prayer-for-healing1-300x175Most of us live in a religious world.1 Whether people take it seriously or just give it lip service, religion is all around us. In spite of the fact that some religious groups love to play the minority and persecution card, religious overtones and sentiments are everywhere, from the “god bless you” after a sneeze to the “you’re in my prayers” whenever life gives you lemons. They are part of society’s vernacular, whether the non-religious or atheist likes it or not. We can accept it, fight it, be offended by it, or ignore it, but we can’t get away from it.

I’ve been confronted by the truth of this by recent events in my life. Roughly 6 months ago, my wife was diagnosed with Stage 4 Oral Cancer. It’s been a crazy ride since then. We’ve had outpourings of support and concern from family, friends, and acquaintances, both religious and non-religious. Most of my friends know I’m an atheist but my wife is a devout Christian (a story best left for another time). So how does someone respond to a person in crisis given very disparate world views not only between my wife and me but also between many of my religious friends and family? I’ve been asked by believers and atheists, how I feel when a person said they would pray for us. To date, I’ve been silent on the subject, but I think it is a question that deserves a response. Other atheists may disagree with me, so I am not speaking for a group. I am just giving my feelings on the subject.

The Positive

First, my wife is a believer, so she relishes the support received when someone says they are praying for us/her. She actually believes something tangible happens when someone prays, so praying people are encouraging to her. I may believe that prayer does nothing tangible; but, frankly so does the sentiment of “You’re in my thoughts” often expressed by non-believers. While in one sense both are not going to change the outcome of this cancer, in another, both are genuine responses from people who are showing that they care and are doing what they can to be supportive, encouraging and empathetic. In this, I am deeply grateful for the outpouring of caring people. Whether they are offering prayers or thoughts, doesn’t really matter to me. What matters is that they have taken time out of their busy lives to express their concern. I am not in the least offended by the prayers offered by religious family and friends. I simply put them in the same category I do with anyone showing concern. I’m grateful that they took the time to show that they care.

The Negative

Having said that, there are negatives that I feel. These negatives aren’t directed toward anyone praying for us, rather they are directed at the religous system that seems to blind people to the implications of their belief. I’ll be touching on several of these.

Is God Sovereign or Not?

The biggest problem with this whole issue of prayer is whether god is sovereign or not. If you believe he is sovereign over all things, then everything that happens is according to his will. In this case what is essentially happening is that god gives you cancer so that he can heal you and everyone gets to say how great and wonderful he is. If god doesn’t heal you, everyone still gets to say how great and wonderful he is and how he works in mysterious ways! “God” wins no matter what happens. Yes, it is stated crudely, but in fact, if god is sovereign this is exactly what is happening. Of course, if he is sovereign, then everything is happening exactly as he wishes it too, including all the pain, suffering and evil in the world. Frankly, this is the act of a caprious, psychpathic entity. However, if god isn’t sovereign, well, why bother praying because he is essentially impotent to help or his help may or may not be effective.

Is Prayer a Numbers Game?

Is prayer a numbers game? Does it matter how many people are praying? The more the better? Are believers trying to force the hand of god and wring out a cure from him?2 Is prayer just how god works out his plan? If prayer is a numbers game, than pity the poor believer who has few friends or a small prayer chain. If it is a numbers game, what a cruel caprious god. “Well, I would have healed you but you were short one prayer!” If it isn’t a numbers game then all the prayers in the world, won’t change a thing. It’s a sharp double-edged sword.

Theodicy (The Problem of Evil)

Related to the sovereignity of god is the whole issue of the problem of evil, as Epicurus is thought to have said:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God? (Epicurus)

The Christian answer is that man sinned and fell from grace and so all the pain and suffering in the world is mankinds fault, not god’s. This is a pitiful excuse. If man did fall, it’s because that is exactly how god made him and if god is omniscient then he knew, in advance, that this was the outcome of his grand “experiment”. Only a caprious psychopath would create a world knowing all the pain and suffering that would be in it AND blame the creature for acting the way he made them. It would be like a programmer writing a program that does Point of Sale being upset that it doesn’t do DNA Analysis. If there is a god then evil, suffering, pain and, yes cancer, are there because of him. I couldn’t call such an entity good or benevolent in any sense of the word, especially when he uses his creation as a scapegoat.

The Tyrannity of Why?

One of the worst things a believer goes through during intense suffering, for no apparent reason, is the question of why? Why has god allowed it? What does he want me to learn from it? Did I do anything to deserve it? Is it sin in my life? Is it a test, like Job? Is it to build character and to learn something? These questions add to the pain and agony that a suffering believer is already going through. That anquish, in some ways, can be worst than the actual disease and if one is not healed, the why is even more burning. Did I not pray hard enough? Was I that bad? What is the purpose of dying after all the struggle and pain? The why guestions go on and on as one searches scripture and prays for an answer. There is no comfort in the Book of Job, where Job was suffering essentially because of a bet between god and satan – wonderful – suffering over some cosmic bet. That’s one sick god, especially since an omniscient god would know the answer in advance and should have no need to prove it to anyone.

As an atheist, I have none of these questions. Basically, we are biological organisms and sometimes we just don’t work right. There is no entity causing it. There is no cosmic reason why. (There is a biologoical reason!) Shit happens. The world isn’t out to get us or cause us pain. Anything we get out of suffering is what we choose to get out of it. Anything we learn from it is what we decide to learn from it. There is no cosmic answer and I’m fine with that.

Is Suffering Good?

Last in this list, is the question of whether suffering is good for anything. Sure, it can change our lives and make us more sensitive and caring to those who are also suffering. On the other hand, we all know people who have gone through “the valley of the shadow of death” and returned grumpier and naster than ever. The book of Job is the Christian’s guidebook on suffering, where a righteous man was toyed with by god over a bet. In a sick bet, where Job lost his wife, family, servants, livestock and his health, his suffering was to bring glory to god. This is a truely sick story whose moral is essentially that god can do anything he wants to his creation because, well, he is god. I know I’ve used the term several times before, but psychopath is the only term that comes to mind:

Psychopathy (/saɪˈkɒpəθi/) (also known as, though sometimes distinguished from sociopathy /ˈsoʊsiəˌpæθi/) is traditionally defined as a personality disorder characterized by enduring antisocial behavior, diminished empathy and remorse, and disinhibited or bold behavior. (Psychopathy on Wikipedia)

The other big example of suffering in the Christian belief system would be the suffering of Christ, who supposedly died for our sins because god couldn’t forgive us without the pain and suffering of a perfect sacrifice. Yet a few hours of suffering, as bad and horrible as it may be, is relatively insignificant compared to weeks, months, years and even a lifetime of suffering many people undergo. This is especially true if you know it is all temporary and you will be raised in glory in a few days and because of it the world will be saved! I saw my wife suffer for months and, let me tell you, it is extremely difficult to see someone you care about be in pain and suffering and not be able to do anything. However, god doesn’t seem to have an iota of compassion, at least compassion enough to lift a hand, say a word, and heal. So much for an omnibenevolent god.

It’s too early yet to know whether this cancer has been beaten and all the trauma and pain of treatment was worth it. I do know that regardless of what happens, many will be praising god. He will either be praised for healing her or be praised for working in a mysterious way as a justification for a lack of a healing. Unfortunately, many will ignore the many men and women, doctors and scientists, who worked hard to wrought out a cure. It’s pretty amazing that god’s healing ability seems directly proprotional to scientific and medical advances! The men and women who have devoted years of their life to understanding, studying and treating cancer are the true heroes of this this story.

Additional Posts on Similar Topics:

Confirmation Bias in Prayer
Prayer – It Still Doesn’t Work
Learning to Love to Pray?
Why I am an Atheist Part 4: The Problem of Evil
What was God Thinking?

Footnotes

  1. I understand that there are countries that are more secular than religious but in the “world” I find myself in, the United States, religiousity is the norm.
  2. The Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18:1-8 seems to indicate that pleading with god for answered pray, at least for justice, works. Reality tells us – not so much.

Recently Gary Habermas, a professor of philosophy at the faith based Liberty University, had an article published in The Washington Post’s On Faith section entitled: “Five reasons to believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead” In this article Dr. Habermas states:

I will assume nothing special about the New Testament writings whatsoever. I will use only the historical information that is accepted as historical by virtually all scholars who have studied this material today-no matter how skeptical or liberal they are… Using only these “minimal facts,” I will still maintain that Jesus’ resurrection is the most likely explanation for what we know.

Unfortunately, he makes 2 mistakes that most conservative Christians make without much thought since they are really faith issues. The first is the assumption that the New Testament records actual history and not religious propaganda mixed with a smatering of history (I won’t be dealing with this in this post.) The second is more important and related to the first. It is the assumption that there indeed was a death and a resurrection.

The 5 points Dr. Habermas makes revolve around 3 basic assumptions:

  1. Jesus died.
  2. He was resurrected
  3. There were eyewitnesses

While the majority opinion is that Jesus was a historic person, what we know of him is, in reality, nothing outside of some very biased New Testament documents and even these documents don’t agree. 1 Consider this: Here is a supposedly god-man who came to earth to save us from our sins and present the good news of this salvation to all men; yet, the only record of him comes from religious writings! Here is a man that, according to the gospels, healed multitudes of people, fed thousands with a few loaves and fish, turned wine into water, walked on water, preached extensively for 3 years, supposedly turned the whole world upside down and yet there is no secular, contemporary historian that mentions any of it – not one. This would be bad enough if Jesus was a simple human philosopher or religious leader, but he was supposedly god. These events were directed by god with the aim of having everyone believe in him; yet, he couldn’t get one unbiased observer to record these events? Why is there no record outside of a few gospels and epistles whose goal was not to record history but spread a particular brand of religion? Is god that incompetent? What’s worst is that there was apparently a large body of literature, mostly lost to history, that presented a very different view of Jesus than the one in the gospels. (see for example: Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years)

In spite of these concerns, let’s assume that there was a religious leader called Jesus who was crucified. What makes someone believe that, outside of faith, a resurrection really occurred? To Dr. Habermas the witnesses to this event and the evidence their eyewitness acounts provide are strong evidence that a resurrection did occur. Are they reliable?

First and foremost we have medical, scientific and personal evidence streching back thousands of years that no one comes back from the dead. When you die, you die. You don’t come back. We have no evidence that anyone in a grave for 3 days has come back to life. Therefore, any report of someone coming back from the grave has to be supported with extraordinary evidence, since all the evidence we have says this just doesn’t happen — ever.

Do we have this kind of evidence with Jesus? Well frankly, we do not. What we have in the gospels are conflicting, irreconsible accounts of the events that get progressively more detailed as the time frame from the “resurrection” increases (see my last post – The Resurrection – Really). These accounts also describe supernatural events that supposedly occurred: The curtain in the temple tearing, darkness covering the land, an earthquake, and people rising from their graves and walking around in Jerusalem. None of these events, as amazing and stunning as they are, are recorded by any contemporary secular historian. Outside of the gospels there is no evidence for these events — zero.

But what of the eyewitnesses? I ask, what eyewitnesses? Yes, the gospels do record people who supposedly saw the event, but the gospels themselves are anonymous. The authors never say who they are and are reporting events handed down to them. They were not eyewitnesses. We have no actual recorded words from the people who supposedly saw what happened — none. We only have reports of people who didn’t see the events stating what other people said happened. Hearsay is all we have. Even when Paul said 500 people saw Jesus post-resurrenction, we don’t have one name (outside of the apostles) or one written account by an eyewitness. We don’t even have the actual written words from an apostle stating what he had seen! I’m sorry but stating what a friend of a friend of a friend (who knows how many levels there are) saw is not evidence. All kinds of excuses can be made for this sorry state of affairs, but remember — this process was supposedly directed by god to get us to believe! Yet god himself was unable to provide sufficent evidence to the one event in history that supposely provides salvation for all mankind! Incompetent would be a kind word.

