it puts the stress response (flight or fight) in charge, furloughs the part that makes us feel we’re in control. Memory and strong emotions hog the stage, decision-making and planning move out. Fear about how we’re going to live without what’s been lost goes on permanent reruns we can’t shut off. We get disoriented, lose track of time and place. We go wandering, literally and figuratively. Our whacked out symptoms take up residence.

Trauma and grief stay until the dark night is over. Change catalysts like religious retreats and self-help seminars have the same effect — they suspend our status quo ties to “normal,” heighten emotions, promote reality-bending experiences, warp our risk tolerance, enhance receptivity to new versions of reality. But then the weekend is over and we go back home, where the symptoms quickly fade. We resent it, but it’s better than the alternative, which is trauma and grief staying with it until the job is done.

Trauma and grief is a potent cocktail of transformation. Drink it, and there’s going to be trouble. You’re going to suffer.

You might even lose your faith.

You might join the ranks of the nonbelievers and wonder what wormhole you went through to get there.

That’s what happened to me.

You might be next.

“The Person of Jesus” Fallacy

“I don’t like religion but I like the person of Jesus.”

The religion they don’t like is Christianity – Jesus’ religion. They think it would be better if the church wasn’t involved. Separating an institution from its namesake isn’t easy under any circumstance, but it’s harder here because Jesus and the church are both ancient, and ancient doesn’t time-travel.

We hold a myth that it does, but ancient ideas and stories about ancient people preserved in ancient books can’t make the trip to today. We think if we could snatch those guys (ancient pronouns are definitely male) out of yesterday and plunk them into today, they would be just like us, dealing with the same kinds of issues, having the same kinds of thoughts. Not a chance. We are not like them and they weren’t like us. Our consciousness, experience, and reality are different from theirs. Bring them here or send us there and neither of us would have a clue.

Why? Because everything we feel, think, and do is in context – life happens right here, right now. It all happens in our brains and bodies – neurologically, biologically. We can’t escape being organisms. And we can’t escape the moment. That’s not a cool guru thing to say, it’s the way human life works. Contrary to the popular myth, we’re not eternal souls living on a higher plane while our bodies slog through the muck. We’re all here, like it or not.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

We don’t think reality works that way. We think it’s “out there,” waiting for us to find it. And if it’s Christian reality we’re after, Jesus promised that if we seek it we’ll find it. The only hitch is, the way we find it is by believing it. Christianity doesn’t function without belief. It starts with “whoever believes in him [Jesus] shall have eternal life” and goes from there.

Believing it is finding it. We find it by believing it. It’s not hard to spot the loop.

And if it’s the real Jesus we’re trying to find, there’s still the God-human problem. Theologians can talk all day about how Jesus was both “fully human and fully God,” but there’s no way the rest of us have any idea what that’s supposed to mean, so we stick with what we’ve been taught to believe. We major on the God part — we sanctify Jesus, bathe him in holy light, cast everything he said and did in marble, interpret and rationalize it in hindsight. We figure Jesus as God was always in the know so he knew all along what was happening and how it would be viewed by people like us two millennia later. He set everything up so church doctrine would make sense.

Plus our own memory banks are full of our personal history of faith and anything we might have learned about what’s happened with Christianity while it’s been around. There’s a lot of church and religion in those memories – stuff the person of Jesus” devotees want to trade for a fresh look. To do that, they’re going to have to be really good at “beginner’s mind” – using awareness to seek and destroy biases and assumptions.

Call me Ishmael

I didn’t think about the “person of Jesus” when I was a Christian, I mean, Jesus was special because I was a Christian. Sometimes people talked about loving Jesus. I never felt that way, so I worried that my faith was defective. Guilt was pretty much the extent of my “person of Jesus” experience.

Now that I’m not a Christian, I don’t like the guy.

It’s still shocks me when I write things like that. I never would have, back in the day, But I believed then. I don’t anymore.

Still, some people I’m close to buy the “person of Jesus” thing.

So call me Ishmael — I signed on to give it a try.

“Rabbi”

Jesus was a rabbi. He did what rabbis did:  travelled around teaching his take on things, attracted followers who supported him, and argued with other rabbis. (Rabbi arguing is so essential that the nation of Israel pays them to do it.)

Jesus was a rabbi prodigy – he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah by ditching his parents so he could debate other rabbis om Jerusalem’s temple. That’s like skipping law school for a chat at the Supreme Court. When they found him, in true adolescent fashion he made it their problem that they didn’t know he’d be there.

Then the Biblical record skips ahead twenty years – a gap that generates a lot of sappy artwork of him being a carpenter and “My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter” bumper stickers. What was he doing? The same thing he was doing before his temple debut:  studying, learning, perfecting his case, preparing himself to be a rabbi for the ages. When the photo op was over, he closed up shop and hit the road.

He was good at it – had personal charisma and a message to match. Recruiting was a snap, and before long he had a retinue and a schedule like a megachurch pastor:  he drew huge crowds to public events, taught an inner circle more intensely, and confided intimately with only a handful.

Jesus’ rabbi battles were epic. We like the way he put the smackdown on the competition. My overall impression is that he wasn’t the nicest guy in the world. Seems like he was often rebuking and scolding– like snarling at a man for not having enough faith while he healed his child. Maybe he was like one of those professors everybody warns is “really hard but you’ll learn a lot.” Sometimes I took the class, sometimes I didn’t – either way, I usually didn’t like “the person.”

Populism

Jesus was great in a crowd. He delivered sound bytes you could take home, share with the neighbors — consider the lilies of the field, the very hairs on your heads are numbered, no sparrow falls from the sky without God noticing…. He told great stories – always with a moral, but complex enough that his inner circle sometimes needed a private explanation. People wondered, “Where did he get all this?” “He doesn’t teach like the other rabbis,” they said.

There’s a poly-sci term for it:  populism. Populism reverses the pecking order — the elites will be last and the losers first. The new blessed — the poor, meek, abused, despised, outcast, sick, blind, lame, hopeless, powerless – will inherit the earth and see God. God already has their mansions in Heaven under construction.

Not only that, but they get free healthcare.

Healing

Jesus healed people at his rallies, sometimes stayed up all night doing it.

The Christianity I was part of believed healing should be a normal part of what Christians do. Not all Christianity thinks so. Plus, we all know the debates about did he really, about what qualifies as a “miracle,” and what’s this about casting out demons? In our day, the “placebo effect” has been scientifically documented, plus there have been and still are lots of people who heal without surgery or pharma. Debate all you like, but it’s undeniable that Jesus’s ability to make people feel better super-charged his popularity.

Messianic Populism

Healing people was a big deal. Only the A-list prophets had done it, which meant Jesus might be one of them. There hadn’t been one of those in a few hundred years. More than that, healing was more than a prophet marker, it was Messianic – part of what would happen when God made good on Israel’s long-promised restoration and golden era.

