I’m An Atheist, But…

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Hopefully, by now, most of you know that I no longer identify as a Christian. In fact, I no longer identify as religious in any way. I would be counted in the fastest growing “religious” demographic in the United States — the “nones.” We are a group comprised of those who identify as atheists, agnostics, or “spiritual but not religious” (whatever that means).

Personally, I fall under that first identifier — I am an atheist. And being an atheist simply means that I would answer the question, “Do you believe in x, y, or z deity?” with a “No.” If you think about it, we are all atheists in a certain sense. Do any of you reading this believe in the gods of ancient Greece (Zeus, Poseidon, Hermes)? How about the Babylonian pantheon (Anshu, Tiamat)? Or the Hindu monkey god Hanuman? Probably not. There have been thousands of gods that people have worshiped at some time or another, and most likely, you believe in none of them. If you are a Christian, Muslim, or Jew, you believe in the one God of the Abrahamic tradition. You believe in Yahweh and disbelieve in all other gods that have ever been posited. Personally, I no longer believe in the Christian God; so while we are all atheists in regards to almost every god, I simply go one further in my disbelief than the Christian, Muslim, or Jew. I do not believe in any gods because there is the same amount of evidence for all of them — none.

So yes, I am an atheist, but that is not the only or primary thing that defines who I am as a person. My lack of believing in the Christian God says nothing more about me than your lack of belief in Zeus, Tiamat, and Hanuman. With that being said, I would like to say a couple of things about who I am and what is important to me, despite my atheism.

I am an atheist, but… I don’t hate Christians. Look, I was raised by Christians, I married a Christian, and most of the people I know and associate with are Christians. If I hated Christians, I wouldn’t be able to get along with almost anyone in my life. On the contrary, I actually appreciate certain kinds of Christian faith, and have no problem supporting the work many Christians do in the world. I have friends who have been involved in social justice work, climate activism, and public policy. Their care for other people, the environment, and building a humane and just society is informed by their Christian commitments. While I don’t think a belief in Jesus is necessary to do the work that they do in the world, I don’t begrudge them that motivation so long as it motivates for good.

I am an atheist, but… I’m not angry with God. Wouldn’t it be pretty funny if I were to tell you that I’m angry with Zeus because my car broke down? And wouldn’t it be funny because of the fact that I don’t believe Zeus is real? How could I justifiably be angry at someone or something that I don’t think exists? I can’t be! So, if you switch “Zeus” with “Jesus” in the above sentence, can you see why it wouldn’t make sense to say that I’m an atheist and I’m angry with Jesus, Yahweh, or God?

I am an atheist, but… I still believe in love. The concept of love is not a uniquely Christian concept. As Bertrand Russell said, “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” He defines love as being a combination of taking delight in another, and wishing them well. Sam Harris says something similar when he defines love as “being deeply committed to the happiness of another person.” So my idea of love has something roughly to do with caring about and for other people’s happiness and well-being. I love my kids, I love my wife, and I love every other person on this planet. I may not use the word often, but when I talk about things like helping others live happier and healthier lives, I’m talking about my love for them.

I am an atheist, but… I can still be a good person, family member, friend, and citizen. Probably the most prevalent (and false) stereotype about atheists is that we can’t be good, decent, or moral people because we don’t believe in a god. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It is entirely possible to be good without God. All one has to do is look at the Scandinavian countries, which have some of the highest levels of atheism in the world, yet consistently rank at the top for happy, healthy, and safe societies. Does this mean their atheism is what makes these counties better? Probably not. But what it does show is that belief in a god is not necessary to make a good person, family, community, or country. Yes, there have been many atheists who have done terrible things, but there have also been many religious people who have done and continue to do terrible things. Personally, I’m committed to being a good person, to caring about the welfare of my neighbor, in the United States and abroad. No, I won’t ever be perfect, but neither will anyone else. All I can do is strive to be a better person today than I was yesterday, and hopefully that will be good enough.

And lastly, I am an atheist, but … I am still open to believing in God. Put another way: I like to keep an open mind, but not so much that my brains fall out. I used to believe in God because, well, that’s what I was taught to believe from before I can remember. That’s why most people believe in whatever god they believe in — they were told by their parents, grandparents, peers, and community, that x, y, or z, god exists and should be worshiped, prayed to, etc. No one comes to believe in the god they do because they examined all the religions of the world, and weighed the likelihood of each being true, and then picked the one that has the most evidence for it. Granted, most people do have reasons, arguments, or the like for why they think their god is the correct one, but those are built up to justify belief after the fact.

