Monday, December 11, 2006

The End of Belief

Sunday before last I underwent a reverse of Charles Wesley's famous "strange warming" experience: a distinct cooling of the heart in church toward religion, God, and what Zorba would have called "the complete catastrophe."

Almost five years ago I stopped attending any kind of Sunday Eucharist service, a practice in which I had been constant almost all my life. Although my faith fell off like scales, in a reversal of Saul of Tarsus' experience in Acts 9:18, I have been sporadically attending various churches over the past year or so.

Why is an agnostic even going to church? That's a long story I'll leave for another day.

Eight days ago, I undertook my sporadic sitting in at the Eucharist service in the main nave of the Cathedral Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, the Anglican see's main church in Washington, D.C.

The cathedral's dean, the Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III decided to open his sermon on the season of advent with a broadside on Richard Dawkins and his most recent book The God Delusion (for my blog on both, go here).

Only Lloyd didn't say Dawkins. He said "Hawkins." To which I uttered an almost reflexive correction "Dawkins!" that annoyed a few fellow churchgoers.

Then he said it again: Hawkins. He identified the "best-seller" (is it?) by its correct title but kept saying Hawkins (get the taped sermon here if you don't believe me).

Clearly, Lloyd had never set eyes on even a comma written by Dawkins, an uncommon name that would have stuck in the mind of any bona fide reader.

Worse still, Lloyd wielded a puerile argument against Dawkins' contention that religion is the cause of a great deal of violence, both in the present and historically. The Dean countered with the proposition that the great massacres of the 20th century had been committed by Hitler, Stalin and Mao, whom Lloyd covered with the blanket characterization of "atheists."

This made me cringe because, first of all, it is not conclusively proven that the Jesuit-educated Adolf Hitler was actually an atheist.

Moreover, the belt buckle worn by soldiers of the Wehrmacht read "Gott mit Uns" (God with us). This is known to have served as a prop referred to by commanders in the field rousing the rank and file before battle on the Eastern Front against the godless Soviets.

The record shows that the Nazi war machine and its genocidal sidekicks did not formally disown the European Christian deity; to the contrary, God was heartily invoked by the invading, marauding, pillaging and murdering German hordes.

Similarly, former Orthodox seminarian Yosip Stalin might correctly be identified as having become an atheist as general secretary of the Communist Party, although he spawned a cult of personality that turned Marxism-Leninism into something remarkably similar to a religion.

Much the same could be said of Mao, whose best known aphorism on this subject is "religion is poison." The French film-maker Jean-Luc Goddard made no bones about adopting Maoism as his "religion," which is precisely the way Maoist Communism functioned.

Most important of all, neither Hitler, nor Stalin, nor Mao sent millions to their deaths under the banner of atheism, but under the aegis of their particular brand of nationalism and collectivism. At most, they could be said to be mass-murdering maniacs who just happened to be atheists, if that.

The reverse, my Very Reverend Sir Priest Lloyd, cannot be said of the great Christian persecutors and annihilators.

In the name of the Christian God, they have
  • dispatched Saracens in the Crusades and heretics in the Inquisition during the Middle Ages;
  • then in the Renaissance sent dissenters from Calvinism to the bottom of Lake Geneva with the proverbial millstone tied to their necks, or sent hundreds of Jesuits and and Jesuit-protectors to be drawn and quartered by order of Queen Elizabeth of England, or killed varieties of Catholics, Jews and Protestants in diverse and ever-inventive ways, all for the sake of their faiths;
  • finally in the more modern ages, robbed and murdered native populations of America, Africa and Asia, also with great missionary zeal and churches' blessing.
And that's just a brief, quick sweep.

Islam, granted, is not behind by far. The Sunni and Shia rivalry has claimed lives for a millenium and the spread of Muslim jihadists throughout the Mediterranean, the Balkans and Spain in the Middle Ages, bespeak centuries of war in the name of another monotheistic religion and its blood-thirsty adherents. Only military defeats five hundred years ago kept the Muslim jihad at bay. And, purely Quranic or not, need we mention Al-Qaeda and its leaders plain invocation of their God?

Not to be left behind, the followers of the Jewish faith of Abraham practiced wholesale slaughter by divine inspiration according to their own holy writ in places such as Jericho. In modern times, the State of Israel has waged at least one unquestionable war of aggression (1967), along with bearing with responsibility for several massacres of civilians in Lebanon, most recently in the village of Qana. Anyone claiming, with talmudic hair-splitting, that no violence has come from the adherents of Judaism for the two millenia in between forgets that, as criminal lawyers say, the means and the opportunity were lacking.

In the end, Lloyd's rhetorical sparring nets him a 3-0 defeat -- and that's only counting three monotheistic religions!

Yet it was not so long ago that Lloyd's other words -- such as his positive call to his congregation to let the love of Jesus Christ be born in their hearts during advent -- would have resonated in my bones, blotting out the nonsense, the arrogance and the cupidity of an overreaching preacher.

This time I was left with emptiness. I did not want to join him in reciting the Nicene Creed, the statement of faith that follows the homily in the Western Christian liturgical matrix. I do not believe. After hearing him I knew firmly that I do not believe.

Something finally snapped and I have been searching for words to describe what it was for eight days. I give up.
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