Friday, December 13, 2013

Healing from Hell Horror

The doctrine of hell is infamous beyond all power to express. I wish there were words mean enough to express my feelings of loathing on this subject. What harm has it not done? What waste places has it not made? It has planted misery and wretchedness in this world; it peoples the future with selfish joys and lurid abysses of eternal flame. But we are getting more sense every day. We begin to despise those monstrous doctrines.
—Robert G. Ingersoll, Lecture on Hell, 1878
Detail (lower half) from an early 17th century Last Judgment.

A preacher from my old church apparently has claimed to be comforted rather than just annoyed at seeing criticism from the outside world.1 From what I’ve heard, he views the impious writing that’s being done by a handful of unbelieving critics as evidence of the critical writers’ own angst about their impending damnation. He seems not to have considered the alternative possibility–that we might have some actual grounds for criticism.2

Having our thoughts and motives invented for us is nothing new for those outside the walls of Zion, of course. My book An Examination of the Pearl shows some of that under the subheading “Caricature and Blame.” But the preacher is not just imagining that many of his former brethren suffer from a lingering fear of hell. It is his church’s doctrines that put it there.

It Pays to (Pretend to) Believe

For the most part, and to their credit, Conservative Laestadian preachers now dwell very little on eternal fear-mongering in their sermons. A 2013 one in Seattle,3 for example, is full of love and grace and even respect, worlds apart from Laestadius’s crude shouting about judgment and damnation.

But the much-lauded diversity of gifts still includes those who remind the flock about the dire consequences of moving outside the tiny bubble where that love and grace are offered. In his November 29, 2013 sermon,4 a Rockford, Minnesota preacher, after reflecting on how fortunate he and his listeners are as Children of God “amongst the millions of people in this world,” explains everyone else’s unhappy fate:

Even in a temporal sense, we can understand what the pain might feel like of the fires of hell. If you’ve ever burnt the tip of your finger lighting a candle or something, you know how bad that hurts. Imagine living in eternity in that kind of pain and agony, like the Bible describes, “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” So, it pays to believe, dear brothers and sisters. [23:00-24:32]

Lurid detail from Giorgio Vasari’s The Last Judgment (1572-79).

Christianity keeps its followers moving along the narrow way with the carrot of heaven dangling ahead and the stick of hell behind, and the latter is surely the more powerful motivator. I know this first-hand, having suffered the “mental anguish of being unable to avoid questioning a doctrinal system that demands firm confession of belief, on pain of eternal damnation.”

That was indeed a significant part of why I devoted a year of full-time work to researching and writing An Examination of the Pearl. In some sense, examining “this pearl of Conservative Laestadianism was in some sense to cherish and value it.” I was still clinging to the faith, after all. “But I also had a very personal need to confront it, to stare down its threats and dismantle—to my own satisfaction at least—its most outrageous claims” (Epilogue).

I asked Dr. Valerie Tarico, writer of a fine book about leaving fundamentalism and a psychologist who has written extensively about its emotional abuses, about the power of fear over believers and doubters. (Check out her blog at She says, “The concepts of heaven and hell tap emotions that are so deep and primal it can be virtually impossible for a doubting believer to rationally assess Christianity’s truth claims.”

It’s not just a metaphor to say questioning your faith is painful. Fear, Dr. Tarico says,

is like pain in that when we are intensely afraid we can’t focus on anything else. Also, like pain, we learn to avoid it whenever we can. Someone who has felt a panic attack or a phobia triggered by anything from dogs to dust may restructure basic life routines to avoid the feeling. They may rationalize the changes—this route to work is more convenient; I just like being at home; clean surfaces are more sanitary. As long as they don’t confront the fear, they can live in the illusion that it isn’t there keeping them bound in place. But when the line is crossed, the fear can become debilitating.

Many readers of this blog have crossed that line or are anxiously weaving back and forth across it. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like. There’s just no way you can stand even the possibility of being wrong with so much–infinite, unending torment!–at stake. Dr. Tarico compares this fearful state in which many Christians are trapped to the physical confinement of an agoraphobic:

As long as they stay within the walls of faith, they feel fine. But when they try to put a toe out they start feeling uncomfortable, and if they should find themselves, even momentarily, looking at faith from the outside, heart-pounding, gut-wrenching panic sends them scurrying back inside.

Stay away from the flames, something we all learn early on. [Flickr page]

Thankfully, with time and a lot of hard work, I have been able to completely neutralize the primal fear of hell. The ancient, primitive fight-or-flight mechanism working in the basement of the brain is what produces butterflies in the stomach, those anxious “what if?” questions whispered in the darkness of sleepless nights. It reacts quickly to threats and disregards them slowly, for good reason: Those ancestors who paid attention to things that might have caused them harm, even to the point of overreacting, are the ones who went on to reproduce and ultimately produce you.

What got immortalized in our genes, Dr. Robert M. Price and I write in our book on evolution and Christianity, is the tendency to play it safe, to make the best bet for survival and reproduction. “You had some prehistoric ancestor, one of many, who was prone to hear rustling in the tall grass and run for her life. When it turned out not to be a false alarm one afternoon, she survived to conceive the next branch on the family tree that night. Her jaded, skeptical cousin did not.”5

Even after my more evolved cerebral cortex had examined and found utterly baseless the doctrines of my church, including the threats of eternal damnation made by it and most of the rest of Christianity, it took a while for the rest of my brain to catch up. But I was confident that it would, eventually, and it has.

Some Hellish History

All the bowing and scraping of fear-based devotion is no different, really, than paying tribute or swearing allegiance to the mob to avoid losing kneecaps or even your life. It turns out that Hell is a product of the same part of the world that brought us the subject matter of the Godfather movies and The Sopranos–Sicily. A fiery underworld is a real phenomenon, there and elsewhere. I’ve seen a version of the lake of fire myself, in Hawaii. I watched its glowing smoke roiling into the night and imagined how easily such a sight could have inspired awe and dread in ancient minds full of angry gods.

The regions around Israel are as devoid of volcanic activity as the pages of the Old Testament are of any mention of eternal fires. Indeed, when the Hebrew Bible does indicate the existence of some kind of afterlife, in the midst of many passages that explicitly deny such a thing, it sends everybody there, good and evil alike.6 That follows the lead of the Mesopotamian epics on which some of our oldest Bible writings are based: “The dead spirits in these early stories lead a grim, bleak, dry, and completely egalitarian existence. There is no division yet into privileged or blessed souls versus sinners or common folk.”7

Zoroastrianism may have had an early influence on the idea of a tormenting afterlife, as well as the concept of a miraculously conceived savior (Soshyans) forgiving penitent sinners and reconciling them to God.8 Ancient Egyptian mythology seems to have included fiery hazards for the wicked, too, “horrendous sudden perils, if not exactly punishments.”9 But the ancients who really sparked the flames of Hell were the Greeks. Inspired by the volcanoes and fumaroles of nearby Sicily, they invented Tartarus as a place of torment for the wicked many centuries before the New Testament started being written.10

Hell’s inspiration, the lake of fire. It’s just lava, and no devils or souls are writhing in it. [Flickr page]

Paul said nothing of the topic. For him, the wages of sin were death and the punishment was missing out on everlasting life. The first Gospel writer, decades later, was Mark, whose very spare account of Jesus only has him mentioning “eternal damnation” for blaspheming the Spirit and advocating self-mutilation to avoid being cast into the unending fires of Gehenna.11 It would take Matthew, still later, for Jesus and then Christianity to start warning about some Sicilian mafia hit for those who get on the wrong side of the Heavenly Godfather.

