Rediscovering Theism

Photo Credit: Raphael Goetter via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Raphael Goetter via Compfight cc

Change is never easy.

When I started questioning my beliefs and distancing myself from church, I felt quite alone. Then I found a community that welcomed doubters like me, who had the same questions as I had, who felt the same way I feel. And I thought I had come home.

I immersed myself in various atheist and agnostic books, videos, podcasts, agreeing with many of them, and even writing my own articles (as regular readers of this column know very well) in a similar line of thought as them.

Many months ago, I got acquainted with a member of our freethinking community, Gelo, and although we have never met in person, I found him to be an impressionable and reasonable fellow. There was one major problem though.

Gelo was a theist, and a Roman Catholic at that.

For those who don’t know my background, I studied in a Catholic school all the way from my elementary years until college, and even after that, but I have never been a Catholic.  I was a Bible-believing Evangelical Christian, as was my family. I was immersed in Protestantism vs. Catholicism arguments way before I gave up on the whole thing altogether.

And yet Gelo’s ideas do not necessarily fit the mold of what you would hear from CBCP proclamations or Sunday sermons. He agreed that my objections about God were valid and that he agreed with them, however, he claimed I was hitting a straw man – a caricature of God – and not the God that classical theists like Thomas Aquinas understood and wrote volumes about, and that even the concept of God I understood as a Christian was wrong.

He says in a recent blog entry entitled, Christmas Post:

“Intelligent people rightly find illogical the proposition that such a being (or beings) exists. And the problem is that both the religious and the skeptic have little time to parse through the metaphysical obscurities — or, as Dennet would say, “deepities” — of theology in order to get a better conceptual framework with which to view God.”

In other words, he is contending that most atheists and agnostics are arguing against an idea of God that the truly intelligent theist finds as illogical as they do. The problem, however, is that most atheists and agnostics do not even take the time and effort to understand what classical theism is all about. They like hitting the easy targets because well, it’s so easy and convenient to do so.

He continues:

“Unsurprisingly they are left ill-prepared to see Him as nothing more than a divine tinkerer, or, more famously, as Paley’s watchmaker. This is why we often see a theology that is more akin to that of Pat Robertson and Kirk Cameron than to that of Alvin Plantinga or Edward Feser.”

Gelo suggested I read a book by Edward Feser, a philosophy professor who was once an atheist but later also turned to theism and is now a Roman Catholic, which I did and found fascinating although I would have to read it again because a lot of the philosophy went over my head.

So anyway, after several months of putting that book down, I have decided to revisit classical theism in more detail and may even write about it in future articles. I have found out that I understand best when trying to make other people understand what is in my head. It’s like the principle that the teacher also learns when he teaches.

Change is never easy. I have built a comfort zone around the fact that I have gained some notoriety in being that “atheist” writer, so this may come as a surprise to some of my readers. But I have said before and I will say it again: I am committed to neither theism nor atheism. I am committed to truth by way of reason, logic and evidence, wherever that may lead.

So I don’t know where this will end up (or if it will ever end, for that matter), but it’s going to be one hell of a ride.

 Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Humanism, not Religion, is Our Salvation

Photo Credit: Ibar Silva via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Ibar Silva via Compfight cc

Typhoon Ruby is headed our way and already I see dozens of Facebook posts urging people to pray that it will be deflected, for God to spare the country, and so on. If the effectivity of prayers that came before past super typhoons are any indication, I doubt if the results would be any different this time around. Not that I am longing for a disaster. I would be delighted if some freak force of nature caused this one to go astray or to dissipate altogether. But I am of the opinion that prayers and holy books don’t make good shelters, life boats or first aid kits.

What good did prayers do when Yolanda struck Tacloban? Was there a divine force field that somehow blocked the path of Pablo when it struck various parts of Mindanao? How about Ondoy, Milenyo and so many others like them?

What stands out in any human tragedy is not the presence of some mystical force, but rather the resilience of the human spirit. Human hands reach out to help, comfort and rebuild. Human hearts feel compassion and sympathize with those who suffer.

Humans helping fellow humans, humans caring for and loving fellow humans — this is what humanism is all about, and it is what will save us — not some pie-in-the-sky salvation with promises of angelic choruses or 72 virgins — but real and tangible solutions in the here and now.

Humanism is a “philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively.” (from Wikipedia)

Being a humanist does not necessarily mean that one gives up religion or belief in a god. It means that one is able to see past the divisiveness and us vs. them mentality that many religions cultivate in their followers. The world would be a better place if people placed less emphasis on religion and more on humanism. After all, underneath our skin colors and beyond our regional cultures and practices, we are essentially the same.

Religion, when not tempered by clear and rational thinking, has a strange way of distorting reality. It can make you think that death and suffering in this life is ok, because you will be justly compensated for it in the afterlife. So it creates a fatalistic mentality of not exhausting all possible solutions to alleviate pain and misery (because “it can’t be done anyway, and this world is going to get worse and worse and will end soon and Jesus will come back and make things right.”)