But what of the apostles? Dr Habermas says:

We have first century sources that the three apostles mentioned above were all martyred: Paul, Peter, and James the brother of Jesus. Of course, people die for all sorts of ideas, but only for what they are convinced is true. But unlike others, the apostles were in a position to know whether or not they had seen Jesus Christ alive after his death. By being willing to die, scholars agree that they were convinced that Jesus had indeed appeared to them. At the very least, this addresses their honesty and conviction.

Maybe or maybe not. All types of religious people die and are martyred for their beliefs. How many Muslims, Hindus, Buddists, etc have died for their beliefs? Does Dr. Habermas believe in the Mormon account of Jesus and his “new” word?2 In 1997, 39 people in the Heaven’s Gate cult died for their belief that a flying saucer was coming for them. Does that make it true? If we believe Paul’s account, he never saw a resurrected Christ, just a vision. He was just convinced of his religious beliefs. This doesn’t make them true even if he died for them.

I’m sorry, but there is no evidence for a resurrection, outside of faith. If you want to believe in the resurrection of Christ, by faith, go ahead, but let’s be honest and realize that outside of faith, there is no historic evidence. Indeed there can never be. Unless there is some extra-ordinary evidence, miracles are outside the realm of history. Christians almost universally reject the miracles and “holy” writings of other religions, but the same level of skepticism is rarely applied to their own religion. Just because a something is reported in a “holy” book or millions of people believe it, doesn’t make it true.

  1. If there are errors in a document in areas we can check, historical accounts for example, how can we be assured that there are no errors in the areas that we can’t check, such as miracles and spiritual teachings?
  2. Joseph Smith supposedly translated god’s revelation from golden plates using a seer stone (Golden Plates ) Futhermore, according to the Mormon accounts, Smith was also matryed for his belief ( Martyr for God ). Surely he wouldn’t die for a lie would he? There are some 6 to 13 million Mormons, whose passion would shame many Christians. Surely they wouldn’t believe such a ridiculous claim if it weren’t true?

484043_525266910844883_568565617_nThe supposed resurrection of Christ is arguably the most important doctrine of the Christian Church. Paul says:

if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins (1Cor 15:17, NASB)

The notion of dying and rising gods along with the necessity of a god requiring a blood sacrifice are not new to Christianity (Dying-and-rising god, Sacrifice, Animal Sacrifice, Human sacrifice). No Christian believes in those myths and in those gods; however, when it comes to the their god and their god’s resurrection, it is “obviously”  true because their holy book tells them so.  Well, it’s not “obvious” and it’s highly unlikely that it is even true.  Here are three reasons why I believe the resurrection never occurred:

  1. The first and most obvious, is that we have no experience of anyone coming back from the dead. (Sorry a near death experience is not the same as being dead for 3 days.)  Since our own experience tells us that people do not come back from the dead and that death is permanent, any claim contrary to this has to be backed by extraordinary evidence. A few words in someone’s holy text does not amount to proof. Christian’s don’t believe the miracles recorded in another religions holy book and, frankly, theirs is no exception. I can’t believe the miracles recorded in a holy book because such a book is, by necessity, a propaganda piece. Unfortunately for the resurrection, there is no contemporary eye-witness evidence for the event. Even in the Bible, there are no eye-witness accounts and the accounts recorded there are decades after the even and contain contradictory, irreconcilable accounts of the event.
  2. As mentioned above, the Biblical accounts were written decades after such an important event, were not written by eye-witnesses and are contradictory of each other. Dan Barker at the Freedom From Religion Foundation has had since 1990 an Easter Challenge for Christians to attempt to reconcile the resurrection accounts.  It can’t be done without a lot of Hocus Pocus.  (See Easter Challenge  for the details.) Briefly, the accounts differ by: the time of day the women visited the tomb, who the woman where, what their purpose was, when they arrived, who arrived at the tomb, who the messengers were and how many there were, what they said, and the list goes on and on.  Now remember, this book was supposedly inspired by an omniscient, sovereign god in order to give us a record of what happened so we may believe and be saved. The discrepancies are difficult enough when dealing with the human element but if you add the doctrine of inspiration and infallibility of the Bible, well, it doesn’t bode well for a god to get so much wrong.
  3. While not directly related to the resurrection, the Theory of Evolution has an indirect impact on the Christian doctrine that requires the death and resurrection of Christ. The death and resurrection of Christ was required as a sacrifice for a sin that supposedly taints the entire human race – Original Sin.  This sin entered the world because of the sin committed by Adam and Eve.  As Paul says:

    For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned— for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come…So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. (Rom 4:6-19)

    What does the Theory of Evolution have to say about this doctrine? First and foremost, it says that man evolved. Man wasn’t specially created with a soul and placed in a garden by a god. The Theory of Evolution indirectly denies the historicity of a literal Adam and a literal Eve.  If Adam and Eve were not literal people then there was then no literal Fall.  Without a literal Fall, there is no “Original” sin tainting all mankind.  Without Original Sin, what the heck would Christ have to die for? Literally nothing.  Of course, all of this can be taken as allegory, and this is all well and good but few evangelical Christians would say that Christ died for an allegory!

This doesn’t mean that a lot of pen and ink has been spilled by those attempting prove the resurrection of Christ and show how it is a reasonable and historically valid hypothesis.  It is not. The only history we have is from biased religious writings reported decades after the event supposedly happened. The only secular accounts we have are not eye-witness accounts and they are also decades if not hundreds of years after the event and simply report the religious belief. Like so much in Christianity, belief in the Resurrection comes down to simple, plain faith. I can no longer belief these fairy tales as lovely as some of them may be.  Without evidence, which is the opposite of faith, the Resurrection remains another unprovable, popular religious doctrine celebrated by millions without really thinking about the implausibility of such an event.

483972_445549362186900_574709667_n

 

What is more important to a believer than worshiping the god who bestows all kinds of blessings (and curses) upon a believer’s life? Almost all religions have some type of worship ritual and it seems that all kinds of gods require, or rather demand, such behavior among their devotees. It is no different in Christianity. Worship plays a core part in any Christian’s life. Surely, there should be little controversy over such an important aspect of belief, especially when the Christian god demands it:

Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name. Bring an offering and come before him; worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness. (1 Chronicles 16:29 )

Exalt the LORD our God and worship at his footstool; he is holy. (Psalm 99:5)

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’ ” (Luke 4:8)

Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. (John 4:23 )

God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth. (John 4:24 )

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29 )

However, if you are looking for Christian unity in worship, you would be gravely mistaken. This is another area where there are strong divisions and radically different theologies of worship. Broadly, as I have pointed out elsewhere Why I am an Atheist Part 8: Worship, there are two major ways of looking at worship:

  1. Worship is for god. As such, god and only god dictates the terms of worship (what pleases and displeases him) and going against those terms is, essentially, treason and results in god’s displeasure.
  2. Worship is for man. As such, man decides how to worship god by deciding what gives him (man) the most pleasure in his worship of god. Under these terms, god has little say in his worship and really doesn’t care how worship is conducted or cares only in the broadest sense, such as you must have a pure heart. God doesn’t get involved with the details of worship.

The difference between these two views is not just a matter of cosmetics, but of radically different views on what is “acceptable” worship. For example many contemporary worship services feature dance, skits, drama, slide shows and other effects designed to draw the worshiper into the service. Are they acceptable? For one camp, the answer is yes, for the other the answer is no. In fact, the Regulatory Principle group sees these forms of worship as anathema – something so displeasing to god that doing them actually incurs his displeasure. Consider:

The Scripture says of them (Israel), “For they served idols, whereof the LORD had said unto them, Ye shall not do this thing.” and “And the LORD rejected all the seed of Israel, and afflicted them, and delivered them into the hand of spoilers, until he had cast them out of his sight” (vs. 12: 20). Oh how fearful a thing it is for the children of God to participate in the idolatrous worship of the world! Dare we think that God is any less displeased with us today than he was with Israel if we engage in false worship? I believe the answer is obvious—He is as displeased over our idolatry as that of ancient Israel. How dare any professing Christian remain in religious Babylon with all its pagan ceremonies, observances, forms and rituals! … Just because we are Baptists do we think we can bring innovations into the meeting house and not suffer the consequences? Do we know better than God what to teach and how to conduct worship? Five Kinds of Worship Displeasing To God

The same principles which are manifested in these Old Testament examples are still applicable today. God has revealed to man the kind of worship which pleases Him and still expects men to worship in that fashion. Actually, the only way that man can know that His worship pleases God is for God to reveal to man what He wants. We cannot know God’s will except as it is revealed to us; however, through revelation, we can have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16). Apart from God revealing to man the kind of worship which He will accept, man could never know what pleases God. … Watch the papers and look at what is being done in the name of religion. Singing groups with their guitars, cymbals, drums, piano and organ are being used in worship; the audience to which they play is generally entertained by music which appeals to the easy listening or country western style of secular music. Consequently, the music which is presented in these programs has this kind of flavor as well. Or, consider the buildings of many Catholic churches. They display ornate buildings; some churches even have very valuable jewels embedded on the crosses in the buildings. Such things appeal to man’s desire for show. When man is left to worship according to his own desires, he offers as worship to God what pleases the man. For this reason, God found it absolutely necessary to reveal to man the kind of worship which pleases Him. Worship (II): Divinely Revealed Worship

Yet, even with these warnings how do you know what is acceptable? The Bible knows nothing of modern technology, instruments or methods. Are they simply wrong because the Bible is necessarily silent? How could it be used as a guide in this area? An ancient guide is no guide at all when it comes to modern technology. Then again, with a book as flexible in it’s meaning as the Bible, maybe current contemporary worship can find a biblical defense. Consider this:

Early worship utilized the experience of communion much more than many evangelical churches today. On a regular basis they actually passed a piece of bread around the room and each person pinched off a piece and ate it. That is so different from the once a quarter pre-packaged communion wafers that some churches use today. Even baptism was an experience in the early church. … The Psalms was the early hymn book of the church. When we read it we see that a number of instruments were used, not just one person playing the organ. And a number of people were leading the worship, not just one “worship leader.” All those people who were involved were part of the experience, not just observers of someone else doing it. Even the songs themselves were experiential. The early church sang songs TO God not just songs ABOUT God. … The reality was, first century worship was VERY experiential. And if we want our worship services to be biblical then they need to be experiential too. Can Post Modern Worship Be Biblical?

It’s amazing how a book considered by many to be god’s word to mankind, can be used to support radically different opinions. There is no clarity here, which, of course, results in deep divisions within the body that calls itself Christian. Even within the two broad worship camps, there is controversy as to what exactly is appropriate for worship. This is primarily because, as important as worship appears to be to the Christian god, in the New Testament he did not dictate how he wanted to be worshipped as he did in the Old Testament. If god cares about how he is to be worshipped, as the first camp believes, this is a grave oversight for an omniscient god.

To drive home this point, let’s look at 3 specific areas: the day of worship, music and images.

Day of Worship

Should worship be conducted on Sunday or Saturday — choices, choices. It may seem like a simple thing but the debate can get heated, after all if god does have a specific day he wants his people to worship, you would think they could get it right. Of course, like all things in the Bible, it would have been a simple thing for an omniscient god to simply inspire one of the writers to clearly tell his followers what the appropriate day was, but it’s much more fun to watch them fight about it.

