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Atheism, Heaven, and Music

While highly distracted with love and hope (I fell for someone – on my face!), I managed to read three good but very different books this month: “Atheist Manifesto,” “Proof of Heaven,” and “This is Your Brain on Music.”  Because I owe all six of my regular readers something by the first of the month (when an automatic reminder goes out to this site’s subscribers) and because the events of my love life and non-love life roused up similar concerns, I’ll review them here.

After hearing some of my glibly cast philosophical criticisms of our Judeo-Christian Heritage, the young lady to whom I expressed them said, “You don’t have to shit on my religion.”  Oops!  There are lots of decent people attending cherished churches who could be similarly offended.  I hadn’t meant her and her little church, but she took it that way.

Because of fifty years of preaching in liberal churches and fellowships, I had grown used to people who like to explore beliefs.  Mostly, they were able to hold their own beliefs and then think beyond them, critique them, and even change them.  I’m used to atheists sitting by mystics near social reform agents.  The nature of God, Jesus, the Church, the Sect, the meaning, the message, the ought, the ought-not, the don’t know, don’t care, etc., is about as comfortable a social topic as what’s in your wallet or sex life.  Tricky business, these touchy topics. 

Because I’m used to contending ideas and sometimes contentious people, I blunder forth, unmindful of how it might hurt those not familiar with skepticism.  I’m used to the maelstrom but also wearied by it.  I’m tired of Bible Thumpers and Bible Bashers.  I’m tired of scientism and quantumism. 

Most consider their own philosophical perspective, theological thesis, or social summary to be right.  Of course, they would; we all live by what we think is true.  Who is the authority?  I have a Master’s in Divinity.  Does that make me know or right?  No.  Nor does any title confer automatic truth.  We’re all stuck with who we are, differently together.

. . . . . . .

I had just finished Michel Onfray’s “Atheist Manifesto – The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.”  Because I trained at The Humanist Institute and have had 50 years of experience around unbelievers, I’m used to these critiques of Christianity and Monotheism.  Onfray does a hard-hitting job of rounding up the offenses and atrocities of all three theistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  All three deserve criticism, historically and currently.  All three offend the Enlightenment values we only recently secured and should defend and promote.

I won’t fully review his book in this shorter review of the three books here.  I will warn its potential readers that it isn’t always well-written or organized.  If you were to read the Bibliography at the end, you’d see he’s an academic writing from and to others, especially French atheists.  Starting at the front of his book can seem difficult if you’re not familiar with their concerns.  If you stay with it, you’ll see the power of his regret and recommendation. 

He regrets Constantine, who some call “the thirteenth apostle.”  His conversion to Christianity involved depleting Christianity of its fuller scriptures and then imposing the emptied remnants with a vengeance.  Dogmatic belief went hand in hand with political power: fascism, then, and since.  Such Christians aren’t the only dogmatic authoritarians. 

Onfray critiques all three religions with his view of their shared fundamentals:

But what exactly are these shared fundamentals?  First, a sequence of waves of hatred set in violent motion throughout history by men claiming to be the repositories and interpreters of God’s word – the priestly castes.  Second, hatred of intelligence, which monotheists reject in favor of submission and obedience; hatred of life coupled with a passionate and unshakable obsession with death; hatred of the here and now, consistently undervalued in favor of a beyond, consistently undervalued in favor of a beyond, the only possible reservoir of sense, truth, certainty, and bliss; hatred of the corruptible body, disparaged in every aspect, while the soul – eternal, immortal, divine- is invested with all the higher qualities and all the virtues; and finally, hatred of women, condemnation of liberated sexuality and sex for pleasure.  Religion sets up the Angel, a bodiless archetype, in preference to real women.  Chastity is a virtue common to all three religions. (pg. 59)

Onfray especially recounts Christian horrid history, but he doesn’t let Judaism or Islam escape earned criticism.  His book is replete with shocking examples of all three. 

