So, this idea hit me the other day as I was having a “debate” (in my head) with Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is known for being an outspoken atheist fundamentalist. He has had decades of debates with religious leaders, often raising thought-provoking questions. What always seems to be the rub with religion for Dr. Dawkins is three-fold:
- The proof of God’s existence. For Dawkins and many atheists, they seek proof of deity in the observable realm. – This is a poor quibble. We can equally ask about the proof of the electron, Fermi, muon or gluon or any subatomic particle. We know they are present based on the interactions with other things we can observe. Meaning we do not necessarily see a Fermi, but its existence is not in question based upon its subatomic interactions.
- The violence of God in the Bible and his apparent unwillingness to act on the evil in the world. – We will speak to this later
- The people who practice the religion or perform the religious rituals are problematic. Meaning they do not always have a good understanding of the religion or the deity they follow and act in a way that is not representative of that religion or deity.
Before we dive in let me make clear that I do not know nor have I ever met Richard Dawkins. If I have misrepresented his beliefs in any way, I apologize. I would ask him to reach out to me so that I may make corrections or reveal any inadvertent distortions. I respect his work and beliefs. I “debate” many different scientists and philosophers from a variety of eras, beliefs, and creeds. I found that giving flesh and discussion and challenge to their formidable thoughts helps me determine my own. Now back to it.
I have been faced with these three questions many times in my life, and many others have asked how I stand on them. I am sorry to say I did not always give satisfactory responses. However, the questions do deserve a response. The longer I have thought about them though, they are all, in reality, poor questions with fundamental misunderstandings of the purpose of religion, the Bible and God. The questions represent a fundamentalist approach to the discussion.
This means that instead of seeking understanding you are seeking to disprove them or prove yourself correct, usually in a debate format. This is the secondary purpose of debates even, determining a victor. The primary purpose is to allow two sides to speak on an issue so that an acceptable middle ground may be determined in a large portion of the listeners. To seek to be a victor in a debate as a primary motivation is to be a fundamentalist. The purpose of debate is to challenge and grow the issue so that future debates may be spurred in a better fashion. Enough about debates though, let us return to the misunderstanding about purpose.
Religion as Tech?
Religion is a technology. Knowing that religion is a technology allows us to drive to the root of its purpose or defining characteristic. Oxford Dictionary defines technology as: The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry. But what that means to us is that technology and therefore religion are tools. For example, the hammer is a piece of technology that allows us to hit things without using our own bodies for construction, destruction or other purposes. If religion is a technology then it has no evil or good on its own. The users of religion are at fault. For example, a gun does not kill someone, the person using it does. It is the use case that determines the ethics of the technology. A gun is a good thing when it protects us from wild animals or helps us to hunt to survive. It is a bad thing when used aggressively against people or animals.
Understanding that religion is a technology will allow us to provide a response to Dawkins and it will allow us to open up some different questions, possibly better. Two questions spring to mind immediately:
- What is the purpose of religion?
- What are the components?
Purpose of Religion
While the specific purpose of religion is partially determined by that religion, on a grander scale religion’s purpose is to enter us into a relationship with deity, powers, or ideas greater than a singular person. The details of that relationship vary based on the idea, power or deity worshipped. For example, the Greco-Roman gods’ relationship with humans were transactional. Sacrifice to gain favor or to praise for safety/plenty. You give me this and I give you that. The purpose is to trade things in control for things out of control.
The Christian religion, rather, is familial. Its members become adopted sons and daughters of God. So, the purpose of the Christian religion is to exhibit familial relationships and to grow the family.
Regardless of religion the purpose, even in atheism, is to connect multiple people to the idea, power or deity that is larger than the singular person. Atheism, for example, has people unite under the larger idea that God/gods do not exist. Another example, Americanism’s purpose is to have its citizens exalt the United States of America’s history and culture to the point that the “American Dream” is the aspiration of the world (teaser). Like all religions, Atheism and Americanism have set rules and regulations to determine commitment to the idea or power, i.e. you can be a weak or strong Atheist. What is important to remember though is that religion is a tool, technology. It has a purpose.
If religion has a purpose then it means there is a correct use case. If there is a correct use case then there also exists incorrect use cases. The foremost thinkers and advocates determine acceptable use cases who then seek approval from the majority of believers. The Crusades, for example, are an incorrect use case of Christianity. They neither exhibited familial relationships nor grew the number of family members. Feeding the impoverished, however, is a correct use case of Christianity (James 1:27). Christianity, then, is driven from the familial love of God. Meaning the correct use cases are when Christianity distributes power rather than consolidating. For the Christian, there is no need to consolidate power. The power has already been consolidated by God who then distributes it via the Holy Spirit. The Christian is then meant to spread that power out, foremost among the weak, poor, and destitute. It does not mean there won’t be powerful Christians (in fact quite the opposite), but that Christians have no need to seek power.
If we choose to judge a tool when it is incorrectly or poorly then we fail to determine the proper value of a tool. The saw is a terrible hammer, but it is invaluable in cutting things. Likewise, judging Christianity when it consolidates power is important for correct the use, but it is a poor time to determine its value. The value of Christianity is determined by how it has treated the poor, weak and destitute. This, however, makes it difficult to judge Christianity based off its members. They may have a poor understanding of the tool they are using or may be misusing it on purpose.