Almost no one believes because of evidence or reasons; they believe because they have faith. I used to have that faith, but I don’t anymore. I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible. And I think one of the best ways to do that is to proportion one’s beliefs to the evidence. This is, by the way, what most people strive to do in all areas of knowledge. When a car breaks down we take it to someone who knows how to fix it. The good mechanic doesn’t rely on faith or prayers to fix the car. Rather, she draws upon her vast knowledge of how automobiles are built, function, and break down, to determine what is wrong. When we want to know what is the best thing to do for our bodies and our health, we rely on the expertise of trained physicians  and psychologists to tell us what to do. Again, we don’t want them to tell us what to do based on “faith.” No. We want them to base their prescriptions on years of careful study rooted in the scientific method.

So when someone makes a claim about the world, if we want to know whether it is true or not, we need to gather evidence. If I told you there was a teapot floating just on the other side of Saturn, you would rightly ask what evidence I had to support such a claim. How could I possibly know this, and why should you believe it too? That is, in the end, what I require if I am to ever believe in God again. I need evidence, data, sound reasons showing why the God-claim is true. And it has to be real evidence. Faith is not evidence; a warm  and tingly feeling is not evidence; and your mother telling you it is true is not evidence. Maybe consider what evidence you would require in order to believe that Zeus really is up there wielding lightning bolts. Find me that type of evidence for whatever god you believe in, then we can talk. In the meantime, if you want me to believe in your god, and if you believe that God answers prayers and knows everything there is to know about the universe, then pray that God provides me with more evidence. Because if God knows everything, then surely he knows what would convince me, and he could bring said evidence to my attention.

That’s it. I’m an atheist, but … a lot of things. Just because I don’t believe in god, doesn’t mean I’ve changed a whole lot from who I was a couple years ago. I still care about people, and I still want to build a more loving, kind, and just world for my kids to grow up in. And, most importantly, I still want to be your friend, even if we disagree about which gods are real.

Thanks for reading.

Cheers,

M

 

It Goes Both Ways — When Police Attack Black Citizens It Is An Attack On All Of Us

After the recent shootings of police officers, first in Dallas and then in Baton Rouge, President Obama offered condolences on behalf of our divided nation. We should all heartily agree with him when he says that “nothing justifies violence against police officers.” And again, we should all be willing to say that “Attacks on police are an attack on all of us, and on the rule of law that makes society possible.” Unless we intend to live in the state of nature, famously described by Hobbes as being a “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” life, then we must recognize and respect the integral role that law enforcement officers play in maintaining our relatively peaceful society. So when citizens attack those who maintain law and order, they are, whether they realize it or not, attacking all of us.

But this idea of “attacking all of us” cuts both ways. These recent attacks on police were not random, isolated events, disconnected from other issues. They come in the wake of increasing attention being placed on how police officers have been treating citizens — specifically members of the black community. To be clear, not all, and probably not most police officers would commit the types of shootings that have come to attention as of late. But far too many have done so in the past, and continue to do so in the present.

As comedian Bill Maher recently said on The Late Show with Steven Colbert, “The ‘Protect and Serve’ on the side of the police car refers to us…you cannot shoot unarmed people continually without someone firing back.” To be clear, Maher is not saying that shooting police officers is justified or that it is the right course of action aggrieved citizens should take. As Colbert said earlier in their conversation, to quote John F. Kennedy, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” They are, in different words, essentially saying the same thing — of course shooting police officers is wrong, but when an oppressed minority is being met with violence, they may begin to feel as if violence is the only way to achieve their goals.

Obama is absolutely right when he says that an attack on law enforcement is an attack on us all; but the kind of police violence that is rampant and disproportionately inflicted on our black citizens is also an attack on all of us. If “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” then the injustice coming from the guns of too many police officers towards too many of our citizens is a direct threat to universal justice within our nation as a whole.This is a part of the conversation that we must not be afraid to speak about. Yes, we must stand together and condemn violence against law enforcement. But we must also be utterly clear on this point: police violence against fellow citizens is just as much of an assault on the rule of law, and we the people have had enough.

 

Stop Calling God A ‘Loving Heavenly Father’ — He’s Not

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Christians have been trying to sell this picture of God to themselves and others for the last two-thousand years. God — the perfect, loving, heavenly-father, who loves all of his children equally, and has their best interest at heart. It should come as no surprise when Christians speak of God this way — his favorite son, Jesus, told us to. Jesus tells us that we should “Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48); and he instructs that when praying we should address our prayers to our “father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). The other authors of the New Testament continue this way of speaking and thinking about God — things like: “Grace and peace to you from God our father” (Paul, 1 Corinthians 1:3), “This is the religion that God our father accepts” (James, James 1:27),  and “since you call on a father…” (Peter, 1 Peter 1:17). So of course Christians today speak of God as their father who loves them, and often begin prayers similarly to the passages above.

