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Atheology #3: Christian Atheist, Hamlet Fan

I don’t believe in any God, Christian or otherwise. However, I acknowledge that a bunch of people created a body of Judaic Scripture with a lot of stories and principles for living. I also acknowledge that a Jew named Jesus from Nazareth gave up carpentry, identified some flaws in that Old Testament, and won over enough followers to create a New Testament. Those two Testaments have shaped and continue to shape the civilization in which I live and think.

I thus propose a possibly provocative description: I am an atheist Christian. Or should I say Christian atheist?

When we pair an adjective and a noun, the noun seems to take priority. Vanilla ice cream—vanilla’s the flavor, but I’m eating ice cream. If I wear a red dress, my choice of red will create less of a stir than my choice of a dress. So which term takes priority in describing my worldview?

I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God.

But I’m Christian, by upbringing, social osmosis, and choice, in a lot of my principles.

I agree with the Mosaic tablets that murder, adultery, theft, bearing false witness, and covetousness are bad. I think taking a sabbath is healthy (that’s why you’re seeing this blog post while I’m gone walkabout). The Commandments about graven images and taking God’s name in vain are useless to me, but I can say that, technically, I have no other gods before the Christian God (and wouldn’t! If I ever convert, it’s Jesus or nobody, not Allah, Buddha, or Flying Spaghetti Monster.). So I’m better than 60% on the Commandments (a better score than the current President who won the Christian vote).

I find the Christian principle of human fallibility extremely useful and have integrated it into my worldview. Mankind stained itself and the Earth with original sin. Jesus came because we are too weak and error-bound to save ourselves. I don’t buy into the metaphysical parts of Genesis and the Gospels, but I do agree that we are fallible creatures doomed to make mistakes. We all err; we all fail; we all die. We must play to win, knowing that most of us will lose and that even the few who win today will inevitably lose someday. We should seek perfection, but we will never achieve perfection.

Human fallibility sounds like a paradox (or maybe a death sentence), yet it helps me understand my limitations and the limitations of my fellow beings. It helps me… accept failure (I was going to say forgive, but I still struggle with that concept) as a natural, predictable part of our lives, but it also helps me get up and try again, and again.

My acceptance of human fallibility reinforces the sense of of grace we must accord ourselves and our fellow human beings. When Polonius says he will treat the actors visiting Elsinore “according to their desert,” Hamlet famously responds,

God’s bodykins, man, much better: use every man
after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?
Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less
they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.
Take them in [William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2].

Hamlet and Jesus say we’re all scum. We lowly crawlers deserve nothing. Yet as Hamlet found the visiting actors worth shelter, food, and honor, the Gospels say a supernatural being found us fallible humans worth the sacrifice of his son. Again, even absent the metaphysics, those stories carry a useful lesson about grace. We all screw up. If we are to put up with ourselves and with each other, we have to accept our fallibility and not base our respect for each other solely on our flawed works. We must accept that all people have some inherent dignity that transcends their inevitable failures.

I also love a good hotdish, especially tater-nugget. That makes me at least an adjutant Lutheran, right?

When I was at SDSU, I imagined having two philosophical “reactors” in my head. One was an atheist reactor, chugging along nicely, powering my worldview and moral decision-making. The other was an auxiliary Christian reactor, a back-up generator, ready for me to swap out the atheist reactor if it broke down and provide all the power I needed to get me through the day (or the rest of my life). All the Christian reactor needed was that one missing component, the belief in God that I just couldn’t find.

25 years later, it occurs to me that my “Christian reactor” may not be a separate auxiliary unit. It may have been the active unit powering my worldview all along. It’s a cheap, off-brand model, with some strange parts from foreign manufacturers, and it’s still lacking that crucial God component. But like a Haier fridge next to a Kenmore, or a Tucker ’48 next to a Chevy, my worldview generator runs on many of the same principles as my neighbors’.

So which is it? Am I an atheist Christian, a follower of Christian principles who omits the supernatural parts? Am I a Christian atheist, whose fundamental belief in the natural world excludes God and spirits but who can accommodate certain principles from a certain book with certain secular application? Or is Christianity so wrapped up with the supernatural that, without the God component, I can’t honestly use the term Christian? Am I a Shakespearean Christian, an atheist Hamlet, or just a ham?

The term matters less than the practical outcome. I reject the belief in God of a majority of my neighbors (including a majority of the people who live in my house). Yet I share with them a lot of the Christian principles that help us get along and keep trying.

57 Comments

  1. Ryan 2017-07-24

    I’m loving the topic you settled on to keep us reading in your absence. I consider myself a doubter. I definitely don’t follow any religious belief system, but I am also not atheist or agnostic either. I’m pedantic, so words matter to me. Definitions matter. An atheist, as I understand the definition, is a person who believes there is no god. That to me is as strong a belief as the belief that there is a god. It may even be stronger. An agnostic is generally defined as a person who believes that knowing whether a god exists or doesn’t exist is impossible – that the human mind is not capable of understanding the answer, regardless what that answer is. I don’t particularly agree with either of those.

    I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture, but I can’t find the certainty of any of these labels in my own self. I don’t think a god exists, but I don’t “believe” no god exists. Maybe it’s the word “believe” that I struggle with, rather than the existence or non-existence of a supernatural being. I am actually very comfortable in my admitted ignorance, however, because admitted ignorance is the only zone in this conversation that actually makes sense to me. The known universe is too large and too complex for me to be comfortable calling myself a “believer” of anything bigger than my senses allow me to compute.

    I have always felt that, if an intelligent creator created me, it made me like this – full of doubt, and honestly full of contempt for people who pretend to be sure of anything this uncertain. How would any creator expect me to think, and act, and live differently than how it created me? I don’t want all this doubt – it’s heavy – I would very much like to have an answer. Maybe it’s selfish and egotistical, but I think if a god created people, he would expect them, and probably even want them, to have doubt. What if you were a god? What would it say about your creation if your people were so naive and fearful they would blindly follow any leader who claimed to offer a chance at eternity? People will follow any fool if that fool has a little moxie, a big mouth, and a promise.

    What is most concerning to me is this question: what if a god exists, but it is not the god we want? If a creator builds my body and mind and fills it with questions and wonder rather than a desire to follow and fit in, is it my fault I am like this? I don’t see how it could be. What if I choose to live a good life? What if I treat people and animals and our earth with respect? What if I am kind to my wife and children? What if I do all these things while doubting the origins of the bible, or the koran, or the bhagavad gita, or anything else that purportedly comes to us from a god? Well, according to most religions, I am not welcome in their earthly reality or their other-worldy eternity because of my unwillingness to “believe,” regardless of the nature of my actions. Does a god that creates this scenario for billions of its subjects sound like a god worth worshiping?

    That’s where a lot of people like me get stuck. What if the god had the power to prevent suffering, and chose to allow it? What if the god knew which men and women would better our world and which ones would be murderous tyrants, and allowed those tyrants to reign? What if the god condemned some beautiful and innocent children to a life of unimaginable pain, and allowed terrible and corrupt minds to enjoy all the pleasures of our world? What if a god exists, but we, as his children, want to be emancipated?