Sunday

This is the traditional day of worship for Christians and is the day the majority of Christians worship. Consider what these authors have to say:

The Truth: The universal record of history, from the Resurrection of Christ, Christians have always worshipped on the first day of the week (Sunday) and never on the Sabbath (7th day). Sunday is not a Christian Sabbath or a day of rest, or a holy day to be kept. All churches teach one of four positions on the day that Christians worship.

Why, then, does the Lord’s church worship on the first day of the week? The answer is simple: because the Scriptures authorize it. The first day of the week, therefore, is the day of worship of the New Testament church. On that day, worship according to the divine pattern must be offered. Do you observe the Lord’s day? Worship (III): The Day of Worship: The Lord’s Day

VII. As it is the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in His Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages, He has particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week: and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which, in Scripture, is called the Lord’s Day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath. Westminster Confession of Faith. Of Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day

Saturday

However, for some groups, the majority is just plain wrong. Worship needs to be on the true Sabbath – Saturday.

In reviewing the few passages that supposedly support Sunday worship, a web site by the United Church of God states:

Scripture contains no other passages that mention anything remotely resembling weekly religious services on the first day of the week. The New Testament was written over a span of more than 60 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and nowhere does it even hint at the day of rest being changed to Sunday. Was Sunday the New Testament Day of Worship?

And again:

This blessing from God, enshrined in one of the Ten Commandments, did not change. The seventh day of the week—observed from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset—has continued as God’s commanded holy day for rest and worship. Even though misguided people later initiated a change to worshipping on Sunday, God’s command was never rescinded, nor was there biblical authorization for a change to the first day of the week. God’s Days of Worship

In addition, things get get a bit nasty when you are fighting over the “clear” word of god:

There is nothing wrong with worshipping God every day of the week, but substituting Sunday for the Sabbath day as the main day to do it, is totally contrary to the word of God, and is evil. Note 2: You may ask, “What should I do if I have been involved in regular church attendance on Sunday, instead of the Sabbath day?” Forsake it, and start to keep the Sabbath! We Can Worship God Any Day Of The Week

Everyone needs to realize that God COMMANDS us HOW to WORSHIP Him!! He tells us that we MUST worship Him “in Spirit and in truth!” (John 4:24) Jesus, as The Word God, also tells us that He HATES it when we worship Him the WRONG way!!… It is the same with “keeping one day ‘holy’ ” when GOD TELLS YOU upon which Days to worship Him!! When a person tries to worship the True God on Sunday when He has COMMANDED them to worship Him on the Sabbath Day, He HATES THAT ABOMINATION because SUNDAY was set aside by the pagans to WORSHIP THE SUN, a creation by Jesus Christ (when He was The Word God)!! We Can Worship God On Just ANY Day? Give Me a Break!

Maybe it doesn’t matter

Then again, maybe it just doesn’t matter as these Christians think:

Its not the WHEN we worship, but the WHO we worship! If one wants to congregate to worship on Saturday or Sunday, or even Monday they have the freedom under the new covenant to do so. Please don’t insult our intelligence or distort the Bible’s instructions to perpetuate the myth that Sunday is the Mark of the Beast, a replacement of Saturday. It is not. Worship is a way of life not a particular day of assembly over another day. What Day Are We Allowed To Worship On

Drawing from these verses, I view this question of the Sabbath similar to the tithe. As followers of Christ, we are no longer under legalistic obligation, for the requirements of the law were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Everything we have, and every day we live, belongs to the Lord. … not out of any forced obligation, but joyfully, willingly, we set aside one day each week to honor God, because every day truly belongs to him! Finally, as Romans 14 instructs, we should be “fully convinced” that whichever day we choose is the right day for us to set aside as a day of worship. And as Colossians 2 warns, we should not judge or allow anyone to judge us regarding our choice. Why Do Christians Worship on Sunday?

Obviously, the specific day of worship is not that important. What is important is the clear biblical mandate that worship is for the whole person every day of the week WordTruth Press

So, once again, the “clear” word of god is anything but clear. While it appears, to many Christians, there is unity on the day of worship, this is not the case: Saturday, Sunday or it doesn’t matter. They can’t all be right but they can all be wrong!

Music

Many Christians wouldn’t think that there was a controversy over music in a church service. The general worship style of most evangelical churches is filled with music, instruments and song, mostly what is now thought of as praise music. Yet, there is a long history of conflict in this area. For example, let’s look at the organ, a stable of traditional worship services. When it was first introduced it was seen by many as nothing less than heresy.

Robert L. Dabney, an influential Presbyterian minister said:

There is one fact connected with the introduction of organs into those of our churches which have adopted them, which is exceedingly distressful. It is the reason which we always hear assigned, among other reasons, for their introduction, and which we believe has been in every case the most operative one. It is always urged: “we must have an organ to keep pace with other churches in attracting a congregation, and in retaining the young and thoughtless.” … If we are authorized to add to God’s worship, forms purely of human device, in order to make it more palatable to sinners, to what corruptions shall we not give entrance? … We believe that all such artifices, of human device, to catch popularity, are inconsistent with the genius of the Presbyterian Church, derogatory of her honor, and blasting to her interests Against Musical Instruments in Public Worship

John L. Girardeau a Southern Presbyterian minister in the 1800s also wrote on The Heresy of Instrumental Music in Public Worship

Nevertheless organ music became a mainstay in many churches and now the controversy has moved on to more modern instruments and no instruments at all. Many of those who believe instruments should not be allowed in worship are particularly scathing:

If we could remember that music in Christian worship is not for the purpose of entertaining, but for teaching and for exalting, we would have no trouble seeing why God demanded vocal music and left out instrumental music. Instrumental Music in the New Testament Worship Service

From the above Scriptures, we can now “clearly” answer this question, “Can Christians use musical instruments in worship and still be pleasing to God?” Ten Reasons Why Instrumental Music Is Wrong In Worship.

The answer for this author was a resounding no! After listing the pros and cons of instruments in worship another author concludes:

Instruments are not just an aid to singing, but an additional, different form of praise to God. They violate the New Testament teachings about truth, spirit, and understanding in worship. Those who use them are not following God’s plan but have changed His plan to satisfy their own entertainment and enjoyment. Instrumental Music in Worship: Does God Want Singing or Playing Instruments?

Yet another author, looking at the same biblical passages concludes that:

Many of the Psalms mention “stringed instruments” and in one case, “flutes” at their start, implying (or so it seems to me) that the Psalm was accompanied by instruments (e.g., Psalm 5: “To the choirmaster: for the flutes. A Psalm of David”; Psalm 6: “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments . . .”). Therefore, John Calvin’s contention that a Psalm can only be properly sung is not even consistent with what the Psalms themselves teach (see also Psalms 4, 54-55, 61, 67, 76; cf. Hab 3:19)…. We also have the evidence of the extensive musical instrumentation accompanying the ark of the covenant (where God was specially present, in a way somewhat like eucharistic presence at the Mass), as described in 1 Chronicles 15. There is no hint of disapproval in the text, as if this was something frowned upon by God as idolatry… Since God doesn’t contradict Himself, the entire “no instruments at church because they are idols” argument must, therefore, be abandoned. Biblical Evidence for Musical Instruments in Worship

However, it’s not just a matter of instruments but also of the music itself. Some believe that the Psalms only should be used in worship:

The purpose of this booklet is to present the evidence in support of the following proposition; namely, that in the worship of God the inspired book of Psalms should be used to the exclusion of the uninspired compositions of men. The Singing of Psalms in the Worship of God

Some believe that the music used in many contemporary churches is sinful:

Such music touches the emotions, often in a profound way: it is meant to. If Praise and Worship did not create fuzzy feelings, it would not be so popular. Perhaps you think, “It’s not that bad. After all, it only sounds like the ‘soft’ stuff.” Is our God the kind of god that is sung to as a woman being seduced by a man? Is God adored in Scripture with soft caresses and tender kisses? Is eroticism acceptable worship? Praise and Worship stirs the emotions– but which emotions; and are those emotions properly worshipful of God? Oh if only our emotions could be touched by James 4:4, “Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” God is not glorified by his enemies. And He is neither praised nor worshiped by the vast majority of Praise and Worship music. Why Praise and Worship Music Isn’t

And others believe that the music used should be more traditional and “meaningful”:

I am frankly astonished that the worship wars rattle on. The army of praise choruses, light shows and worship bands have left the Psalms, the organ, and our father’s hymnal decimated. The war for all practical purposes ended quite some time ago, and I am on the losing side. It is now harder to find a church that hasn’t bought into contemporary worship than it is to find a church has never been through a split. The landscape is littered with the meeting places of the victors…My objection to drums and guitars is not that they are drums and guitars… The issue isn’t the instruments, but the music…Our worship problems do not flow from drums and guitars. They flow from the sad truth that we are shallow, insipid, easily played, safe, boring and sentimental. Is there anything wrong with drums and guitars in church?

I ask again, if this is such an important aspect of the worship of god, why is Bible so unclear on the subject. Some may object that it is clear and those that don’t see it their way are sinning against god. Yet the fact that there are so many different interpretations of the same passages, show that the Bible is anything but clear on the subject. There is no unity here.

Images

Another area of controversy in worship is the use of images. These can range from simple crosses found in many Protestant churches to elaborate crucifixes and statutes found in Catholic churches. They can even extend to the use of slide shows and stained glass windows depicting biblical scenes. I remember, as a child, reading one of my mothers anthropology textbooks on the Pygmy people and their amazement that the Catholic missionaries worshiped statutes! (I wish I could remember the name of that text.) That same amazement was one of the issues that many Protestants had with the Roman Church during the Reformation and that controversy still exists today.

Of course Catholics and Anglicans don’t see it that way:

The Church absolutely recognizes and condemns the sin of idolatry. What anti-Catholics fail to recognize is the distinction between thinking a piece of stone or plaster is a god and desiring to visually remember Christ and the saints in heaven by making statues in their honor. The making and use of religious statues is a thoroughly biblical practice. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know his Bible. Do Catholics Worship Statues?

The concept of using images in worship finds its origins in the Old Testament. The Temple contained numerous visual images, including the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant. The Temple Solomon built for the Lord contained many carvings of trees, gourds, flowers, and angels (1 Kings 6). It is clear that God did not forbid images used in the Sanctuary to glorify God.The use of Images, Signs, and Symbols in Anglican Worship

Not so much with many Protestant denominations:

I have argued above that the second commandment prohibits any visual representation of God by the hand of man. This is essential to the definition of idolatry. The visual aids in the OT (notably the Tabernacle and its furnishings) originated from God and they were strictly temporary shadows which were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. … The second commandment that prohibited the use of images in worshipping God in the OT remains in force in the NT. God would not have other gods beside Himself. Neither would he give his glory to lifeless images. The Use Of Images In Worship… Is It Biblical?