Start talking Messiah, and the populist buzz goes off the charts.

Jesus’ message was clearly Messianic, and he clearly believed he was the Messiah. That’s what went down in a very rabbi-like exchange with John the Baptist (though a couple of John’s followers). The rabbi exchange works like this:  one rabbi quotes scripture, the other responds in kind; and in so doing, they clarify a point between themselves. They’re speaking in code, but they get what each other is after.

“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

Matthew 11: 2-5 ESV

“Are you the one who is to come?” [Are you the Messiah?]

“Go tell John what you see happening around here.” [Yes I am.]

The scripture in question was this:

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
“    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”

Isaiah 35: 5-6 ESV

Jesus made the same point on other occasions, like one Sabbath when he did something else rabbis did – went to the synagogue and read the scriptures, as “was his custom.” Only this time he went off script:  “The prophet Isaiah was talking about me.

“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

“And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:16-21 ESV

Fast forward to today. We know that Jesus’ Messianic populism didn’t go permanent. Instead – according to the church – it morphed into something transnational and invisible that you get in on not by being born in ancient Israel, but by believing that Jesus was a sort of metaphysical Messiah for everybody. A few hundred years later under Emperor Constantine, the invisible Messianic kingdom morphed again into the official Christian institution and infrastructure “the person of Jesus” devotees want to scuttle.

Jesus’ populism was a fail, but that’s okay. We got something better instead. That’s the party line.

Populism Redux

I was a Jesus Freak in the 60’s and 70’s. We were totally into the populist Jesus– the bearded long-hair barefoot bead-wearing anti-war hippie radical Che Guevara look-alike who called out The Establishment and stuck it to the Man.

Today we’ve got the Revenge of the Establishment — the Christian Right’s Jesus who advances Christian Nationalist racist alt-right anti-democracy militarist fascist authoritarianism end stage capitalism.

I don’t know about you, but after the last few years I’ve had quite enough populism for one lifetime.

“We are the 99%” is why populism fails. Occupy camps out in Manhattan, the mob storms the Bastille (or the Capitol) but once the mess is cleaned up the 1% is back in charge while the newly disappointed and disillusioned 99% are back home wondering, “What was that about?”

So far, Jesus” sharp tongue and populism aren’t wining “person of Jesus” points. But how about this:

Jesus Reinvented God

If the Messiah was on the scene, the God of Israel’s history had to be recast.

Israel’s God was a “man of war. Exodus 15:3 He was both a war criminal and guilty of crimes against humanity – a misogynist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic narcissist who must be worshiped and resented it when he wasn’t, a nationalist, fascist authoritarian who openly ordered genocide and gave his conquering soldiers the right to rape and pillage.

You dealt with that God by being afraid – fearing him was “the beginning of wisdom.” Proverbs 9:10 No wonder the rabbinical sects Jesus verbally sparred with – the Pharisees and Sadducees –were obsessed with getting everything just right, down to the last “jot and tittle.” Do something wrong and everybody suffered.

Of course, ancient Israel didn’t think of their God that way. People still don’t today. When they think of God, they think of a Nice Guy in the Sky – like the God Jesus introduced as our “Father” — a too-kind, too-generous, too-indulgent, too-loving remake of the old Monster God.

The Monster God destroyed men, women (except the sex slaves), and children and burned their cities down to make room for his chosen people, whom he also turned on if they got it wrong. That wouldn’t do if there was going to be a Messianic golden era. So Jesus brought a new God, and a new religion with it.

Jesus Reinvented Religion

Jesus’ new religion was based on belief. Belief was the ultimate populist Messianic kingdom strategy. Anyone could believe, even the losers — no temple, no priest, no animals sacrifice required.

Jesus’ new religion was today’s self-help gospel. When Jesus gets on the topic of belief, he’s the original motivational speaker.

“All things are possible for one who believes.” Mark 9:23 ESV

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” Mark 11:23 ESV

That’s the power of positive thinking and law of attraction, from the pages and podiums of the $20 billion self-help industry. (Christians have adopted self-help as their own – Google “Christian self help” and you’ll see what I mean.) Believe what you want, don’t doubt, and it’s yours. You can move mountainsNothing will be impossible for you.

It seems Jesus was an original thinker on this point – if it’s in the ancient Bible, I can’t find it.

If the Monster God was out and the Nice Guy in the Sky was in, then Israel’s historical religion had to change.  No more annual calendar of animal blood sacrifices. And no more temple.

A little research reveals that there was a rabbinical apocalyptic school of thought in Jesus’ time, and some scholars think Jesus was in the club. Maybe, maybe not, but Jesus clearly had an apocalyptic view of his religion’s future, which meant the temple’s days were numbered – a development he talked about with inner circle about when the troupe made their last trip to Jerusalem.

“Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’

“As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’”

Matthew 24: 1-4 ESV

The temple was the nation. Take it away, and everything else went with it — worldview, cultural identity, historical understanding, vision for the future… all the nation’s institutions and icons trashed. The Messiah had been promised for millennia, but theoretical good news is one thing, the reality of dealing with it is quite another.

The “Lamb of God” heads off a national security risk

Jesus’ country was a theocracy. Messianic populism was a national security risk. Stir things up too much, and the Roman hammer would fall. The other rabbis could see it coming. They had a country to protect. They were human too — the lash of Jesus’ tongue hurt. And clearly he was wrong and they were right. No wonder they led the chant “We have no king but Caesar” while demanding Jesus’s conviction and murder.

And the amazing thing was, Jesus didn’t resist them. And when the Roman authorities wanted to let him go, he refused.

It looks like this came out of nowhere, but it was there all along, ever since John the Baptist made a pronouncement for the ages:

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

John 1:29 ESV

At the height of his popularity, Jesus volunteered to be the human sacrifice that would appease Israel’s Monster God once and for all. No more imminent kingdom – instead, the settling of an old score. It looks like a sudden change of heart, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Matthew 16:21-23 ESV

So much for the merry populist ride and the loving new Heavenly Father. In order for the old God and the old religion to be over with, there would need to be one last bloody sacrifice – the “Lamb of God.” That would be Jesus’s final act.

Trouble is, you destroy the Messiah, you destroy the Messianic golden age. Two thousand years of church doctrine says don’t worry about that, because this was the surprise happy ending– the impossibly good news no one saw coming. I’m no longer in the thrall of church doctrine, so I see it differently.

At the height of Jesus’ populist ministry, his family staged an intervention – tried to bring him home. They thought he was beside himself, wasn’t thinking straight, needed some time to cool off. He blew them off, and shortly after started predicting his death. It’s like something snapped in him. Right about then was the transfiguration –Moses and Elijah on the mountain — the lawgiver and prophet — and afterward the populism ran off the rails. Instead of breaking with the Monster God, Jesus announced that he would appease him with his own death. Bringing the Messianic kingdom would be his followers’ job, and in the time he had left he focused on preparing them for the job.