    OK, this is a long enough rant. Here is my viewpoint, boiled down to the most simple formula: Nobody has any of this figured out – not religious zealots, not atheists, not me, and not you. Not by a long shot. If somebody says they do, they’re selling something. Each of us is a product of nearly infinite circumstances, which makes life incredibly fascinating for both wonderful and terrifying reasons.

    I personally think it is a shame that so many humans want their whole lives, their whole being, to be labeled and defined by this topic, but I admit I am one of the people who doesn’t know squat, so do your own homework.

  2. Mike D 2017-07-24

    Cory Heidelberger , I enjoy reading your blogs of investigative journalism on various matters affecting S.D. and the U.S. However, I’m not as interested in your extensive detailed views on your atheism. At the same time, It is your blog. I’d encourage you continue what you do best. At the same time my opinions are only that, my opinions. Have a great day

  3. JonD 2017-07-24

    Well said, Ryan! Thank you.

  4. Porter Lansing 2017-07-24

    Cory has the courage and honesty rarely found in politics. Most will lie about religion to gain popularity.
    ~ There are currently no self-described atheists serving in Congress, although there is one House member, Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who describes herself as religiously unaffiliated.
    http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/06/01/10-facts-about-atheists/

  5. Chip 2017-07-24

    I think that the “Jefferson Bible” may be something worth looking into for you.

    I also spent a few years deciding if God/religion was for me. I ultimately decided that the message of the bible was pretty solid, and that someday when I had kids they would need a good moral anchor to pull off of. I also realised that any resentment or confusion I had about Christianity in general was caused by neo-Christian conservatives and some organized religions, and there was no reason to let them dictate the direction of my faith with their self-serving BS. As far as the miracles go, you can take them or leave them. Makes no real difference. It’s probably best to keep some salt nearby though. We know for a fact that the world is more than 5k years old, so the bible gets off to a rocky start. But if you don’t get too hung up on things one way or the other, and just appreciate the bible for the handbook to life that it is, you’ll be fine.

    My wife is devoutly religious, and we go around about atheism from time to time. I don’t see Atheists as being the devil. People need to understand that atheism doesn’t equal Satan worship. It just means choosing to not take part. And Christians need to understand how frustrating it is for Atheists to not have freedom of religion apply to them. Atheists have no religious freedom. God is all to often forced upon them, and the second they try to stand up for their rights, they get a label slapped on them.

    All I can say to Atheists is too keep your head high. You have nothing to be ashamed off.

  6. Ryan 2017-07-24

    I don’t want my children to grow up to be immoral either, but I am less convinced than Chip that it is a good idea to “just appreciate the bible for the handbook to life that it is…”

    The bible says people who do work on the sabbath should be put to death. The bible says that if a priest has a promiscuous daughter, she should be burned. The bible says if any woman has premarital sex, the men in her community should stone her to death. The bible says homosexuality should be punished by – you guessed it – death.

    In the bible, St. Paul says women shouldn’t be able to teach or have any authority over a man – she should be silent. Moses encouraged people to kill witches. The bible tells wives they should be submissive to their husbands, as they should be to the lord, and that slaves should be submissive to their masters.

    It’s scary how so many people who purport to follow this book are comfortable overlooking all of this malarkey. Or maybe they actually agree with it? That would be even scarier.

    This sounds like a pretty gnarly handbook to life if you ask me. You might want to pray you only have heterosexual sons. I have a daughter, though. She is by far the best thing that has ever happened to me, and I hope with all my heart she is never treated the way the bible says women should be treated.

  7. Troy 2017-07-24

    Ryan,

    I’m following your post. Looking good. Making sense. Good logic.

    You know what you know by experience, knowledge, study. Humbly admitting you are having trouble going to belief because you are limited by your experience, knowledge, study which have given you nothing sufficient to discern the existence of a supreme being/creator.

    You ask good questions about the nature of God, evil, suffering, etc. which are again constrained by your limited experiences and knowledge.

    Alls good until you get to your viewpoint/conclusion which is essentially:

    1) “Nobody has any of this figured out. . . .” which equals “If I can’t/don’t have the experience and knowledge to discern there is a supreme beaing/creator, then anyone who claims to have what I don’t must be a liar or lunatic.

    2) “Its a shame. . . .” which again is another form of “If I don’t have it figured out, those who claim to are wasting their lives by being so dedicated to their God.”

    Ryan, in some ways the most profound thing you may have said is “Maybe it’s the word “believe” that I struggle with. . . .” I once was told or read that belief is not what I think to be true, not what I know to be true but WHAT I UNDERSTAND TO BE TRUE AND I WILL STAND FOR EVEN UNTO DEATH.

    Belief in anything is hard when it is overlaid with the admission to believe in it requires one to be willing to die for it. So, it is easier to not admit what we believe in. No head on the block then. HOPEFULLY being a good husband, father and doing the right thing will “save me” if there is something to save when dead. HOPEFULLY, if there is a God that God will appreciate the honesty in myself struggle with unbelief, the evil/pain/suffering in the world, and maybe God will even take some responsibility since God is the Creator and I’m just the created.

    And, if there is no God, the end is the same, you are a pile of dust. Six of one, half dozen the other. But, if there is a God, we both know you aren’t God and you will find out if your “hope” was warranted and sufficient.

    BTW: The theological virtue of Hope is defined as living with the desire of being united with God and expecting it. Capital “H” Hope is not the same as small “h” hope.

  8. Donald Pay 2017-07-24

    The thing that bothers me most about atheism is that atheists have little art of value and almost no music. Yeah, atheists make good scientists and passable philosophers, but I’m not sure they make great fine artists. I believe, Cory, you are an artist. What say you?

    Maybe with the possible exception of John Lennon, who was probably more a doubter or pan-religionist than an atheist, what atheist has created great music? I realize that much of the great classical music was created by composers under commission, either to a prince or to a religious sect. So, many were just in it for the money. But what about all that unbelievably moving black gospel music. If you’ve ever been to a real black church, you would swear Jesus was right there in the music.

    I tried to write a few tunes in my life. Meh. You either need God or a seventeen-year-old or you need to be cynical and sarcastic, like Randy Newman, to inspire you. I’m too old for seventeen-year olds. And I’m too old for God. But, hey, I can be inspired by sarcasm.

  9. Ryan 2017-07-24

    Troy, you raise solid concerns regarding my comments, but you quoted me mid-sentence. I said those are components of my viewpoint, not facts.

    If a god appeared before me, I would likely crumble at its feet under the weight of the obvious realization that I am not worthy of its grace. What I won’t do, though, is turn my life, or my soul if that exists, into a poker chip on a roulette table. I don’t have it in me to follow a religion “just in case,” as you seem to suggest. Too many people have lived, and died, and killed others for their beliefs, so despite the fact that I disagree with most people when the topic is god, I am not the type to trivialize the issue with a pros-and-cons comparison of belief or nonbelief.

    In fact, another component of my viewpoint is that religion is the most dangerous thing on this earth, because so many people are comfortable making that wager and perpetuating the division among people that it creates.