An indefensibly vicious addition to the idea is of the post-mortem punishment being eternal, with no hope of repentance or rehabilitation. That was slow to catch on. Not everyone who was cast into Tartarus was destined to remain there forever, only those “who appear to be incurable by reason of the greatness of their crimes.”12 Plutarch’s version of things centuries later had “souls undergoing ‘correction,’ by being hammered and pummeled brutally to get them ‘in shape’ for being sent back to another life.”13

Even early Christianity had some relatively humanitarian voices speaking about rehabilitation, before the grotesque cruelty of eternal, unremitting torment finally took hold. Origen [c. 185–c. 254] proposed that the soul could move up or down in status depending on its behavior in the hereafter. “Eventually, Origen proposed, everyone would choose to repent, even the Devil. If Christ died for all, that would include the angels: the Devil was once an angel. If God is infinite, everything will naturally return at the end of time to be part of him...14

A Mighty Monster is our God

Fundamentalists like to point out how they “tell it like it is,” or “preach sin as sin.” By preaching against such modern-day evils as gay marriage and movie-watching without any beating around the (burning) bush, they illustrate their piety and spiritual backbone. Perhaps, then, they will pardon my own effort to point out what I believe to be the single worst case of evil imaginable, fictional though it is: the idea of an all-powerful God sending a human being to an eternity of screaming torment, pain without end.

God created uncounted billions of human beings with the full knowledge that he was going to damn most of them—or almost all of them, if you subscribe to the extreme exclusivity of Laestadianism, the Churches of Christ, Iglesia ni Cristo, and numerous other sects. It’s like breeding puppies for the sole purpose of slowly torturing them, and making yourself feel better about it by sparing the one or two that manage to find a well-hidden squeak toy. And why? To save face in a grudge match with the enemy of the soul, whom an omnipotent God could just squash underfoot like any other opponent if he really wanted to.

Please stop and ponder this for a moment: What possible justification could there be for blaming those who are innocently ignorant for never even hearing about the only possible way to be saved? And the consequence to them is an eternity of unimaginably horrible torture? It’s not even punishment. There is no opportunity for rehabilitation, ever. It’s not about deterrence, either, because almost all of those being tortured had no idea that such a fate was in store for them, much less how to avoid it. No, it is just the most unimaginably cruel and pointless sadism, from a God we are told is loving and gracious.15

To emphasize what a monster Christianity has turned its God into with this disgusting doctrine of eternal torment, I’m going to end this post in an unlikely way: with a dog story. We have a country dog who stands watch outside the house and barks enthusiastically (sometimes a little too much so) to let her people know when some animal is roaming around. Whether we like it or not, she often drags some piece of dead wildlife home to gnaw on. No store-bought rawhide chew toys are needed around here.

You lucky dog: exempt from eternal cruelty. [Flickr page]

She got a piece of bone stuck crossways in her mouth this summer. The free country life is one of the best a dog could ask for, but this is indeed a hazard of it. Fortunately, it didn’t take us long to notice that something was amiss. I held the dog down while my wife extracted the bone with a pair of pliers. Neither of us could stand the sight of her suffering, and didn’t want her to remain in that painful, fearful state for a moment longer than necessary.

Now, this is a dog, a soulless animal. It is far from the exalted place in which Christianity places humanity, the supposed crown of God’s creation. And yet that God treats this dog, and every other non-human animal, far more compassionately than he does his prize creation. After death, this dog’s consciousness will simply cease to exist.

What would you think of my wife and me if we had simply watched, indifferent, while this poor animal shook its head and gaped in terror at the painful obstruction lodged in its mouth? What if we were so awful as to deliberately stick the bone in there? How about if we kept the dog alive with a liquid diet just so that its torment could be prolonged, day after painful day? You, a mere human with sin-fallen, imperfect moral values, recoil in disgust at the thought.

Yet this is nothing in comparison to the horrors that the perfect God of (most) Christianity has in store for most of the humanity he supposedly prizes over all other creatures. This is not an entity that can be sincerely loved, only a bullying strongman to be feared.

The Rockford preacher talked about his reservations about sending his children to an all-day event at the local school, “an anti-bully program.” Nothing wrong with the premise, he said–he doesn’t want his children to be on either end of bullying. But, alas, it was “the music and the atmosphere at times through the day that was very offensive, especially to a Child of God” (6:30-7:30). Perhaps he should have attended himself, earplugs at the ready to block out dangerous “music of this world,” so that he could learn a thing or two about bullying. There’s been quite a bit of it from pulpits like his.

Photo credits: 17th century Last Judgment, adapted from Thomas Hawk; Vasari’s Last Judgement, adapted from Dan Philpott. Reproductions of public domain works.
Click on individual images to enlarge, or check out their Flickr pages for the sources. Mine are Copyright © 2013 Edwin A. Suominen; you may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


  1. This blog posting originally said, “My old church has taken to editing a few of the recordings of its sermons before putting them on its website. In the censored portion of one sermon whose public version ends prematurely, I’ve heard that the preacher claimed some comfort in seeing writings from the church’s worldly critics.” I did notice a couple of cases where such editing seemed to have occurred. But I have edited the posting to avoid distracting from its main focus–the vicious evil of eternal torment and any deity that would threaten it. 

  2. Questioning the motives of people who dare to assert dissenting viewpoints is a losing and hypocritical game for fundamentalists, Laestadians included. There are just too many supposed spiritual fathers for whom that particular shoe fits all too well. Catholics could easily view Luther’s voluminous tirades against the Pope as motivated by some repressed awareness that Rome was right all along. And how about Laestadius–did his visions and righteous indignation arise from some fearful subconscious knowledge that those he mocked as “proper Lutherans” really were the proper ones, after all? Perhaps Paul was haunted by how much he had turned his back on pharisaic Judaism, and penned a bunch of wishful thinking about grace and faith to the Romans as a result. 



  5. Price, Robert M. and Edwin A. Suominen, Evolving out of Eden: Christian Responses to Evolution. Tellectual Press (2013), p. 200. 