But what kind of father allows this to happen to his children?

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The Holocaust

Or this….

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Starving Africans

And this…

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Childhood cancer

 

Certainly no good father that I know would allow this to happen. The problem of evil and suffering is something every believer must face up to. And it is certainly something any person who claims their God to be loving and fatherly must provide a decent accounting for. If God is a loving and powerful God, then God would surely intervene to prevent these types of horrors, wouldn’t he? Well, he doesn’t; so why not? This is the question that believers must answer if they are to continue referring to their God as a loving, heavenly father.

One of the most popular theodicies (an attempt to answer the question) is called the Free Will Defense of God. Put simply, God wanted to create out of love, with the purpose of having a loving relationship with his children. And if love (or moral goodness) is to be true love, then it must be freely chosen. Therefore, the only way for us to be agents capable of moral goodness is for God to allow us to freely choose either good or bad. If he interferes, the argument goes, then our choices could not truly be free, and thus, the possibility for loving relationship goes out the window. The bad things happen because God allows us to choose bad things because he is leaving room for us to sometimes choose the good thing.

I think this is complete and utter nonsense. If you want to use the analogy of a loving father, then God’s actions must match at least the minimum standards we would place on a half-way decent, human father. Would I be considered a good/loving father if I were to let one of my sons set up a torture chamber in our basement so that he could torture his brother? Of course not! And would the court of my peers accept as an excuse for my negligence, “I wanted him to freely choose love, but in order to do that I had to let him choose evil if that’s what he wanted. And I couldn’t stop him, else he wouldn’t truly be free.” Of course not! I would rightfully be convicted of gross-negligence and abuse of my children. The excuse of “giving your children free will” does not work because sometimes, as good parents, we must override our children’s free will so that they will be better off in the end. Of course I want to give my children freedom most of the time, but that doesn’t mean I cannot or should not intervene at other times. If I let terrible things happen to my children, no one would consider me a good and loving father. So why do people call God good and loving when he allows worse to happen to his supposed children?

God is clearly not (as Christians would have us believe) a loving, heavenly father. In fact, if he exists at all, we must consider him to be the worst father that has ever sired children. The short-list of things he has negligently allowed his children to do would include: the Holocaust, genocide, slavery, countless wars in his name, and witch hunts. Either God is a loving father, or he is not. If he is, then by what standard? Because a father who allows his children to do those types of things certainly does not have their best interest at heart. At least, that’s what we would say of any human father. And that is why Christians should stop calling their God a loving, heavenly father. He may be in heaven, but he’s certainly not loving.

Why My Sons Are Being Raised Without Religion

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Amber Bauerle (Frosted Productions)

Raising children comes with immeasurable responsibility. As parents, we are tasked with the welfare of miniature human beings who are entirely dependent on us. And hopefully, by the time they reach that magical age of eighteen, we will have adequately prepared them to survive and thrive on the “pale blue dot” they call home.There will be many choices parents must make as they raise their kids — what kind of diapers to use, which doctor to visit, what school they will attend, how much TV time is appropriate, when/how old must they be to date, and on and on and on it goes. But one of the most important choices parents must face is whether or not to raise their children with religion.

We live in a world saturated with religion; over the course of human history there have been thousands of them, each with their own gods, deities, and/or supernatural myths and legends. Many parents will simply pass along their own religion to their children. They will most likely present their doctrines and dogma as “facts” that should simply be accepted on faith. They won’t provide anything by way of evidence to show why their particular beliefs about the supernatural are correct because, after all, religion doesn’t require evidence — it is all about faith. If we had good, solid evidence for any religion and its claims, it wouldn’t be religion anymore; it would be a scientific fact.

But we will not be raising our sons with religion. Oh, of course we will educate them about the anthropological phenomenon of religion; we simply will not be passing on a particular religion as if is true. We have two reasons why our boys will grow up without religion; the first is philosophical in nature, and the second is more practical.

#1 We want to teach our boys how to think, not what to think. 

There is a big difference between how one comes to think about what is true, and what one comes to think is true. Most people simply adopt the religion of their parents, and their parent’s parents before them, without much questioning. Most parents tell their children as early as possible that their religion is simply a fact, and there is no need to question it. In fact, questioning is often considered a grievous offense. One must simply believe on faith in the truth of the religion. This is teaching kids what to think without teaching how to think.