  10. bearcreekbat 2017-07-24

    Ryan, I too enjoyed your posts. I think you have erred, however, in concluding that “An atheist, as I understand the definition, is a person who believes there is no god.” While this may be true for some individuials who consider themselves “atheist,” it appears inconsistent with the viewpoint of the American Atheists group:

    Atheism is not an affirmative belief that there is no god nor does it answer any other question about what a person believes. It is simply a rejection of the assertion that there are gods. Atheism is too often defined incorrectly as a belief system. To be clear: Atheism is not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods.

    https://www.atheists.org/activism/resources/about-atheism/

    Your description of your own personal views would seem consistent with the views of this group.

  11. Chip 2017-07-24

    Like I said. I take it with a bit of salt. I don’t see any sense in hanging on every word to make a case for or against the bible. Our church allows homosexual pastors and I’d be very surprised if they wouldn’t be willing offer marriage services to one of our own that happened to be homosexual. I wouldn’t go there if I didn’t genuinely believe that. Our last pastor was a woman. So obviously nobody there believes a woman should be silent or is unable to teach. I don’t remember anything from our marriage classes about my wife having to be submissive. We did talk though about sex before marriage. My wife’s mother got kicked out of her church when she got pregant with my wife. We all agreed that was wrong. Would not be there if that weren’t the case. I can also tell you that my wife is lucky she isn’t Catholic, because I never would have signed a piece of paper agreeing to raise our kids as Catholic. I probably would have been thrown out the door when I asked the priest why I wasn’t good enough to take communion there.

    I don’t have all the answers on this. Are there some discrepancies between what my church preaches and the generally accepted translations/interpretations in the bible? Sure there is. Do I care? No. I’m not the least bit ashamed of it. Even Thomas Jefferson cut and pasted his own bible together to better reflect his own beliefs. Does that make you less Christian? Are we supposed to believe that God hates homosexuals, or that God loves everyone? Where did that discreptancy come from? Isn’t that what doing your own homework is all about?

  12. bearcreekbat 2017-07-24

    Ryan commented:

    If a god appeared before me, I would likely crumble at its feet under the weight of the obvious realization that I am not worthy of its grace.

    This brings to mind John Paul Sartre’s play “The Flies.” When the king of Gods, Zeus, threatens Orestes with the crumbling of the earth beneath his feet unless Orestes submits to Zeus, Orestes replies:

    ORESTES: Let it crumble! Let the rocks revile me, and flowers wilt at my coming. Your whole universe is not enough to prove me wrong. You are the king of gods, king of stones and stars,
    king of the waves of the sea. But you are not the king of man. [The walls draw together. ZEUS comes into view, tired and de-jected, and he now speaks in his normal voice.]

    ZEUS: Impudent spawn! So I am not your king? Who, then, made you?

    ORESTES: You. But you blundered; you should not have made me free.

    ZEUS: I gave you freedom so that you might serve me.

    ORESTES: Perhaps. But now it has turned against its giver. And neither you nor I can undo what has been done.

    ZEUS: Ah, at last! So this is your excuse?

    ORESTES- I am not excusing myself.

    ZEUS: No? Let me tell you it sounds much like an excuse, this freedom whose slave you claim to be.

    ORESTES: Neither slave nor master. I am my freedom. No sooner had you created me than I ceased to be yours.

    https://www.vanderbilt.edu/olli/class-materials/Jean-Paul_Sartre.pdf

    Sartre’s treatment of Orestes confrontation with Zeus reveals a powerful message. Even if there is a God as described in the Bible, it does not follow that we must worship or even respect that God, especially if it demands the awful behavior described in Ryan’s post, referencing many of the laws of the Old Testament. Freedom, if exercised, overcomes fear of being punished by God for doing what we believe to be right, rather than blindly following God’s orders in the hope of escaping eternal punishment or obtaining eternal reward.

  13. Ryan 2017-07-24

    Bearcreekbat, that definition does seem closer to my thoughts than some of the oversimplified versions I’ve seen before. Maybe I just hate labeling something so overwhelming in its complexity and importance and then lumping myself in a group that probably has just as many crazies as theists.

    Chip, I have no answers for anything. I’m sure there are many good people who just go along with the good parts of the bible and ignore the ugly stuff, but that’s sort of the issue this whole conversation is about. If people are going to do that, what’s the point of the book? Why pray? Why not just do good? Why perpetuate an organization of killers and rapists and slaveholders just because they also suggest some benevolent action, too?

  14. Robin Friday 2017-07-24

    I remember being taught that an atheist says “we DO not know”. An agnostic says “we CAN not know”. In other words, an atheist believes if we can not arrive at belief in gods through logic, when there is no evidence, then we do not believe. An agnostic believes it is not within our power as human beings to know or understand the existence of gods, then we CAN not know.

  15. troy 2017-07-24

    Ryan,

    The use of partial sentence wasn’t meant as a truncation or taking out of context. That is why I put the “. . . .” My intention and reference was to your entire thought.

    The rest of your comments makes it clear you have no desire to believe. Our desires are choices. We all get to make them.

    You also have little grasp of the interiority of those who do. But, that is ok too. Believers also have a hard time grasping the interiority of those who don’t believe. Even a convert (either way) often talks how hard it is to remember their own prior interiority. Believers may appeal to the wager when conversing with the non-believer but belief is not a chip for who do you know who would die for a chip?

    Bear,

    You are exactly correct- Atheism is the absence of belief. However, sometimes in the vernacular it referred to as non-belief as it gives vividness to the discussion which is accurate. Comparable analogies.

    We use the word “cold” to describe the a lack of heat. But, technically, there are degrees of heat in anything until -250 Fahrenheit (or is it celsius as I forget?) when there is no heat. You can’t get colder than “absolute zero” which is shorthand for “no heat.” Cold isn’t the opposite of heat but a term describing the lack of heat (and degree).

    Same with darkness. There is very bright light, kinda bright light all the way down to just a wee bit of light. After that, there is no light. Darkness is not the opposite of light but but is like “absolute zero” meaning “absolutely no light”.

    As you reference, so it is with atheism.

  16. mike from iowa 2017-07-24

    Someone’s prayers went unanswered. Charlie Gard’s parents agree with British docs and American doc that it is too late for Charlie to fly to America for treatment. Let nature take its course.

  17. David Newquist 2017-07-24

    ·
    OMG She’s still talking! Proves there is no God.

    Michele Bachmann: ‘The Lord Is Working Mightily In Our Government’ Thanks To Trump | Right Wing Watch
    RIGHTWINGWATCH.ORG

  18. Chip 2017-07-24

    Ryan, As you said, words are important. The same word can have a different meaning depending on where you are in the US. Or a particular thing can have a different name depending on where you are. Also consider words like ‘office’ vs ‘officer’. Both have the same basic root word but have very different meanings.
    How about ‘duck’ vs ‘duck’?

    Now imagine those differences across different regions and translations of languages across the world today. Interpretations become exponentially more strained. Now throw in several translations across several thousand years of different civilizations. Then add the possible filter of whatever spin the translator wants to put on it at the time.

    Any way you slice it, your Christianity is your own. If that’s what you’re into. If not, that’s fine too. If I could find another more secular orginization to be a part of i would definately consider it. But must don’t do weddings or funerals, and those things come in handy from time to time.