Not only does the second commandment forbid the use of images in worship; not only does the second commandment forbid the making and representing of any of the three persons of the Godhead by means of images; but the second commandment also forbids the religious making, or using of all man-made actions, gestures, symbols,or ceremonies in God’s worship. God teaches us in the second commandment that when man brings what he has made (whether actions, gestures, symbols, or ceremonies) into worship, he forms an image according to his own authority by which to worship God. God calls that idolatry… Before leaving this text, don’t overlook the sobering warning issued by our jealous God (jealous for worship that is authorized by Himself alone, and not invented by man): “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me.” Who are those who hate God according to this text? It is not only the atheists and humanists. It is all those who (regardless of their profession) bring to worship anything that is instituted by man rather than by God. Foundation for Reformation: The Regulative Principle of Worship

Some even think that those who associate with believers who have icons (idols) in their churches are unsaved:

The Old Testament condemns idols, even if they are supposedly directly to the true God. The Old Testament condemns even the possession of icons. The truth is that New Testament also condemns idols. And the truth is that God does not want to be represented by things made by man. Furthermore, the truth is that since no one knows what Jesus (or God the Father, either) looks like–all ICONIC REPRESENTATIONS OF GOD ARE NOT SPIRIT and are not true. The early church is warned not to associate with any “Christian” who is involved with idolatry. The New Testament warns that idolaters are considered to be heathen and will be judged as such. What Did the Early Church Teach About Idols and Icons?

Idolatry is a serious charge in any church and once again we see that the Bible still is not a reliable guide as to what constitutes this charge. Can you have images in church? Apparently the Bible can be bent to mean yes and no.

Summary

We have seen that as important as worship is to the Christian faith, there is considerable disagreement over the elements of worship and how to properly worship god. There is disagreement, sometimes hostile, as to the day of worship, the musical elements in worship and the place of images in a worship service. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are strong disagreements over the use of specific prayers such as the Common Book of Prayer and the place of sacraments (or even if sacraments are scriptural). Not to say anything about the downright nasty fights over the scriptural basis for Charismatic or Pentecostal worship.

As important as worship is to Christians and for as much time as they invest in the endeavor, it is still another area in which there is no unity between many denominations. Isn’t that a gross oversight for a god who demands worship and has made it clear, at least to some, that unacceptable worship will be punished? Then again, maybe he doesn’t care at all because it’s all made up in the first place!

 

During the Thanksgiving Day season it is appropriate to reflect on how this day came about. I am not talking about the nice, sanitized visions of turkeys, corn and peaceful Indians. I am talking about the reason the Pilgrims came to the New World in the first place: religious freedom (sort of). In the present political and religious climate, where certain Christians would like their particular god, religion and morality enshrined in our laws, we should pause and reflect on what happens when one religion gets the upper hand in politics and government.

First a little history. The term “Pilgrim” was not used for the settlers until William Bradford, the governor of the Plymonth Colony, published his Of Plymouth Plantation, but I will use the term here for convenience. Pilgrims were originally a splinter group in the English Separatist Church movement which basically was a radical splinter group of Puritanism which in turn was a splinter group in the Church of England.

Confused? You should be, so let’s take it step by step.

The Church of England (Anglican Church) officially separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534. While there were forces, theological and political, that were driving England in this direction, the catalyst was Rome’s refusal to give King Henry VIII a divorce from Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn (Ahhh.. What a King could do for love!) The Wikipedia article on The Church of England has a good summary for those wanting more details. While separated from Rome, the Anglican Church retained many of the theological and ceremonial trappings of Rome, essentially substituting the King of England for the Pope. The Puritans were a group of Protestants within the Anglican Church that were strong Calvinists, disagreeing with much of the doctrine, ceremonial practices, and clerical training of the Church of England; however, they had no desire to leave their mother church. They felt they should work within the Anglican Church to be a force for good and, more importantly, change. They wanted the church to largely conform to their theology and practice. The English Separatist Church was basically a group of Puritan leaning theologies, such as Adamites, Anabaptist, Barrowists, Brownists, Diggers, & Sabbatarians (English Dissenters from Wikipedia, English Dissenters from ExLibris), that recognized that the Anglican Church was not going to change and adopt to their theology and ways. In a sense, they were even more radical than the Puritans, advocating separation and distance from their Church of England “brethren.” A summary of the Pilgrim Calvinistic beliefs can be found here: Religious Beliefs of the Pilgrims.

The story is, as we have all heard it, that the Pilgrims came to the New World in pursuit of religious freedom – the freedom to practice their brand of Christianity without fear of persecution or even death. Like many stories, there is some true to this one.

The Church of England was not only the official church of England, it was the only correct church. As such, it had the full weight of the government behind it and the government (aka the King) was also the head of the church. Thus church doctrine and government mixed, in a way that some Christians in the United States would love to have happen today. Of course, it is one thing to have a government-sponsored church IF your particular belief system is aligned with it. It is quite another, though, if you happen to disagree with the official state religion. In that case, you aren’t only disagreeing with the church, you are going against the state itself. Such was the case in England.

For example, Church attendance was mandatory and you were fined for failing to attend and fines were also leaved for unofficial services and preaching, which could also lead to imprisonment. The Book of Common Prayer had to be used in worship. For the crime of sedition, the death penalty was imposed (1559 Act of Uniformity, Full Text). Two men that influenced the Pilgrims, Henry Barrowe and John Greenwood were executed in 1593 for sedition.

The mixture of church and government can be explosive, so the fears of the English Dissenters were not unfounded. They originally fled to Holland, which was more religiously liberal than England, but was culturally very different. Afraid of losing their cultural underpinnings and dismayed by the economic outlook, they decided to go to the New World where they could practice their religion without fear, instill their cultural heritage upon their children and gain some measure of economic success. (See Pilgrim Fathers for a brief overview)

The Pilgrims experience as a persecuted minority and their favorable treatment in Holland (even though they were outsiders) seems to have influenced their relationships with native peoples:

The Pilgrims’ experience of tolerance and accommodation in Holland would greatly influence their encounter with both Native Americans and dissenters. The colonists’ fortuitous meeting with Samoset and Squanto, and their warm relations with the sachem Massasoit, led to a peace treaty with the Wampanoag that would endure for forty years. In contrast to the too-common pattern of European paternalism and mistreatment of native peoples, the Pilgrims respected the inhabitants who, Edward Winslow wrote, “considered themselves caretakers of this land […] owned by none, but held and used with respect by all.” Unlike later Puritans, the Pilgrims did not engage in witch hunts or persecute dissenters. Following John Robinson’s farewell injunction at Delfshaven—that “If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth from my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word”—Plymouth would stand as the most liberal and tolerant religious community in the New World. (Pilgrim Fathers).

However, this rosy picture of the peaceful, tolerant Pilgrims is not entirely accurate. While gentler than their Puritan brethren to the north, if a person did not give at least outward adherence to Pilgrim ways they were punished. Worship on Sunday was required. People who were absent could be rounded up and forced to attend. Several ministers including the controversial John Lyford where removed from the community. Freedom of conscience often meant freedom only if you worshiped in the correct manner – the Pilgrim manner! It is well worth reading Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation as you can read the details in Bradford’s own words.

Free copies of this work can be downloaded from American LibrariesProject GutenbergACLS Humanities if you have a University account, and Early America’s Digital Library. In addition various paid editions, some with more modern wording, can be obtained from Amazon.com. A very brief summary, from a religious point of view, can also read at Freedom of Religion in the Myth of the Pilgrims)

The Puritans were even worst and they eventually overtook and engulfed the Pilgrims. As Kenneth Davis said:

The much-ballyhooed arrival of the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England in the early 1600s was indeed a response to persecution that these religious dissenters had experienced in England. But the Puritan fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not countenance tolerance of opposing religious views. Their “city upon a hill” was a theocracy that brooked no dissent, religious or political. The most famous dissidents within the Puritan community, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, were banished following disagreements over theology and policy. (America’s True History of Religious Tolerance)

Roger Williams was indeed a famous dissident. He was forced to leave the Plymouth colony because, as Governor Bradford said, he fell ”into some strange opinions which caused some controversy between the church and him”. Ideas like concern over the treatment of the Indians as well as some very strict theological issues such as:

”it is not lawful for an unregenerate man to pray, nor to take an oath, and in special not the oath of fidelity to the civil government; nor was it lawful for a godly man to have communion, either in family prayer, or in an oath, with such as they judged unregenerate; also, that it was not lawful so much as to hear the godly ministers of England, when they occasionally went thither.” (Religious Controversies in Plymouth Colony)

Williams moved back to Salem where he was eventually convicted of sedition and heresy. Not to be dismayed by such action he founded the colony of Rhode Island (Providence) in 1636. The Rhode Island charter was based on complete separation of church and state as well as religious tolerance and freedom.

Anne Hutchinson was a woman who challenged the religious authorities at Boston both theologically and because of her gender. She was also convicted and banished from the Colony and eventually joined Williams in Rhode Island. Hutchinson became a symbol of religious tolerance, freedom, courage and women’s rights. The State House in Massachusetts has a monument to here stating that she was a “courageous exponent of civil liberty and religious toleration.”

It is a shame, given the history of Rhode Island, that in 2011 Cranston High School West refused to take down a prayer banner forcing 16 year old Jessica Ahlquist to sue the school and eventually win the case. The way she was treated for standing up for the separation of church and state would have made the Puritan’s proud.  It probably had poor Williams and Hutchinson rolling over in their graves. (Rhode Island town shows ugly side to teenager Jessica Ahlquist)

Both Williams and Hutchinson and the Pilgrim and Puritan Colonies illustrate the importance of the separation of church and state. The importance extends not only to atheists, such as myself, but should also be of prime importance to the religious.

The differences between Williams, Hutchinson, the Pilgrims, and the Puritans were not one of belief vs. unbelief but strong belief vs. strong belief. One person’s clear orthodoxy is another’s heresy. One person’s clear conscience is another’s sin. One person’s religious god enshrined in laws and rules of a government is another’s refusal to bow the knee to obvious wrong.

Those Christians who want their theology and their god promoted in the public square, especially as we enter this Christmas season, should think hard and fast about what they really believe. Do they really want the government to endorse those beliefs Of course they do BUT they should consider this:

What if their particular belief system is not the one in power?

What if Catholic theology ruled, as it once did. Would Protestants feel comfortable with the supposed idolatry and theology that lead to their separation in the first place? What if a Calvinist denomination were to rule and their view of keeping the Sabbath became the rule of the land? What if Mormon theology ruled? Or Islamic? The Founding Fathers were wise in there insistence on keeping church and state separate. Unbelievers as well as believers should promote, encourage and make sure that this separation is maintained. They should fight against those who would like to see their particular theological bent become the rule of the land. Rightly did James Madison say:

”It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.”  (Federalist Paper 51)

Please join me in supporting the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, or other like organizations as they fight vigilantly to maintain the separation of church and state.