We intend to leave the what out of it entirely, and teach our sons how to reason, ask questions, gather evidence, look for alternative explanations for phenomena, and to only accept claims as true if they are warranted by the evidence. This is called being a freethinker, and it’s what separates the men from the boys, so to speak. We want them to figure out what is true for themselves, and if that process of observation, informed by careful and critical thinking leads them to believe in a particular religion, then so be it. But it will be their choice from the beginning, not something forced upon them.

#2 We want our boys to be able to distinguish fact from fiction. 

According to a recent study, children who were exposed to religion from an early age have difficulty parsing fact from fiction. After studying 5 and 6 year old children, researchers found that when presented with stories (some fact and some fictitious), those who had been raised in a religious home had a “more generic receptivity toward the impossible, that is, a more wide-ranging acceptance that the impossible can happen in defiance of ordinary causal relations.” This should be quite disturbing information to parents of religious children. Isn’t part of our responsibility as parents to prepare children for the big world where they will have to determine when they are being fed a line of baloney, and when they aren’t? This leads back to reason #1 — kids need to be taught how to think about claims being presented to them. They need to learn how to compare the stories they are being told with the facts about the world. And if being raised with religion hinders their ability to separate fact from fiction, then it’s not something we will be imposing on our boys.

Religion is a powerful force in the world. Sometimes it is a catalyst for good, but a lot of the time it has far-reaching, negative effects. So if my sons, after having learned about the thousands of religions that have existed throughout the history of our species, and after having been taught how to think about the world around them, and having learned how to separate fact from fiction, decide for themselves to freely join a religion, I may not jump with joy because of it, but at least I’ll know that I did my best to prepare them for whatever life throws their way.

And that is why my sons are being raised without religion.

 

The Damage That Occurs When Religion Insists on Perfection

“Perfection is the enemy of the good.” – Voltaire 

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Religions are  obsessed with the idea of perfection. Since God is said to be perfect, we are required to strive for perfection in ourselves. And when we, inevitably, fail to achieve perfection, the gods (and their faithful followers) are there to remind us of our failure. We must either be perfect like the god, or face the consequences.

A brief survey of the Bible will show this clearly:

Adam and Eve — the first two humans sinned by eating the forbidden fruit, and the entire cosmos was sent into disorder.

Lot’s Wife — looked back towards Sodom and Gomorrah (after being told not to), and was turned into a pillar of salt.

Sacrifices — must be without spot or blemish in order to serve as proper sacrifice.

Cleanliness — a ridiculous concept akin to the in which one became tainted and unable to enter the presence of God. Many things could make one unclean — from a woman menstruating, to someone being blind in one eye.

Jesus’ teaching — he is recorded as saying things like, “Go and sin no more,” and “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The Bible is obsessed with perfection, and simply “being good” is not good enough. This was a commonplace notion among the version of Christianity I grew up with. Church leaders drone on about how simply “living a good life” is not acceptable to God — one has to either be perfect on their own (an impossible task), or seek divine help and/or forgiveness. This kind of thinking can lead to all sorts of problems, but since Father’s Day is fresh on my mind, I will apply this rationale to how I’ve seen it affect religious fathers.

Under the burden of perfection, religious fathers often have a high standard for their children — a standard that is often impossible to live up to. Normal childhood behaviors like crying, having a meltdown, or making mistakes during household chores, are seen as unacceptable. If the child does not live up to their father’s expectations of perfection, they are often subjected to harsh punishment in order to “mold them” into the perfect child.

The requirement for perfection does not stop with the father-child relationship, but often extends to the marriage. The wife, like the children, is held to a ridiculous standard in the way she is supposed to treat and relate to her husband, discipline the children, and complete household tasks. And when she is anything but the “perfect” wife, she may be subjected to punishment from her husband in the form of removed privileges, restricted access to money, or public shaming in front of her kids and their religious community.

If all of this perfection talk were limited to the religious and their own communities, maybe we could let it pass. But it doesn’t stop there — they never cease to remind the rest of society that we are not living up to the “perfect” standard of their particular religion. I remember countless preachers talk about how people in “the world” (non-religious folks) simply wanted to be good people. But the “Christian” message to the world is that simply being a good person does not satisfy God. Making one mistake (rendering oneself short of perfection) would be more than enough to condemn a person to God’s wrath. So even if a person lived a decent life, raised a decent family, and contributed to building a better world, that one time they told a lie to their third-grade teacher could send them to hell forever.