This is where I give up on “the person of Jesus” – when his healing, populist gospel turns into an ancient religious death wish.

But then it gets worse.

The Last Judgment

When Jesus broke faith with his Messianic populist movement, he became fully complicit in ancient Israel’s religion and angry God.

Like any sociopath, the Monster God could be kind — the official line was that his “lovingkindness indeed never ceases” Lamentations 3:22-23 Trouble was, his lovingkindness was conditional, on loan. His people could never please him, so they were always building debt they could never repay. Christian theology says that applies to the rest of us too, and that Jesus – “fully God” – knew that, so he picked up the tab for everybody.

But the final reckoning inexplicably stayed on the agenda. Once the world burns in apocalyptic flames, we’re all summoned to the Last Judgment, and if we don’t believe the right stuff, we’re screwed in the worst possible way.

These days, every time I write the stuff the church I was part of used to believe, I’m shocked and stunned all over again. Really — people who seem normal, like I used to think I was — believe all this gory, horrible stuff. No wonder Christians parade Jesus’s death by torture symbol like it’s the best thing ever. It’s a crucifix, for crying out loud! –one of the most horrifyingly cruel, depraved, savage, barbaric, sadistic, blood-lusty instruments of torture the very worst of human depravity has ever devised, and there’s a man on it, beaten and whipped bloody, writhing in pain.

Oh, and a father did that to his child. Because he so loved the world.

And the son submitted to it because he loved us and wanted to please his father.

Behold the Lamb of God.

That’s the religion Jesus couldn’t break from – which two thousand years later was the same religion I joined when I became a Christian – and which is still the same religion I’m no longer part of. Christianity gives lip service to the Father, but it worships the Monster.

Jesus Christ Superstar

By the time I got this far in my search for “the person of Jesus” I realized what I’d found was my own Christian life. Twenty years after my Jesus Freak populism days, the Kingdom finally came. It was full-on Jesus populism. We went after the losers, stayed up all night healing them and finding them under bridges. We built churches in their abandoned store fronts, washed their cars, did their Spring cleaning, hauled away their trash. We fed them and moved them into homes.

Then the worst thing happened. The Evangelicals who’d been on our case extended the olive branch, and our leaders took it. We used to have the Father, now we had half the Father and half the Monster. Occupy was over. The elites were back in charge. The old order was restored.

That’s what I found looking for “the person of Jesus.”

Writing this now, I think of Judas singing in Jesus Christ Superstar — “Every time I look at you I don’t understand/Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.” Yeah, that pretty well sums it up.

When I first heard it, I thought it was clever, but trite. Not anymore. Jesus had it going, he let it get away. Sad. Frustrating. I wish his family’s intervention had worked. It didn’t, and for reasons we’ll never know, Jesus took a course that a couple thousand years later has brought us the Christian Right and the Kingdom of Texas, the Proud Boys with their giant crosses that look like they’re going to use them on somebody, and all the rest. We get modern barbarity to match ancient barbarity, justified by the barbaric God of a barbaric ancient religion, its devotees hawking doctrinal statements of faith barely indistinguishable from their most wildly fantastical conspiracy theories.

The individual and collective brains of the human race have been groomed with this disgusting source of endless misery for six thousand years since the Bible first declared ‘In the beginning, God….”

How about if we start over with, “In the new beginning, no God’?

Not even “the person of Jesus.”

Today billions of people around the world still sanctify the church’s ideology and idolatry no matter how weird and brutal it is. “The person of Jesus” offers no escape, only more of the same.

Can we please move on?

It Takes a Different Person to be a Christian and Then an Atheist

Not a different kind of person, but a different person, period.

You look in the mirror and don’t recognize yourself.

Other people don’t either. There’s something different about you, hard to say what – a different energy maybe, like your wiring got scrambled.

That kind of different is why I’m not a Christian anymore. The old me didn’t change my mind about God; I became a new person, and God didn’t fit anymore. It wasn’t just a tweak here and there, but the whole ecosystem of me — self, life, world, inside and out – got shifted, zapped, scrambled, rearranged to the point that it’s not that I don’t believe in God anymore, it’s that I can’t. I’m repulsed by the idea. I’m stunned, shocked, and amazed by what I used to believe. I wonder how I could have. What was I thinking?

Now here I am — a nonbeliever, among the godless, the faithless, the backslidden. I never would have believed it. Atheist wasn’t possible – it was never on the life choices list. It still isn’t. I didn’t choose it, I became it. I became a new person in a new place, with no way to get back. It wasn’t change, it was transformation.

“Transformation” has grandiose overtones. It sounds spiritual. We talked about transformation when I was a Christian. It’s right there in the Bible:

“Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Romans 12:2 ESV

The context and the rest of verse is dressed up with pious isn’t-transformation-going-to-be-wonderful language. No it’s not. It’s going to tear you down, and everything else with it. Transformation is destructive and painful, a depressing grind. Try to make big changes and everything comes unglued. I don’t wish it on anybody.

Transformation is inside and outside – the entire ecosystem that is you and your life. Ecological change on the inside is biological, neurological, physiological, chemical, hormonal. On the outside it’s sociological, communal, societal, institutional. When transformation has made a mess of all that it’s just getting warmed up. Now you’ve got to figure out how to carry all that into a new life.

Good luck with that.

Personal ecosystem change is why we take vacations and patronize spas, go to a monastery for a week of silence. It’s why churches sponsor retreats, why corporations lay out five star spreads for off-site strategic planning. It works:  put yourself in a new setting, you think new thoughts, feel new things. What was unthinkable and impossible before became your new to do list.

Personal ecosystem change is why re-entry is so hard – go away and get inspired, then try to take what happened out there back to the shop and everybody wants to know what you’ve been smoking out there. Meanwhile you’re scheming to turn no-way-I-can-go-back into the new normal. All that inspiration and new thoughts while you’re away vs. all that dread and drudgery when you go back to the grind – it’s evidence of ecological change.

Self-help is fraudulent pseudo-religion for a lot of reasons, but it’s biggest fraud is that it doesn’t tell us about the need for ecosystem change if we want to make big changes in our lives. Self-help makes it sound like we can just paste some new things onto what we already are, have, and do. Nope. Won’t work. The reason we’re not already doing the new thing is because we’re not the kind of person who does the new thing. If we were, we’d already be doing it. Duh. If we want to do the new thing, we need to be transformed.