Can a person claim to a member in good standing of a religious organization yet not believe it’s core doctrines? The short answer is “No.” The long answer is, “It’s Complicated.” Obviously, I think, a person is being disingenuous to claim membership in a church and not believe the core doctrines of that faith. In this case a person is essentially thumbing his or her nose at god saying: “I don’t care what you say I should believe, I’m going to believe what I want.” Yet, after making such a statement, which the Bible might describe as a “high-handed” sin, the same person claims to love and believe in the very god he won’t obey! Disingenuous is not a strong enough word. Even hypocrite is weak. However, I think if truth be told, the vast majority of believers fall into this category. In a poll recently conducted in Ireland, it was found that many Catholics just don’t believe core church doctrines:

THE MAJORITY of Catholics in Ireland do not attend Mass regularly and significant numbers do not believe in key tenets of the church’s teaching, according to an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll… When it comes to the church’s teachings, many Catholics do not subscribe to key tenets such as transubstantiation. Almost two-thirds (62 per cent) believe the blessing of bread and wine during Mass only represents the body and blood of Christ. Just over a quarter believe it is transformed (26 per cent). (The Irish Times)

Transubstantiation

Transubstantiation, the doctrine that the bread and wine blessed during the Mass actually turns into the body and blood of Christ, is a core Roman Catholic belief (No Unity Here – Part III. The Lord’s Supper). How can a person claim to be Catholic and not hold to this doctrine? This kind of insincerity caused Richard Dawkins to state:

“If they don’t believe in transubstantiation then they are not Roman Catholics,” Dawkins told the audience in the National Concert Hall. “If they are honest they should say they are no longer Roman Catholics. (Richard Dawkins calls for Catholic “honesty”)

While there are intelligent Catholics who believe in transubstantiation, in Ireland (and probably other countries) almost 3/4 of those very “good” Catholics don’t believe this core Catholic doctrine! Again I ask – “How can this be?” One way of looking at this discrepancy is to take the tack of Colum Kenny who says:

But the teachings of Jesus cannot be reduced to a neat set of club rules or medieval doctrines. How their truth is articulated is through the hearts and lives of Christians. The Eucharist is at the very heart of how Christians understand their faith and their church and themselves. Generations of Irish people have found consolation and meaning in the act of Communion, while not understanding or not fully accepting convoluted medieval theories about it. Such Christians have been as much a part of the Church as is any bishop…The gospels tell us that Jesus referred to such consecrated bread and wine as his body and blood; he bid his followers to do as he had done and to eat and drink in memory of him. But did he mean that Christians who did so would literally be eating his body and blood? Such an idea of “transubstantiation” seems barbaric to some people, with its echoes of human sacrifice and cannibalism, and simply unnecessary to others… Even the medieval church authorities recognised the problem of arguing that a literal transformation occurred…Transubstantiation never made much sense to many believers. It makes even less sense today unless it can be reinterpreted and integrated into our scientific knowledge of physics and psychology. (Is the Church a club with rules you accept or leave?)

Actually Mr. Kenny, that is exactly what the Catholic church teaches and what you are expected to believe, regardless of whether it makes sense to you. According to Catholic doctrine it is the Church, not you, who interprets the teaching of Christ and reveals them to you. It is clearly stated by the Catholic Church:

The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. (#85 Catechism of the Catholic Church)

Mr. Kenny, if you can’t accept this teaching, why the heck are you a professing Catholic?

Moral Issues

This problem isn’t just limited to Ireland or the doctrine of transubstantiation. On the topic of birth control, which the Roman Catholic church opposes, there is the following disparity between belief and official Church teaching:

Eighty-nine percent of American adults say birth control is morally acceptable, according to a Gallup poll taken May 3 through May 6. Notably, 82 percent of Catholics are fine with birth control, the survey found. Catholic groups have been the most outspoken against the mandatory birth control coverage included in the 2010 Affordable Care Act. (A 2011 study by the Guttmacher Institute found that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women use or have used unnatural birth control.) (Most Americans, Even Catholics, Say Birth Control is Moral)

On the topic of abortion, which again the Roman Catholic church opposes:

The institute (Alan Guttmacher Institute) found that more Protestant women obtained abortions than Catholics: Forty-three percent of women over age 17 in the 2000-2001 survey said they were Protestant, while 27 percent said they were Catholic. But Catholics were more likely to get an abortion: The abortion rate for Catholic women was 22 per 1,000 women; the rate for Protestants was 18 per 1,000 women, according to study author Rachel K. Jones. (Abortions: Comparing Catholic and Protestant Women)

There are also differences between official Roman Catholic doctrine and church members when it comes to premarital sex, the death penalty, and abortion:

More than six in 10 Catholics say premarital sex is morally acceptable. Ditto for the death penalty.Fewer Catholics, but nearly half, buck the church and say homosexual relations between consenting adults are morally acceptable. The fewest, three in 10, say abortion is morally acceptable when the woman’s life is not in danger.Fifty-two percent of Catholics who attend church weekly say premarital sex is morally unacceptable.For instance, 56 percent of Catholics who attend church weekly say the pope has influenced their religious beliefs, and 52 percent say he’s influenced their moral views. But majorities even of these most-churched Catholics say the pope hasn’t influenced their personal behavior or their political opinions.(U.S. Catholics Admire, Disagree With Pope)

So, once more, how can a person claim to be Roman Catholic (or any other denomination for that matter) and not believe what the church teaches? This is a bigger problem for Catholics than many Protestant denominations since the Catholic church believes that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth. When he speaks ex cathedra, he is speaking for god and his pronouncements are infallible:

Papal infallibility is a dogma of the Catholic Church which states that, in virtue of the promise of Jesus to Peter, the Pope is preserved from the possibility of error when, exercising his office of shepherd and teacher of all Christians, he solemnly declares that a teaching on faith or morals is to be held by the whole Church. (Papal infallibility)

When the church says that during the Mass the bread and wine becomes the literal body and blood of Christ without any obvious change in its material structure, it means just that. It means that this is what God Himself has stated. When the Pope says birth control is wrong – it is WRONG. It doesn’t matter what a member of the church thinks or feels, if you are a Catholic, the teaching is that birth control is a sin. When the church says premarital sex is wrong. It means you can’t be a Catholic in good standing if you are living in “sin” with your significant other. How can a good Catholic partake in a Mass, which calls upon the magic of transubstantiation as the highlight of the Mass, and not believe it is happening? How can a “good” Catholic live with their significant other without the benefit of marriage? How can that “good” Catholic boy or girl use birth control? Can these people be called Catholic, let alone a “good” Catholics. Well, no, they can’t. But, of course, the real answer is “It’s Complicated!”

It’s Complicated!

It’s complicated because of 2 basic reasons:

  1. Many believers, especially in Western countries, want to believe in god on their OWN terms. In other words, they basically believe in a god of their own making. A god who is made in their own image. You can thank the Protestant Reformation for that! So god is reduced to who I want him/she or it to be. What the “church” says, isn’t so important. In fact, this is one reason why we have some 36,000 to 38,000 Christian denominations. Most people aren’t going to go out and start a new denomination, so they stay put and believe what they want. But why? Why not be honest and just leave or find a denomination that believes what they do? Well, that’s where the 2nd point comes in.
  2. For many people, religion isn’t so much about belief in a specific type of god or doctrine, but rather it is a social connection with others who believe, roughly, the same thing. I’m not saying that spirituality isn’t important to church goers. What I am saying is for many spirituality is mixed with the social element and it is this social element, rather than doctrine, which glues many to a particular denomination. If doctrine was more important, then the religious would gravitate toward a denomination whose doctrine they care about. (This is more common in some evangelical Protestant churches.) What is difficult for some people to understand, is that for many Catholics (and probably other religious traditions) your identity is wrapped up with your “religion.” You are a CATHOLIC, irrespective of what you actually believe. It is part of a cultural tradition of belonging, not primarily of believing. This is why rejection of the label “Catholic” isn’t a rejection of “god” in so much as it is a rejection of a social tradition and the people that make up that tradition.

Religion can shape a person’s identity:

Similar to other forms of identity formation, such as ethnic and cultural identity, the religious context can generally provide a perspective from which to view the world, opportunities to socialize with a spectrum of individuals from different generations, and a set of basic principles to live out. These foundations can come to shape an individual’s identity. (Religious Identity)

This identity also has some big benefits, including feelings of happiness and well-being, two powerful forces that are often-time mistakingly attributed to god:

Our study offers compelling evidence that it is the social aspects of religion rather than theology or spirituality that leads to life satisfaction, … friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient in religion that makes people happier. (Social Ties Link Religion to Life Satisfaction)

In a strange sense, a person who rejects the Church is rejecting their heritage which is much, much more important than the rejection of some invisible, nebulous god. This doesn’t mean that god or faith isn’t important, it is just less important than culture, heritage and identity. Years ago, when I left my old church, that hardest part was the rejection from everyone I once thought were friends.

Conclusion

So today’s Catholic can be comfortable not believing what the Pope and Church tells them to believe, live a life the Pope and Church says is sinful and still proudly claim to be a Catholic in good standing. But folks, this is dishonest. For people who pride themselves on their moral superiority and their dedication to the 10 Commandments, this hypocrisy has to stop. If a person can’t believe in the god expounded by their religious authorities, then they need to be honest and leave. Richard Dawkins is correct in stating,. “If they are honest they should say they are no longer Roman Catholics” (or Baptists or Methodists or whatever).

If you are in this situation, stop thinking it doesn’t matter. It does matters if you stay in religion or church that you don’t believe in. Imagine what would happen if everyone who was “Catholic” but didn’t believe in the doctrines or practice of the church would say – enough! What if they packed up and took their money and membership with them? Would the church still view birth control as wrong? Would it still insist on a incomprehensible doctrine such as transubstantiation? Would they still protect pedophiles? Even if they did, wouldn’t you feel more comfortable knowing you are no longer supporting something that you don’t believe in?

The hardest part of being honest and leaving, is the social cost. That is a high price to pay for many people, but believe me, it is an excellent way to find out who your true friends really are. It may be hard on family, but for many families, blood is indeed thicker than an invisible friend or a religious social club.

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I’m not really trying to pick on Catholics in this post, although they are the focus of the article. You can basically switch out Catholic for any Protestant denomination and write the same post. And while most Protestant denominations don’t have a practical doctrine of infallibility in their leaders, as with the Pope, in practice, the pastor is pretty much put in the same category. Maybe he or she isn’t infallible but close, very close.

Doubt and unbelief cannot be overcome by logical reasoning and proofs. The only treatment for doubt is punishment. (Promise and Deliverance S. G. De Graaf. Volume I. Page 65)

But he said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.” Luke 16:31

“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” Rom 1:20

One incongruity that exists in Christianity is the relationship between evidence (apologetics) and faith. On the one hand you will find many Christian apologists trying to defend their faith by a series of approaches that supposedly give evidence or support for their particular brand of Christianity. On the other hand, there is the emphasis on faith in “coming” to Christ even though faith, by definition, means “belief that is not based on proof.” Even the Bible says this in Hebrews 11:1 where faith is defined as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (NASB). Some apologists will try to minimize this incongruity by stating there is enough evidence to bring you to faith and allow you to see that it is a rational and logical way to proceed. This is what Paul was getting at in Romans 1:20 (quoted above) – that by looking around at the world and looking at the wonder of creation, it clearly demonstrates that there is a god and we are without excuse for failing to believe. This is a position taken by many believers and may even have been a powerful argument at one time. For example, this quote is typical:

Paul tells us that the unbeliever is without excuse. God reveals Himself in two ways, directly through His Word and indirectly through a general revelation. God’s presence can be discerned through His creation. The very workings of the heavens proclaim that God exists. The marvel of life shows His hand. The more we learn about the cosmos that more we see the intricate design of creation. Anything designed to the procession of the universe cries out for a designer. (They Are Without Excuse)

Actually, not so much any more. With the advent of modern science, such a argument is vacuous. We know much more about the beginning of our universe and the evolution of life on this planet than the ancients ever did and, frankly, god can be easily left out of the equation. It is no longer “obvious” that there is a god that created all things. You can, of course, invoke a creator deity, but such a deity is not necessary to explain the universe or life on this planet. (e.g. see A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss and The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins)

Once you get rid of Christianity’s red herring called evidence, it all comes down to faith. The Bible makes it clear that without faith “it is impossible to please him” (Heb 11:6, NASB). Every once in awhile someone in the Christian world, with brutal honesty, tells us what they really think about logic, proof and evidence. S. G. De Graaf (1889-1955) was such a person. He was a Reformed (Calvinist) minister in the Netherlands who wrote a massive 4 volume work called Promises and Deliverance. In it, as quoted above, he clearly stated that “Doubt and unbelief cannot be overcome by logical reasoning and proofs.” Actually, this makes complete sense coming from a Calvinistic and Reformed point of view. In this theology god is completely sovereign even in the area of salvation. God picks whom is to be saved and it is impossible to resist his call to salvation. All that He calls will come to Him as is seen in John 6:37-39:

All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.