Components of Religion
Since we have an understanding of the purpose of religion, we may now look into the components. Components need to be matched against both the purpose and the nature of the idea, power, or deity being worshipped. If the purpose of Christianity is to enter into a familial relationship with God then its central text, tenets, and practices must be viewed and reviewed in that light.
The Bible is a book about God. It is not about Jews, Israelites, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks or anything else. It might contain stories of those groups and what happened to them. These stories are not the primary purpose. To elevate those stories above the religious purpose familial relationship with God is an incorrect use case of the Bible. So, to view a violent passage as simply a violent passage is not the point. The point might be to say that God protects his family sometimes in a violent fashion. What does that mean? How does that change your faith, and relationship with God? These are much better questions than did this violent action actually occur. It certainly may have, but even then, the historicity of event only gives us a small view and not the complete picture. The Bible often paints a picture of unseen spiritual upheaval: of a battle between angels and fallen angels (Daniel 10:12-14). So, there is always more going on in the text than may be readily apparent. To judge any aspect of the Bible as simple denies the deeper questions for shallow answers.
Perhaps the best way to review the Bible is with the character of Jesus. Is any understanding of the text out of line with Jesus? You may ask why Jesus? If Jesus is the exact representation of the glory of God, then we must view both how God acts and feels and how we act and feel toward God in that manner first and foremost. The Bible as a component of religion must be read from the Gospels out into both the Old and New Testaments. This places the Bible, not at the center of the religion, beneath Jesus. Jesus then is the central component of the Christian faith, not the Bible. Then how can we consistently encounter Jesus if the Bible is not the primary place to encounter him. His followers, disciples, are the primary place to encounter him. If Jesus had meant for us to primarily encounter him in a book, he would’ve written one himself. He was certainly capable. No, he meant for his primary testimony to be his disciples. Now, to aide those people he authored and compiled the Bible through the Holy Spirit, but that is just what it is an aide, a reference. Thus, to argue the Christian religion against any other factor other than the life of Jesus and his disciples is secondary at best and most likely tertiary?
So are we you might be thinking earlier about how I noted that we should not judge members of the religion. But, I just noted that the best way to view Jesus was through his followers. This is a return to use case. The disciples are not the Christ. Jesus is the Christ. We, disciples, are imperfect in our ability to match our master. So, the best way to encounter Jesus is through us, but it is also best to encounter him for yourself. Let me give you an example. When you hear about someone through someone else, their image is distorted by their experiences with that person. Certainly, it is a good way to meet that person initially, but you will also want to form your own impressions and experiences with that person. So, it is with Jesus. You might come to a family dinner with a friend, but eventually, you are going to want to have your own relationship with everyone in the family, especially the head of the family.
So, what does religion being a technology change?
- It means religion like all technologies need to continuously grow, change, and evolve.
- We must measure growth and change against the central component: power, idea, or deity.
- That which does not help us to accomplish the purpose of the religion must be rethought, re-tooled or set aside for future and further examination.
Apply these the Christianity and here is what you get to ask and do. Is Christianity growing, changing and evolving? Yes. There is new work being done on all aspects of Christianity. We are constantly learning how to be a better family. Was your family perfect growing up? Neither was mine. It is the same with Christianity. The Church is constantly maturing into the bride of Christ.
That growth and change must be measured by our standard, Jesus the Christ. Paul noted that we should be all things to all men for the purposes of winning them to the gospel (1 Cor 9:22-23). Notice the caveat there. The purpose is to lead them to the gospel. As his disciples, Christ-ians, we must measure our actions against his and what he would have us do. For example, Jesus ate with sinners without sinning. Jesus calls us both to purity and justice. Purity is a disciple pursuit while bringing peace to the community around you. Tim Mackie describes it: “This is what it is like to live under Jesus. There is awesome social justice Jesus and then it’s like utter sexual integrity and what to do with your money and reconciling your most difficult relationships, Jesus. He sees into our lives and says, follow me.” We must measure our religion against Jesus and then seek clarity we reference the Bible, the text that testifies about him. “You study the scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very scriptures that testify about me.” (John 5:39)
Finally, tradition must be rechecked. Tripp Fuller said it this way, “What rocked Geneva in the 1600s isn’t necessarily rocking the United States in the 2000s.” If our traditions consolidate power, which can be checked by whether we are causing oppression or impurity, then we need to seriously rethink them. Usually, this comes by over-emphasizing either the purity or the social justice aspect of Christ. We cannot enforce purity so much so that we become the Pharisees of the Jesus’ day because we do not bring peace to our community. But, we cannot be so in the community that we lose our purity. Our purity is what differentiates in the community. It is what makes us holy so that we may point to a holy God.
This post began with me thinking about the arguments from a notable atheist against Christianity. I didn’t just want to answer the questions but examine the questions itself. The questions lacked understanding. I do not think they are answerable to the satisfaction of the asker because the asker is misunderstanding religion for the idea, power or deity. Identifying religion as a technology which gives us the freedom to rethink and redesign it based on its purpose which is to connect with other people who are also connecting with the larger idea, power, deity. Viewing religion in this light allows us to critique the religion from both inside and outside and motivate the user of the technology to practice it better. I would rather hear how Dr. Dawkins thinks we can do better as Christians than hear why he thinks I shouldn’t be one in the first place. I think that would be a far more meaningful conversation for both of us. That conversation can take place if we both realize the religion is a technology.