  6. The God who was constantly making threats of bodily harm against his chosen people and fussing about endless details of their behavior declined to offer a single warning about any eternal punishment until late in the Old Testament, leaving ambiguity about the subject even into the New Testament. He allowed it to appear that there really is no hell at all, not even really an afterlife, with several different parts of the Bible describing the end of human existence in the grave, of good and evil all going to the same place. Thesis #88, Check out these references to the free online version of my first book, An Examination of the Pearl: 4.8.3, 6.8, 6.9, 6.10, 6.17, 6.18, 6.18, 6.19, 6.20, 6.21, 6.25, 6.28, 6.33

  7. Turner, Alice K. The History of Hell. Harcourt Brace & Co (1993), p. 11. 

  8. Turner at pp. 16-18. 

  9. Turner at p. 13. 

  10. Price, Robert M. The Bible Geek podcast, August 5 episode, 1:00:50-1:17:30; Turner at p. 30-33. 

  11. It’s debatable whether Mark’s Jesus is referring to eternal punishment with his warnings about Gehenna. According to Wikipedia, the word means “the ‘Valley of Hinnon,’ which was a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem. It was a place where people burned their garbage and thus there was always a fire burning there. Bodies of those deemed to have died in sin without hope of salvation (such as people who committed suicide) were thrown there to be destroyed.” For a different view, see The Fires of Gehenna: Views of Scholars by Todd Bolen. 

  12. Phaedo, as quoted in Turner, p. 32. 

  13. Turner at p. 39. 

  14. Turner at p. 77. 

  15. These two paragraphs are adapted from An Examination of the Pearl, §4.9.2, “Soteriology.” 


Saturday, November 30, 2013

Moving with the Wind

We spend our lives under power,

leaning into the wind.

Sailing on San Francisco Bay  [Flickr page]

Our jaws are set

in grim determination

to overcome it, to push past it,

toward some elusive, never-ending goal.

Golden Gate Bridge from the Bay  [Flickr page]

But every now and then

we can make peace with the wind,

declare our kinship with the here and now,

San Francisco Bay Astern  [Flickr page]

And sail with the easy currents

of unhurried time.

U.S. Coast Guard Station, Golden Gate  [Flickr page]
Written after sailing in San Diego, California in February 2008. Photos from a sail out the Golden Gate and back in San Francisco in July 2013. Click on individual images to enlarge, or check out my entire set of San Francisco on Flickr. All are Copyright © 2013 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Walking Upright

The final chapter of Evolving out of Eden, interspersed with some of my photography. The images are of one of my favorite places, with its silent green giants that sprouted long before I was born and will likely live on long after me.

Our ancestors got up off their forelimbs and started walking upright more than two million years ago. Now it’s time for us to walk upright intellectually and accept our origins and place in the universe for what they are. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, not by the micromanaging deity of Psalm 139 but by a fascinating and elegant naturalistic process.

Dusk Approaches  [Flickr page]

Think of it! Undirected, random variation rises upward from the mindless froth at the floor of an indeterminate universe and percolates through the screen of selection. That filter—natural and sexual selection—is a roulette wheel of replication probability whose numbers are determined by physical constraints and the products of previous evolution. It’s all chance and necessity, as far back as we can see. No deity compatible with evolutionary science is triggering the mutations, spinning the wheel, or determining the odds.

Late Summer Larch  [Flickr page]

Yes, our existence is fleeting, and can seem insignificant. We are, each of us, just a single one of the uncounted trillions of organisms resulting from evolution, and the longest of our lifetimes will span the tiniest fraction of the billions of years that life has existed on this planet.

Lichen on Larch  [Flickr page]

Annie Dillard faced that reality with the same profound elegance as her many other observations at Tinker Creek: “I am a sacrifice bound with cords to the horns of the world’s rock altar, waiting for worms.” That is our fate, too, and we might as well accept it with the same equanimity: “I take a deep breath, I open my eyes. Looking, I see there are worms in the horns of the altar like live maggots in amber, there are shells of worms in the rock and moths flapping at my eyes. A wind from no place rises. A sense of the real exults me; the cords loose; I walk on my way.”

Pine Needle on Moss Bed  [Flickr page]

Her courage in facing the void was shared by the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. He acknowledged that the dead “know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.” Their love, and their hatred, and their envy—all are now perished. Eternal reward? God’s ultimate plan for our souls? Forget it, says this Bible writer: The dead will not have “any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun” (9:5-6).

Moss and Lichen  [Flickr page]

The Preacher’s conclusion (Eccl. 9:7-10) is pragmatic, but cheerful. Go your way, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, advises the Preacher, for God now accepts your works. Let your clothes be always white, and let your head lack no ointment. Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of your fleeting life, which he has given you under the sun. That is your reward in life, for there is “no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.”

Forest Floor in Dusk Light  [Flickr page]
Click on individual images to enlarge, or check out the entire set (with others of these woods) on Flickr. All are Copyright © 2013 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. Evolving out of Eden is Copyright © 2013 by Robert M. Price and Edwin A. Suominen, All Rights Reserved: Excerpted here by permission of Tellectual Press.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Freedom to Doubt

Book review (and promotion): Freedom to Doubt by Charles Shingledecker. Tellectual Press (Valley, WA 2013).

A few years ago, when I was beginning to actually think about the religion that had occupied a central place in my life for decades, I began listening to Robert M. Price’s The Bible Geek podcast. Dr. Price provides detailed answers to the varied questions listeners ask him about the Bible and theology, Christian or otherwise. One of those listeners whose questions really resonated with me in my fearful, doubting state was some anonymous guy who called himself “Chuck the agnostic Christian.”

I emailed Dr. Price and asked if he would put me in contact with this Chuck character, who seemed like a kindred spirit. At that point, there were precious few such people in my life, Christians who were honest enough about their doubts to even admit the possibility that our cherished beliefs might in fact be wrong, who could nod their heads in understanding instead of shaking them in judgment. We corresponded, compared notes about our dark nights of the soul, traded stories about some people in our respective branches of Christianity considering themselves the only true Christians, and each of us felt just a little bit less alone.

Since then, I have put Christianity aside—reluctantly but firmly—while Chuck has not. I’ve also met many more people like him, to whom honesty is more important than mere piety. Some of them can only afford to be honest with themselves. Others express their doubts and disbelief more openly, sometimes paying a steep social price for doing so.

For many, changing the religious label has been important, even a long-sought milestone. They can finally claim an authentic self-identity. Chuck’s current view of himself seems to me like a healthy one, even if there remains some tension in it:

Why do I remain a Christian despite all of my doubts, having so much in common with the doubters, skeptics, and religious critics out there who dig into the foundations of Christianity, only to discover that the entire structure is held together by nothing more than a thin and tattered piece of twine that appears as if it might snap at any moment? The answer is that I simply remain a person of faith.

[D]espite all my doubts, and the intellectual knowledge that there might not actually be anything beyond the shadows of this world, my faith is not something I could easily discard. Nor would I want to. It is a part of who I am, as much as my doubt is.

Charles Shingledecker, doubter

That confession of emphatically lukewarm faith is from Chuck’s new book Freedom to Doubt (p. 186), which my tiny publishing company Tellectual Press has made its second project. Chuck approached me about possibly publishing his work after reading Tellectual’s first book, Evolving out of Eden. I looked over his manuscript, and liked what I saw.

After thoroughly examining and getting tired of making excuses for my childhood religion, I wound up ditching the whole thing, unlike Chuck. But I appreciate depth of thought, humor, and honesty, and saw all of those qualities in Chuck’s writing. And he doesn’t make excuses; he discusses quite a few of Christianity’s trouble spots in all candor.

