There is a picture going around the Internet of a pair of unborn twins with the caption “Hey Brother, do you think there’s life after birth? Do you believe in Mom? – Nah, I don’t believe these things. I’m an atheist. I mean, have you ever seen Mom?”
I think the picture and caption is mildly irritating but a fascinating thought experiment. On the irritating side, it implies that anyone who doesn’t believe in God is stupid by comparing God to something we know exists. What it misses is the question of “what is the mom the baby says he doesn’t believe in?” Would anyone think that the baby is denying the existence of something warm and noisy surrounding it? Or is the analogy premised on the idea that the babies have some sort of awareness that mom is more than their physical surroundings? Perhaps “mom” is this wonderful loving creature going to interact with them on the other side of birth?
Looking at the picture, we can laugh at the joke a bit because we know that the walls around the baby is “mom” and that mom is a lot more than just the unborn baby’s universe. But let’s just imagine for a minute that it was possible for these babies to be having a conversation like this, and for them to have somehow heard rumors of a Mom one could believe in. There is no reason to believe that the baby’s concept of Mom would be anything like what we know moms are. What if the baby’s next line was “but there has to be a Mom, there has to be a big ball of light heating us up?” Or perhaps “but there has to be a Mom, how else would we continue to float after birth?” Would it not make mores sense for an unborn baby to think that Mom was something analogous to our oceans?
Those forwarding the picture around might think that it provides a good argument for the existence of a God but to me, the fascinating part is the question of what would come next in the conversation. Perhaps the first baby would reply: “sure we’ve seen mom. Mom is everything around us that isn’t you and me. Just kick your legs a bit. Can’t you feel something against them?” If the atheist baby then argued that there wasn’t anything there, well, then we might justifiably laugh at the stupidity of atheists, but if this baby is to represent atheists, it is more likely the baby would have to say, “oh, ya, of course there’s this thing around us. But that isn’t mom, its just a big thing.”
Some people say God is all around us. God is nature, or social interactions, the warm fuzzy feelings, or the life that separates living things from inanimate objects, etc, etc. Yet I’ve never met an atheist who denies the existence of nature, social interactions, coincidences, warm fuzzy feelings or life. Rather atheists deny the meaning and interpretation certain people attach to those things.
I am not an atheist. I am agnostic. I do not know if there is a God. In many ways I think that the term “God” is a placeholder for the great unknown. The meaning keeps changing. God was an invisible warrior. God was the forces of nature. God was the giant clockmaker who set the universe in motion. God is the invisible friend who comforts us and whose acceptance of the way things are suggests that there must be some greater purpose to our suffering. God is the aspects of science we don’t yet understand. God is the justification for the social order. What ties all these different roles for God together? God is the something that we cannot quite put our finger on. Humans throughout history have felt a need to invoke the idea of a God. What is it? And is there any connection between the experience of Gods felt by say, for example, the ancient Greeks and the experience of God felt by modern Christains?
My background is in Christianity but that does not mean I think Christianity has more claim to truth than any other religion. Yet nor do I think that the differences between religious traditions should be whitewashed over with the arguement that all religions are all “different paths to the same truth.” Religion is made up of beliefs and practices just like the pictures my sons are drawing right now are made up of colored marks on paper. To say look beyond the differences in beliefs is in some ways comparable to saying “look beyond the different colored marks, and you’ll see the pictures are really the same. They’re based on the same paper.” The colored marks do matter. The beliefs and practices matter. Just as pictures are more than the paper they are scribbled on, religions are more than the common truths they agree on. The stories, practices and theologies that make up the differences between religions are attempts at communicating answers to lifes deep questions.To return to the image of the babies discussing religion, the question I would have is what this Mom is and why does it matter to believe in it? Does the knowledge of Mom provide a sense of purpose? Would the meaning of existence change drastically if a baby believed that Mom was a loving entity, or perhaps Mom is a giant universe waiting to crush and destroy the baby? What matters is not whether a person believes in Mom but what Mom the baby believes in. Is pre-birth a waiting time for birth, or is it the purpose of existence itself? Perhaps I have a tendancy to miss the forest for the trees, but I think that focusing on if there is or isn’t a God is a bit like travelling to the rainforest without looking at any of the plants.I don’t see Christianity or any other religion as one coherent thing. Christianity changed over time. Every religion is made up of the accumulated evidence of man’s search for meaning. On one level religion is about the individual person’s religious experience (or attempt to understand/relate to the world) but on another level religion is a collection of ideas and the ongoing attempts to preserve and transmit those ideas through literature, story, images and meaning-endowed behaviors. The ideas are never preserved exactly as time and situations change.