“Transformed” is change on an ecological/systemic scale. That means nothing left out. Nothing left out means this is going to hurt. A big part of the trouble is that transformation can’t mix old and new — get far enough into the process and the old is out for good. That’s in the Bible, too:

“No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

Matthew 9: 16-17 ESV

There were a couple popular books about new wine and new wineskins making the rounds in my early Christian years. (The Taste of New Wine and Wineskins.) They were the kind of influential books you could use at ecological change retreats – lots of earnest conversations and strategizing ways to make the new wine flow, like getting people into home Bible study and prayer groups, plus lots of great sermon moments about how very Gospely everything was going to be.

Our understanding of the concept was silly shallow. Every now and then somebody would find out about St. John of the Cross and his “dark night of the soul,” and quote it in a sermon. Nobody actually read what the 16th Century mystic wrote — the poetic phrase stood on its own:  transformation could be a major downer — not something you preach about on Tithing Pledge Sunday. If it got mentioned at all, “dark night” transformation got a makeover into something like a bad case of the flu you could get over.

The real thing?

Not so much.

I once thought it would be cool to be one of those self-help speaker, writer, consultant dudes. I got as far as writing some blog posts and making a few trips to do workshops. I got great reviews – earnest, beautiful “you changed my life” reviews. But then I started to worry that I was actually ruining people’s lives, which is pretty much what had happened to mine when I decided it was time to believe my way into my dreams – just like you’re supposed to. So I started telling audiences that they would suffer if they tried to make big changes. I warned them not to use the material because I knew it would work, and when it did they would regret it. Every would changed, and they’d have to deal with it and it would be no fun. I think people thought I was doing some kind of reverse psychology number on them. When it was clear they weren’t believing me, I quit doing the workshops. It was unethical to give people a great retreat experience and send them home knowing they would get clobbered and give up.

Who would submit themselves to the kind of transformation that would turn a commando Christian (me) into an atheist?

In a word, nobody. Not even me.

But then I did.

I’m not bragging. You can’t brag about an accident.

We all know we don’t change unless and until we have to. Which means the usual transformation catalyst is…

Trauma.

Me too.

We’ve all seen the major stressors lists. Mine were career, money, health. For starters – when trauma gets rolling, it likes company.

Trauma brings grief. Grief rewires our brains – it puts the stress response (flight or fight) in charge, furloughs the part that makes us feel like at least we’re in control. Memory and strong emotions hog the stage, decision-making and planning move out, fear about how we’re going to live without what’s been lost goes on permanent reruns we can’t shut off. We get disoriented, lose track of time and place. We go wandering, literally and figuratively. Our whacked out symptoms take up residence. We enter what science and environment writer April Reese calls The Fog of Grief.[1]

“I was a churning maelstrom of emotions: sadness, confusion, anger, disbelief, fear, regret, guilt. At times in those first hours, days and weeks after his death, it was hard to breathe. I couldn’t concentrate. I forgot things. Fatigue was a constant, no matter how much I slept. I came to understand what Joan Didion meant in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), a chronicle of her grief over the loss of her husband, when she wrote: ‘I realised for the time being I could not trust myself to present a coherent face to the world.’

“This fog of grief, it turns out, is as common as grief itself. When the neurologist Lisa Shulman lost her husband to cancer nine years ago, ‘there was some serious sadness, but that wasn’t the main problem,’ she recalls. ‘It was the disorientation. I felt like I was waking up in a completely alien world. Because the whole infrastructure of my daily life was fundamentally gone.’

“She found herself becoming lost in time, ending up in familiar places without knowing how she got there, she recalls. ‘It’s not simply a matter of discomfort or anxiety. It’s frightening,’ she says. ‘Because you feel like, as Didion said long ago, you feel like you’re going crazy.’

“Grief has such a powerful effect on us, I learned, that it rewires the brain: the limbic system, a primal part of the brain controlling emotions and behaviours that ensure our survival, takes centre stage, while the prefrontal cortex – the centre of reasoning and decision-making – retreats to the wings.

“‘From an evolutionary standpoint, we are strongly hardwired to respond to something that is a threat,’ Shulman says. ‘We oftentimes don’t think of a loss of a loved one as a threat in that way, but, from the perspective of the brain, that’s the way it is literally perceived.’

“That perception of threat means that our survival response – ‘fight or flight’ – kicks in, and stress hormones flood the body. The work of the psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor at the University of Arizona and others has found heightened levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the bereaved.

“While the cortisol is flowing fast, the brain remakes itself – at least temporarily – to help us endure the trauma of grief. In the weeks after a loss, the brain, like a stern nurse imposing temporary bed rest for itself, suppresses the control centres of higher functions, such as decision-making and planning. At the same time, Shulman says, areas involved in emotion and memory work overtime, gatekeeping which emotions and memories get through. Brain scans of the bereaved show that grief activates parts of the limbic system – sometimes referred to as the ‘emotional brain’. Among the limbic regions impacted are the amygdala, which governs the intensity of emotions and threat perception; the cingulate cortex, involved in the interplay between emotions and memory; and the thalamus, a sort of relay station that conveys sensory signals to the cerebral cortex, the brain’s information-processing centre.

“So my inability to form coherent sentences or remember what I opened the refrigerator to get is nothing to be worried about, Skritskaya assures me; my brain has simply powered down my thinking to enable me to tolerate the loss. The tradeoff is fuzzy cognition – what I’ve come to describe to friends as ‘grief brain’.

“‘Grief takes up a lot of bandwidth in the brain,’ Shulman writes in her book. ‘Odd behaviour and incoherence are expected consequences of the brain’s protective responses following emotional trauma.’”

Trauma and grief stay until the dark night is over. Ecological change catalysts like religious retreats and self-help seminars have the same effect — they suspend our status quo ties to “normal,” heighten emotions, promote reality-bending experiences, warp our risk tolerance, enhance receptivity to new versions of reality. But then the weekend is over and we go back home, where the symptoms quickly fade. We resent it, but it’s better than the alternative, which is trauma and grief staying with it until the job is done.

Trauma and grief is a potent cocktail of transformation. Drink it, and there’s going to be trouble. You’re going to suffer.

You might even lose your faith.


[1] The Fog of Grief: The five stages of grief can’t begin to explain it: grief affects the body, brain and sense of self, and patience is the key Aeon Magazine (Aug. 10, 2021).

The Trouble is, We Believe

Belief is something humans do.

Beliefism is belief metastasized — belief unmoored, unhinged, runaway, with no object but its own self-referenced purification.

Every belief carries the seed of beliefism– the potential to grow into something toxic, with no purpose but to propagate more of itself.

Which is why…

Belief is a clear and present danger.

Belief should come with a warning — “Handle With Care.” But it doesn’t, and so we don’t — we just go around believing things like it’s no big deal. What we believe is a big deal. We should be more careful.