Without detailing his examples here, he regrets:

In the name of God, as centuries of history attest, the three monotheisms have caused unbelievable rivers of blood to flow!  Wars, punitive operations, massacres, murders, colonialism, the elimination of entire cultures, genocides, crusades, inquisitions, and today’s global terrorism.

And he recommends:

Theocracy’s cure lies in democracy: the power of the people, the immanent sovereignty of the citizens against the supposed dominance of God – or rather, the dominance of those claiming to speak in his name… Deconstructing the monotheisms, demythologizing Judeo-Christianity and Islam, deconstruction of theocracy: these are three initial tasks for atheology [his preferred word to atheism].  The next step is to formulate a new ethic and produce the condition for a true post-Christian morality in the West – a morality in which the body is not a punishment; the earth ceases to be a veil of tears; this life is no longer a tragedy; pleasure stops being a sin; women, a curse; intelligence, a sign of arrogance; physical pleasure, a passport to hell. (pgs. 61, 62)

I’m with him in his critique and hope, but I’d be wrong to project these historic and current problems on innocent believers trying to be good by going to church.  My theological/psychological/social critique of Christianity’s emphasis on mere belief might offend most believers even if I’m not accusing them personally.  Would I undermine my very Catholic aunt or my sincere and decent evangelical friend? For instance, here are my parts in a rambling back ‘n forth on a recent Daily KOS forum:

Christianity promotes selfish evil.  It claims you can be, and are, a sinner who, no matter what you do, can be forgiven and get into heaven merely by “believing” Jesus was the Christ.  No need to be good.  You can be in the club of wicked believers, all convinced everyone else is fallen.  You’re saved; to hell with everyone else.

Innocent children are burdened by the emotionalized trick that Jesus suffered and died for their sins.  To be in the club you sin, get away with it, then smirk, but piously.  Meanwhile, self-righteous indignation over others’ sins is a sort of high. 

The serpent in the garden said we can be as gods, knowing good and evil.  Too bad that led to expulsion from the garden, alienated from our own bodies and each other, full of shame, blame, and pain, bruising our heels on the head of the snake.  The serpent wears clerical garb.

The snake, like the rest of this cosmogonic myth, is a metaphor.  While Christians like to see the Original Sin in the story as disobeying God, thinking for themselves, or even their sexuality, I prefer to read it as advice against the alienation built into judgmentalism.  We don’t die when we think we know good and evil as the gods do, but we end up alienated from our own genitals, each other, our Garden, and our God.  Instead of a garden of delights, it’s shame, blame, and pain.  My point is that the snake wears a clerical collar. I write and rant about it all at my site (and I listed this url).

I don’t believe he rose from the dead, but rather he survived with the help of Mary of Magdalene, with whom he then left and had a life.   Paul imagined a loftier scheme.

From the little we know, he lived as you offer … [“It shouldn’t take beliefs like that to behave ourselves, and be the best humans we can be, and living like we disown hate, and celebrate love.”] — as we all might do, Christians and Atheists alike.  

If only Christianity emulated the brave and kind life of Jesus!  I respect Christians’ efforts to be similarly brave and kind, both historically and currently.  But that Trump is elected by so-called Christians reminds me how sick that tradition has been and is again.

(As an aside, here’s what I commented in a different thread to Marjorie Taylor Green’s reportedly regarding Trump as similar to Jesus:

“Jesus didn’t pay off Mary Magdalene.  Trump is no Jesus.”)  

I then responded to this criticism that I seemed smug and picked examples to prove my point: “Frankly, your comment sounds like smug, know-it-all right-wingers who feel no hesitance in lecturing Muslims and spouting off about Islam, dictating what Islam supposedly teaches — all because they have memorized a few cherry-picked “gotcha” points.”  Here’s what I replied:

Cherry-picking applies to all sides of all three scriptures, Judaic, Christian, and Islamic.  In my culture, Christians pick a line here, a verse there, to justify whatever they’re promoting or against, as if God said so, so it’s So.  Critics do the counterpart. 