Resistance to this call then is not about evidence and not about proof but about plain old sin. It is also a resistence that is ultimately futile. So all the proof in the world falls on deaf ears. Luke 16:31 (quoted above) basically says the same thing. That even if someone rose from the dead (a forbearing of unbelief in light of the supposed resurrection of Christ), we are so hard hearted that we would still refuse to believe. Here, proof and logic are inconsequential. The only thing that will get someone’s attention is punishment. As De Graaf says, “The only treatment for doubt is punishment.” Basically, reason and logic don’t work, only punishment. This has the “ring” of truth to it if you are on the believer’s side of the fence. After all, the believer has faith so it is very tempting to trivialize unbelief as sin instead of lack of evidence. Even the apologist William Craig Jr. said:

…For not only should I continue to have faith in God on the basis of the Spirit’s witness even if all the arguments for His existence were refuted, but I should continue to have faith in God even in the face of objections which I cannot at that time answer… What I’m claiming is that even in the face of evidence against God which we cannot refute, we ought to believe in God on the basis of His Spirit’s witness. Apostasy is never the rational obligation of any believer, nor is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. God can be trusted to provide such powerful warrant for the great truths of the Gospel that we will never be rationally obliged to reject or desert Him. (The Witness of the Spirit as an Intrinsic Defeater Defeater)

I maintain that logic, evidence and proof are the only things we have to determine truth in this world and the best way (not the only way) to do this is the Scientific Method. As Maimonides said: “It is not proper to abandon matters of established knowledge that have been verified by proofs… and depend instead on the teachings of individual sages who may have possibly overlooked what was essential to these matters… a man should never cast reason behind him, for the eyes are set in the front, not in the back.” (quoted in Doubt. A History)

If there is no compelling evidence for god. If the universe can be explained without a creator. If life evolved and was not created. Do we need to invoke a creator being? And even if we do, that doesn’t mean god cares one iota about man. And even if he does, that doesn’t mean the Christian has it right. And even if Christianity does, which of the 34,000 to 38,000+ variants are true? In other words the idea that logic, evidence and proof are inconsequential and all that really matters is faith, is a quaint idea that has a bit in common with Pascal’s Wager. For both ideas to work, the assumption has to be made that the choices are unbelief and belief in the Christian god. Add other religions to the mix or a large number of conflicting Christian theologies and suddenly your world goes topsy-turvy. The true choice isn’t between unbelief and the Christian god but between unbelief and 100’s of gods and between belief in a god or gods and disbelief in all others. Pascal’s Wager breaks down when you realize there are other religions making claims of heaven and hell (reward and punishment) outside of Christianity.

Faith breaks down likewise. Faith in what or who? Faith in what god? Faith in what religion? Faith in what theological system? What Christian concept of god and Christ and salvation should you believe? If you are only going by the “internal witness of the Holy Spirit”, frankly, you are screwed. Even the Bible says that god sometimes places or allows to be placed a lying spirit in man’s heart (e.g. 2 Thess 2:11, 1 Kings 22:22). It also frighteningly states that there will be many who think they are believers, but god will tell them “I never knew you” (Matt 7:23). If there is a god that is capable of this type of deceit, then there is no “internal witness” that can be trusted.

Without evidence, proof and logic how do you know what is true? After all, practitioners of most religions believe theirs to be the one true one. How do you know your faith and your god is better than theirs? And if you say your Holy book tells you so, just remember that the other religions have their Holy books too! In a world where it is obvious that religion is a multiple choice affair, the requirement for faith as a selector is outdated and naïve. Furthermore if there really is a god who cares about the truth of what you believe, faith is down right dangerous.

What about the concept of punishment for those that don’t believe, by faith, in a particular god? I can say it no better than the Islamic sage Ibn al-Rawandi (9th century) who said:

A God who inflicts illness upon his slaves cannot be counted as one who treats them wisely, nor can he be said to be looking after them or to be compassionate toward them. The same is true concerning he who inflicts upon them poverty and misery. Also unwise is he who demands obedience from a person who he knows will disobey him. And he who punishes the infidel and disobedient in eternal fire is a fool. (Medieval Islamic Sceptics)

A god who requires a person to believe without evidence and then punishes that person for not believing is a malevolent being. For a Calvinist it is even worst since they believe in a god which is completely sovereign when it comes to salvation. If this god doesn’t select you then you aren’t going to be saved; yet, this god will hold you accountable for a choice you cannot make and punish you eternally for it! That makes malevolence seem loving in comparison.

I don’t disbelieve because I want to sin. (Whatever sin means, since it is a purely religious concept and varies greatly even within the Christian framework.) I disbelieve because I find no compelling evidence to believe in a god. As to the Christian god, I find a large amount of evidence that the god described in the Bible and by most Christian theologies, simply doesn’t exist.

 

We now approach another controversy within the Christian community – that of the Lord’s Supper. Or is it The Eucharist or Divine Liturgy or Blessed Sacrament or Communion or Holy Communion or… well you get the idea. Denominations can’t even agree on what to call the practice, so it is no surprise that they can’t agree on  whether it is a sacrament or even a valid observance for today. As with Baptism, we have a relatively simple command:

When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table… he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:14-20)

1 Corinthians summarizes it as:

Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Cor 11: 23-26)

However, as we have seen before, nothing is straightforward in Christianity and if a division can be found, it will be made. Everything all hinges on what you think a remembrance is and how you view the words this is my body.

Depending on how you count and what differences you want to emphasize, there are 4 or 5 major views on the Lord’s Supper (the name I will be using) and a number of other differing opinions. For the purpose of this post, I’ll briefly look at 5 major views. As a reminder, this overview is simply to show the diversity of Christian opinion and practice on this core doctrine. It is obvious (I hope) that I am not trying to determine which view is correct, since they are all made up! Such diversity is, in my opinion, one reason which shows that the Christian god is of human origin. A real god couldn’t be so incompetent in his ability to communicate with his creatures, especially on core issues of faith and practice.

The 5 major views can be summaried as:

  1. Non-Sacramental/Memorial
  2. Calvinist/Reformed/Real-Presence
  3. Lutheran/Consubstantiation
  4. Roman Catholic/Transubstantiation
  5. Obsolete

Non-Sacramental/Memorial

It is a symbolic commemorative of the Last Supper. The elements (bread and wine) only represent his body and blood. They do not become his body and blood. The service is a time of reflection on what Christ supposedly accomplished. (Memorialism)

Calvinist/Reformed/Real-Presence

The traditional Calvinistic view holds that the Lords Supper is a sacrament and while the elements merely represent the body and blood of Christ and, in a spiritual sense through faith, they become an aid to faith and practice. (Real presence of Christ in the Eucharist)

Lutheran/Consubstantiation

The bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ but not in the Roman Catholic sense. In other words the bread and wine doesn’t actually, physically become flesh and blood. Christ’s body and blood exists alongside (under, surrounding) the actual elements and serves as a means of grace and sanctification. If it sounds confusing, it is. Just remember, you can’t be rational when describing a deep mystery experienced only by faith! (Consubstantiation)

Roman Catholic/Transubstantiation

In the Roman Catholic trandition the bread and wine literally are the body and blood of Christ. This happens in some mysterious way so that the ritual actually becomes a “new” sacrifice. Yet somehow this happens without the any changes to the appearance, taste or chemical makeup of the elements. Now that is faith! Such a doctrine had Richard Dawkins ask the question to practicing Catholics, “…do you really believe that when a priest blesses a wafer it turns into the body of Christ? Are you seriously telling me you believe that? Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood?” (Read his Reason Rally speech here) I am afraid many do, because it is accepted as a deep mystery of faith. I remember, long ago, during my First Communion (yes, I was raised Catholic as all good Italians are) that a considerable emphasis was placed on not chewing or letting your teeth touch the communion wafer for fear of biting into god. Somehow swallowing him without teeth marks was ok! (Transubstantiation)

Obsolete

There are also denominations, such as the Quaker’s and the Salvation Army, that do not observe the Lord’s Supper:

One of the distinguishing features of the Society of Friends from most other Christian bodies is the absence of the observance of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper from its religious practices…The Quaker movement was founded on the conviction that the whole of life is sacramental. The founders refused to designate any particular observance or practice as being more sacred than another…The Quaker ideal is to make every meal at every table a Lord’s Supper. Again, the reality lies, not in the nature of the material substance, but in the way it stirs the heart of every partaker. (The Sacraments)

These are radically different and incompatible views. A memorial is NOT the same thing as the literal body and blood of a dead savior! There is a good amount of magical thinking and a lot of passion surrounding the Lord’s Supper. As Martin Luther said:

In the same way I also say and confess that in the Sacrament of the Altar the true body and blood of Christ are orally eaten and drunk in the bread and wine, even if the priests who distribute them or those who receive them do not believe or otherwise misuse the sacrament. It does not rest on human belief or unbelief but on the Word and ordinance of God – unless they first change God’s Word and ordinance and misinterpret them, as the enemies of the sacrament do at the present time. They, indeed, have only bread and wine, for they do not also have the words and instituted ordinance of God but have perverted and changed it according to their own imagination. (Which Churches Have the Lords Supper? Which Churches Do Not? Quotations from Martin Luther)

However, the differences don’t stop here. There is also controversy over how often the Lord’s Supper should be observed, who can partake, and even what to serve! Of course everyone has biblical support for their views and are passionate about them.

How Often?

Unfortunately, omniscience in a god doesn’t seem to prevent carelessness. When the command was given to “do this in remembrance” of me, he forgot a little detail – When!

Should it be done once a week?

Bible authority teaches us to have the Lord’s supper on each first day of the week. To have it any other day is to act without God’s authority. Therefore, Christians must refuse to eat it on any other day. (When Should We Have the Lord’s Supper?)

How about often but not too often?

There is no biblical guideline for how often a group of believers should observe the Lord’s Supper…A general guideline to follow would be to not take communion so often that it becomes ritualistic and routine, but often enough that believers benefit from the reminder. (The Lord’s Supper)

Or maybe once a year on a very specific date?

Let us return to the faith once delivered. Let us humbly and obediently observe this solemn, sacred ordinance as we are commanded, and at the time set apart in the Bible, after sundown on the 14th of Abib, or Nisan, sacred Hebrew calendar. (How Often Should We Partake of the Lord’s Supper?)

What to Serve?

It seems that the believer better get the day right or risk departing from the faith that was handed down so long ago. However, that is only the first hurdle to overcome in remaining faithful to god. Once the day question is settled, the next question is what to serve. Surely this should be easy – bread and wine? Right? Seems clear. Doesn’t it? Well, no.

While many OSP churches have come round to using wine in the Lord’s Supper, there is a common misunderstanding among many churches that the kind of bread we use in communion should be unleavened. The biblical data does not support this position however, and the Old School Presbyterian consensus was always that the common leavened bread of our every-day use was the element we should be using at the Lord’s Supper. (Must We Use Unleavened Bread in the Lord’s Supper?)