This is not a book of canned reassurance for fundamentalists, nor is it some angry atheist attack on religion. It is a source of light and comfort for those who have already started down a difficult journey of questioning their faith. While editing the book, I thought many times of various friends stuck in my own old sect of very conservative Christianity, and how much they might benefit from reading it. Here’s one passage (pp. 176-77) that I would particularly like to highlight for troubled Laestadians:

Some days, my mind tells me that all religion is bogus while at the same time my heart tells me there simply must be something more to this earthly existence. And through it all, I’ve come to one conclusion: For those of us who constantly wrestle with doubt, the famous words of Mark 9:24 (“Lord I believe: help my unbelief”) will surely “remain our constant prayer right up to the very gates of death” (Ware 2001 [The Orthodox Way], 16).

Such honesty about our faith may not be what others want, or expect of us. It may not be enough to convince our friends, neighbors, priests, and pastors that we’re “good and faithful Christians.” But it may very well be the best we can offer. Unfortunately, sometimes the best we can offer simply isn’t enough for some denominations. Especially those that claim they are the “one true Church,” by which they mean the only true Church. Often the truth claims of these fundamentalist communities are intolerant of doubt, and sometimes openly hostile to it. For them, the act of questioning is opposed to their entire religious worldview.

Why might they feel that way? Well, doubt is often the intuitive side of our brain telling us there is something wrong with what it is we’ve been taught. If your Church is opposed to honest inquiry about its particular doctrines or even the depths of Christian belief itself, you might find it necessary to look for a more balanced community. Not only out of respect for the faith that you once held close to your heart, but also out of respect for yourself. Why should you force yourself to remain “in communion” with people who won’t accept you for who you are—doubts and all? After all, if the prayer of Mark 9:24 was good enough for the one who truly matters—Jesus Christ. It ought to be good enough for our Christian brethren, too.

Yes, it should be, and in many branches of Christianity today, actually is good enough. There are “balanced communities” of Christians out there, where doubt and honest inquiry are tolerated. Even the Finnish counterpart to the Laestadianism inherited by many readers of this blog has, it turns out, quite a liberal subculture full of doubters and practical piety. (Despite the wishes of the old guard who have been itching for a “heresy” to clean house, many of the marginal Laestadians in Finland are happy to remain in the pews, singing their hearts out at services without taking the dogma or rules too seriously.)

Figure 3 of the book: “Jephthah’s daughter meets her father. Oops.” Apologies to Gustav Doré.

Liberalizing one’s faith without losing it entirely is not for everyone. I personally couldn’t deal with the horrible old Bible stories like Chuck does, retaining a sense of devotion while shrugging about Old Testament heroes burning their daughters to thank God for allowing the slaughter of enemies in their thousands. (See Figure 3, the travesty I helped Chuck make of the Bible illustration by poor old Gustav Doré.) For me, when I got done peeling the onion, there was no core left. And for many in my old sect and many other “only true churches” like it, there simply is no other form of Christianity that would provide a plausible alternative.

It’s either this or nothing, I’d said, and heard other Laestadians say as well. But for them as well as those who are seeking some safe ground for a graceful retreat, either in another church or at least in the honest silence of their own minds, I warmly recommend this book. I think it will help, no matter what you decide to do, and give you a few smiles in the process.

See for more information. Available in trade paperback (208 pages), for the Amazon Kindle, and for the Barnes & Noble Nook.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Another 95 Theses

Proportion your beliefs to the evidence you have for them, and expect no less of others. As with love, if you doubt something, set it free. If it finds a footing in the spaces of your mind, it is yours to believe with true conviction and joy.

Imagine that you were born into an exclusivist sect of fundamentalist Christianity, as was a certain “brother in faith” whom you have known for years, possibly a lifetime. He raised his numerous children there along with yours, wrote articles about Luther for the church’s monthly newspaper, taught Bible Class and Sunday school, frequently offered comments during church discussions, occasionally stood in the back of the church at a microphone, leading the congregation in its singing of the beloved old songs.

All was well until a few years ago, when you heard some whisperings about doubts he had expressed. But a meeting was held and the gospel of forgiveness was preached. Carry on; offer the greeting of “God’s Peace,” if a bit hesitantly.

Then, suddenly, this brother does the unthinkable: self-publishing a book that candidly and irreverently examines the teachings, history, and problems of “God’s Kingdom,” in hundreds of carefully referenced pages. He turns out not to be a mere doubting Thomas, but a Judas.


If you’ve had doubts of your own, you may be tempted to sneak a peek or two at the book’s online version, as thousands of people have now done. You may come back to the website from time to time, checking out this or that issue that has nagged at you, confirming with morbid fascination that, yes, it is a real problem and not just a doubt arising from your personal failings as a weak believer. If your doubts go far enough, or if you have completely left the faith but remain interested, you might go so far as to obtain a full copy, in ebook or print.

A troubled church [Flickr page]

But what you almost certainly will not do–cannot do–is accept the book as an honest assessment of your faith, not if you want to retain it unscathed. The claims you have grown up hearing as a “child of God” (what a self-designation!) are sadly incompatible with the facts outlined in the book, on point after point.

So, if you wish to remain “believing” while lacking any substantive response to these points (and I have heard none), you basically have three options. You can avoid reading any more of the book, ignoring its existence as much as possible. You can resort to the old catch-all excuse that “faith” cannot be understood by reason. (In other words, anything goes!) And if none of that helps, you could just dismiss me and my research.

People who feel threatened by the justification they lack for their professed beliefs have a strong need to point at an enemy. Since writing An Examination of the Pearl, along with a few blog postings critical of Conservative Laestadianism here and on, I’ve been called plenty of things by the faithful: blind, crazy, false prophet, tool of the devil, and a pretender at being another Luther.

Regarding that last one, let me assure my former brethren in the Laestadian Lutheran Church, which takes its name from two upstart leaders of rebellions against the established church of their day, that one Luther was quite enough. I have no interest in trying to be another. Certainly, I admire the man, though not so much the grim and creepy Laestadius. But there are some pretty unsettling things about Der Reformator, too. He labored under a slavish devotion to biblical literalism. In his later years, he oozed anti-semitism and authoritarianism.

I’m just some guy who knows how to research and write, and is no longer subject to being intimidated out of saying what I think. That’s it. Unlike Luther and Laestadius, I’ve never been at risk of my life or career, claimed divine revelation, had visions of the devil, or started a rival religious movement.

All that I’ve offered is the honest product of devoting a year of my life to full-time research of my inherited religion. After thousands of hours of effort, after the gut-wrenching anguish of seeing a once-cherished faith crumble to dust before my eyes, would you expect anything less than my candid assessment of things?

No more theses wanted here. We’re good now.