We’re probably careless because belief makes life feel better. It provides purpose and meaning and mission, lays out incentives and rewards, hypes us into feeling inspired and enthusiastic, fired up to do great things.

Belief is how we get to act like God.

Belief is how we create worlds, build civilizations, found nations. Belief anchors us in collective and individual identity, defines who’s us and who’s them, carves out space for us in the world. Our brains are wired to value those things.

Our brains are wired to believe.

Belief is indiscriminate. It doesn’t care what’s believed, what’s fact or fake. As far as belief is concerned, all reality is alternate reality. Our brains have a bad case of “whatever.” If we want to believe it, they’re good with it.

Belief isn’t choosy.

Belief doesn’t distinguish fact from fiction, truth from madness, clarity from delusion. It’s amoral, indiscriminate, undiscerning. Belief only makes self-referential judgments — what conforms to the thing believed and what doesn’t, what to encourage and promote vs. what to punish and ban.

Our brains don’t discriminate.

Our brains readily swap belief in this for belief in that — religion, science, humanism, capitalism, fascism, extraterrestrials, self-help, past lives… they’re all the same.

Belief is fun.

Beliefism is about getting inspired, believing impossible dreams, going for it, realizing your unique calling, becoming your authentic self – all those things that make Hollywood and self-helpers and entrepreneurial heroes rich and famous.

Sound familiar?

Belief has been king in the New World for 400 years. The New World brought it from the Old World, where it was king for millennia. Belief is America’s root religion. It gave us the Puritans. Now it gives us the self-helpers, alternative healers, life coaches, and evangelizing Christians and atheists. We do belief in the USA. We’re belief experts. We got it down.

But there’s more:  belief morphs into beliefism.

Beliefism is when belief goes public. It’s the Unicorn IPO, the blockbuster premiered. In psychological terms, beliefism is when belief emerges – moves beyond internal subjectivity and takes on form and substance in external human reality, becomes ideology, builds institutions, develops its own mythology and metaphors, becomes law and economics, dictates cultural norms.

Beliefism turns what’s believed into knowledge.

Beliefism is evident in a street evangelist’s pitch for Creationism. “The universe is way too complicated for me to understand,” he said, “so there must be a God who does.” He could have understood but he didn’t. He took a shortcut – he believed instead of knowing. Then he reversed the order:  his belief became knowledge — he knew what he believed.

Beliefism is unethical.

Belief creates worldview, worldview creates reality, and reality is whatever belief makes it. Beliefism has no ethics – it runs in a circle; there’s no outside reference, no checks and balances, nothing to keep it honest, nothing to validate it. Belief is unaccountable, therefore unethical.

Beliefism polarizes.

Beliefism separates who belongs and who doesn’t, who’s friend and who’s foe. It manages entrances and exits, reinforces conformity, and punishes dissent.

Beliefism radicalizes.

Once it’s got a cause, beliefism takes it to an extreme. Belief becomes fundamentalism. If you’re not with us you’re against us. No neutrality. You go to the edge or you suffer and die.

Beliefism trends to fundamentalism

Fundamentalism decrees doctrine, prescribes ritual; banishes and punishes discourse, doubt, and dissent. It builds silos and hunkers down; lobs bombs at them. Fundamentalism can be religious or secular – same dynamics either way.

Beliefism practices mind control.

Beliefism runs on brain conformity – for the sake of personal identity and survival, for group cohesiveness. Cults are built on mind control. Every belief-fueled cause is a cult in the making. Nations, corporations, religions, academic disciplines, societal institutions… they’re all built on mind control. None of them exist if we don’t believe them into existence. The process of entering and sustaining membership is the same no matter what.

Beliefism lives in our blind spots.

Beliefism runs in stealth mode. Like a friend of mine used to say, “The trouble with blind spots is you can’t see them.” We don’t notice or examine what beliefism is doing to our perspective, worldview, reality — we just know the reality that emerges from it.

Beliefism promotes delusional thinking.

Beliefism removes belief from examination and critical thinking. Unmoored belief trends to delusion. You become a danger to yourself and others. Your risk/return matrix warps. You drink the Kool-Aid. You storm the Capitol. You flock to super spreader events.

There’s good neuroscience behind beliefism.

Beliefism works because we’re biological beings. We’re powered by hormones, chemicals, electrical charges. We believe from the inside out — our bodies and brains construct our reality from what’s around us, including how other people are constructing reality. We share perspective with each other and a shared reality emerges. We build things together to support and perpetuate that reality — institutions, architecture, art, economics, law, government, religion, norms and customs, rituals and practices, metaphors and icons. The “higher” portions of our brains dream all this up, the “lower” portions keep it rolling.

That warning label idea is no joke.

Beliefism has hurt a lot a people for a long time. It still does. It hurt me. It might be hurting you.

Maybe we should talk about it.

“A Man of Sorrows and Acquainted With Grief”

Isaiah 53:3 ESV

It’s not like you think, going godless — certainly not like I thought, or from what I can tell not like other people like me — who used to be Christians but aren’t anymore – not like what they thought either.

I didn’t become an atheist because I was drowning in deep despair or off my meds. I didn’t suddenly start being evil, thinking and doing evil things; didn’t wake up cursing and muttering blasphemies; wasn’t suddenly deranged and hollow, didn’t start haunting churches and graveyards; going off on people carrying Bibles.

No, I was just being me – a generally nice guy who grew up in the Nice Person Capital of the World (Minnesota) – doing my best to stumble through a series of what one writer calls “lifequakes.” God and being a Christian were at the center of the deluge because they were at the center of everything about me and my life. They just got caught in the middle. The whole thing was a hurricane in reverse – the highest winds and most damage were in the center, so God and Christianity took the hardest hit. Not that they were exactly innocent bystanders:   my post-Christian life got started with a betrayal from the inside (a story I’ve told that story elsewhere and won’t repeat it here). For the first ten years or so I thought I would get over it, but the damage was done, the citadel breached, the way back destroyed.

From there my reverse conversion just… happened … privately, quietly, gradually… exactly like Screwtape said it would: “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one,” he wrote to Wormwood, “the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” It took years to traverse that gentle slope – a long slow erosion of my sense of identity and way of going about life. God and Christianity eroded away like a bank along a favorite stream in a favorite woodland that failed and faltered until finally one days it was all washed away and there was no more grass, nothing but deep ruts and gnarly exposed roots, the thick green underbrush gone and the trees falling over for lack of purchase for their roots, the life and joy and wonder of the place long, long, painfully dried up to the point that there was no possible way to kid myself that there was anything still growing there, anything that could still grow there, and now there was nothing left to do but wish it wasn’t so, and knowing that yes, it was so, irretrievably so, and I would need to find a new place with new water and soil, sun and shade.

That’s what it was like — the emptiness of a wind over a parched land, a waste land of water not falling from the sky, an endless, ever-receding horizon with nothing but heat mirages ever rising up into view no matter how long you trudged toward it.