 

Only unleavened bread, picturing the sinless body of our Lord Jesus Christ can properly be used as an element in the Lord’s Supper. Although this may sound distastefully strong to some, to use leavened bread in the Lord’s Supper is to not discern the sinlessness of the Lord’s body(The Elements of the Lord’s Supper What Kind of Bread and Fruit of the Vine Are We to Use part 2)

Leavened or unleavened, what a quandary. I wonder if it should be white bread, whole wheat or 7 grain? I’m surprised there doesn’t seem to be any debates on the flour that needs to be used. Wouldn’t processed and bleached white flour change the symbolism of the bread? We will let the theologians argue that point, but what of the wine? Surely wine means “an alcoholic drink made from fermented grape juice.” Or maybe not?

Can you really justify drinking ‘old fermented wine’ in remembrance of the ‘Holy Blood shed atonement made for us on Calvary’s cross? No way hosey! (The Lord)

Is it a sin to use fermented juice in keeping the Lord’s Supper? Let me ask this: Is it a sin to use raised bread in keeping the Lord’s Supper? I think the answer to both is “yes” because it violates the symbolism Jesus established for his memorial meal. (Can fermented grape juice (wine) be used in the Lord’s Supper?)

Then again…

If someone is so lacking in faith that he cannot take a tiny amount of wine that symbolizes the blood of His Savior who died to give him the precious gifts of forgiveness and eternal life, that person ought not take the Lord’s Supper at all. (The Elements of the Lord’s Supper What Kind of Bread and Fruit of the Vine Are We to Use part 6)

Let us use FERMENTED grape juice for the annual New Testament Passover, as the Bible clearly commands. (God’s Holy Days: Should GRAPE JUICE or WINE be used for Christian Passover Service?)

Clearly commands? I think not. I wonder if the type of grape matters? Syrah, Cabernet or Zinfandel anyone?

Who Can Partake?

Assuming a believer figured out what day to observe the Lord’s Supper and what to serve, the next task would be to determine who to serve. In some respects, this depends on how a denomination views the Lord’s Supper. If the denomination sees it as a church ordinance, they most likely want it to be controlled by the church. Even more so for a church sacrament. If they see it as something that is universal to all believers, the denomination may be more open in who should partake. What I find strange, is that the denominations that hold it to be a “memorial” often have the strictest rules. You would think that those churches that believe partakers are actually eating the literal body and blood of a god would be very strict indeed. (Or maybe you really can’t because it is so absurd!)

Should children take part? Absolutely not:

In the first place: children may not partake of the Lord’s Supper… (May Children Partake of the Lord’s Supper)

Well maybe:

There is no basis for excluding a child that can make a profession of faith and also is able to discern the significance of the elements. (Children and the Lord’s Supper)

Surely it should be up to the individual to examine him or herself and make it a personal decision:

The Lord’s Supper is for people who have faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, even if they have not been baptized yet. We tell people that the bread and wine are for those who have faith in Christ. They must make their own decision as to whether to partake. We do not believe it is appropriate to refuse to let people partake if they want to do so, even if they are not baptized. (Question & Answers About the Lord’s Supper)

Well, maybe that is too generous. There should be some rules:

I believe the Scripture clearly teaches “The Lord’s Supper” is a church ordinance and therefore the church is responsible to see that it is Scripturally observed. There may be those who believe it is not a church ordinance, but was promiscuously given to every individual Christian to be observed individually or in groups without any church supervision or oversight. As I see it, to believe in open communion, it would be necessary to insist it is not a church ordinance, for if we agree that it is a church ordinance then the only logical conclusion is, that the first requirement for partaking of the Supper is membership in a Scriptural church.(Vital Church Truths Chapter Four-The Lord’s Supper)

More rules might be better:

The requirements for partaking in the Lord’s Supper are:

    • Belief in the articles of the Apostle’s Creed
    • Baptism in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit
    • Church membership (exceptions allowed for those seeking membership)
    • Affirmation of the real presence of Christ in the sacrament, as explained above
    • Children must make a public profession of faith (What is the Lord’s Supper?)

I was once member of a church that took the oversight of the Lord’s Supper so seriously, that those charged with handing out the elements (unleavened bread and grape juice in this case) were instructed to withhold them from any child and those not church members.

Once more we see that a core Christian belief is racked with division and controversy and, of course, the absolute assurance a particular view is correct. Once again, we see that the bible is a horrible guide to faith and practice. It can be interpreted in radically different ways by people who are sincerely trying to discern the “truth” that is supposedly contains. The fact that an omniscience god is so incompetent in communicating vital truths to his creation, strongly suggests that such a god is nonexistent or doesn’t really care what we do or believe. In the latter case, why worship him?

 

Another controversy within the Christian community is that of baptism. If you believe the Bible, Jesus gave a simple command:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-28:20 NIV)

Now, I ask you, how many ways can such a simple command be messed up? Apparently, a lot! With this simple straight forward statement comes controversy, church splits and bitter downright hostile disagreements. Christians can’t agree even agree on who should be baptized, never mind how they should be baptised or what baptism even means! Such a simple concept, that god could have easily clarified, is left open to mutliple intepretations and meanings. If you are going to give a command – “go an make disciples..baptizing them in..” doesn’t it make sense to clarify what you are commanding? How hard would it be to add: “And by baptizing, I mean…”? Strangely an omnipotent and omniscient god couldn’t see the outcome of leaving definitions out of a command. Probably because it wasn’t an omnipotent and omniscient god that had anything to do with the command! Let’s look at the controversies:

How Should a Person be Baptized?

How many ways can you possiblity use water on someone? Well there are several and they are all represented in the various modes of baptism.

  • Aspersion – This is more commonly called sprinkling. Water is simply sprinkled on the skin, usually the head.
  • Affusion – This is a little more intense than sprinkling as it is the literal pouring of water over the head and is most common in churches practicing infant baptism.
  • Immersion – Strictly speaking this is when a person stands or kneels in water and water is poured over them during baptism. Less technically, it is often used as a synonym for submersion.
  • Submersion – Submersion is where the body is submerged under water and is common in many evangelical churches where believers baptism is performed.

You may rightly ask whether the mode of baptism matters. Well, yes and no. Some denominations, clearly do not care and leave the choice to the individual. For instance the Methodists teach:

“Let every adult person and the parents of every child to be baptized have the choice of sprinkling, pouring, or immersion” (The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Church).

For other denominations it is clearly important. What it comes down to in these denominations is how you view scripture. If it is the inerrant word of god, then you are compelled to try to do what god supposedly commands. Figuring out exactly what is commanded is a good trick given the contradictory nature of the Bible. But once that is “figured out” by a given demonination or church, they are usually inflexible and totally sure of their intepretation. For instance David E Pratte says:

Sprinkling and pouring are human in origin. They are changes from God’s plan. Only complete immersion can be practiced according to Jesus’ authority.

What if you once received sprinkling or pouring instead of immersion? Gospel baptism is immersion, not sprinkling or pouring. If you have not been immersed, then you have not obeyed Jesus’ command! You have followed only the doctrine of men.

If you now wish to obey Jesus, you must do what He said to do: be baptized (immersed) as described in the passages studied above. He who believes and is baptized will be saved – Mark 16:16. (The Action (Mode) of Baptism: Sprinkling, Pouring, or Immersion?)

According to Mr Pratte, if you were baptized by the wrong method, you haven’t been baptized. Daniel R. Vess, using the same logic, goes even further:

Does sprinkling, pouring, or immersion meet the Bible requirement for baptism? Bible baptism requires: Water (Ac. 10:47); much water (John 3:23); going down into the water (Acts 8:38); coming up out of the water (Mark 1:10; Acts 8:39); a burial (Romans 6:3,4); a resurrection (Romans 6:5; Col. 2:12); a washing of the body with water (Hebrews 10:22) and a birth of water (John 3:5). Only immersion meets all the requirements. Sprinkling and pouring are inadequate substitutes for immersion, and even worse, they are additions to the Word of God (Rev. 22:18,19).

If you have not been immersed in water you have not been baptized. If you have not been baptized you have not been saved: “He that believes and is baptism will be saved, he that does not believe shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16). (Is Sprinkling or Pouring Baptism?)

Here the correct mode of baptism is directly linked to ones salvation. Get it wrong (sorry Catholics) and you aren’t even saved – you are going to burn in hell! Does the mode of baptism matter? To these people and others, the answer is YES and they are willing to condemn entire Christian denominations that practice anything less than full immersion (submersion) as unbelievers.

Who Should be Baptized?

If you think the controversy over the mode of baptism gets a little intense, you haven’t see anything yet. The topic of who should be baptized is explosive! It seems simple. From the command of Jesus, it appears that baptism is linked with disciples (“go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them…”), so only disciples should be baptized. However, nothing in the Bible is clear or simple, as much as individuals would like to argue otherwise. As with the mode of baptism, there are several choices as to who should be baptized, encompassing almost every possible combination. In general, the categories are:

  • All infants
  • Infants of believing adults only
  • Believing children and believing adults
  • Believing adults only
  • A Believer(s) and his/her entire household regardless of belief

Entire demonimations have been formed around the topic of who should be baptized and to some extent, “who” may also determine the mode of baptism. If you believe that infants should be baptized, most likely you are not a proponent of baptism by submersion!

A good overview of the issue of who should be baptized from an infant or believer dicotomy and from an “infant” or “household” view is “A Better Case for “Infant Baptism” by William Shishko. I reference this article for two reasons. The first is that it fairly shows that two groups can disagree about core doctrinal issuses and still be cordial. The second is I think that it is fairly obvious the extent to which the scriptures are contradictory and confusing on this important issue. A lot of assumptions have to be made in order to support a particular viewpoint since there is no clarity in the bible alone. For instance, when it comes to the household baptisms recorded in scripture, you have to make the assumption that infants were included or even part of the household since the Bible is silent. Again, how hard would it be for an omnipotent and omniscient god to “inspire” the writers of scripture to include a simple statement: “… all their household was baptized including all the men,woman, children, servants and their infants…”!