    “Why not just be good?”

    Who needs farmers when you’ve got the supermarket?

  19. Adam 2017-07-25

    I think Cory is a poly-atheist – where one does not only contest the existence of one God, but also the existence of many Gods – and rejecting the idea that any one of man’s numerous religious God constructs could be accurate.

  20. Kurt Evans 2017-07-25

    Cory writes:

    Am I an atheist Christian, a follower of Christian principles who omits the supernatural parts? … Or is Christianity so wrapped up with the supernatural that, without the God component, I can’t honestly use the term Christian?

    Arguably the foundational Christian principle is Christ’s assertion that He and God the Father are one, so I’m not sure someone who denies God’s existence can accurately identify himself as a follower of Christ’s principles.

    Ryan writes:

    Nobody has any of this figured out – not religious zealots, not atheists, not me, and not you.

    If you don’t have any of this figured out, Ryan, I’m wondering how you could possibly know that no one else does.

    Chip writes:

    We know for a fact that the world is more than 5k years old, so the bible gets off to a rocky start.

    The Bible indicates that the world is more than 5,000 years old:
    http://www.truedakotan.com/opinion/letterbox-science-includes-recognizing-assumptions/article_c211de08-0ba7-11e6-9f62-f74e57bae3ee.html
    http://www.mitchellrepublic.com/opinion/letters/4032885-letter-all-sound-science-compatible-christianity

    Ryan writes:

    The bible says people who do work on the sabbath should be put to death. The bible says that if a priest has a promiscuous daughter, she should be burned. The bible says if any woman has premarital sex, the men in her community should stone her to death. The bible says homosexuality should be punished by – you guessed it – death.

    In the bible, St. Paul says women shouldn’t be able to teach or have any authority over a man – she should be silent. Moses encouraged people to kill witches…

    It’s scary how so many people who purport to follow this book are comfortable overlooking all of this malarkey. Or maybe they actually agree with it?

    I’m not comfortable overlooking it, and I definitely don’t agree with it. What you’ve written is an extremely deceitful misrepresentation of the Bible’s teachings.

    Troy writes:

    But, technically, there are degrees of heat in anything until -250 Fahrenheit (or is it celsius as I forget?) when there is no heat.

    I’m pretty sure it’s –273°C or –460°F.

  21. Ryan 2017-07-25

    Kurt,

    I said it is my viewpoint that nobody has any of this figured out. I don’t state it as a fact, because I obviously can’t “know” more than what I personally experience. My opinion is based on my life experience, and I stand by it. I have talked with atheists, devout religious people, pastors, and many other people who don’t label themselves, and none have provided anything to me other than further doubt and questions.

    As for being “extremely deceitful” in misrepresenting the bible, I would argue I am being more literal with its message than you or your church. Just because somebody doesn’t like that it says those things doesn’t mean it doesn’t say them. If this book should be held in such high regard, as the physical representation of the word of your god, how can somebody pick and choose the parts that they think are right and still claim to be a follower of that god? Do the followers know more than the leader? Does the word of god expire? Is the god who wrote the book so complacent to allow his word to be bastardized with the mis-translations across the globe and across time as you mention?

    Again, I admit I am full of doubt and unable to articulate all the thoughts in my head regarding this subject, but if I believed in a god and thought that my god wrote a book, I would either be all-in or all-out. If my god’s book read like the bible, I’d be out.

  22. Porter Lansing 2017-07-25

    @Ryan … I was taught at UCC that the Old Testament is a history lesson of what needed to be changed by Jesus. The New Testament is a testimony of Jesus’ work on earth and his demise and his resurrection.
    ~Don’t think the Old Testament is a teaching guide. It’s a list of heinous, gruesome Jewish priests, Pharisees, rulers and judges ungodly crimes against their people.
    ~Our Bible is basically a choice between “An eye for an eye” vs “Turn the other cheek.”
    ~@Kurt … Don’t proselytize me. I find no wisdom in your rigid, fundamentalist interpretation of how people should live happy and fulfilling lives. Look within, young man. Should you refrain from continually needing the last word, women might be more attracted to you.

  23. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-07-25

    Mike, don’t worry—this detour into personal philosophy is an exception, not a new rule. I much prefer looking outward, not inward. Thanks for reading!

  24. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-07-25

    Kurt says, “Arguably, the foundational Christian principle is Christ’s assertion that He and God the Father are one….” I dig that point. That fundamental assertion distinguishes Christianity from mere good advice offered by your friendly neighborhood carpenter.

    So suppose Christianity consists of that unique foundational principle and lots of other practical principles that flow therefrom. In terms of terms, who’s more Christian: the person who believes the foundational principle but rejects the others, or the person who rejects the foundational principle but finds other routes to lots of the practical principles? Or is the term “Christian” like “unique”, an absolute, all or nothing, with no degrees?

  25. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-07-25

    The juxtaposition of Ryan’s and Mike D’s comments at the top encourages me. This post launches Ryan into a lengthy statement of doubt and belief. His thoughts invite further contemplation. Mike shrugs and says (paraphrasing!), “Enough about you, Cory—get back to the real news!”

    Both are valid responses. A lot of people take to social media to explore their own thoughts (see, for example, According to Allie in the Greater SD Blogosphere sidebar feed) or to post pictures of what they are eating or cooking or to talk about sports. Sports!—that’s a section of the paper I almost never open.

    I want everyone to like what I write. But I (and all writers!) have to remember that nobody is going to like everything I write. Some people may not like anything I write. And if folks aren’t interested in South Dakota, odds are they aren’t going to be interested in this blog, since South Dakota is the focus of 95% of what I write. (This three-part series is an obvious exception… more on that in a moment.)

    But if I’m writing well about South Dakota, if I’m reading and studying enough, I’ll find enough diverse topics even within my somewhat narrow chosen topic area to allow everyone to find something worth reading here. Those somethings won’t overlap for everyone, and that’s o.k. We all like different parts of the paper.

    As I said to Mike, this series is an exception, not a change to a new rule. I’m getting back to work. I agree with Mike that my exploration and explanation of my irreligious beliefs is not as important for public consumption as a discussion of public affairs.

    But with an eye toward public discourse, now I have this brief statement of atheist principles on the record. If I post on other religious issues that draw public attention (like praying for rain or claiming religious freedom as a defense against eminent domain for a natural-gas pipeline, or if I run for office and my opponent’s party decides to attack me as an atheist who hates Christians, I can link to this series and say, “If you really want to know what I believe, click, and there it is.”

  26. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-07-25

    Porter, would there ever be a way to verify that any of those Congresspeople are lying about their religion?

  27. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-07-25

    Look at what Chip says about the Jefferson Bible and the “handbook to life” approach to Scripture in the context of Kurt’s comment about the foundational metaphysical principle. That’s another way to test the question I put to Kurt and to everyone: can one ignore the big supernatural questions, be skeptical of miracles, read the Bible as a “handbook to life”, and thus live a life that we may honestly refer to as “mostly Christian”?

  28. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-07-25

    Donald, I’m glad you get the impression that I’m an artist. I get that impression, too, although so far, I’m a minor artist at best, perhaps only underscoring your observation that great artistry seems to require some divine spark.