On all of this I want to call complete and utter nonsense. We do not, and have never lived in a perfect world. Therefore, we could never be perfect human beings. The best we could ever hope for is “the good,” as Voltaire put it. And to fixate on, and strive for “perfection,” is to fight for something that will just never be. It’s not only a waste of time, it’s also a dehumanizing gesture that denies the good of its worth. This is not to say we should not hope and work towards a better self, family, community, and world; but we should’t delude ourselves with visions of perfection when good is all we are ever going to get. More goodness — absolutely! But don’t let religions fool you with notions of perfection; we are, after all,  simply human.

Three Lessons From X-Men Apocalypse

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Last week I went to the opening show for X-Men: Apocalypse, and I loved it. I admit that I’m a superhero junkie, and in a film like X-men, there is lots of super on display. The cast was great, the action delivered, and there were some strong philosophical take-aways that I’ll be pondering for days. For now, I’d like to get a couple of them out into the open.

             ***SPOILER ALERT***

When I used to be a Christian I would have seen this movie in a different way. I may have seen the mutant super-villain, Apocalypse (En Sabah Nur), as an allegory for the Christian God. He’s powerful, sees the corruption of humankind, and has a plan to “fix” things. So he decides to usher in a literal apocalypse with the help of four other mutants that he gives extra power (including Magneto). Back then I may have seen those who opposed him (the X-Men led by Charles Xavier) as sinful humans who needed to recognize who their true master was. That’s bullshit; but that’s what religion can do to people — it makes them always look for an analogy with their faith, and always requires that they side with God.

But things are much different now (thank goodness); I am now a secular humanist, and no longer believe in real gods. So when a film has a god-like figure, I feel no compulsion to side with it against the rebellious humans. Instead, I can appreciate the movie for what it was meant to be, and recognize the anti-religious and humanistic themes within.

In the film, Apocalypse is an ancient (if not the first) mutant. He had extraordinary powers which he gained over thousands of lifetimes by transferring his consciousness to other humans (sometimes mutants). This, quite literally, made him into a god (he mentions that he has been worshiped as the gods Elohim, Ra, Baal, etc). But during one of those consciousness-transferring ceremonies, he was betrayed and became trapped beneath one of the pyramids. So he slept beneath the ruble for almost six-thousand years, to be awakened by a ritual in the ’80s.

So when he wakes up he takes a couple minutes to catch up on what he has missed in the intervening years. He takes notes of our weapons, achievements, systems of government, and other aspects of our modern life, and he doesn’t like it. He thinks that humans have been taken over by the weak, and decides to destroy the world and “build a new one.” This new world would apparently only include him and mutants who survive. This is the first take-away from the movie: gods often critique human achievement and ways of living, and require that it be their way or the highway. 

One of the ways gods attempt to create the world they want is by promising to give special blessings to those who cooperate. Apocalypse does just that with his “Four Disciples,” but only if they commit to serving him. He offers to “make them stronger,” and does just that. Soon he even has the grieving Magneto on a string after his wife and daughter were killed. The second take-away is that gods often get us when we are down and most vulnerable, offering to make things better if we join and serve them. 

Of course, none of this is acceptable to the X-Men. Led by Professor X (James Mcavoy) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), they know what they have to do — kill the god. And that is the third lesson from the movie — we need to actively kill the gods in our midst, because they (or their followers) make false-promises that are ultimately damaging to humanity.

So that’s what they do — kill the god. And they are able to do it because of the final take-away. During the final battle with Apocalypse, Charles Xavier tells him that “you will not win.” The god asks “Why,” to which Charles says that “You are alone, but I am not.” Professor X is aided by his fellow humans (X-Men) in his fight to save the world. He doesn’t want to use his powers to control others; he only wants the best for humankind. This best would be a world where we are united, a world where even those who are different (mutants) are accepted and treasured as part of our species. Thus, the final lesson the movie teaches is that humans are meant to live together, and that means we need to accept those who we see as different, realizing our mutual-dependency. 

When gods show up in our culture, they critique what we have built together. They want everything to be their way, else the apocalypse. Religions promise to make us stronger and give us more control of our lives, if only we will serve the right god, in the right way. The only way we can escape the destruction that religions want to bring upon our world is to kill their gods. No we aren’t literally going to do battle with supernatural beings; but we need to do everything we can to rid our systems of the influence their followers want them to have over us. And to do that we have to stand together. We need to realize that our well-being is connected with the well-being of others who we may see as different. If we do that, we will be one step closer to warding off a religiously-motivated apocalypse.

What I’ve Learned From Reading Kierkegaard: Faith is Embracing the Paradox

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This past semester I participated in a reading seminar on the works of the “father of existentialism,” Soren Kierkegaard. What follows is an edited version of my final paper.