Bryn MacPhail says it this way:

…we must readily admit that neither side of this debate has as much supporting evidence as we would like. What we’ll call ‘the Baptist position’ has plenty of evidence to support the practice of ‘believer’s baptism’. However, what is missing is overwhelming evidence to support ‘believer’s baptism’ to the exclusion of infant baptism. And those who endorse the baptism of Christian children must admit that this endorsement is made by reasonable inference rather than according to a clear mandate. What I mean is that there is no verse in Scripture that reads, ‘You shall baptize every child born to Christian parents’—there is no explicit biblical mandate to baptize children. By the same token, there is no verse that reads, ‘You shall not baptize children; you may only baptize those who profess faith in Jesus Christ’—there is no explicit verse forbidding the baptism of children. So, again, in the absence of explicit New Testament instruction on this matter, neither side of this debate has as much supporting evidence as we would like. (The Biblical Basis For Infant Baptism)

However, as nice and polite as this discussion can be, this conflict can get downright nasty. Usually this is by those who profess some type of believers baptism since almost everyone who holds to infant baptism also holds to believers baptism for those not baptized as infant. For example:

The insistence on trying to use circumcision and household as the basis for this doctrine is damaging enough, but this is compounded by a total disregard for all the other many Scriptures which clearly teach water baptism is only for believers in Christ…no Christian should have anything to do with infant baptism for any reason. In fact, such is a baptism in name only. If such a person who was previously “baptized” as an infant should become a real Christian, he is commanded like all others to undergo true Christian baptism. Moreover, the mode of Christian baptism found in the Bible is immersion. (Infant Baptism—Is It Christian by Dan Corner)

Infant baptism is not a Scriptural doctrine. It is not found in the Bible. There is not one example in the Bible of one single baby being baptized. We will show that baby baptism is of pagan origin. It is my purpose in this article to set forth my reasons for saying, as I often have said, that…INFANT BAPTISM IS RESPONSIBLE FOR SENDING MORE PEOPLE TO HELL THAN ANY OTHER RELIGIOUS ERROR. From my point of view, it is a dreadful thing to baptize a baby and let him grow up believing that by that baptism he has been saved and is on his way to heaven. (Infant Baptism Exposed! It’s History and Harm by William Pettingill)

Being baptized as an infant doesn’t show that we understand God’s word and can apply his knowledge to make sound Christian decisions when Satan attacks. An infant can not understand what this type of dedication will entail and therefore should not be baptized. Baptism is a personal choice that should only be done after someone has dedicated his/her life to God. It is not a decision that should be made lightly. And it is certainly not a decision that should be made by someone else, such as the parent of an infant child. (Is Infant Baptism Christian? by CRAOM)

Infant Baptism is nothing, has no saving efficacy, delivers no grace, confers no faith, is a symbol of nothing. It is absolutely and totally pointless. It leads to ritualism, confusion and false security. (Is Infant Baptism Biblical? by Grace To You)

The fact is, infant baptism is no more than a human tradition. It has no higher authority than fallible man. It represents a digression from the New Testament order of things and ought to be abandoned by conscientious people who respect biblical authority. There are eternal consequences associated with advocating this error. As Schweitzer acknowledges: “[I]f Christian baptism is only for those who have enough faith to repent and believe, we are wrong and hypocritical to baptize anyone who is too young to exhibit these qualities.” (“We Baptize Babies” – A Response by Wayne Jackson)

Infant baptism is an evil, because its practice is unsupported by the word of God; because its defense leads to most injurious perversions of scripture; because it engrafts Judaism upon the gospel of Christ; because it falsifies the doctrine of universal depravity; because it contradicts the great fundamental principle of justification by faith; because it is in direct conflict with the doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration; because it despoils the church of those peculiar qualities which are essential to the church of Christ; because its practice perpetuates the superstitions that originally produced it; because it subverts the scripture doctrine of infant salvation; because it leads its advocates into rebellion against the authority of Christ; because of the connection it assumes with the moral and religious training of children; because it is the grand foundation upon which rests the ration of church and state; because it leads to religious persecutions; because it is contrary to the principles of civil and religious freedom; because it enfeebles the power of the church to combat error; because it injures the credit of religion with reflecting men of the world; because it is the great barrier to Christian union; because it prevents the salutary impression which baptism was designed to make upon the minds both of those who receive it, and of those who witness its administration; and because it retards the designs of Christ in the conversion of the world. These, mainly, are the charges I prefer against infant baptism, and I believe that I have proved each one of them conclusively, if so, it is a great and unmitigated evil. It not only does no good, but it does evil, immense evil, and only evil (The Evils of Infant Baptism by Robert Boyt C. Howell)

What is the Meaning of Baptism?

As with the other aspects of baptism, there are also disagreements on the meaning of baptism. Is it:

  • A sign of obedience to a command of Christ?
  • Is it necessary for salvation?
  • Is it a symbol of identifying oneself as a believer in Christ?
  • Does it actually confer salvation?
  • Is it an obsolete – something for another time and age?
  • Is is a sign of the New Covenant that replaces the Old Testament’s sign of circumcision?

To some extent, how a Christian views the mode of baptism and who should be baptized, impacts the question of the meaning of baptism. For instance, if a Christian believes in infant baptism, it would be difficult to believe that it is a means of identifing oneself (as an infant) as a believer in Christ; although it may be looked at as identifying the parents as “in Christ” who are being obedient to Christ in baptizing their infant. As might be expected, those who see it as actually confering salvation are in direct opposition to those who see baptism in some symbolic sense.

Most of the hostilities in this area come over the question of whether baptism actually does something. For instance the Roman Catholic Church believes that baptism removes the taint of orignal sin and actually accomplishes several things (abbreviated list from A Guide to Catholic Baptism):

Baptism does five things specifically.

  1. It forgives all sins that may have been committed prior to a person’s baptism including original sin and it relieves the punishment for those sins.
  2. It turns the person into a newly adopted son of God and a member of Christ.
  3. It brings someone into the flock of the faithful and brings them to share in the royal priesthood of Christ (1Pet. 2:9-10).
  4. It gives a share in the common priesthood of all believers and it also brings about the sacramental bond of the unity of Christians.
  5. Last, but certainly not in the least, it leaves and indelible spiritual mark (character) of belonging to Christ on the soul. Nothing you can do will take away this mark even if you sin a million times.

Most protestant denominations would strongly disagree with #1 and #5 and may have problems, to varying degrees, with the other points. However “Baptismal Regeneration” (salvation is linked to baptism) is also believed by several Protestant groups as well (see Baptismal Regeneration). I’ll deal with this topic more in depth when I tackle the topic of the varying views of salvation; but, for our purposes right now, it is enough to show that there are strong disputes over what baptism means and accomplishes.

For instance, on the other side, is the more common Protestant view that baptism is a symbolic identification with Christ:

Why do we have to be completely covered by water when we are baptized? God chose immersion in water because it is a very powerful way of showing us that our sins must be forgiven. Believers realise that they need saving from sin and require God’s grace. They go under the water in baptism, and die to an old way of life. They come up out of the water to a new life. In baptism, believers identify with the death of Jesus Christ, who died for us. Just as Jesus rose from the dead, they also rise from the waters of baptism…(Baptism in Christadelphian Bible Mission)

If the meaning of baptism could be boiled down to one word, that word would be identification. Baptism speaks primarily of a personal, public identification with Jesus Christ. (What does Baptism Mean? by Ray Pritchard)

Conclusion

Even though the topic of baptism and the command to baptize appears to be fairly straight forward, it is far from it. Deep divisions and even church splits are caused by a little water – to sprinkle or not, to baptize infants or not, to save or not. The supposed word of god, in spite of what the church wants you to believe, is not clear on even such a basic issue. But why take baptism so seriously? Obviously, some denominations don’t, but the closer one gets to believing the bible is the literal word of god, without error, the stronger one has to hold “fast” to the “truth” as they see it. If the bible is without error… If your interreptation is correct… If god cares about the “truth” contained in his word… It follows that any interpretation that doesn’t agree with yours is not only error it is heresy! It can’t be otherwise.

It’s hard to understand this passion unless you lived it; but, understanding it is the key to breaking the spell of belief and faith in an imaginary god.

The Calm Before the Storm

As I write this, it has been 1 week since the Reason Rally took place in Washington D.C. About this time last week, it was the same dreary weather. The same light drizzling rain was in the air as I arrived at the Smithsonian Metro Station before the Rally to receive some brief training as a Volunteer Information Usher. We were spread out, in bright yellow Rally shirts, in key places to help answer questions such as: What is going on? Where are the bathrooms? Where can I get a poncho? In spite of the rain, the mood was cheerful. We were all excited about being part of this historic event.

People were arriving early and the rain, drizzle and cold temperatures (it was in the 80s the day before) didn’t put a damper on anyones spirit or enthusiasm. As a volunteer with a big sign plastered to my chest and back saying “Ask Me”, I was in the envious position of talking to a large number of people – those attending for the Rally and tourists who had no clue what was going one. Many foreign tourists I talked to (Japan, Germany, Dominican Republic, Sweden) were amazed that the United States had to have a Reason Rally. They simply assumed that the United States valued reason, logic and science in the arena of public policy. After all it has a secular Constitution and values separation of church and state – doesn’t it? It is simply stunning how far religion has entered the public arena, all the while claiming they have been discriminated against and the “liberal” media is keeping them second class citizens. What an amazing brain-washing job the Christian right has succeeded in doing. If you want to see just how far the religious right has entwined itself within the political system, and the pandering of the 3 Republican candidates and numerous other political candidates is not enough, I would suggest reading “The Family. The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power” by Jeff Sharlet or “Attack of the Theocrats! How the Religious Right Harms Us All and What We Can Do About It” by Sean Faircloth.

On the lighter side, skeptics can also be a bit irrational. Mix some bad weather, a tent, a few people standing around it, an unstarted Rally, and what do you get? A spontaneous line forms and a rather large one at that. It was amazing to me how many people joined the line with absolutely no idea what was in the tent! In fact, the most common question I was asked all day was “What was in the tent?” This was a great experiment in human psychology and group behavior. LOL. (BTW. The tent was for rally sponsor exhibits.)

A line forms to a mysterious tent!

As the Rally began, so came the people – a whole lot of people, in the rain and in the cold, to support the first Rally to promote secular values and to unify, energize, and embolden secular people nationwide.” The official park district estimates were between 20,000 and 25,000 people!

A View from the back.
A View from the front. (Photo from www.reasonrally.org)
Of course, Jesus showed up in various forms. Here he is riding a dinosaur!
Our lovely Janet (StateLine Atheist Society) was all smiles.
So now what? We had a successful Rally but where do we go from here? I have a couple of suggestions:
  1. If you haven’t already come out as an atheist – do so. The more people that know someone who is an atheist, the less “scary” we become. I know it can be hard and there can be severe consequences for some, but it is a basic first step. If you need encouragement, look to an incident that happened at the American Atheist convention which followed the Reason Rally. “Lynn” was going to speak as a minister who had to remain a closeted atheist in order to support herself while trying to find a way out. Well, “Lynn” outed herself, giving her real name of Teresa MacBain, in a moving speech that is truely inspiring. You can view it here. If someone like Teresa can do it, with so much to lose, so can you.
  2. Get involved in politics. Not all of us can run for political office but all of us can be involved in the process, whether at the local, state or national level.

What can you do?

  • Run. Run for office, if you can and have the skills (I don’t). Run on a secular platform and as an open atheist. Sure you may lose but until more people start doing this and people grow aware that there are lots of us in this country, the ideal of an atheist politician will still be a rarity.
  • Be Aware. Be aware of violations of church-state separation in your community and on the state and local level. It seems like school boards and local governments violate the separation clause routinely. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, American Atheists, the Secular Coalition for American are good starting points to get information on church state issues. If there is a violation then challenge it!
  • Lobby! The Secular Coalition for America held a Lobby Day for Reason the day before the Reason Rally. After a morning of training some 200 people had over 125 meetings with Congressional and Senate staff members (Lobby Day for Reason a Success). Sure it was a bit scary and intimidating, but in spite of all the pomp and ceremony, politicians are just people.
  • Write. Write to politicians. Support them when they take unpopular secular stances and challenge them when they don’t. Let them know we are out there and we VOTE.
  • Stand Up. It there a problem with your school or town government in relation to church-state separation issues, then go to a school board meeting or town meeting and speak out. Write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, to each board member, to the city council and to anyone else in a position of power. If need be, get the aid of the Freedom for Religion Foundation, the ACLU, the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State or American Atheists. Stand up! The religious have had their way for too long. Don’t let them continue to get away with it. They may feel otherwise, but you are doing this for them too. A secular America is the only way to protect their religious freedom!
  • Join. Join any of the above groups and support them in any way you can. Also, get involved with a local group. They can rally around local issues, so you are not alone when you “Stand Up” for what is right. If you are in the Northern Ilinois / Southern Wisconsin area, the Stateline Atheist Society welcomes you.
  • In other words – be an activist in any way you can.

It’s going to be interesting to see what momentum there will be from the Reason Rally. Hopefully it won’t be an end but a beginning of returning this nation back to its secular foundation.

Here’s to Us.