    Schubert’s Mass in G, Biebl’s Ave Maria, U2’s Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For—all God music, songs I love to sing. A sense of connection to the cosmic seems to inspire good art. John Lennon shows it’s not a necessary condition, but it appears to help. I have trouble imagining writing an atheist mass, a great work of musical architecture meant to reach to the heavens to honor… the nothingness that stares coldly down upon us.

    Plus, atheists don’t have a long tradition of public worship necessitating the need for public worship songs, or popes, kings, and other potentates commissioning them to compose great music and paintings and sculptures. Stage a Renaissance, spread wealth around a bourgeois merchant class who want to honor their own earthly achievements rather than God, and maybe you get more secular art by secular artists.

    Then again, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright….

  29. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-07-25

    Bearcreekbat quotes American Atheists: “Atheism is not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods.”

    Troy seems to accept the distinction between disbelief and absence of belief, but I wonder: is that really a hair worth splitting? Is any hair being split? Is there any difference between saying, “I lack a belief in gods,” “I hold a disbelief in gods,” and “I don’t believe in gods”?

  30. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-07-25

    David Newquist, Bachmann’s comment may not disprove the existence of God, but, if accepted widely, it would disprove the existence of real Christians.

    If Donald Trump is a sign of God at work, I want a new God.

  31. OldSarg 2017-07-25

    Faith is easier than a sad dissertation on why you have no Faith. You are in my prayers Cory.

  32. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-07-25

    Sad? I feel like you don’t mean that word in any friendly, sympathetic, or prayerful way, OldSarg. And you know, as I review my words, I don’t think I spent much if any time talking about why I believe what I believe; I just described what I believe and the actions to which those beliefs lead me. I don’t try to proselytize or convert; is that the intent of your prayer? Are you even reading what I’m saying, or did you just see “atheist” in the headline and decide to wave your theist flag? If the latter, please spare me your aggressive piety and direct your prayers at someone who actually needs your help.

  33. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-07-25

    And… sad? I describe a worldview guided by the Lutheran concepts of human fallibility, grace, and tater-nugget hotdish. What’s sad about that? What more Christianness do you require to stanch your tears, OldSarg?

  34. Robin Friday 2017-07-25

    So. . .I’m supposed to convince myself to believe something because it would be “easier”? No, one doesn’t force oneself to believe just because it would be easier (or less painful).

  35. Robin Friday 2017-07-25

    But Cory, does accepting some principles which you call Christian (I’m not sure they’re Christian) make you Christian? I don’t think so. I don’t call myself Christian just because I think there’s some good writing (and some bad) in the testaments.

  36. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-07-25

    Robin, what if I changed terms slightly? What if I called myself a culturally and philosophically Lutheran atheist? Does it make a difference if I describe my worldview in terms of a theologian rather than the theos?

  37. Robin Friday 2017-07-25

    Cory, same question. I believe in several precepts from Buddhism and from the Tao. Does that make me a Buddhist atheist or an atheist Buddhist? Or Taoist? I’m not even sure about Christian, because though I’m about 50-50 on whether he existed as a man or not, If I don’t believe in the Christian god, then I don’t believe he had a son. I believe he (Jesus) may have been a man who walked the earth and spread goodness, much like Mother Teresa or Albert Schweitzer or Mohandes Ghandi. Anyway, thanks very much for your essays on atheism. Daresay it’s the best I’ve seen. And have a great time on walkabout.

  38. Kurt Evans 2017-07-26

    I’d written:

    If you don’t have any of this figured out, Ryan, I’m wondering how you could possibly know that no one else does.

    Ryan writes:

    I don’t state it as a fact, because I obviously can’t “know” more than what I personally experience.

    Thanks for clarifying.

    Ryan writes:

    If this book [the Bible] should be held in such high regard, as the physical representation of the word of your god, how can somebody pick and choose the parts that they think are right and still claim to be a follower of that god? Do the followers know more than the leader? Does the word of god expire? Is the god who wrote the book so complacent to allow his word to be bastardized with the mis-translations across the globe and across time as you mention?

    Do you mean to suggest that I’d mentioned mistranslations in my previous comment?

    Cory writes:

    So suppose Christianity consists of that unique foundational principle [Christ’s assertion that He and God the Father are one] and lots of other practical principles that flow therefrom. In terms of terms, who’s more Christian: the person who believes the foundational principle but rejects the others, or the person who rejects the foundational principle but finds other routes to lots of the practical principles?

    I’m not sure there’s anyone who believes the foundational principle but rejects the others. If there were, I’d say that person would still be more Christian than anyone who rejects the foundational principle.

    Or is the term “Christian” like “unique”, an absolute, all or nothing, with no degrees?

    I’m pretty sure it can be correctly used either as an all-or-nothing absolute or as a matter of degree.

    Look at what Chip says about the Jefferson Bible and the “handbook to life” approach to Scripture in the context of Kurt’s comment about the foundational metaphysical principle. That’s another way to test the question I put to Kurt and to everyone: can one ignore the big supernatural questions, be skeptical of miracles, read the Bible as a “handbook to life”, and thus live a life that we may honestly refer to as “mostly Christian”?

    Maybe predictably, I’d say no.

    … atheists don’t have a long tradition of public worship necessitating the need for public worship songs …

    In the words of Steve Martin, “Atheists don’t have no songs” (3 minutes, 25 seconds):
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmwAD7nHqaY

    What if I called myself a culturally and philosophically Lutheran atheist? Does it make a difference if I describe my worldview in terms of a theologian rather than the theos?

    It makes a slight difference, but Luther also asserted that Christ and God the Father are one, so his foundational philosophy was essentially the same as Christ’s.

  39. happy camper 2017-07-26

    The disclosure makes a person unelectable. Data from 2007 shows 53% of the population won’t vote for an atheist as President, higher even than homosexuals at 43%.

    In 2014 there were 24 members of Congress who would say so privately, compared to 150 members of the UK Parliment who would do so publicly.

    Some day there will be a tipping point in public opinion but it is likely a long way off. Didn’t expect to see a black President in my lifetime, but in that Gallup Poll only 4% said being black would mean a no vote. Huge difference.

    To be realistic, atheism is a deal breaker to elected office.

    http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/black_president_more_likely_than_mormon_or_atheist_/
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/atheist-politicians-may-run-the-uk-but-they-remain-closeted-in-the-us/2014/08/22/bf147a3a-2a12-11e4-8b10-7db129976abb_story.html?utm_term=.64912080e1d9

  40. Ryan Pomerleau 2017-07-26

    Responding to Kurt – he asks:

    “Do you mean to suggest that I’d mentioned mistranslations in my previous comment?”

    I apparently made a mistake in responding to both you and Chip at the same time and incorrectly putting his words in your mouth. He said:

    “Now imagine those differences across different regions and translations of languages across the world today. Interpretations become exponentially more strained. Now throw in several translations across several thousand years of different civilizations. Then add the possible filter of whatever spin the translator wants to put on it at the time.”