Today is Reformation Day, the holiday on which Protestantism celebrates its founder doing something most Protestants would never tolerate in their own churches anymore. As the story goes (possibly apocryphal), the young monk nailed a list of issues he had with the church to its door. It was an invitation to debate. Now, of course, debate has become a dirty word in church. That hypocrisy actually started with Luther himself: Once his heterodoxy become a new orthodoxy, he expressed vicious contempt for those who dared to disagree with it. Reformations don’t waste much time getting settled in and saying, “That’s enough. We’re good. No more changes.”

But look past that parochialism for a moment, and ask if you are any less deserving of the truth about the most important matter of your life than the poor residents of Wittenberg who stood in line paying for indulgences five hundred years ago. I certainly don’t think so. Call me whatever you want, but my book was written with the same motivation that Luther expressed in his 95 Theses, “out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light.”

On this point, at least, I am willing to let the church’s defenders claim that I want to be compared with Luther. Perhaps they should consider where they stand.

So, to those selling the modern-day indulgences of forgiveness for manufactured guilt, and to those handing over their valuable currency of intellectual honesty and a lifetime of foreclosed options, I present my own 95 Theses. You are free to write your own. Grab a readable Bible translation and some history books, and go to it!

As a bonus, here is the entirety of my “religious” teaching, which is hardly original: Proportion your beliefs to the evidence you have for them, and expect no less of others. As with love, if you doubt something, set it free. If it finds a footing in the spaces of your mind, it is yours to believe with true conviction and joy.

The church door image was adapted from a CC-licensed photo by Michael Elleray. Check out my interactive 95 Theses here There is also a plain-vanilla version for mobile devices and tablets.
Fairness calls for me to mention a positive development countering the tendency of church members to demonize critics: The remarkable presentation given at the LLC’s 2014 Summer Services, “Approaching Another Person.” I was happy to give credit where credit is due in my essay “Open Dialogue over the Faith Boundary,” posted August 2014.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Vintage Valley

The little town of Valley, Washington was established in 1882 and doesn’t seem to have changed much since then. According to Wikipedia, the town was named by Daniel C. Corbin based on its location “at the entrance to the Colville Valley. The Spokane Falls and Northern Railroad was connected to Valley in 1889,” and “Corbin set up a small building for a depot.” The railroad crossing is the main intersection in the town today.

Established 1882  [Flickr page]

Downtown consists of a post office, general store, bar, part-time restaurant, mini-storage, railroad crossing, and a gas station. The store was originally built in 1889, burned down, and was rebuilt in 1908, still standing and in use. Some civic-minded property owner has established a private park around a retired railroad car, with a little ramada and picnic tables where Mennonite women occasionally sell delicious cinnamon buns and bread.

There is a Catholic church, plus some sort of non-denominational one that has been under construction for quite a while. Residents of the graveyard at the edge of town enjoy a stunning view of the surrounding hills. Perhaps forty squarish old houses cluster around Highway 231 and the couple of cross streets, tucked in behind leafy mature trees. The elementary school serves Kindergarten through eighth grade, a bright and clean new building full of dedicated teachers and staff.

Valley Fuel: “We’ve got gas.”  [Flickr page]

The town has a dignified if impoverished vintage to it. I suspect much of the modest funds being spent there arrive at the post office via U.S. government checks, despite the stolid political conservatism of this part of Washington State. The only industry seems to be a silica processing plant that grinds away by its railroad depot night and day, plus the loggers and farmers living in the surrounding lightly populated acreage of Stevens County.

Everyday Needs  [Flickr page]

The gas station, Valley Fuel L.L.C., brings petroleum to those farmers and sells it from 23 year-old pumps to people driving through town. You drive over the air hose and hear the ding-ding of the bell alerting one of the owners of the place to your arrival. The previous owner would sit behind his long counter stocked with candy bars and gas treatment while you pumped and then dutifully walked in to report the amount, but now it’s full service only.

Old pump through an old door.  [Flickr page]

Either John or Rita Morris—owners for the past five years—will emerge from behind the counter, greet you, and fill your tank. The all-too-modern concern about drive-offs (and perhaps just a desire to connect with customers) has resulted in a return to old times, to a memory I have from early childhood.

I’d be sitting next to my dad on a long bench seat, probably unbelted, as the attendant leaned into the window, greasy rag in hand, and dad said, “Fill ’er up, regular.” When John is on duty, you’re more likely to see a driver standing outside his truck chatting with John as the pump clicks away.

There are no card readers on these delightful old machines, no obtrusive video screens blaring advertising at you, no automated inquiries about car washes and zip codes. Just a long metal lever that starts things off with a resounding thunk and mechanical dials that spin up, fast on the right, slower as you go left, as the gas rushes into your tank. Squeezing off the last drop as the digits approach an even twenty dollar bill is still an art form here.

The Facilities  [Flickr page]

The profit margin from selling a gas at the pump isn’t that great. A pretty small fraction of the total you pay goes to the station owner, as a CNN story from 2008 explains: “The reality is that profit margins at the gas pump stay at around 23 cents a gallon, regardless of the price per gallon.” John cited a somewhat lower figure and said the percentage is pretty much what it was years ago when prices were much lower.

Rita said much of their revenue comes from fuel deliveries and tire sales, and pointed out that there is stiff competition from the Indian reservation a few miles up Highway 231. Exemption from taxes means lower pump prices. Maybe so, but I’ll take the Morris’s charming old equipment and their personal touch over the gaudy video-in-your-face pumps on the reservation any day.

Molly the Mouser  [Flickr page]

Valley Fuel (slogan on their business card: “We’ve got gas”) occupies a building that is not much newer than the town itself, built in the 1930s. John said they try to preserve the old look of the place, and it really surrounds you when you walk in. It’s not dirty, just timeworn and a bit haphazard. For example, when they needed a new fan, they picked out one that looked old-fashioned and would fit in better. You won’t slice off any fingers with it like the old ones, though.

Molly the Mouser  [Flickr page]

The place is presided over by Molly the Mouser. She’s an agreeable cat, and seems very confident about her position. After I paid an inordinate amount of attention to her (I love cats), she started play-fighting with my hand. The Morris’s asked me to cool it, as they want Molly to stay docile so she can be around the kids that come in. Makes sense to me, especially when kids are likely to spot the cooler full of frozen treats that is one of Molly’s perches. I wonder if her paws get cold.

These kinds of places are what America used to be all about, at least on the retail level. (Of course, Standard Oil was not exactly a little Mom & Pop operation content with modest aspirations.) Before soulless mega-corporations metastasized our towns into monotonous patterns of mass-produced plastic signage and halogen lighting, there were real owners, entrepeneurs, and unique ideas behind the storefronts.

John and Rita don’t answer to some francise licensing authority. They don’t go through the robotic motions of posting factory-produced signs to promote the brand of some distant corporation that couldn’t care less about them or their little town. And they don’t try to sell you car washes or sign you up for a “loyalty” card. They sell gas, and tires, and candy bars, and you’ll probably get a nice little conversation about the weather in the process.

Click on individual images to enlarge, or check out the entire set (and others about Valley, WA) on Flickr. All are Copyright © 2013 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. Thanks to John and Rita for their permission to photograph their wonderful old establishment, and for preserving a part of local history.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Book review: Awakening of a Jehovah’s Witness: Escape from the Watchtower Society. Diane Wilson. Prometheus Books (Amherst, NY 2002). Cites are to locations in the Kindle edition.