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I think that I have learned two things from reading Kierkegaard; put another way, I think I have learned what Kierkegaard thinks about two things: the first thing has to do with the concept of faith, what it is and how it relates to the rest of life; the second thing has to do with how one comes to possess faith, whether of their own accord or by virtue of another’s guidance/teaching (it turns out that central to both things is the concept of paradox). I will begin with a few pages of exegetical work in order to explain what it is that Kierkegaard thinks on these two points; then I will conclude with a personal response with suggested application for thinkers, readers, and believers of today.

Faith and How it is Obtained

Faith is a central concept in the work of Soren Kierkegaard. What faith is, and how it relates to the ethical is the topic under consideration in Fear and Trembling.We can take what is found about faith in this book as fairly representative of Kierkegaard’s thought on the subject because of his latter opinion of the book itself. Walter Lowry notes, in the Editor’s Introduction to this translation, that in Kierkegaard’s journal he says that “When once I am dead — then Fear and Trembling alone will be enough to give me the name of an immortal author.” Though he moves on from some of the concepts in this book in his later religious works, understanding faith’s relation to the ethical will be key to understanding what he thinks of the concept in general.

Faith in Fear and Trembling

He begins by bemoaning how many wish to “go further” than faith. In his mind there is nothing higher than faith — if you have attempted to go beyond faith you are actually descending back into earthly understanding. When he begins to describe Abraham and his movement with faith, he says that when he began his sojourn, he “left his earthly understanding behind and took faith with him.” So when he speaks of “going further” or beyond faith, he is speaking about using one’s earthly understanding as the operating principle for one’s life; and this, he wants to say, is not faith.

Here it would be worth noting what faith is for. Is it faith for the eternal or the infinite? To this Kierkegaard offers a resounding “No!” On the contrary, faith/believing is “for this life.” Faith, then, is believing something, and believing for the present, and temporal. As he says in reference to the knight of faith, “after having made the movements of infinity, it makes those of finiteness.” And again a couple pages later, “He belongs entirely to this world.” Some may think, contra Kierkegaard, that believers have faith in what will come — what God will do; but this, I think, is better defined as hope.

At this point it would be helpful to place this conversation in reference to what Kierkegaard calls “the ethical.” After recounting the story of Abraham and Isaac and their journey to Moriah, he says that Abraham’s ethical duty is to love his son. This is what all fathers are called to do by virtue of ethics. Fathers love their sons and would rather give their life to protect the son’s at all cost. So Abraham’s ethical duty would be to reject God’s command to sacrifice Isaac; but Abraham does not do so. Instead he makes the journey to Moriah, ready to commit the murderous act if necessary. So Kierkegaard wonders how Abraham could be considered such a great example for believers if he was quite ready and willing to become a murderer. This sets up the paradox that is faith; “Either Abraham was every minute a murderer, or we are confronted by a paradox which is higher than all mediation.” Faith, then, is that which “can make a murder into a holy act.”

How does a murder become a holy act? For Kierkegaard, this can only be possible if there exists a “teleological suspension of the ethical.” The ethical is defined as “the universal,” applying to all people at all times. And faith becomes the paradox that “the particular is higher than the universal.” Faith is the realm in which “human reckoning ceases to function,” and where one believes “by virtue of the absurd.” There is a connection between the universal and human reckoning. Ethics (morals) are derived from our mutual understanding of how we should relate to one-another. They must be universal or else we could not hold each other accountable for our actions. As Kierkegaard notes, if Abraham’s actions on Moriah could be explained by the “circumstances of times,” then the entire enterprise of critiquing and learning from Abraham would be pointless. So, if there is a teleological suspension of the ethical, then one could be justified (in the sight of God) for committing an unethical act (in the sight of others). In short, if there is a higher telos, one outside of the ethical, then one could be teleologically justified by faith for transgressing the ethical.

This leads him to the question of whether or not there is an absolute duty toward God. Of course, Kierkegaard’s answer to this is “yes.” If there is a God, and our telos is found in him, then it is our absolute duty to obey this God regardless of ethics’ demands. And if this is so, if loving God is the ultimate duty, then “to love God may cause the knight of faith to give his love to his neighbor the opposite expression to that which, ethically speaking, is required by duty.” To bring this back to Abraham, ethically speaking, his duty is to love and protect his son from harm; but if he is to be a knight of faith and love God, then his duty to his son is subsumed in his higher duty to God, which may require an unethical act — the murder of the son. Faith as presented in Fear and Trembling is this paradox: “that the particular is higher than the universal.” Abraham — the particular, becomes higher than the universal — ethics, by a teleological suspension of the ethical, which happens when Abraham must violate the ethical in order to fulfil his higher duty to God.