    Sorry for the confusion. You didn’t respond to my other questions that were directed at you based on your actual comments, but that’s ok, you are in a difficult position that I think a lot of religious people get stuck in – defending the indefensible; answering the unanswerable. Since you put yourself out there, I thought I would ask, but I admit it is somewhat unfair. As a side note, I would never pose these questions to people who weren’t expecting them, because again, it’s like throwing stones at glass houses from a bunker. I do get that.

  41. Chip 2017-07-26

    Why do athiests get married?

  42. leslie 2017-07-26

    King of distraction brings up banning transgendered folks,yet another minority from the military

    Happy, as you can elect trump, we can elect an atheist, a muslim, a black, a woman, a trans, a latino ect. and we have. we will continue.

    Happy said : “To be realistic, atheism is a deal breaker to elected office.”

  43. Porter Lansing 2017-07-26

    Thanks, Bill. Excellent piece.
    Here’s to the second level. I see you getting there before me but it’ll be a revelation.
    Maybe it’s what some call Heaven? LOL

  44. Robin Friday 2017-07-26

    Marriage is a civil contract with certain attendant responsibilities and privileges. It is not required that any church approve or officiate a marriage under U.S. law. You go to the state for the license, not to the church.

  45. Kurt Evans 2017-07-27

    Ryan writes:

    I apparently made a mistake in responding to both you and Chip at the same time and incorrectly putting his words in your mouth.

    Thanks for clarifying.

    You didn’t respond to my other questions that were directed at you based on your actual comments, but that’s ok, you are in a difficult position that I think a lot of religious people get stuck in – defending the indefensible; answering the unanswerable.

    I’m not in a position of defending the indefensible or answering the unanswerable. I didn’t respond to your other questions because they seemed rhetorical, but I’ll respond to them now.

    In his previous comment, Ryan had asked:

    If this book [the Bible] should be held in such high regard, as the physical representation of the word of your god, how can somebody pick and choose the parts that they think are right and still claim to be a follower of that god?

    I’m not sure.

    Do the followers know more than the leader? Does the word of god expire?

    No and no.

    Chip asks:

    Why do athiests get married?

    Atheists probably get married for the same reason Christians do. Their girlfriends threaten to break up with them if they don’t.

    That was supposed to be funny.

  46. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-07-28

    Kurt’s closing reason is as good as any.

    Chip, I’ll never presume to speak for all atheists and their motivations for marriage or other activities. I got married because I love the lady I’m with. That love is a choice and a promise, not to mention a useful civil contract, as Robin mentions. We got married in a church (Touchdown Jesus in Brookings!), because it was her church, because she wanted it there, because it took no skin off my nose, and because the bagpipes sounded awesome there.

  47. David Bergan 2022-01-11

    Good morning Cory!

    Just re-read your article today and it really resonates with me. What matters is how we act more than what label is applied to us (or we apply to ourselves).

    My question here is whether you’ve found any moral guide in your journey better than Jesus? Is his teaching and example the best compass? Or do you rank someone else (Shakespeare?) above him?

    Kind regards,
    David

  48. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-01-11

    Fancy meeting you here again, David! I am pleased to hear that this article resonates with you and that it holds up after 4.5 years. That’s another reason I blog instead of posting to Facebook—FB posts rarely last more than 24 hours, and they’re a lot harder to find.

    A moral guide better than Jesus? Hmmm… the question makes me realize that I don’t go around looking for guidance very often. I glance at my moral compass and go charging down the trail.

    I mention above that human fallibility, that fundamental Christian principle, helps me make sense of the world. Jesus probably put that thought in Shakespeare’s head, and Shakespeare then put it Hamlet’s voice, so even if I claim Shakespeare/Hamlet is my guide on that principle, I’d likely still have to trace the useful concept back to the Nazarene carpenter. But I wonder: were Jesus and his apostles the first fellas to write that notion down? Did the Greeks or the Phoenicians bring up a similar concept? Could we trace the whole notion back to Gilgamesh?

    But let’s not get esoteric. Guidance implies direction to help one get somewhere, practical movement, practical action. In my daily activities, when I’m doing stuff, making moral choices, I don’t spend a lot of time trying to identify any single supreme guide for my actions. In figuring how to do right for my family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and fellow citizens, I think about and cite Jesus and his parables less frequently than I cite characters and metaphors from the books, news articles, essays, TV shows, and films that I take in and enjoy far more than Scripture. At work, I have cited Kirk, Spock, and Picard from Star Trek; Winston Churchill in the first season of The Crown, and Michael Scott from The Office to make sense of problems and determine practical and just solutions. I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and starred numerous passages as examples of how not to manage an organization or be a human. (Negative guides can be useful, too.) I read and listened to (and transcribed much of) President Biden’s speech on voting rights today and found it a good reminder that our practical rights in a democracy stem from the concept of equal human dignity. How much those “texts” I “read” may be rooted in Christian ethics and culture is an interesting academic question, but such analysis wouldn’t necessarily move me to more strongly follow or reject the notions I derive from those texts.

    There’s also plenty of my mom and dad in my moral sense. Jesus had reasonable ideas, but when I was growing up, if I didn’t do what Mom and Dad said, there’d be real trouble real quick. Just the other day, I saw a sidewalk that had only been half-shoveled and I immediately thought of Dad chewing my butt for doing similarly half-assed work one winter day. Such sure and swift consequences stick with a guy, mostly for the best.

    I haven’t spent much of the past couple decades trying to determine who is the best guide for my life. Sometimes Jesus is useful. Sometimes Spock. Sometimes Joe Biden. Sometimes Michael Scott. If I can’t name a “best” moral guide, am I in trouble? Do we need a coherent hierarchy of personal moral guides to ensure reliable moral responses?

  49. David Bergan 2022-01-14

    Good evening Cory!

    Thank you for the comprehensive reply! Again I find a lot in common with your approach of pulling practical wisdom out of my upbringing, past experiences, books, movies, TV shows, and (rarely) the speeches of politicians. Life is dynamic and complicated, so our moral compass is necessarily somewhat ad hoc. Scripture doesn’t say anything about vaccines or social media.

    Thinking about your answer made me think about my question. What did I mean by a moral guide? And if there’s more than one, how do we rank them?

    I think “moral guide” breaks down into two parts. First there is an aim, some sort of value, goal, or ideal. And second… how do we reach it? So, for example, when I’m thirsty, a moral guide says first that my body needs water and second, that I need to dig a well to get it. I’m making this distinction because I think your examples were mostly of the digging-a-well type. I mean we can get drinking water in many ways (public water fountains, friends’ homes, free at most restaurants), but which of those will work depends on the situation. Knowing that I can get free water at Wall Drug doesn’t do me a lot of good when I’m in Africa. And so, rightfully, we use a lot of ad hoc brainpower to observe, orient, decide, and act to achieve our goal. The successful lessons from those experiences petrify into proverbs, saws, superstitions, and old wives’ tales.

    Less context-dependent is the first part… that my body needs water. And due to the imprecise nature of my question, when you said “In figuring how to do right for my family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and fellow citizens…” you sort of breezed past the part I was really interested in. What values/goals/ideals do you use to determine what’s “doing right” for other people? And where do they come from?