Last week, two friendly women knocked on my door wanting to share the good news about the Gospel with me, as understood by the Watchtower Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They may have been a bit surprised by what they encountered. I declined the little pamphlet they offered, politely explaining that I already knew everything I needed to know about their organization.

My door did not close on them, though, and they invited further dialogue by asking me to elaborate on what I knew. No doubt they were mentally flipping pages through the training materials for Witnesses’ door-to-door proselytizing strategies, turning to a section labeled something like “Dealing with Apostates,” or “Drawing in the Self-Righteous Know-it-All.”

I mentioned their failed apocalyptic prophecies, and said I’ve read quite a bit about their organization along with others like the LDS Church. But then I sought to make the encounter a bit more productive, not for me, but for these two women. This doorstep was definitely stony ground for what they were sowing, but I figured it might be helpful to plant a few seeds of doubt in their minds, about the cultish group whose demands they are compelled to spend hours every week serving.

So I said something like this: “The real issue that I find troubling about your group is how it shuns those who come to disbelieve in its teachings. Disfellowshipping causes a great deal of pain.” Gesturing to each of the women in turn, I continued, “If you decide that there really is a problem with this organization and voice your doubts, then you are forced to have nothing to do with her. Would you like to be treated that way?”

One former Jehovah’s Witness who confronted this cruel form of church discipline, along with a great deal of cognitive dissonance, fear, and emotional trauma is Diane Wilson, author of the spellbinding and carefully researched book, Awakening of a Jehovah’s Witness: Escape from the Watchtower Society. When she was told to disfellowship her teenage daughter, to “treat her as if she were literally dead,” her reaction as a mother was understandable: “I started crying and my body started shaking uncontrollably” (loc. 1300-13, 1442-49). She got little compassion from the JW elder she sought out for help, though: “He did not comfort me, however; instead, he made my grief unbearable by blaming me for our daughter’s departure from the organization, and for having left us as well. I felt stunned, crushed, and devastated as the elder whipped me with his words” (loc. 1370).

The Truth, right near my home.

This was all piled on top of her long struggle with cognitive dissonance about the Watchtower Society’s teachings. Her doubts about the organization, she said,

were causing my entire belief system to break down, and I felt terrified. It seemed like this religion was the glue that held me together as a person and that gave stability to my life; having doubts made me feel like I was falling completely apart and going crazy. I felt like I was being swallowed up by a big black hole, that frightening world of darkness and confusion that the Society foretold would consume any who leave the organization. I feared I was falling prey to Satan. I was so frightened that my mind became obsessed with thoughts of: Perhaps the Watchtower Society is God’s Channel! Perhaps I have no legitimate complaints against the Society. Perhaps I am being rebellious against Jehovah’s arrangement. I had no confidence in myself or in my doubts about the organization; I was scared, and I desperately wanted to feel safe again. [loc. 1117]

Eventually, she said, “I experienced difficulty breathing while just sitting and listening to the meetings, feeling as if I were being literally suffocated. I frequently had to leave and walk around outside the Kingdom Hall in order to get relief” (loc. 1376). I can relate to this, from when a preacher in my former Laestadian Lutheran congregation would start going on about what sinful wretches we all are, his voice rising with pious angst about his sins as well as everyone else’s. Like Wilson, I had seen that my own version of “the Society is adamant in resisting almost all input from others, no matter how well researched or valuable it is” (loc. 3557).

Once questions are voiced, the questioner is all too often told that he or she is to accept whatever the Society teaches and is not to “reason” about it, but must blindly and dogmatically fully accept whatever is taught. The individual’s reason, they stress, is “human reasoning,” but the Watchtower’s reasoning is “God’s reasoning.” If one does not blindly accept all that is taught—however foolish—often their spirituality is impugned, even for sincere and honest questions. One then learns that questions are not to be voiced. [loc. 3564]

All the self-loathing, the quavering gratitude that this angry invisible God would exempt a fortunate few from the eternal torture chamber to which he would be consigning everyone else–for not believing in doctrines he declined to inform them of–just became too much to sit and take.1 Listening to people in the pews around me get caught up in the emotion of the preachers thundering away, about things I knew they doubted, felt like being the only sober guy at a party.

And so I’d find some excuse to take one of the kids out of the sanctuary. Standing in the fellowship hall looking out the window while my kid played with folding chairs, looking at the innocent trees out in the sunshine, I’d wonder what the hell I was doing there.

Wilson’s book provides many other parallels to my own observations about the Laestadian Lutheran Church. I describe some of them in An Examination of the Pearl. Here are locations in the online HTML version where my book cites Wilson’s and discusses some of the similarities. Like many Laestadians, Witnesses

[1] have a resigned “where else would we go” attitude,
[2] are discouraged from outside socializing,
[3] must be obedient even without understanding,
[4] refer to the organization as the “Mother,”
[5] can be terrified at the idea of breaking away from it, and
[6] are discouraged from independently researching their beliefs.

They also avoid Halloween (loc. 235), offering toasts (loc. 252), reading literature from other churches (loc. 378), and extracurricular school sports (loc. 3616). Their rationale for using taped music rather than a live orchestra during JW conventions could have been pulled straight from a Laestadian publication, at least one from a few decades ago: “to protect the members of the orchestra from ‘getting puffed-up with pride’ because of their musical talents” (loc. 704). And they share the view of most Laestadian groups (yes, there are several) that their “organization alone, in all the Earth, is directed by God’s holy spirit or active force,” and to “it alone God’s Sacred Word, the Bible, is not a sealed book” (loc. 587).

Just people, friendly and chatty. If you haven’t been disfellowshipped, that is.

Though relationships can wind up being strained if not entirely broken off, Laestadians don’t shun their former brethren as severely or rigorously as do the Witnesses.2 When I pointed out the cruelty of this treatment, the women at my door protested that it’s for their own good. That’s pretty much what one JW correspondent told me (while asking me to include this link): “Disfellowshipping, while very difficult for the person, may lead to a change in behavior, repentance, and a better understanding of a person’s relationship with Jehovah, and a return to living by Bible standards.”

Then my visitors prepared to list off some Bible verses for me. I saved them the trouble, knowing those passages all too well myself: Do not “keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one, no not to eat” (1 Cor. 5:11). “[W]ithdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us” (2 Thess. 3:7).3 And to their argument about letting their light shine before men, upholding the glory of God (Jehovah), etc., I asked what kind of light and glory there is in cutting people off from their families and people they’ve known all their lives. (See this and this.)

