Is Atheism the True Embrace of Reality?

Has anyone else read Paula Kirby’s recent pieces in The Hibernian Times, ‘Atheism is the True Embrace of Reality’ and the follow-up ‘Breaking out from the Prison of Religion’? If not, do have a read. A good atheist friend and sparring partner drew them to my attention and I found them both interesting, though unsurprisingly I disagree with her conclusions.

‘How do I know?’

I actually have considerable fellow-feeling for Paula’s first piece (though rather less for the second). Until 2003 she was a devout Christian; then she asked herself the question ‘how do I know?’ and her faith started to unravel until nothing was left.

The big problem for Paula seems to have been the apparent subjectivity of faith. Even leaving aside all the other religions, there were almost as many versions of Christianity as there were different churches, each with their own widely-differing interpretations of the Bible.

Most significantly, though each individual Christian claimed to have direct personal experience of God and relationship with him, the God experienced by each was so different from others’ experiences, often mutually incompatible. Furthermore, the version of God that people believed in seemed to depend on their personality. Those whose personality led them to see the world as threatening and evil believed in a scary, vengeful God; those able to embrace the world in openness and generosity also saw God in those terms. Paula therefore came to the understandable conclusion God is simply a phantom created in our own image.

I suspect and hope that many Christians reading this blog will have asked themselves similar questions to Paula, and will have given serious consideration to these kinds of issues. Those of us who are still Christians in any sense have clearly not come to the same conclusions as Paula, but will have a lot of understanding for her views.

Healthy questioning

Paula seems to think that if anyone honestly questions their faith (‘how do I know?’) they will be forced to the conclusion that it’s false, or that there just isn’t enough evidence to sustain belief. In her own experience, churches strongly discourage such questioning, preferring to keep their faithful in submissive ignorance – or ‘blind faith’.

I can’t argue with her specific experience, except to say that it’s very different from mine; but I can argue on generalities. I believe that healthy faith thrives on such questioning; faith that withers when exposed to robust questioning is either very young and immature faith, not yet ready for the difficult questions, or else unhealthy faith which requires absolute black-and-white certainties, rigid doctrines and judgemental exclusivism to sustain itself. Questioning is always to be encouraged, and I know many more-or-less healthy church communities which are glad to encourage and make space for such strong questioning.

It would doubtless irritate Paula for me to locate her on a spiritual-journey schema, but it seems to me that her story fits very neatly with Fowler’s and Scott Peck’s Stages of Faith model. Her devout stage bears all the hallmarks of a classic pre-critical ‘Stage 2’, and her subsequent questioning accords with a classic critical ‘Stage 3’. Sadly, it seems that the religious context she was in wasn’t able to encourage and accept her questioning and to provide her with a secure framework in which to explore her difficulties.

The questions Paula asked were good and valid and it’s absolutely right to ask them; but it’s certainly not inevitable that they should ultimately lead to atheism. I would argue that they can equally lead to a deeper, more open and authentic faith, one that’s able to productively embrace difference, paradox and uncertainty. That’s certainly been my own experience.

Subjectivity and reality

One of the things Paula found so difficult was that religion should be so subject to subjective interpretation. This to me suggests that psychologically she’s still operating in a Stage 2 mindset, wanting everything to be clear, defined, objective, black-and-white. When that doesn’t turn out to be the case, she rejects the whole religious enterprise and looks for another system – atheism – in which she can find consistency, clarity and even a degree of certainty. This is perfectly understandable and I’ve no problem with it; but it doesn’t really have any bearing on the reality or otherwise of God.

The thing is, the subjectivity question is precisely another one of those equivocal-evidence matters which can be read either way according to your preference (ironically, in that way it’s like the Bible and religious experience, whose openness to different interpretations Paula found so hard to accept).

You can of course argue, as Paula does, that this proneness to subjective interpretation shows the whole religious enterprise to be nothing more than pyschological projection and wishful fantasy. However, you can equally argue the opposite – that people will inevitably respond to the divine (the transcendent, God) at the level of their own emotional health. Of course emotionally healthy people will view both the world and God in emotionally healthy, open and generous terms, whereas emotionally unhealthy people will view the world and God in fearful, punitive terms. This does not mean that God is a fantasy of their imagining, any more than it means that the world is a fantasy of their imagining! The ‘problem’ is neither the world nor God (or religion); it is the person, the emotional health of the subjective beholder. Ask two people to describe the same painting and they will give you very different accounts; the difference is in the people, not the painting.