    I’m content putting the metaphysical claims about Jesus on the sidelines. Much of those areas confound me, too. (I sometimes refer to myself as a Christian agnostic—a pun of sorts on the Christian gnostics who sparred with the church fathers—because when questions come up like “How does Jesus’s death take away the sins of the world?” I am currently “without knowledge”.)

    And I agree with you that the idea of human fallibility isn’t original to Jesus. It seems to be implied in the Garden of Eden where humanity’s parents disobey, and then hide, from the embodiment of goodness… a story that comes from the oldest part of the Bible and probably from an untraceably old oral tradition before that. To further your point, many of Jesus’s other ideas and sayings can be found piecemeal in the Old Testament and the Talmud if you look hard enough. But without his ministry, those ideas weren’t reaching the ends of the earth. “Romeo and Juliet” existed before Shakespeare, but without that treatment, it would have remained in obscurity.

    But more than that, I would suggest that Jesus’s synthesis created an ideal of human community that nowhere was thought about/aspired to/lived out before him. I mean the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ way of human community existed before Jesus. The Torah, the Talmud, the Prophets, and the Writings were read weekly in their synagogues. But Jesus’s ministry was not that. Jesus starts preaching about a new way of living based on ideas buried in their own texts, and they execute him in 3 years.

    So here are some of the principles Jesus articulated for “doing right”:
    – Be perfect.
    – Sin no more.
    – Do unto others…
    – Love one another.
    – Love your neighbor as yourself.
    – Love your enemy.
    – Turn the other cheek.
    – Wash your traitor’s feet.
    – Forgive others so that others may forgive you.
    – Judge not… lest you be judged.
    – Don’t go to God without first doing whatever you can do to reconcile your rifts (leave your gift at the altar; I desire mercy, not sacrifice).
    – Always forgive, even after repeat offenses (70 x 7).
    – Seek atonement with one another… become at-one with them. Don’t just “forgive” and never want to see them again, but fully restore the relationship as much as possible (like the father of the Prodigal Son).
    – Your true enemy is within you, not someone else (plank in your own eye).
    – Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.
    – Give all your wealth to the poor.
    – Give your last farthing.
    – Do your good works in secret.
    – Take the seat at the foot of the table.
    – Spend time with the drunkards, gluttons, tax collectors, and prostitutes without becoming one of them.
    – Have courage, but utterly non-violent courage.
    – Be willing to be put to death for these ideals (grain of wheat, take up your cross).
    – Treat everyone as though they were Jesus in disguise (sheep & goats).
    – Don’t worry about tomorrow.

    These are some of the things I meant when I was wondering if you had found a greater moral guide/ideal. What do you imagine would happen if the whole country got on board with this list?

    Kind regards,
    David

    PS Your articles no longer have the checkbox to be notified for follow-up comments?

  50. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-01-15

    “Your true enemy is within you, not someone else.”—I read that line and thought immediately, “Someone needs to say that to Johnny, Daniel, Miguel, Samantha, Robbie, Tory, and every other character on Cobra Kai, a show now figuring prominently in my moral thinking.

  51. bearcreekbat 2022-01-15

    The concept that “Your true enemy is within you, not someone else” also seems to be a fundamental part of Sartre’s explanation of personal responsibility, which for me was a key point of Sartre’s understanding of existentialism. This concept provides a powerful moral compass for decisionmaking. See e.g.

    “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

    or

    “I must be without remorse or regrets as I am without excuse; for from the instant of my upsurge into being, I carry the weight of the world by myself alone without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.”

    https://www.azquotes.com/author/13003-Jean_Paul_Sartre/tag/responsibility

    And since I am responsible for deciding what this “burden” of personal responsibility means, I can find it devastating or uplifting, as the choice is mine alone.

  52. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-01-18

    To David’s concluding question, I think America would be better off if all of the individuals who justify their selfish and destructive politics by claiming to be Christians would actually follow the teachings of Jesus that David lays out.

    I still revolt against some of those teachings myself. I continue to struggle with forgiveness: I hold my grudges and shun those who trespass against me. I judge (i.e., discern right from wrong, useful behavior from harmful behavior, reliable character from unreliable) regularly, critically, and vocally, accept that others will judge me, and ask only that they judge with the same honesty that I apply to my judgments.

    But were I as well-read as BCB, I might be able to say the same of Sartre: some of his principles chafe, but for the most part, society would be better off if more people adopted more of his moral guidance. Perhaps any community would be better off if its members followed any reasonable philosopher’s guidance with more thoughtfulness and consistency instead of following their selfish impulses.

    Jesus and I might have gotten along reasonably well. We might have gotten in arguments over some issues. We would have gotten into a fistfight over surrendering to the authorities and execution; if I’d had the chance, I’d have bundled him up in a mule cart, gotten out of Jerusalem, and headed for the hills, for Turkey or Persia or someplace where the Romans wouldn’t catch us and we could spread the Good Word without Jesus’s being killed.

    So, yes: Jesus is a reasonable moral guide, worth listening to along with other good moral guides. Where are we headed with this line of thinking, David?

  53. David Bergan 2022-01-19

    Hi BCB!

    Thanks for joining the conversation! It’s always a pleasure to read your thoughts.

    My understanding of Sarte is thin, so I’ll need your help understanding his moral compass. I don’t follow either of the quotes you posted… “condemned to be free”? “must be without remorse or regrets”?

    Condemned means sentenced to a punishment, which is why it’s natural to talk about someone being condemned to jail, i.e., not-free. In what sense does Sarte construe freedom as a punishment?

    And for the second quote, I’m with Cory in recognizing that all humans are fallible. So, to me, we should all have some remorse or regrets in our life.

    Reflecting on that statement made me think of the part in the Nicomachean Ethics where Aristotle discussed 4 levels of virtue that define where a person is at with respect to a certain vice. For example:
    (1) virtuous – does not crave cookies, and therefore does not eat cookies
    (2) temperate – does not eat cookies, but does crave them
    (3) intemperate – eats cookies, but wishes he was a better person who didn’t
    (4) self-indulgent – eats cookies, and either does not know of the better life or does not care

    Classes (1) and (4) are the only ones who would have no remorse or regrets… someone who either has attained complete virtue or completely abandoned it. I know of people who fit in class (4). Perhaps Sarte was a class (1) saint, somehow beyond all the actual saints who readily admit to their imperfection (e.g., Augustine’s Confessions), but what good is this compass for the rest of us? How does it help me as I bounce back and forth between seasons of loathsome dieting and seasons of guilt-ridden cookie-eating?

    And finally, what did you mean by “I am responsible for deciding what this “burden” of personal responsibility means”? If I kick my neighbor’s dog, hard, and without being provoked… I can decide that that was a good act… and so it is?

    Kind regards,
    David

    Hi Cory!

    Thanks again for the detailed reply. I’m not planning any gotcha argument. I’m genuinely curious if we can agree on what the best moral ideals are. Where are we going as individuals? Where are we going as a community? What principles, if we all got on board, would result in maximum human flourishing?

    I think America would be better off if all of the individuals who justify their selfish and destructive politics by claiming to be Christians would actually follow the teachings of Jesus that David lays out.

