Sunday, January 06, 2008

An Open Letter To Christian Leaders

[Originally posted at on March 29, 2006]

I wrote the letter below in response to the invitation of a Christian scholar to comment on the Q&A session that followed the showing of a film called The God That Wasn't There. On my wife's request, I am withholding the name of the scholar, and the name of the theater to conceal the scholar's identity.

Dear [name withheld]:I attended the showing of the film The God That Wasn't There [...]. I did so not out of interest in the movie itself but because my wife, one of your former students at [...], always spoke highly of you and your classes. I thought this would be a good chance to hear what an esteemed Christian scholar might say on Christianity in modern times.

For the record, while I was raised a Catholic in Italy, I renounced religion in my teen years. While I can no longer call myself a religious person, I am not an atheist either. I have absorbed the Christian teachings and philosophy that I received in my earlier years, and I believe that the world would be a much better place if Christ's teachings were universally followed, particularly by those who call themselves Christians. Agnostic (about God) and Christian (as a philosophy) is what I might be.

I decided to respond to your request that people who attended the evening post their comments on your blog. I do so hoping that this will open the door to further discussion on these issues, as I believe that non-believers and believers alike have a responsibility to converge in a constructive manner on matters of social policy.

Some of your replies to the film audience’s questions were quite technical and beyond my ability to debate or comment on. One reply, however, caught my attention. While responding to a member of the audience who had asked you whether you consider a non-believer capable of leading a moral existence outside of a religious framework you asked her, in so many words, who decides what is moral, and couldn't therefore her moral framework be false? Besides, you went on, if anyone lived a perfectly moral life they would be Jesus, which of course is impossible. So yes, you concluded, those who turn their back on God and Jesus when their day comes will be eternally damned.

As a non-believer, I found your answer disturbing. Not the part about eternal damnation: I spend no time worrying about my chances of being eternally damned in a possible afterlife. On the other hand, I found it disturbing to be told that without God or Christ there can be no moral life. I try to live a morally good life, with the understanding that perfection is not of this world. I do the best I can to treat others as I would like to be treated: fairly, honestly and caringly. I try to make choices that are consistent with my beliefs and not to harm anyone in the process. I try to engage others in discourse aimed at fostering tolerance and mutual understanding. So when believers challenge my sense of morality, I ask: What makes religious people of all stripes so sure that their mutually exclusive beliefs are unquestionably right, and that everybody else is wrong? For every Christian scholar who thinks that Jesus is the only way to salvation you can find a Jewish Rabbi who is still waiting for the arrival of the Messiah who will lead his people to the Promised Land, and a Muslim who knows that Mohammad is the Prophet and that the Koran is the word of Allah. And even within the same broad definition of Christians you have Catholics, who believe in the infallibility of the Pope and the Virgin Mary, and Lutherans, who believe neither.

Another question I often ask myself these days is: If Christians are so unequivocally right about God and Jesus, how can they be so horribly wrong about their leader? What force made Christians pick George Bush not once, but twice in a row? If ignorance and deception can be claimed as excuses for the first election, certainly those who know the truth in their hearts so well would not be so misguided the second time around? This self-proclaimed Christian president has already overseen one unjust war (I could quote you many religious figures who said as much), torture, the pillaging of natural resources and the destruction of the environment (how can one be for Intelligent Design and do everything in his power to destroy God's creation?), tax cuts that favor the rich and harm the poor, "the least of them" (as Reverend Jim Wallis aptly lays out in his book, God's Politics.) And the list could go on, and on. All this while preachers, pastors, and scholars all over the land invited their flocks to go out and vote for the man God wanted as president.

All these unanswered questions inevitably lead to the greater and most urgent question that faces America today: Why, in a pluralistic society founded on the understanding that the government should lay no special treatment on one religion rather than all others to avoid persecution and discrimination, should we give one religious viewpoint preeminence over others? Why should we make room for the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, or for the belief in Intelligent Design in science classrooms, to mention just two current controversies? I do not view all Christians as "dangerous simpletons." I do, however, view people like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and their followers, and all those who would like to impose their religious beliefs on society as a whole, as dangerous influences on the future of the nation. Instead of rejoicing in the knowledge that Heaven awaits, they seem bent on making the world a living hell for those who do not share their unworldly view. Christians who do not distance themselves from such hateful preachers do a tremendous disservice to all sincere Christians. The credibility of the whole faith is at stake.

If America has enjoyed an unprecedented amount of freedom, both personal and collective, compared to other countries, it may be because its leaders have always understood that an impartial government, one with solid secular foundations, is key to guaranteeing freedom of expression and of creed for all of its citizens. When unscrupulous, self-serving politicians use religion as their personal realm and carry out daily attacks on the fabric of secular government to extend their power, people start to worry. This sets the conditions for films like The God That Wasn't There being made, with all its inaccuracies and yet an undeniable appeal.

Christianity, as I understand it, is a culture of acceptance and unity, not one of prevarication and division. Most people, even non-believers or people from other creeds, can recognize the importance and the value of fundamental Christian principles: love for each other, love for the poor, renouncing material values, accepting those who are diverse, helping one another, learning to recognize one's own faults before criticizing others for theirs. These are principles that could make the world better for us and for all to come. These are the principles that Rev. Wallis illuminates in the wonderful book I mentioned earlier. Their real-life application by prominent, self-anointed Christians, however, seems erratic and opportunistic. Oftentimes, Christians appear too concerned with the appearance and too lackadaisical about the substance of their religion.

In the final paragraph [of the account of the evening that you posted on your blog,] you lament the fact that you and fellow believers do not spend enough time engaging people who are hostile to Christianity or have no interest in it at all. The way to do that has little to do with refuting the inaccuracies in movies like The God That Wasn't There, and much more to do with making choices and expressing judgment consistent with the overall spirit, not the letter, of your faith. That's for everyone to see.

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