Same for the Bible. Yes, of course it can be and has been interpreted in widely differing ways by different people with different agendas and different worldviews. But again that’s a problem with people, not with the Bible. Such a complex and difficult set of ancient texts requires careful and intelligent handling, with an eye to context, nuance, literary form, alternative translations of phrases etc. Sadly, it often doesn’t get such treatment – hence phenomena like the recent Rapture ridiculousness.

Healthy and unhealthy religion

US psychologist and author M. Scott Peck has a fascinating section on religion in his bestseller The Road Less Traveled. His view is that all people are religious (though clearly not all believing in ‘God’); that the religious element or impulse is an innate and essential part of all humanity. He also believes that this religious element can be healthy or unhealthy (strictly, more and less healthy). Based on his own clinical experience, he believes that people need to be liberated from unhealthy religion and encouraged to grow into healthy religion.

Scott Peck cites the case of ‘Kathy’, whose mother-enforced religion was a fearful and ritualistic guilt-prison which she needed to break free from in order to grow emotionally and spiritually. He contrasts this with ‘Marcia’, brought up in atheism by intellectual but emotionally-distant parents; through the course of therapy and with no prompting she started to see the world in new terms which encouraged her to explore and embrace the possibility of a good and loving God.

To Scott Peck, sceptical atheism is clearly healthier than unhealthy, fearful, guilt-ridden pre-critical ‘blind’ faith; that’s a no-brainer. However, in his view it is nonetheless a less full and rich view of reality and way of life than that offered by healthy and open religion. (Incidentally, Robin Skinner and John Cleese discuss very similar ideas in Life and how to survive it, based again on Skinner’s clinical practice along with some Timberlawn research on healthy families.)

From my own experience I strongly endorse this view. I’m convinced that we all have a religious or spiritual dimension as part of being human, just as we all also have emotional and relational dimensions (among others). Our religion is healthier or less healthy depending on our own emotional and relational health and on the healthiness of the church or religious system we’ve grown up in. We all need to grow, to move out of less healthy religious, emotional and relational ways and systems into more healthy ones. We may even need for a time to discard or lay aside overtly religious things altogether (I discuss this in my post ‘Don’t read your Bible…’). But ultimately, ideally we should be growing towards a healthy religious consciousness; atheism is just a staging-post along the road of freedom, not the end destination.

No evidence for God?

Paula’s other big reason for abandoning her former beliefs was that she could find no solid evidence for the validity of any kind of religion or belief in God. Again, to me this typifies a Stage 2 way of thinking; one that requires a particular kind of certainty and proof which is simply not available in most aspects of life. I’ve argued elsewhere that there is an abundance of evidence for belief in God and in particular for the historical Christian faith – I won’t re-hash those arguments here. However, of course none of it constitutes ‘proof’ in the scientific sense; unlike the laws of thermodynamics or the proof of Pythagorus’ theorem, you can in the end take it or leave it.

If you require absolute proof, it’s hard to see what evidence would be sufficient, given the impossibility of putting God in a test-tube. Miracles, healings, visions and revelations can all be explained away. Answered prayers could be coincidences. Personal experiences are subjective and may be the result of any number of factors. I’ve argued before that all evidence for or against religious belief is ultimately equivocal; you can read it either way according to your assumptions and presuppositions. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the evidence doesn’t point more strongly or clearly one way or the other (I of course believe it points to God). It simply means that all humans are adept at coaxing even ill-fitting things into their existing thought/belief systems, which are often originally held for emotional rather than rational reasons. And yes, that’s true for rationalistic atheism as much as for Christianity or Buddhism.

So, I don’t think it’s so much a case of no evidence, as that the nature of the kind of evidence that can be put forward for God means that you have to come to your own decision.

Embracing reality?