Humanism, however, doesn’t wait for some magic man in the sky to come and make things right. It places the burden squarely (and rightly) on our shoulders. If we want to make the world a better place, then it is our responsibilty and duty to plan and act accordingly. It is on us to research and develop the means to stay healthy, prolong life, and improve its quality.

Religion teaches that your life is not in your hands but in the hands of some unknown, unseen entity. Religion makes you believe that you are pawns moved around according to the will and plan of some invisible master. Humanism teaches that your life is your own to shape and that you have a huge responsibility in creating your own future and the kind of world that you want to live in.

Humanism and religion are not incompatible though as many religious thinkers have pushed through the boundaries of doctrine and dogma and truly see and value other humans for who and what they really are, and I applaud and respect these people.

It is only when religion becomes too dogmatic that it becomes uncaring. Even Jesus berated the Pharisees when they stressed the law over compassion and kindness. “Man was not made for the Sabbath,” he said, “but the Sabbath for man.”

I may be critical of religion, but when a fellow human is in need, I will gladly help, not because God tells me so, but because I am human and I can empathize and share the pain.

The storm is coming. Stay safe. Be prepared. And I wish you well.

Originally posted in Sunstar Davao.

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A God I Can Believe In

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Photo Credit: Martin Gommel via Compfight cc

I met a friend last week who asked me if I still believed in God. I responded with my usual, “which God?” and he said, “Oh, I get it.”

I no longer believe the God that I used to believe (the Judeo-Christian God), but sometime in my journey from belief to unbelief, I came across a book called Conversations With God written by Neale Donald Walsch. I would eventually come to think of Walsch as another quack because of reasons I won’t go into here, but there was something in his writings that rang true. The book is written as a dialogue, Walsch would write a question on paper, and then somehow would be “moved” to write the answer, without thinking or editing. He would just write and he took that as God speaking through him.

In Walsch’s book, God explains that he has largely been misunderstood, that people were mistaken in taking the Bible literally as His one and only word, that it should instead be seen as man’s attempt to reach for the mysterious, and that there are many such scriptures and many such attempts to communicate and reveal the divine.

“So what do you want from us?” Walsch asks.

And God replies, “Nothing,” and if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. You only want something you don’t have. And a being who has or is everything surely wants nothing.

In contrast, the God I knew had a lot of strange desires and his methods of acquiring them were even more strange. For example, he wants people to love him and obey him of their own free choice, and the way he goes about it is to create this world, then the first man and woman, then tell them that they shouldn’t eat the fruit of a tree that he puts right smack in the middle of the garden where they are.

When that plan goes awry (predictably), he curses them and their offspring to eternal torment and suffering unless they believe in the Savior, his son, who is also himself, whom he sacrifices to himself, because really, someone has to die, but don’t worry, it’s not a real death because he gets to live again happily ever after, but it satisfies the bureaucratic, not to mention, primitive requirement of blood atonement.

After all that, it is quite refreshing to hear a God who says, “Really, I don’t want anything from you — not your obedience or your obeisance, not your praise or adoration, not even your love. Because what could you possibly offer to me that I don’t already have? What could you possibly add to the totality of what I already am? I don’t even care if you believe me or not. It doesn’t matter at all. It really doesn’t.”

But what about heaven and hell? What about doing good or bad?

Well, according to this God, there is no heaven nor hell, and not even good or bad. To understand this, he explains the purpose of creation — In the beginning, there was only God, and there was nothing that wasn’t God. But God only knew himself as God conceptually but not experientially. For example, a man born blind would have no concept of light or darkness, or colors, or even shades of grey, because there is no point of comparison. Only a person who has experienced light can know what darkness is, and vice versa. Similarly, only someone who has experienced Not-God could experience what God was. But God was all there is so he could not experience himself.

God, however, could not make “Not-God” for he was all there is. So he had to make a part of himself forget that it was God, and that part is called creation. And that creation is a means by which God can now experience himself. All of human experience, therefore, the good, bad and the ugly is just a way for God to experience himself. All the pain and suffering we go through, as well as all the joy and laughter, is all part of the experience of God. There is no heaven nor hell, because when anything dies, it simply goes back to being God.

Now for me that is an interesting concept, and although I don’t really believe in everything Walsch writes one hundred percent, this one makes a lot of sense. And if I do hold a belief about God, then this is a God I can believe in.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Confirmation Bias

Photo Credit: Nina Matthews Photography via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Nina Matthews Photography via Compfight cc

Most people seem to have a natural resistance to change. When new information comes along, they try to fit in this information into whatever belief systems and worldviews they already have. Rather than change their beliefs, they would rather filter the information to fit their beliefs. As Warren Buffett onced observed, “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

This is what is called confirmation bias, one of the most devious roots of erroneous thinking. Sometimes, it is quite harmless but at others, it can affect major decisions one makes in life.