“A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Yes, that’s what it was like.

It was a grief long-grieved through multiple iterations of shock, denial, anger, sadness, and acceptance – an endless repetition of redoubt and redoubling, of circling back, searching and wondering, and always this feeling that this can’t possibly be me doing this, this is not happening, this was never supposed to happen.

We prefer to focus on the acceptance stage of grieving – it’s heroic, overcoming, the do-over you get after a lot of awareness and learning and deepening. Nothing to dislike about acceptance, but getting there is rugged – no silver lining, no “reason for everything.” Shit just happens.

Grief packs a wallop. Grief is always an ambush – you’re always reeling, off balance, back-peddling. Grief is your personalized apocalypse, your lonely end of the world. Grief takes you on a tour of your history, reveals things you needed to know but didn’t, all the dumb stuff you did because you didn’t know any better and didn’t know how to ask for help, and now that you know better and are willing to ask for help what’s the point because it’s too late. Grief makes a mess of things, leaves you ragged and speechless and unpretty. Grief makes you crazy mad and angry mad. Grief numbs you out, turns you into the walking dead.

Grief isn’t about what’s lost, it’s about how we deal with loss. I lost a lot when I lost my Christian faith, and I lost my faith because I lost a lot. Grief is a super-slow motion baptism of regret. I used to think I lived with no regrets – like people brag about doing – but I was wrong, ridiculously wrong. Regret is a sticky form of the anger stage of grief. I had it stuck all over me – regret over all those years of uncountable small decisions and declarations that would have been made differently or not at all if it hadn’t been for my fierce allegiance to God – all those risks taken, allegiances declared, positions staked out, doubt and despair denied, convictions affirmed, certainties avowed, doubts and wonderings squelched, comfort forsaken, moments of awe and euphoria asserted, instants of triumph celebrated…. So much life! So many faces, constantly in and out of the frame! So much said, so much left unsaid, so much gainsaid….

It has taken years to get unstuck from regret. Lately, it seems the regret years might finally be over. The memories no longer have that angry edge, like the energy of it has been used up. God and Christianity are lost and gone away – a lifetime bond broken, an identity discarded, a way of looking at life left behind – to the point that now I look at what used to be and wonder how I possibly could have lived like that all those years.

That’s what it was like. All of that.

Not like I thought.

Not like other Christians who lost their faith thought.

Probably not like you thought either.

I Don’t Love You Like I Loved You Yesterday

When you go
Would you even turn to say
I don’t love you
Like I did
Yesterday

My Chemical Romance

I’ve been waiting to hear those words. I’m not going to, and I finally know why. I won’t hear them because there’s nobody there to say them. Which means there’s nothing to end, no good-byes to make, no reasons to give.

I couldn’t think how to write about it. No longer being a Christian, becoming an atheist – lots of people write about that. I have, too. But this time was different – what I discovered was bigger than “once I believed this and now I believe that.” It was about how my faith kept me lost in an artificial childhood. I never grew up. I stayed a child because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you believe. And I paid for it.

Here’s where the idea of remaining childlike came from:

“And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’” Matthew 18:2-4 ESV

That sounds deep, and it gets a lot of mileage. It took it at face value, as I did with all my Bible reading. It worked great in the realm of belief, but in adult life… not so much. How to write about that? Then the idea came to me:  write to the Jesus who said that. So here goes….

* * *

The whole thing started with me feeling like a zero, screwing everything up. I needed help, and you would help me, dust me off and get me pointed in a better direction, make me into somebody I didn’t dislike, somebody useful. You would do all that because you wanted to– not only could you, but you would. It was easy for you, it’s what you were for.

All I had to do was believe in you, trust you, throw it all in for you. I did, and you came smiling into my life – strong, kind, generous. You were invincible – with you around, there was never anything to be afraid of, nothing was ever out of control (including me). You were the best of friends, the best of times, the best of company. You could keep everybody and everything together just by walking into the room. You were the big brother everybody should have but nobody does. You made things right. You straightened life out. You straightened me out — gave me what I lacked, filled in the blanks, the holes, the empty spaces. You gave me everything to believe in – a cause, a calling, a purpose. You made me strong, like you.

Now, after all those years, I finally see that there was no you and me, no you doing all that for me. Instead, I made you up like an imaginary friend, to be everything I wasn’t, to do everything I couldn’t. I didn’t trust myself, didn’t believe in myself, so I made you up to be someone I could trust and believe in – someone outside of me, out of reach of me, someone I could never be, who could do what I would never be able to do. You were the me I wanted to be but could never be on my own.

Or so I thought.

* * *

I was 17, 18, 19 when I reached out to you — in late adolescence, when children differentiate into their young adult selves. I never did — I differentiated into you. So did all my new friends that were joining the faith at the time – all of us wannabe Hippies who became Jesus Freaks instead. We were all Lost Boys. We became adults intending to be just like you. You were our highest and greatest selves – the best we could be. Better to turn ourselves over to you than keep going it alone, making a mess of things. It’s dangerous out there, everybody needs somebody like you – crazy thing is, not everybody knows it, so we have to tell them.

Or so we thought.

Children can be arrogant, too.

In your shadow I could stay a Lost Boy forever. True, according to the faith I had technically become “found,” but I was still a boy, still a child, and still lost – or on the verge of it. You encouraged us to think that way so that’s what we Lost Boys did. Plus, you told us about your father (who never made an appearance, we only had your word about him, which turned out to be way off base, but that revelation only came much later), and you said he would be ours, too. He would be the too-kind, too-generous, too-indulgent, too-loving father (yes, with a mean streak when he got angry, but that’s how grownups are and we could dance around it) who was rich and wise beyond measure, and who had our backs for good, just like you did. We were family now – we could count on that. There was nothing stupid we could do that you and your dad wouldn’t forgive, no need we could have that the two of you wouldn’t meet.

With all that, why grow up?

Children know a good deal when they see it.

* * *

One day decades later I snuck away from my law practice one afternoon to go to the movies. I’d heard about people doing that – I thought it was so out of line it was just plain immoral — and then I did it myself. The movie was Hook. I sat in a matinee with all the moms and kids and cried all the way through. I was Robin Williams’ character Peter Banning – maybe not quite as blatantly obnoxious, but just as lost. I looked good on the outside, my life looked good, but I had broken faith. I had meant to never grow up, but had done my best to do so anyway.

I was an adult on the outside, a kid on the inside, and had a life to match.

I left Hook and did what kids do when the adults doing something that doesn’t make sense:  I assumed it was all my fault, took the blame, vowed to do better, to make it right. I returned to my childlike ways. Never mind that others in the “family” were living by the creed of “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” 1 Corinthians 13:11 ESV Obviously they had sold out, like Peter Banning. They’d become adults. They didn’t trust and believe. They weren’t childlike anymore. They were still nominally part of the family, but it wasn’t just that they’d forgotten how to fly, they didn’t even want to anymore. Not me. I was still eager to please.