Paula finishes her first article with the following statement:

“Atheists care about reality… And this focus on reality, far from diminishing our experience of life, as so many religious people imagine, actually makes our lives all the richer: once you have faced up to the reality that there is no evidence to suggest there is another life after this one, it becomes all the more important to live this finite life to the full, learning and growing, and caring for others, because this is their only life, too, and there is no reason to believe there will be heavenly compensation for their earthly sufferings.”

I have no problem with this kind of atheism at all – in fact I welcome it. With Scott Peck I think it’s a vast improvement on unhealthy and superstitious kinds of religious faith. If Paula Kirby and other atheists genuinely do live life to the full, ‘learning and growing, and caring for others’, then that’s fantastic and I applaud them. And I believe that if they do so they are close to the true spirit of Christ.

I do of course take issue with her statement that religious people imagine that focusing on reality will diminish one’s experience of life. That strikes me as a serious misunderstanding of religion and if that was Paula’s experience, she’s definitely better off out of it. Good and healthy religion has a strong focus on reality, on the here and now, on people’s real lives, on the planet, on ‘learning and growing, and caring for others’. The fact that it claims a heavenly basis or source does not diminish this earthly focus – it’s always ‘Love God and love your neighbour’ (or love God by loving your neighbour). This is the religion of Love Wins, of Surprised by Hope, of Godzone, of Whistling in the Dark. It’s the rich wine of the kingdom, the true alternative to extremism.

So is Atheism the ‘True Embrace of Reality’ as Paula’s title claims? Yes and no, in my view. I would say that atheism can certainly be the true embrace of an important part of reality, but it’s nonetheless only a limited part. Atheism is okay as far as it goes, and much better than some of the alternatives; but it’s not the full, real thing. Truly healthy religion is, I believe, better, more real and more enriching than even the best atheism. But I genuinely wish all the best to Paula and hope that she finds joy, peace and fulfilment in her journey.

In my next post I intend to look at her second article, ‘Breaking out from the Prison of Religion’, which seemed to me less helpful and nuanced than her first. Still interesting though.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Atheism/agnosticism, Psychology, Stages of faith, The faith journey and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Is Atheism the True Embrace of Reality?

  1. This was a very interesting read and I appreciate that you posted it, so thank you. I’m curious, however, if you think that a non-Christian religious life is as healthy as a Christian life? It seemed like you might think so but it wasn’t exactly crystal clear so I figured the question wouldn’t hurt. =)

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    • Thanks – that’s a very good and rather tricky question, which I need to answer carefully!

      I do believe Christ to be of paramount importance; I believe he is the full incarnation of divine love and truth, and I think a truly Christian (Christ-centred, Christ-filled) religious life is the ideal. However, I believe that it’s certainly possible to follow Christ, to be very close to the heart of what Christ is about, without ever calling yourself a Christian, belonging to a church or signing up to a set of doctrines. I think that it’s possible to be a committed atheist and yet to lead a deeply Christlike life without ever thinking of it in those terms.

      I also believe conversely that it’s possible to be a deeply religiously devout ‘Christian’ and yet be far from the true spirit of Christ. To be religious in an unhealthy way that is centred on fear, guilt and punishment, excluding others and keeping to the letter of the law is far from the spirit of Christ; many atheists live much better and spiritually richer lives than this kind of Christian.

      So I suppose the short answer is that Christ is what it’s all about for me, but you don’t have to know his name to be one of his people. Does that make any sense?

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      • That does make sense, in a way, yes. I’m a pagan (I was Christian for a couple years but left for various reasons) and it’s my belief that we all worship different versions of the same god(s)/goddess(es); just that the human experience is so different and unique to each individual that people have found just as different and unique ways to relate to divine/spiritual experiences. So, I guess, in away, that I believe sort of similarly to you.

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        • That’s interesting – I’m afraid I don’t know a huge amount about paganism, but would be interested to hear more about your beliefs. I have a Christian friend who celebrates Beltane and similar festivals, and I’m interested in aspects of Celtic spirituality.

          I wouldn’t perhaps quite go so far as saying all our gods/goddesses are the same – I think there are more and less positive and accurate representations of the divine, and from my personal experience I do believe there are darker elements to some forms of spirituality. When I was at uni I got quite interested in the occult – Ouija, Tarot etc – and now strongly wish I hadn’t, as it exposed me to spiritual ‘powers’ which had quite a detrimental impact on me and which I now see as quite harmful.