Then there’s an organization – I think it is called the Jesus Seminar – that is, or was, a group of scholars trying to uncover what of the text attributed to Jesus he probably actually spoke. I’ve heard arguments against trying to do that, because if the early Christian writers put words into Jesus’ mouth, they would have done so for good reason. The question then becomes, whose faith are we trying to uncover? Are we trying to find out what the historic Jesus said? What the Jesus of faith said? What the early Christian church believed? I know there are some people who are very excited about the “lost gospels” and other scriptures that never made it into the traditional canon. I’m a little skeptical of them. I think a few of them are worth reading, but at the same time there are reasons why they weren’t included and sometimes its because they’re just not worth having. I don’t believe that there was a pure Christianity at one point and other people sullied it. I think that there is wisdom and guidance to be found in each generation’s interpretation of the religious questions but I think that we need to peel away the different layers to see them clearly. Some of the ideas were good, some not. I think we need to learn and study context.
I take the doctrine very seriously, just not in the way most other people do. I take church doctrine seriously in an academic fashion. Just for example, I know there are people who would accept that Jesus was born of a virgin as fact because that’s what they believe the Bible tells them and others who would say “the idea that Jesus was born of a virgin is nonsense, so let’s just ignore that part of our faith and focus on what he taught.” I don’t do that. I think the fact that the writers of the faith said Jesus was born of a virgin must mean something and we shouldn’t just dismiss it. But then I say, okay, what did they mean? I do not for a moment believe that the Bible writers were trying to make an argument about whether or not Mary had sexual intercourse. I look at the Biblical scholarship (in this example at the works of a woman named Jane Schaberg) and I think okay, maybe the writers were trying to do two things. They were probably trying to deal with rumors about Jesus illegitimacy and they were co-opting the language of the empire. People in the Roman world new that certain people were the sons of gods, but those were the emperors, not the peasants. Early Roman writers arguing with Christians didn’t say “God wouldn’t have a son with a human” they argued saying “God doesn’t have sons with poor women.” And of course referring to Jesus as born of a virgin helped tie in also with the Isaiah prophecies. So the writers were making very profound theological statements, and I take those statements seriously, just not literally. To say that God would be incarnate in the form of a Galilean peasant matters. I can believe that message even if I don’t take the idea of a God literally.I know there are dangers in interpretation. The first is that a person always constructions the interpretation in their own image. But really, everyone does that, and we can’t let that stop us from attempting to engage the texts/traditions anyway. Its just something to be aware of and struggle with. I know some people would say that Biblical interpretation being academic makes it somehow invalid, but why? Why should the insight be less valid simply because one needs more background information to get at it? Why would the “simple” or “straightforward” reading of a text, taken way out of its historic context, be the most true to its original meaning?To me “Christianity without God” is the history of people struggling with the epic questions in life. Yes, their answers involved God, but then the question is “what God?” The Bible isn’t consistent; it shows a transformation of beliefs over time. What God? Why that God? What makes that God different than their neighbor’s image of God? I still take those questions very seriously. With all the changes in what God is over the centuries “God” is a placeholder, an idea that’s definition changes constantly, and what that placeholder is for speaks volumes about a person.