I got back to work on my flying.

* * *

Thinking that way, I committed the same crime against myself that I had at the beginning:  I robbed myself of ever knowing the adult I might have become. I never found out who I could be. Instead, the Lost Boy in me ran to your side once again, hid behind you, tried to wear your mask, tried to look and sound like you. The outcome of my new Lost Boy life was predictable – a drunkard’s random walk from this to that – always after the newest spiritual insight, the latest religious fad, the next way to prove my allegiance to the idea of you. Meanwhile I remained the afraid child who was doing it wrong, if it went bad it was my fault, who had to take the blame for what the adults did.

* * *

And then something happened that was never supposed to happen but did anyway. It’s not that you just up and left, that you didn’t come around much anymore, that you had other things to do, other friends. No, nothing like that. It was more like you started to fade – like you were dematerializing, losing substance, fading from view, getting farther away, turning into a ghost, your voice muffled, muted, softened, distanced. You lost presence. You became like a really great book that once had moved me, that meant so much to me that I kept it on the shelf to remember that feeling but never opened it again. You became a memory, an experience I once had.

I had been so practiced at generating the energy of your presence that it took me a long time to realize I had been the one doing the generating. It had been my job to make sure you kept walking into the room. You never came on our own. And now, you never came at all. I wondered at first why you didn’t seem so real as you did at first. I worried that I might have left you, wondered if you might have left me. I felt you far more in the loss of you than I ever had in the thought of your presence.

And then you were gone — faded from view. And your father too.

The Lost Boy had lost the one who found him.

* * *

In the midst of your disappearing came the beginning of growth, of self-awareness, of letting the child go and telling the adolescent it is safe to grow up, to finally differentiate after all that deferral, to become human – to recognize that no Lost Boy can be found by losing himself.

The final realization was that I had never gotten the help I needed so desperately at the beginning – not because you wouldn’t or couldn’t or didn’t, but because you weren’t. You never had been. I made you up, then lived in service to the you I created – the surrogate for the authentic version I was afraid to create. You couldn’t help me because I didn’t take on the one job we must all do, we are all unqualified to do, we can never do to the satisfaction of the rules and forms and laws we invent, but we all must do anyway:  the job of creating ourselves in the wide world. After all those years, I was finally taking it on — the inevitable, inescapable job of learning to be human, of engaging fully in this thing we call “life” as if it was something apart from us, but it is not, it never can be, it is simply us, living.

Until we don’t anymore.

* * *

And now you were gone – without the decency to tell me you were leaving. Handling it that way made you a coward and a cheat. I shocked myself, calling you that, but your leaving without a good-bye made me mad.

When you go
Would you have the guts to say
I don’t love you
Like I loved you yesterday

I mourned, felt discarded, abandoned. I felt the crush and the pierce of your neglect. And then it came to me:  you would never turn to say you didn’t love me anymore – not because you wouldn’t but because you couldn’t. How could you? You didn’t exist, you never had. You were the fabrication of my Lost Boy self’s need of you, my misguided need to be found to the point where I lost myself in you. And now I was the one who was ready to let you go. I didn’t need you to tell me why you were going. You couldn’t anyway.

* * *

For years as a Christian I heard sermons about the following passage and feared I would come out on the wrong end of it:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” Matthew 7:21-23 ESV

Ironically, even though you said it would be to no avail, we had all done our best to prophesy and cast out demons and do mighty works. Hedging our bets, I guess – unable to believe you would actually say that, after all we did to try to please you. Now, I am appalled that some depth of me had a need to appease you, like the abused tries to appease the abuser, making excuses for the smoldering rage that lashes out, wounds and kills. In this, I have come to see that, despite all your likeability, you were unavoidably a chip off the old block – just like the father you kept so carefully hidden behind you, who I came to understand was not the good Father you said he was, but the horrible God of the Bible — the brutal, blood-lusting, war-mongering, hyper-nationalist, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic, totalitarian, authoritarian despot who has committed himself to the final destruction of the world and the eternal tormenting of its people. And you? You appeased him, too – all the way to your own death by torture.

Some family I had been adopted into.

I had made that father my own, as I made you my own. And now, thankfully, he is gone too – has also faded from my view – until I no longer need either of you to turn and tell me that you don’t love me anymore, not like you used to.

Because you never did anyway.

But now I’m the one who has something to say to you as I do the leaving.

Just this:

Depart from me – I never knew you.

The God Syndrome: How the Puritans Destroyed Democracy

Would you buy a used car from this God?

Or share a beer with him?

Or marry him?

Or want him to be your dad?

Or run your company?

Or your country?

Well it depends.… What God are we talking about?

Ask “Do you believe in God?” in the U.S., and most people will say yes they do. (The current percentage ranges from 64% to 87% depending on how you tweak the question. See this Gallup poll.) Back in the postwar 1940’s through the 1960’s, the percentage was steady at around 97%. (See this Time Magazine summation.) But what God were those polls asking about?

  • The God of the Bible?
  • The God of “Christendom” — the loose amalgamation of European/American countries that had roots in The Church with a capital T and C?
  • Or are we talking about the God of this or that denomination, non-denominational parachurch, megachurch, lone-tree independent Bible church, living room Bible study, or men’s warrior weekend retreat?
  • Or can God just be some kind of mystical or transcendent spirit for the “I’m spiritual but not religious” crowd?
  • Or maybe a neighborly “Look, I’m kind of busy here, but okay, I’m not a religious person but yeah I think there’s a God”?

Baby Boomers like me grew up with a sort of Age of Enlightenment/ socially acceptable God. Miracles and taking the Bible literally had taken a hit back around the time the USA was declaring itself into existence. The Church survived thanks to its centuries-old institutional dominance and because people in the Western world still needed to believe in God to give meaning to their lives and structure to their societies. (Even Nietzsche worried that doing away with God would throw the human race into despair and anarchy.) As a result, God went with the flow, branching out like a river finding different courses that eventually take on prefixes like the “north fork,” “middle fork,” “south fork.”

One fork followed a course set in the late 1900’s by less conventional thinkers, who created a hybrid pseudo-scientific God that carried on the Age of Enlightenment preference for science and rationality while embracing the newly emerging social sciences, particularly psychology. That fork eventually drifted toward a more generalized “universal spirit” that became today’s “the Universe” as a God substitute.