          However, I’m happy to accept that people of many other faiths worship essentially the same God as me, though with rather different understandings. Again, Christ is the benchmark for me, the full and true image of the divine being, the perfect incarnation of love, truth and goodness. To the extent that the gods/goddesses worshipped by other faiths approach that image, I see them as close to the spirit of Christ; where they deviate from that into very different images of the divine, I find it harder to see that they are along the right lines.

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      • I had to reply here, couldn’t find a reply link further down the thread.

        The interesting thing about paganism is that the word “paganism” is an umbrella term that covers many different belief systems, so, really, it’s hard to know a lot about it unless you study it a lot. The type of paganism I’m interested in is called Celtic Reconstructionsm (which has goals to reconstruct the old Celtic religions — it, too, is an umbrella term — through archeological evidence, folk tales, and other historical means) and Asatru (which has goals to reconstruct the old Norse religion in similar ways that CR does). I always find it interesting to hear of Christians who participate in traditional pagan festivals/holidays; my step-sister said she was a Christian-Wiccan about five years ago and I’m not sure if she still considers herself as such.

        I can definitely understand what you’re saying, as many Asatru practitioners specifically state that they don’t worship the mischievous and harmful to the Aesir and Vanir (the groups of gods and goddesses that are worshiped), since some people do worship them (most groups and individuals also are clear to state that they don’t believe in any type of discrimination because of how the Nazis dragged Asatu through the mud during WWII), so I think there’s a bit of parallel there between Satan (and other negative beings) worshipers to an extent. And I can certainly understand why Oujia and/or tarot would put a person off — i had negative experiences with Oujia as a teen.

        It seems that we’re on agreement. I have very much enjoyed this discussion — it’s hard to find honest discussion about religion, especially different religions, on the internet; so, thank you.

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        • Thanks very much – that’s a very kind comment!

          Some Christians take a very negative view on paganism, linking it with witchcraft and the occult; others take a far more positive view. C.S. Lewis loved the Roman, Greek and Norse pagan mythologies and incorporated many elements of them in his Narnia stories; in his view the old mythologies pointed towards Christ, in whose incarnation Myth became Fact. Contemporary author Stephen Lawhead takes a similar view, using a kind of Christianised Celtic magic and druidism in many of his fantasy tales (e.g. The Endless Knot); he seems to see Christ as the true or ideal Druid. And there are many others like them.

          There are many elements of paganism I find deeply appealing; for me I’m learning to find them within a broader view of Christianity, seeing nature as sacramental though imperfect. So I see and experience the presence of God in the world around us, but it’s often ‘through a glass darkly’.

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      • You are most welcome. Thank you again for the nice discussion.

        A lot of pagans are retaking the word “witch” as a positive thing since many pagans (not all) practice magic and magic has been associated with witchcraft for so long. I practice magic/witchcraft myself but in a way that’s similar to how a Christian would pray; it’s a way to let intent out into the universe (or, perhaps, a specific deity) and ask for something, be it healing for yourself or a friend, a job opportunity, or any number of things. That concept of what magic/witchcraft is seems to be prominent in the pagan community. Some pagans/witches use terms like “white” or “black” when they talk about magic because they think some spells are harmful or wrong to do. However, I don’t think that way and think it’s about your intent — you could do a traditionally ‘white’ spell for the wrong reasons and it would be morally wrong (for instance using a romance spell, which are supposed to be used to invite general romance into your life, to directly influence the person of your desire).

        C.S. Lewis was an interesting person. I watched a biography about him a few years ago and it was really fascinating to see what happened in his life. I’ve noticed some of those mythologies in his works, though I admit I haven’t read many of his novels. I’ve never heard of the other author but perhaps I will look into it and maybe discover an author that I like.

        When I was a Christian, I deeply envied people like you who had spiritual experiences and such solid faiths. However, I never felt close to God/Jesus, no matter how hard I tried; it was nothing like how I feel connected to paganism and the deities I honour now. Currently, I feel content spiritually/religiously for the first time in my life and it’s an amazing feeling to have found something that does that for me and I imagine that that’s how my Christian friends feel about their path.