    I am also disgusted by hypocrisy. (Now that I think of it, that’s another thing that could have been on the list. Not original to Jesus, but a major theme of his ministry.) But my angle here is that not just Christians, but all people would be better off following Jesus’s ideals… both individually and collectively.

    And I do view it as something of a moral contest. Consider the following statements:
    a) Don’t litter in my yard
    b) Don’t litter anywhere
    c) Pick up your family’s litter
    d) Pick up all litter you encounter

    I see those as increasing toward a moral ideal. In the same way, Confucius’s “Do not do to others what you don’t want them to do to you,” while a magnificent principle on its own, comes up short of the Golden Rule. Similarly, Buddha nearly reaches Christ’s “Love your enemies” with “Let a man overcome anger by kindness, evil by good. Victory breeds hatred, for the conquered is unhappy. Never in the world does hatred cease by hatred. Hatred ceases by love.”

    Of the moral systems I know about… things like stoicism, Confucism, fascism, Lenin-style communism, Mao-style communism, Gorbachev-style communism, SPQR, the code of Hammurabi, the Old Testament, nihilism, and moral relativism… as far as I can tell, Jesus’s ideals come out on top. And I’m saying this from a purely secular perspective. Here’s what I mean by secular:

    1) “Love one another. My final lesson of history is the same as that of Jesus. You may think that’s a lot of lollipop but just try it. Love is the most practical thing in the world. If you take an attitude of love toward everybody you meet, you’ll eventually get along.”

    2) Similarly, forgiving and reconciling every human rift is immensely pragmatic. Holding grudges is way too expensive psychologically (drinking poison and wanting the other man to die), and grudges that expand into feuds are a social nightmare. Wars are worse.

    3) Solving one’s issues by looking inward and sorting yourself out rather than expecting others to change to make you happy (plank in my own eye) is a cornerstone of cognitive behavior therapy. And society would certainly be more pleasant (and functional) if we all primarily focused on our own shortcomings and aimed toward cooperation rather than indulged in name-calling, back-biting, and transgression-listing our neighbors.

    4) Giving our money to help the poor is the best societal return-on-investment that we can get. (Although, “help” in that sentence is a bit tricky… buying drugs for a drug addict isn’t the same as developing quality pre-school, daycare, after-school, and rehab projects.)

    5) Treating everyone as though they were Jesus in disguise is what motivates people to help the plight of the untouchables or the poor eating from garbage dumps. This results in turning people who are a net drag on the society into people who contribute to its flourishing.

    6) Developing non-violent courage is essential for staving off anxiety and being able to apply your talents where they can give society the greatest possible benefit.

    I still revolt against some of those teachings myself. I continue to struggle with forgiveness…

    Please clear up an ambiguity here. Do you mean (a) That you think those teachings are bad? or (b) That you recognize the teachings are ideal, they’re just really hard to live out?

    If (b), I’m with you 100%. It’s could exhale much more charity and forgiveness than I do.

    But, if it’s (a), then please draw out for me how a world that runs on grudges, shunning, and judgments is better (in a practical sense) than Jesus’s ideals.

    Kind regards,
    David

    PS If you ever write a historical fiction novel about the mule-cart smuggling to Turkey, please send me the first copy! It’s amusing to imagine you punching Jesus in the face only to have him continually turn the other cheek. However, my hunch is that “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed” is also a practical saying. Martyrdom gets people’s attention. Cowardice suggests you aren’t that serious about your principles, so others won’t take them seriously, either.

  54. 96Tears 2022-01-19

    I enjoy the classics, like this one from the Way Way Back Machine: ὁ … ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ

    Also, Hillel a few centuries later, but before Jesus was born, offered up this one when asked to teach a Roman everything about Judaism while standing on one foot. ““That which is hateful unto you, do not do unto your friend, the rest [of the Torah] is commentary. Go and learn.”

    I’m enjoying your conversation.

  55. bearcreekbat 2022-01-20

    Hi David, I’ll do my best to address the questions you raised about about Sartre’s viewpoints, but please understand there are likely more knowedgable folks around that may understand his writings differently than I do. Personally, I found Sartre’s writings to speak to me and thus I consumed everything I could find by him, including his complex tome, “Being and Nothingness.” Whether I actually understood him is another matter, but I convinced myself I did understand his viewpoints and concluded they represented an accurate description of human conciousness as best as I could perceive it to be.

    The idea of being “condemned to be free” seems to mean that we are absolutely free to chose and responsible for our choices or refusal to choose, whether we want to be or not. We are “condemned” in the sense that we cannot escape personal responsibility. Freedom is not a punishment, rather, it is our immutable state of existent being. I think Sartre is referring to “remorse or regrets” in the sense of being remorseful or regret for our existential freedom. I don’t read Sartre’s comment as referencing “remorse or regrets” in the sense of a lack of “remorse or regret” for the personal choices we freely make. I don’t know about human infallibility, but the idea that we alone bear responsibility for our choices certainly seems to support the notion of choosing “remorse or regret” after making a choice.

    As for the assertion that “I am responsible for deciding what this ‘burden’ of personal responsibility means,” it does mean there is no valid objective moral code that can tell me if my behavior is good or bad, rather, that analysis is placed squarely on me. Your example, “If I kick my neighbor’s dog, hard, and without being provoked” is interesting in the implied premise that mere provocation can justify the kick. The argument that “he made me do it” falls flat under the viewpoint that we are condemned to be free to choose whether or not to kick the dog, regardless of the dog’s behavior. Indeed, followers of Jesus might argue one should turn the other cheek rather than cause harm to an animal.

    And kicking the dog without provocation certainly doesn’t fall within normally accepted moral behavior, yet according to Sartre’s viewpoint of human freedom there is nothing that can effectively require me to choose to act in this way other than my personal choice, nor relieve me of fiull responsibility for that choice.

    Sartre’s concept of “bad faith” is necessary to understand more of his personal responibility and coindemned to freedom ideas. “Bad faith” occurs when we try to attribute our choices to a cause outside of ourselves, such as bad parenting, actions of other people, civil or religious laws, or anything else other than ourselves. This occurs especially when we dislike or are ashamed of the choices we make. We seek reilief by blaming someone else or something else for our choice. An inherent inescapable realization that we cannot escape responsibility, however, leads to the personal angst often mentioned in Sartre’s writing.

    So yes, if a person commits an atrocity and accepts full responsibility for that choice, then that same person has the ability to chose to declare that action moral or immoral and to decide whether to experience regret, remorse, or pride in the behavior.

    The bottom line in Sartre’s philosophy seems to be in accord with Cory’s observation that “Jesus is a reasonable moral guide, worth listening to along with other good moral guides,” but we alone bear respoinsibility for choosing to listen or not. Likewise, deciding the cost we pay for that choice also falls on our shoulders.

    Anyway, that is my likely oversimplified take and as I said, others may disagree or read Sartre much differently. One thing is certain, Sartre’s writing give us plenty of food (i.e. ideas) for thought and introspection, and for me, I found no other philosophical outlook more compelling as an accurate factual representation of my own human experience of conciousness as I waded through the teachings of numerous other philosophers and theologians.

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