“We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”

For Wilson, the prospect of this happening to her made leaving the Watchtower Society

additionally difficult because my entire social system was tied up with the organization. Since it requires Jehovah’s Witnesses to limit their friends to only other Witnesses, disassociating from it would leave me completely isolated socially. This prospect was very frightening to me, and it contributed greatly to my delay in leaving the organization. I knew that disassociating myself would result in being shunned by all of Jehovah’s Witnesses forever. [loc. 3035]

But leave she did, eventually, and her book’s conclusion is one of hope and healing. “As stinging wounds from thornpricks heal, and those from penetrating lacerations produce scars that remain, so heals the emotional pain caused by my involvement with Jehovah’s Witnesses—though the scars may long be with me” (loc. 3396). She reports developing “deeper, more meaningful and satisfying friendships,” and retaining a firm belief in Jesus, occasionally visiting churches and enjoying “the spiritually uplifting, contemporary music offered there” (loc. 3401).

I wish her much peace and happiness. She’s earned it. If you have engaged in a similar struggle to find independence from an authoritarian religious group, you’ve earned it, too, and you’d benefit from reading her book.


Update, August 23, 2014: I’m still on their list of places to visit. Here is what I posted on Reddit about this morning’s encounter with a young JW woman at my front door:

It was a soft, tentative knock, just a couple of quiet taps on the front door. When I opened it, the blonde young woman holding her zipper-jacketed Bible and pamphlet smiled at me and asked if I would be interested in some literature. Her hand cradled the pamphlet in the space between us, across the threshold of my doorway, across a vast gulf of differences. I could see with a glance what it was: The Watchtower Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses was offering me an invitation to cross that threshold, printed in pastel colors, a soft-focus background image, and a smooth sans-serif font.

I looked back up at her smile and listened to her wonder aloud whether I might want some literature from this organization she did not yet name. One of my daughters is about the same age this girl looked to be. She is happily continuing her life in the fundamentalist Lutheran church that my wife and I grew up in but left a few years ago. She will probably bear a lot of children and limit her life’s choices based on things we taught her, things we no longer believe. They are both innocent believers, these two girls.

“Were you raised in the Jehovah’s witnesses?” I asked, not responding to the pamphlet.

She slowly brought it back to her chest next to the zippered Bible. “Yes, I was.” The smile brightened.

“Do you think that the possibility of being shunned by your parents might cloud your objectivity about this?”

The smile continued, but with a little movement now around her eyebrows. “Well, of course, I’ve thought a great deal about my beliefs. It’s very important.”

“But have you really considered the thought of your parents shunning you for doubting what you believe? Don’t you think that might make it hard to be objective about this?”

“Are you referring to disfellowshipping?” I nodded. “OK, see, that only happens for serious sins...

“Well, apostasy is a serious sin. If you were to decide, I don’t know,” I waved at an unseen collection of vaguely remembered doctrinal issues, “that the whole 1973 or was it 1978 thing was a real problem and the Faithful and Discreet Slave wasn’t really so faithful or discreet after all, that would be apostasy. And your parents would have to treat you like you were dead.”

She nodded faintly, looking down for a second, the serious eyebrows taking over now from the smile. I love my daughter tremendously, and fortunately, she is still able to love me just as much, religion or no religion. This girl and her parents would not have the same luxury. She looked back up, and the Watchtower machinery ground back into gear. “Disfellowshipping is done out of love, and...

“Yes, well, I’m not wanting to debate the reasons for it.” I was leaning against the wall just inside the doorway, my hands hooked in my pockets. The door hung wide open, off to the side. It was cool and bright outside, with a little breeze rustling the leaves. There was no hurry, no conflict, just a chance to let this young woman consider something as she stood in a quiet moment of morning sunshine outside my door. “I just wanted you to consider how much of a motivator that is for you. If you ever decide you don’t believe this stuff, then your parents would have to treat you like you were dead.”

The smile had now fully transitioned into a frown. “It sounds like you have experienced this first-hand. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had...

“No, no, I’ve never been a J-dub. I’ve just studied it a lot, along with the Mormons and a bunch of others. And I wanted to give you something to think about.”

“Well, thank you,” she said, and then the smile returned with her missionary voice that spoke a few more words to gracefully wrap things up. The pamphlet was back in its stack, and she wished me a good day and I wished her one, too.

Photo credits: Kingdom Hall exterior, own work (CC-NC); Kingdom Hall at night, Mark Faviell (CC-NC); people inside Kingdom Hall, adapted from J-McG (was CC-NC as of posting); signs and chairs, adapted from Michael Sprague (CC-SA).
Note that my legal usage of these materials, under the CC license terms extended as of this posting, does not imply any endorsement or agreement with this essay by the photographers. In compliance with the “share alike” license of Mr. Sprague’s image, reproductions of my adapted version of it are licensed (unlike the rest of my blog or pictures) under the Creative Commons Attribution–ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


  1. To their credit, the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not consign anybody to eternal torment, believing that the fate of those outside the organization is just annihilation. In that, at least, we agree. 

  2. I’m happy to report that my old church has recently spoken out against shunning. See my August 2014 blog post, “Open Dialogue over the Faith Boundary.” 

  3. The Bible is no moral guide in this or many other matters, it turns out, and this is just the New Testament. In the Hebrew Bible, believing the wrong thing would earn you a violent death at the hands of the Chosen People. As I point out in EOP, if a family member or your wife or a dear friend secretly asks you to go worship other gods, it’s not enough to say no and rebuke him or her for the apostasy. Deuteronomy 13:9-10 says you have to kill him or her: “thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die.” 


Sunday, September 29, 2013


“I discerned among the youths, a young man void of understanding, passing through the street near her corner; and he went the way to her house, in the twilight, in the evening, in the black and dark night.
—The Book of Proverbs
Late summer sunset  [Flickr page]
With its moody poetry, captured wonderfully in the King James translation, the seventh chapter of Proverbs puts the setting for a foolish young man’s seduction away from wisdom “in the twilight, in the evening, in the black and dark night.” Those who look back on the Hebrew Bible through Christian lenses can easily see in the passage a warning against descending into sin, which Christianity compares to a sense of spiritual darkness. Ephesians 8 makes that connection, urging readers to “walk as children of light” and avoid the “unfruitful works of darkness.” Jesus is depicted as telling followers to let their light shine before men, and promising that their bodies will be full of light if they avoid having an evil eye. The first Epistle of John speaks of walking in the light, as God is in the light. In all of this, the darkness is where evil lurks, where goodness and God, or at least Wisdom, are absent.

Alcatraz under a darkening sky  [Flickr page]
Another ancient specter in the dark recesses of human imagination is death. Long has it loomed, along with the animals and enemies that could induce it prematurely, outside the feeble circles of firelight that people erected against the night. The hero of the 4,000-year old Epic of Gilgamesh admitted his fear of death, lamenting that he would someday enter the Netherworld and “lie there sleeping all down the years.” So, he cried,
Let my eyes see the sun and be sated with light!
The darkness is hidden, how much light is there left?
When may the dead see the rays of the sun? [Tablet IX]
It is reminiscent of the way King Hezekiah lamented his death in Isaiah 38. “From day even to night wilt thou make an end of me,” he complained to God, facing the wall from his bed. Hezekiah knew what awaited him, and his conversational relationship with the God of Israel did nothing to make him relish the prospect:
I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave: I am deprived of the residue of my years. I said, I shall not see the LORD, even the LORD, in the land of the living: I shall behold man no more with the inhabitants of the world. [Isa. 38:10-11]
God gave him an extra fifteen years, but night came eventually regardless. He went to the same place as Job and the billions of others whose brief candles have burned out, “to the land of darkness and the shadow of death; A land of darkness, as darkness itself; and of the shadow of death, without any order, and where the light is as darkness” (Job 10:21-22). As Gilgamesh had put it long earlier, “Only the gods dwell forever in sunlight” (Yale Tablet).