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        • Well, as a huge fan of the Harry Potter books I don’t have quite as much difficulty with the word ‘witch’ as I once did! 🙂

          I’m interested in the comparison between pagan magic/spells and Christian prayer. With Christian prayer too the emphasis is very much on your heart (your true motive and attitude – humility, honesty etc). There’s also an emphasis on relationship – so while there may be some use of ritual to help establish a sense of connection with God, it’s primarily just about asking. Of course there’s no absolute guarantee that we’ll get what we ask for! 🙂

          I think the aspect I’d find most difficult with paganism is the worship of plural deities – unless the many are simply different aspects of the One? With Christianity, we have angels and spirits but are very strongly discouraged from giving worship to any but the One (triune) God.

          Going back to books, other authors I like who manage to combine something of Christianity and paganism are Gillian Bradshaw (‘Hawk of May’), Rosemary Sutcliffe and Elizabeth Goudge.

          Anyway, I wish you every joy and peace on your path. 🙂

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      • Haha! I like Harry Potter, too. I look forward to the last movie coming out soon. My whole family read the books when I was a teen.

        There’s a lot of parallels between magic/spells and Christian prayer, from my experience. It’s just, from my experience, I never felt anything when I prayed but I always feel something when I use magic/cast a spell. Some pagans don’t use spells/magic, they just sort of send their thoughts/energy to wherever they would send the spell/magic with the intent that the spell would have had. I just prefer the ritual because it helps me focus my intentions and thoughts (and that seems to be pretty common among other pagans I’ve talked to about it).

        My Wiccan friend told me that she thinks we all worship the same (positive) deity, it’s just facets of it, like a gemstone; you can focus on just one small facet and put your energy into it and think it’s the only facet there but you’re still focusing on the gem. I’m not sure if I explained that well but I agree with that. I think that it ties into our earlier thoughts about how people worship the same thing, just different ways.

        Thank you for the author recommendations.

        I wish you much brightness, happiness and peace in life.

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  2. Will Cookson says:

    Harvey,
    You do read some rip-roaring papers – The Hibernian Times – wow!
    Seriously, though a good point to be made about faith and needing things black and white. Interestingly, Bertrand Russell who co-authored Principia Mathematica failed in his attempts to prove mathematics from foundational principles. Mathematics depends on the peano postulates – which as the term indicates are postulations. Wittgenstein made the point about Russell’s proofs in Principia that “if a persistent discrepancy arose between counting and Principia, this would be treated as evidence of an error in Principia (e.g. that Principia did not characterize numbers or addition correctly), not as evidence of an error in everyday counting” (wikopedia). bit difficult therefore to find a place that is black and white – sorry

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    • Interesting point about maths – I’d always been under the impression that pure maths was one of the only areas in which absolute proof was possible. I bow to your superior knowledge, and will make a point of looking up the peano postulates! 🙂

      So are you saying that, in a sense, we have to take everything on faith to a degree – even pure mathematics?

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  3. johnm55 says:

    Ultimately the need for a god comes down to the random collections of stardust that are human beings desire to find some kind of meaning and importance in our lives. We have difficulty in accepting that probably there is no ultimate meaning behind our existence so we latch on to stories that bolster our self-esteem. Where in reality, the meaning in our lives is what we give to it. Ultimately a healthy religion/spirituality doesn’t seem to do any harm, in fact may even do some good, the problem is that there is far too much unhealthy and manipulative religion and ‘woo’ around.
    Whether there is a reality behind the religion/spirituality I genuinely don’t know, and don’t think we can know.
    I personally can’t find much if anything that Paula Kirby says to disagree with, especially the quote that you include.

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    • John, the trouble is that by starting at the point of ‘the random collections of stardust that are human beings’ you’re already making a strong philosophical assumption / presupposition, one which ultimately leads to the atheist conclusion. That view of humans is only one very partial and limited perspective arising from a very reductionist approach, and to me leaves out almost all that’s actually important about human beings and our real everyday experience.

      Furthermore, the idea that the need for a god derives solely from our desire for meaning is again based on the same philosophical presupposition. What if it’s the other way round, and our desire for meaning arises from the actual existence of God, as C.S. Lewis among others have argued?