What gripes me is the fundamentalist attitude that old books must be true and imposed.  Saying “The Bible is the Word of God,” insults God and misdirects believers.  (I agree with Thomas Paine on this.)  If you like imperialism and genocide, you can find it in the Old Testament and in the other scriptures.

All three theistic traditions have laudable scriptural advice, and all three have reprehensive foolishness. 

Various others took offense at my and others’ criticisms of Christianity.  They felt Daily KOS isn’t a safe place for them.  I responded:

I can see how niemann, kaymaker, and others can take offense at comments critical of Christianity.  They’re invested in it and find solace and orientation in it.  I respect that.

However, no one has “shit all over religious people” here.  That’s defensive hyperbole. Historical and current problems rising from some Christians deserve to be admitted.  I can see some benefits in the Bible and Christianity and don’t mean to insult those who hold those dear.  But I also admit, fear, and denounce anti-democratic inhumanity, whether stemming from Jewish, Christian, Islamic, (or even Atheist, if there be such) beliefs, teachings, and communities. 

I admire and support Pope Francis’ Christian leadership — Donald Trump’s and Steve Bannon’s — not at all.  

(To view the entire back-and-forth I had with these people and the rest of the hefty 6314-word record of my online comments in April and May of 2023, please just write me and I’ll send you that file.  It has many comments pertinent to Christianity, cars, traffic, wars, politics, technology, and media.  I didn’t think it was wise or welcome to publish it in its voluminous various topic entirety here.)

So, for all the “we should be people of faith” rhetoric rampant these days, I would have to include sensible criticism of all such faiths.  But I would also have to include sensitivity, respect, and even admiration for the believers in such faiths.

. . . . . . .

This brings me to my second book, “Proof Heaven – A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.”  A friend and former colleague of mine sent me the book.  He’s a sensitive minister (also estranged from UUism, as am I) who values spirituality.  Willing to put up with the familiar grasping at any evidence of an actual afterlife in heaven, I found myself liking the book.

Eben Alexander, M.D., recounts the before and after of his extremely rare form of a brain infection that had left him mostly dead in a seven-day coma during which he was taken to heaven by orbs of sound and returned to tell the tale.  I’m not for scientism, but I value how science investigates and increasingly understands and manipulates our 3-D world of bodies in an ecosystem in a universe.  He does too, and he goes to great lengths to open our materialism to apparent and potential spiritual realities beyond our bodily view. 

His NDE (Near Death Experience) wasn’t the same as for others, but many others also claim to have had NDEs.  Could we be ignorant of our larger reality?  We’ve assembled our five senses and our thinking and intuition so far.  Could we go further?  Live after death?  Meet ancestors? 

Even though I was an embalmer and have been around a lot of deaths, I’ve never seen the ghost of a soul.  I don’t assume to know just because others assume to know.  I don’t pretend to reassure what I’m not sure of.  I do note, however, that many find solace in their belief, and that belief is not created; it’s just there.  It’s also important and precious to believers.  From Shinto shrines to Catacombs, lots of people believe. 

Alexander tries to keep it realistic, wondering about it with scientific thinking while confessing his experience.  For that, I give him credit.  He opens the Huge Can of Worms called Dark Energy and relates it to Quantum possibilities.  Heck, not only do the physicists say Everything came out of one gram of Nothing, but they also say there might be an infinite number of universes other than this little one we know.  Science and Religion tell similar fantastic stories. 

Alexander winds his book up with reassurances that we’re ultimately loved (very Universalistic) and there is good reason to be kind to each other while we live healthily.  His science and experience lead him to be good.  I can respect that and the people who similarly agree, even if I don’t understand mysticism or physics.

. . . . . . .