Big Dipper at dusk  [Flickr page]
Now we sit in our evenly lit houses before glowing screens and drive through bright cities, and we forget the impact of the darkness on our ancestors. For them, the flickering glow of fires and fat lamps did little to keep away the terrors of the night.

I mused about these things last night while driving through dark woods and fields of my rural home in the Inland Northwest, where the lights are pinpricks dotting hillsides, glimmering faintly behind trees. Fall Equinox is now just past, and the nights are as long as the days, soon to be longer. The stove is already burning wood that I harvested from dead trees in the hot bright forest of just a few months ago.

But we have lights, a good generator for when the power fails (as it does at least a few times per year), plenty of backlit screens to engage our attention and soak our brains and retinas in brightness. The coyotes sometimes shriek and howl outside, but there are sturdy walls between us. As for evil, it now stalks well-lit boardrooms and halls of power much more than the forests.

Even the primal force that spawned religion and keeps people in its thrall, the fear of death, has largely abated in my imagination, and in those of many others. We have come full circle with the Preacher of Ecclesiastes: “The living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.” Love, hatred, and envy all perish, says the Preacher. “Go thy way,” he advises his fellow mortals, “eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart” (Eccl. 9:5-7).

And so, even without any wine, the inky gloom feels peaceful, embracing, calm. Summer went on long enough; it is time for the light to abate, for the cool to creep back into the air.

The lights of West Maui from Molokai  [Flickr page]
Click on individual images to enlarge, or check out the entire set (and others following the “darkness” theme) on Flickr. All are Copyright © 2013 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

An Invitation to Understanding

Book review: Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Chris Stedman. Beacon Press (Boston, 2012).

While walking through a lava tube in Hawaii, I came across a family alternating between English and a language that sounded completely unfamiliar to me. Two young men in their teens or early twenties were guiding their elderly grandfather, and they thanked me when I shone my flashlight on the various rocks and puddles in their way.

I watched and listened as they spoke in respectful tones to this frail old man, and as their father asked how grandpa was doing on the walk. What culture is this, I wondered. From the hair and features, I wondered if they might be Italian or Romanian, but the language had not the slightest resemblance to anything I’d heard. The young woman in the family cast her eyes down demurely as she walked past me, but she was dressed in Western fashion, modest but with nothing covering her beautiful black hair, so I dismissed my fleeting thought that they might be from the Middle East.

As they walked to their vehicle, I could not help myself. I nodded and smiled to the father and walked over, saying I wondered if he might answer a question for me. He smiled back and said sure. “I was admiring how respectfully your sons treated their grandfather. Would you mind telling me where you are from?”

“Previously?”, he asked, grinning. We’re from Cleveland, you moron, he might well have been tempted to say. I nodded. Then he hit me straight in the soft underbelly of my prejudices with his answer: “Iran.”

Trying not to show my surprise, I repeated how evident it was that his family treats its elders with respect. “Absolutely!”, he said, “That is the time of life when they need our attention the most.” We wished each other a good day, and I walked away just a little bit wiser than I had been.

Were they Muslims, or just immigrants from an Islamic country? I’ll never know. But, despite that and my clumsiness, I think this is the sort of interaction the interfaith dialogue advocate Chris Stedman would applaud. He spent some years getting to know and love Muslims like “a young woman who was motivated by her Muslim faith to work for the economically disadvantaged” in Chicago (p. 8). “After years of witnessing the ugliness that arises when rejection-based beliefs lead to the rejection of people,” Stedman now seeks “out ties that will bind us together” (p. 15).

He is gay and carries the scars of self-loathing from some years of trying to reconcile his sexuality with a conservative Christianity he once held dear. He is not naïve about “the atrocities committed in the name of religion around the world,” nor does he dismiss the role that religion has played throughout history (p. 8). But the great insight that he reveals in this book, along with a gripping personal story, is that religion is part of what makes us human, not just an abstract concept to be dismantled and discarded.

I fear that some atheists are doing what I used to do in my antireligious days: engaging in monologue instead of dialogue. After years of dismissing religious people outright, I realized that I was so busy talking that I wasn’t listening. I was treating religion as a concept instead of talking to people who actually lived religious lives. [p. 9]

I’ll be honest: This was a challenging book for me. I have a deep and lingering contempt for the way fundamentalist Islam degrades and constrains the people under its thumb, for its intolerance of dissent and pluralism, for its backward, demeaning view of women. The sight of masked black-clad Saudi women walking (because they cannot drive) while their husbands attend the local university fills me with dread, both for them and for the damage being done around the world by the toxic ideology foisted on their families.

But I will acknowledge that Stedman has one important advantage over me in his approach to Islam: He actually knows and respects some individuals who believe in it. “These were people I cared about,” he says of the Somali immigrant neighbors and co-workers he encountered in Minnesota, “and their beliefs mattered deeply to them” (p. 97). So Stedman, despite having become an atheist and gone through a period where he viewed all things religious with scorn, made those beliefs matter to him, too.

At a signing, smiles all around. Photo provided courtesy of the author.

Some of the religious people I care deeply about are the handful of friends I’ve managed to hold on to from my old fundamentalist church. A while back, one of them told me almost apologetically how he still believes in God and a savior sent for the forgiveness of his sins. The preachers call it confessing your faith, alluding to the difficulty of the task.

I assured this dear old friend that I respected his beliefs as much I enjoyed our candid discussions. He knows my own contrary perspective, of course. That’s one advantage to writing books and blog postings: When people can just look online to see what you think, you become much less compelled to say so in person.

The encounter was not that different from the one Chris Stedman had with “a deeply committed Christian staff member” at the Interfaith Youth Core where he worked, as an atheist, in Chicago. She told him, respectfully and carefully, that she did worry about his salvation at times. Yet she admitted that she was glad to have his perspective in the organization: “I feel like I’d lose out on something if you became a Christian again” (p. 132).

It was quite an internal conflict for her, and one I remember myself as a struggling believer who was seeing friends leave our childhood faith: Good for them for acting on their sincere convictions, but what about their salvation? What about mine? What really made us any different?

Stedman’s response was a gleaming alloy of grace and honesty: “Thank you. I mean, you could’ve kept that to yourself, but I’m glad you didn’t. And you must know that I, as an atheist, think your beliefs are probably wrong, too” (p. 132). Sure she did, but the two of them agreed that they had an amazing amount in common.

It turns out, really, that we all do. Stedman’s engaging combination of a great story and gentle invitation to understanding gives all of us, myself included, a much-needed reminder to focus on that instead of our intangible differences about invisible things.