Faith in Philosophical Fragments and the Postscript

Kierkegaard has more to say about faith, and more specifically how it is obtained, in the Fragments and the Postscript. The question that begins the Fragments is: “Can truth be learned.” For Socrates, truth was not learned, it was remembered from past lives. This, for Johannes Climacus (Kierkegaard) is not acceptable. So he seeks a description of how truth could be learned, and if so, from whom. This leads him to say that “the learner was created.” Now, if the learner is created, this would mean that he has a relation to the creator — what he will later refer to as the absolute. We should note the use of “absolute” here and how, as in Fear and Trembling, it is a reference to God.

It is in discussing the paradox of learning that faith is introduced — the paradox being that the historical is eternalized and the eternal is made historical. Without recounting every movement in the “pamphlet,” this paradox he is discussing is the ultimate paradox — the incarnation. After saying that the learner is not supposed to understand the paradox, but is to “understand that this is the paradox,” he then says that the “happy passion” in relation to the paradox is called “faith.” And shortly after, “this relation cannot be expressed… but only in that happy passion which we call faith, the object of which is the paradox.” So in Fragments, faith is a happy passion in relation to the paradox.

But how does one come to faith? Is it a matter of the individual will? To this, Kierkegaard again answers with a “No!” For him it is “easy to see… that faith is not an act of the will, for it is always the case that human willing is efficacious only within the condition” — which can only be provided by the god. We now have the answer to the question: How does one obtain faith? The god provides it. It is not a matter of the understanding on the part of the learner; on the contrary, “the learner becomes a believer or follower … when the understanding is discharged and he receives the condition.” He only “receives the condition in the moment and receives it from the teacher himself.” And again in the Postscript, “faith does not result from straightforward scholarly deliberation, nor does it come directly; on the contrary, in this objectivity one loses the infinite, personal, impassioned interestedness, which is the condition of faith.” Even if a genuine believer is a speculative thinker, “speculative thinking cannot have the same meaning for him as faith.” There seems, then, to be a congruity to what is said about faith in Fear and Trembling, and what he says in the Fragments; in the former the ethical is that which must be suspended and transcended in order to have faith, in the latter it is speculative thought and understanding that is a hindrance to faith. In summary of this exegetical section, Kierkegaard sees faith as both going beyond the ethical in order to fulfil one’s duty to God, and as the believing/recognizing as paradox the historical/infinite paradox; and it can only be obtained after the condition is provided — which only God can do.

Applying Kierkegaard’s Idea of Faith

I would now like to make some observations and responses to what has been said above. This will be fairly personal as I will make an attempt at explaining how I can apply what I have learned from Kierkegaard to my own life and philosophical thought. I do not pretend to have understood what he thinks completely, but for an author with such a vast corpus, and in the limited time we had to study him, this may be seen as an honest critique and response to my own characterization of him.

Response to Faith — What It Is

As stated above, faith is the paradox that “the particular is higher than the universal.” And it is also involved, somehow, in the accepting as a paradox the paradox of the infinite/historical. In regards to Abraham, because of faith, he was not a murderer, but a saint. This was possible because of the teleological suspension of the ethical made possible by his absolute duty to God. In regards to the paradox of the incarnation, faith is the ability to believe that the absurd happened — that the infinite became finite/historical, and that a historical event had infinite consequences. It is to these ideas that I will respond.

I feel the paradoxical nature of the Abraham story. Kierkegaard wants to say that Abraham’s willingness to murder his son because he heard God’s voice makes him a saint; and I simply cannot go with him down that road. At first, one could blame my hesitation to follow him on my historical position (3,000 years removed from the event); but I do not think this would be fair to Kierkegaard. He is not basing his telling of Abraham on historical contingencies, but sees the event as an archetype for faith in all time. Faith is that which justifies one who has transgressed the ethical, regardless of their place in history or which ethical norm they have violated; if the absolute duty to God has commanded the murderous act, one must either obey or be lost in non-faith. As Kierkegaard presents it, it is a matter anyone can understand, framed in the ultimate terms — a father’s ethical duty is to love and protect his son, and it is this universal ethic that faith requires one to abandon.