The USA’s Roman Catholic loyalists and “mainline” Christian Protestant denominations hung onto ritualistic form while entertaining new substance. If church-going folk noticed, they were probably too busy to care:  from the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, the human races’ addiction to periodic savagery kept the citizens busy alternately patriotically supporting wars and cleaning up their messes. While the theologians and academicians reinvented God, the people kept showing up on Sundays and putting cash and weekly “pledge” envelopes in the offering plates.

In time, Christians could be Christians without ever having read the Bible, society could still function, the march of progress could still charge ahead, and the average paycheck-earning, family-raising American could still belong to a religious institution that took care of weddings, babies, and burials without making too many demands on anybody’s personal piety. Christianity became nominal – an American birthright, like citizenship – which is why I could go to college in the 1970’s and ask my new roommate what church he went to – a routine part of making acquaintance. (“I’m Jewish,” he replied. Oh brave new world!)

But for some, all this rational humanistic scientific touchy-feely religion was a serious problem. They were the Remnant – the Bible-believing literalist true believers, the true sons of the Protestant Reformation and worthy descendants of their Puritan New World early adopter forebears. Mostly, they were carrying the torch lit long ago by a New England hellfire and brimstone evangelist named Jonathan Edwards who set off an anti-Age of Enlightenment insurgency known as the “First Great Awakening” in 1741 with his signature sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” (The Second Great Awakening came a century later in a storm of tent revivals.)The Jonathan Edwards fork of the God flow gave us a steady supply and worldwide legacy of revivals, “church renewal” movements, Baptists and fundamentalists, early 20th Century tongue-speaking Pentecostals and the 60’s and 70’s Gifts of the Spirit “Charismatics,” and a whole host of fervency-generating events and movements that were big enough to be noticed but that mostly stayed around the edges of the mainstream.

And then a miracle happened.

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed the Remnant their stamped ticket to cultural dominance.

Along with belief in God, most Americans in 1973 believed that humans are “living souls” – each person an immortal divine personality placed in a mortal human body by the specific touch and intent of God. (A lot of Americans still believe that, it seems.) As a result, Roe v. Wade wasn’t about procreative biology, it was about the murder of God-given souls. The Remnant rose up in God-snorting fire-and-brimstone unity — the newly emerging Evangelicals morphed into the Christian Right, and God’s will became a political juggernaut.

All you really need to know about the Jonathan Edwards fork of the God flow is the signature title of his sermon. But consider also Edwards’ famous conclusion that “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.”

I.e., if God is in a mood to feel charitably inclined toward us, we’re good. But if not…. we’re toast.

Burnt toast.

Literally.

The Remnant’s God is the Biblical God, which the “Good Book” describes as…

  • A “man of war.”
  • When he goes to war, the objective is genocide — men, women, children — no survivors. Except for the women kept alive for the soldiers to rape.
  • He’s misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic.
  • He is a most emphatically a “He” – a male — an iron-fisted patriarch.
  • He rules as an obsolete authoritarian. He is answerable and accountable to no laws, no moral or ethical codes – to nothing and no one. What He says goes and if you don’t like it you die – or suffer for a long, long time… forever, actually.
  • He doesn’t just want to be revered and worshiped, he demands it.
  • He has absolutely the lowest opinion of both those who revere and serve him and those who don’t. He teaches them that they’re flawed from birth, that no matter what they do, they can never please him. Each of them is born under a sentence of condemnation. But He expects them to try to make Him happy anyway. Good luck with that.
  • He has planned the total destruction of the Earth and all its people, has the means to do so, and threatens to do so at any moment.
  • After He destroys everything, if you’re on his bad side – which nearly every is – your fate is to be tortured and tormented forever. Of all the billions of people who’ve ever lived, only a few will be exempt from this destiny.
  • And all of that is a good thing.

Oh, and did I mention that the Biblical God is merciful and kind, and that He loves us?

There’s more where all that came from – lots more – all of it from the Bible, the source code for the three “Abrahamic” religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Muslim). Christianity adds an addendum – the “New Testament” – which describes, among other things, how:

  • God arranged to have his “son” beaten, whipped, and tortured to death, even though he begged for mercy.
  • The purpose of which was to “save” the few “chosen” to “glorify” Him forever.
  • That was an expression of God’s “mere pleasure,” I guess.

The Remnant was created in this God’s image.

And it gets worse.

The Remnant has now become radicalized – turned into an armed cult, a belligerent, raucous, enraged mob ready, willing, eager, and able to do the bidding of the one they believe is God’s “Anointed” leader. Since the final year of the 2020 Presidential campaign through today, the Remnant has been openly at war with the USA’s democracy, intent on replacing it with their own fascist, authoritarian ideology, with the enthusiastic backing of their heroes in Congress and Commerce (the rise of the Christian Right perfectly coincided with the evangelistic overthrow of economics by the Friedman Free Marketers, giving us today’s Social Darwinist version of capitalism).

What we’re seeing is the Revenge of the Puritans.

The Founding Fathers convened in the context of the Jonathan Edwards vs. the Age of Enlightenment fight to the finish. They thought they had forged a new republic with appropriate safeguards to prevent the creation of the kind of God-sponsored theocracy their ancestors had escaped.

They were wrong.

If took nearly 250 years, but the Founders have finally lost. They can’t answer the Liberty Bell any more. It’s not just cracked, it’s been melted into swords along with the plowshares.

The Angry God and the Sinners in His Hands have overrun the gates of reason and science, ethics and the rule of law, all notions of community and “We the People,” and everything else in the Founders’ even-handed attempts at envisioning an enduring republic. They fawn over this God and his Anointed, reveling in his love and pleasure, carrying on as countlessothers have done for thousands of years, making sure that life is never anything other than solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

This God has been the face of Western Civilization for thousands of years — as long as written history – and still is. This God’s story is Western history — and not just Western history, but World history. And now, this God has entirely hijacked the USA’s history as well.

This God has poisoned the individual and collective minds of our entire species for so long that we can’t imagine life without Him.

This God is why the world’s dismal history keeps repeating itself.

We need to hold this God accountable. The trial would last an eternity. We don’t have time for it. We need to ban Him now, exile Him beyond discovery, beyond reclamation.

It will take time.

We have no time.

We need to get over this God. He has done unimaginable, incomprehensible damage to individual and collective lives for far too long. We need to write him out of our laws, our nations, our lives. We need to cleanse and detox our bodies and brains of Him.

The God Era needs to be over. We need to get over our God Syndrome.

We can’t imagine it.

We need to imagine it.

Because unless we banish this God, we cannot reinvent life to meet the challenges of the 21st Century and beyond. Because if our minds and cultures remain polluted and poisoned by our thoughts of this God and all the institutions and structures and… everything… the human race has created in His name from time immemorial… we will be unable to create anything other than in His image, as we have already done for millennia.

No of course there’s no hope that this could ever happen.

There needs to be hope that this could ever happen.

Because hope that it could ever happen is our only hope.