Finally, I get to my favorite book of the three, “This is Your Brain on Music – The Science of a Human Obsession” by Daniel Levitin.  Levitin also wants to understand via a scientific route why we produce and like music.  Is music part of what makes us human?  Have we selected for music in our evolution? 

I love these questions and his attempts at answers.  I especially love it because he knows the classical composers and includes them, but he largely draws on his fortunate life in and amongst the great rock-and-rollers of our time.  Jimi Hendricks and The Beatles fit right in there with Bach and Kabalevsky.  He uses the songs we know.  He even concludes his book disparaging the atonal non-metric attempts of some composers as not likable.  Rather, we go for the beat, the patterns that then surprise, and the prosody of the sounds.  He maps out the time and place in our brains that music travels.  He wonders and speculates about what we like and why. 

I recommend this book to musicians especially, but also to anyone who likes music.

I like music. I’m from a family of musical genes on both my mother’s and father’s sides. I gravitate to it for enjoyment and solace. Even at this late age, I want to move from being an appreciator to a contributor. I study the charts. I wonder why certain chords make me ache, why I have to dance or dum to certain rhythms. I’d like to craft a mix of melody and lyric that conveys truth and motivates better than my sermons used to do.

. . . . . . .

From my little and limited perspective, I’ve wandered into a lifetime of encountering religious and philosophical attempts to sum up Reality and wonder how we’re to live with It.  Like you, I must go with what I know or at least what I think I know.  I am able and fallible.  I can rely on wise gurus and scientists.  I can believe in hallowed books, ancient traditions, and emerging memes as many others do.  I can stumble, fall on my face even, and learn.  Like you, I must try with what I’ve got.

I figure we all exist in our own circle, our own encounters with family, friends, and others filtered through our genetically-formed structure, mediated by the memes of our culture, supported by the ongoing miracles of our bodies and our ecosystem, each and all perplexed and hopefully pleased as we wind our way through the diverse oneness, our part in humanity as it goes. 

What think you on such topics?

Byron has been using his writing and public speaking to engage, challenge and inspire audiences for over 40 years. Reverend Carrier's mission is to rescue and revive our earthly Eden, including our human worth and potential. If you enjoy his work, consider supporting him with Patreon.

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1 year ago

What’s true is that we do the best with what we’ve got. The sad part is that what we’ve got is mostly BS. At some (usually subconscious) level, we suspect that, so we’re forever on a path of reassuring ourself that MY “truth” is more true than others’. Somehow (oh yeah, there are plenty of explanations), “as our attention flows, experience grows.” So we do find our needed reinforcements, sometimes in the army or in a cult, sometimes in healing the suffering of others, sometimes in striving for “more.” But though we hold a secret suspicion about the fragility of… Read more »

1 year ago
Reply to  Byron Carrier

I could write a bigger book on what I don’t know than what I do, but what would I say?” ~ that’s funny!

Cheers to humming….. OM (lol)

1 year ago

I like angels!

1 year ago

Great article, Bryon Bradley! You wrote: “we all live by what we think is true….We’re all stuck with who we are, differently together.” And at the end you asked: “What think you on such topics?” Well, about the NDE’s, I used to be really fascinated by those stories but then I read what science says about them — that the brain is just hallucinating as it’s shutting down. Well that was a downer! It was much more fun to believe in that warm, welcoming light that so many people feel drawn to during their NDE’s! As for religions, for the… Read more »

1 year ago
Reply to  Byron Carrier

Awe is good! Yes, I’m also excited to know what science says…. But then lately I’ve been a little bummed because of others throwing doubt on the science I’ve just learned. For example, I was excited thinking about how much time has passed since we evolved from our ape ancestors (between twelve and thirty-two thousand generations!), but then someone commented on my post that pseudoscience authors like Gregg Braden and Graham Hancock have done research that shows gaps in the mainstream science human origins narrative…. Then I don’t know what to believe!  And, I’m excited to read a book this… Read more »

1 year ago
Reply to  Byron Carrier

Well said!

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