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  4. David Holland says:

    I have had an experience rather like loosing my faith, looking at purely rational explanations. For me the choice of abandoning faith did not offer the possibility of a reality such as Paula describes. It left nothing to live for but myself and that alternative I had explored as a youth. I am at a loss to understand how a purposeless life can be given meaning by “caring for others” who are equally as meaningless as I am (even less because they are not me 🙂 ).

    It is not that I don’t care for my neighbor ( I really do), I just don’t understand why I should beyond the fact that it might make the planet nicer for them if I do. Perhaps it is my engineering mindset. It isn’t even that I expect reward for loving my neighbor (after all if that is the motivation it is the same selfishness). God, through Christ, gives my real emotion meaning (it isn’t just an epiphenomena). I require that, Paula doesn’t.

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    • Interesting perspective. I think a lot of it does come down to our personality and experiences. I certainly think that healthy Christianity provides a better and more logical framework for care towards others and the world than does atheism. However, I also understand that for some people their bad experience of the church has left them with little option but to seek truth and freedom outside of it – at least for now. To the extent that they are still influenced by the underlying ‘spirit’ or truth of Christ, albeit unconsciously, they’re still on the right lines as far as I’m concerned.

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  5. RAY RAY says:

    I think consistency, clarity and a degree of certainty do have a bearing on the reality of God. One cannot throw his religious beliefs aside without taking God out of the picture. If God is still there, one has only to choose a belief system he feels comfortable in, or make one up, just what we need, i.e., another sect to add to the thousands already out there. I don’t begrudge anyone following their beliefs, as long as they don’t bother me with them. I claim the same right as they do.
    I believe the many versions of Christianity and sects are things that stick in the craw of most who wander from the faith. It was a big item for me. It kind of dispels the belief of there being one god. Most believe there is only one god, they just cannot agree on which one is the real one.
    Who’s to say what a healthy religion is? I don’t look upon religion as good or bad. I think it’s great that it brings comfort to so many. That can’t be wrong.
    The god I found in the Bible was far from a good and loving god, and there was little doubt that he was to be feared. With me it was not so much fearing God, it was fear of burning in hell for eternity. I never feared death and still don’t. When I finally realized there was no god, it was such a big relief knowing I would not go to hell, for I was sure that’s where I was headed. When I die, I’m going to burn but I won’t know it and it will last for a short time; only long enough to turn my remains to ashes no muss no fuss and no taking up space on Mother Earth; space that may someday be required for my descendants.
    What is proof to one is fallacy to another. One can argue from now till dooms day and neither will gain any ground. It makes little difference whether one follows blindly or ignorantly. In the end, who is going to know or care about the other? We must concentrate on the here and now and do what must be done to get along with each other and see that we preserve what we can for the future and those who follow.
    I have always believed if something was explained logically and intelligently to me, I would take it as being so. It is sad the Bible is so hazy about so many things. I cannot conceive of a god dictating his wishes to his flocks in such a manner. I used to think the bible was a good guide to live by even if I didn’t believe in it. Now, I understand why this world is in the shape it is, morally speaking. If we don’t all soon agree on one set of morals, we are headed, excuse the phrase, to hell, whether or not there is a god.
    Whatever it takes to live happy and healthy; something does need to be corrected with all the bickering between whose beliefs are the true beliefs; whose god it the real god. Who can pray in school? Who has the right to do what to their own body? What does it matter who marries whom and what their sexes are? Whatever happened to live and let live? Does all this penny ante stuff really matter? Thank you, Ray. Have a pleasant day.

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    • Hi Ray, I can’t make a full reply now but just wanted to thank you for your honesty and for taking the trouble to share your thoughts so fully.

      My view of healthy/unhealthy religion is simple. Religion is (I believe) an innate part of the whole human being, and for each person it’s healthy or unhealthy to the extent that the person is emotionally, mentally and relationally healthy. Applied to a whole church or religious system it’s a bit more complex, but it comes to the same basic things.

      Regarding hell, I can only say I agree, and I believe that the church’s standard teaching on hell over the centuries has been largely mistaken and unhelpful. But that’s for another post.

      All the best,
      Harvey

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