When a man is so in love with a woman for example (or vice versa), he may tend to look only at her positive qualities as proof that she is indeed the one for him, while glossing over other less-desirable traits, passing them off as exceptions to the rule.

When they get married, however, these traits come to foreground and irritate him to no end. Then he says, “But you weren’t like that before!” Actually, she probably was, but confirmation bias was so strong at that time that he tended not to notice it.

As a religious person before, I am aware of how strongly confirmation bias can affect one’s beliefs and one’s thinking. It is precisely this factor which makes it so difficult to convert someone from one belief to another, or to unbelief, for that matter. A person would rather find a way to harmonize new data into his belief system than to change the belief system itself.

For example, I grew up being taught that God is love, justice, compassion, etc. When I learned to read the Bible, I gravitated towards the verses that reflected this teaching. When I encountered questionable stories or verses, I would ask my pastor what this meant and he would explain them in such a way that fit into the paradigm of what God was supposed to be like. So passages that sound strange to me now did not sound that strange to me then. In fact, they only added to the “unfathomable mystery” of God, making him all the more worthy of worship because my feeble mind could not ever hope to comprehend him.

So let me give you a selection of passages from the book of Deuteronomy, unedited and uncommented, as is, where is, and let’s see how you react to them. What kind of a God gives these kinds of commands?

“If anyone secretly entices you—even if it is your brother, your father’s son or your mother’s son, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend—saying, ‘Let us go worship other gods,’…you must not yield to or heed any such persons. Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. But you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them, and afterwards the hand of all the people. Stone them to death for trying to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  Then all Israel shall hear and be afraid, and never again do any such wickedness.” (Deuteronomy 13:6-11)

“When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labor. If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil.” (Deuteronomy 20:10-14)

“If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

“If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity.” (Deuteronomy 25:11-12)

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Intercession Confusion

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Photo Credit: smif via Compfight cc

I was a young protestant in a Catholic school. One day, I went to a priest and asked, “Why do you Catholics have to pray to Mary and the saints? Why not just pray directly to God?”

He answered, “Oh we don’t really HAVE to pray to them. And you’re right, we CAN pray directly to God, but you know, it’s like sometimes when you have a favor to ask someone and you can’t ask them directly, so you try to talk to people who are closer to that person than you are — well, it’s sort of like that. We ask Mary and the saints to intercede, to ask, on our behalf because they are, in a sense, closer to God than we are.”

I never did understand that explanation. Is there some sort of palakasan (a system of who has the stronger connections) in heaven? Does God unfairly show more favor to some than to others?

Years later, as an active member of our church, I would join prayer meetings (the least attended church activity all week) and the pastor would lament that very few people took time to intercede on others behalf. I would often wonder, what if the prayer meeting was jam-packed? What if 300 people were praying for Mrs. So-and-so’s cancer to be healed or Mr. So-and-so’s blood sugar levels to go down, would God have been more inclined and moved to do something about it than if it had only been 10 people asking? Is that how this thing works? Is God merely waiting for how many people have “liked” or shared that facebook status before he does something?

In fact, why would God, who supposedly sees and knows everything (even before they happen), have to rely on our intercessory prayers in order to act?

If I had the means to cure cancer, I would surely try to share and get that information out to as many people as possible, even without anyone telling me to do so. You don’t even have to get my mother to convince me to do it.

It bothers me that I have to ask God to do something that he should have known (and done) in the first place.

Ah but here’s the kicker, the Christian defense – “but you DON’T know. You DON’T know that lowering his blood sugar will actually be good for him. You DON’T know that taking the cancer away is the BEST thing to happen. It may be what is bringing that person’s family closer together as they try to help each other resolve this crisis.”

All right, that’s fine, but it also makes intercessory prayer totally useless. Why should I keep praying for this and that to happen when clearly, I don’t know squat about what’s going to happen? Why bother interceding? Just hope for the best, then.

I wasn’t an agnostic then at this point. I still believed in prayer, but I became convinced that it was useless to utter prayers where you asked for this or that — it didn’t matter if you asked for yourself or in behalf of others — because clearly, what was going to happen was going to happen anyway, and if I believed that God knows what’s best for us humans, then what’s going to happen is THE best thing that can happen regardless of how awful and tragic it may seem at the moment. I became convinced that the only prayer worth uttering was one of gratitude, whatever the circumstances.

Why put yourself through the emotional roller-coaster ride that comes with asking and asking with faith, convincing yourself that if you believe hard enough, you’ll get what you ask, and then getting disappointed anyway? Why not just accept that everything that happens, well, happens and we make do, or we make the best out of it.

I no longer pray, whether for myself or for others. What for? I just live, enjoy the company of my family and friends, and accept whatever comes my way.

There is no better way to live.

 Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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