Since Kierkegaard is hell-bent on prioritizing the individual, subjective, experience over the universal, let me make it personal. I am a father with two sons who I love dearly. No, they have not been given to me as part of a promise to bless the world, but I love them more than anything in the world. Any father (or mother) should be able to relate; there is nothing I would not do to protect them from unnecessary harm. And I would certainly not remove my protection in order to commit the harm myself! I know what I would do if I thought God was telling me to murder my son; I would tell him to buzz off! A god that would require an innocent life as a test of my commitment to him is sick, twisted, and unworthy of my love and devotion. I simply do not care if that God created me; for whatever reason I would be unable to submit in this way. Is this a lack of faith on my part? Maybe. But what am I to do about it? Remember, Kierkegaard has already said that faith is not an act of the human will; it must come as a result of the condition which only the god can provide. So if I am unable to follow him down this road/definition of faith, the blame must rest on the shoulders of the divine teacher who has yet to provide me with the condition by which I can sacrifice my ethics. Again, one may protest that God did not require the murder of Isaac, in the end he provided an alternative; but this misses the point — faith is defined as the individual being higher than the universal, and he is only justified in doing this if he is acting in accord with a higher duty to God.

But why stop with Abraham, and fathers and sons? Why not think of another ethical command and see how it would feel to suspend it for the sake of a higher teleology? But we shall stick with children, since they were close to both Kierkegaard’s and the current author’s heart. And we shall make it a an extremely contemporary example — sexual abuse of young boys by priests. For the example, say that we have gathered all the boy-touchers into one room together for an inquisition. What could they possibly say, what excuse could they give for their actions — their unethical actions? I will not pretend to know the psychology of a person who commits this type of crime; but I can say with the utmost confidence that anyone present at these proceedings would, by virtue of their being an ethical human being, pronounce upon the priests a charge of acting in a heinously unethical way. There is simply no ethical reason to which they could appeal for justification; they have transgressed the ethical, and that is that.

“Ah, but wait just one minute,” a contemporary Kierkegaard might say. “One of these men, though he understands that he has still violated the ethical, was granted a teleological suspension of the ethical because of his absolute duty to God. Yes, the universal says that it is always wrong to touch little boys in their naughty places, and a priest surely knows this, but this (nameless) priest as an individual has become higher than the universal.” And the advocate may add, “I know that this is unintelligible to the entire world, that a priest-turned-molester is, in fact, a saint. Yes, a saint following in the footsteps of our great father of faith, Abraham. So maybe we should not judge this man quite so harshly for his pedophilia, maybe he is to be held up as an example for anyone who wishes to make the movements of faith.” Whether for lack of god-given faith, or some undefined intuition, my only response (and I assume yours as well) to this would be to say that it is complete and utter nonsense, not worthy of another wasted moment’s thought.

Response to Faith — How it is Obtained

Kierkegaard says that faith is not an action of the human will alone, but must come after the condition which only the god provides; and what else would we expect a good Lutheran to say? I am well-aware that Kierkegaard places a high value on human freedom, choice, and self-assessment; but when it comes to obtaining faith, or becoming a believer, he seems quite clear as to it, ultimately, being a matter of divine gifting or revelation. And this, I think, is something I have come to agree (at least partially) with him on.

I used to believe all the things. What I mean by “all the things” is all of the theological claims that Christianity makes. And what I mean by “believed” is that not only did I mentally assent to the claims, but I was willing to stake my life, my finite happiness, on what I believed precisely because I knew Christianity was a matter of my eternal happiness. I made tough life choices that required sacrifice and commitment. I gave up future opportunities, advancement, and prestige because of my faith. Friends and family turned away from my commitment; they wanted to go beyond faith, and my unwillingness to place speculation over faith was a stumbling block for them. If anyone was a believer, if anyone had faith, I did.

But things change; life presses in around you and you grow up. You experience pain and heartache that you never imagined facing yourself. And then, somehow, it is simply gone. The faith that once moved mountains, that was able to constitute an individual above the universal, disappeared. To be honest, it did not simply disappear; it died one piece at a time. Some parts of it were killed by logical thoughts like those above concerning Kierkegaard’s idea of what faith is. But other parts were killed by nothing I can pinpoint; so I am left with what Kierkegaard says about how faith is obtained — the god provides it. So why not assume that if faith is lost it is simply a matter of the god removing the condition? If the believing was never a matter of human freedom, then surely the loss of belief can not be a matter of human freedom. Can it?

Conclusion:

I have learned a couple of things from Kierkegaard. Faith is to believe in the paradox; whether that of the individual becoming higher than the universal (ethics), or the infinite becoming historical (incarnation). Faith is obtained not as a matter of human will, but is contingent on the god providing the condition. While I take issue with some aspects of what Kierkegaard thinks, I also appreciate his honestly, and ruthless commitment to the individual wrestling with these topics, and I hope that Christians today will recognize and embrace the radicalness of their faith; it is, by the way, believing in a paradox.