I have a very good friend named Rick Heller who blogs at several places, including Transparent Eye. Rick is not a Christian, but he is fairly familiar with the relevant evidence pro and con, except on the resurrection of Jesus. I was browsing on Transparent Eye the other day and I found this post about a childhood experience that turned Rick away from religion.
Even when I was religious, I always found the glorification of God to be a lesser form of spirituality. As an Orthodox Jew, I disliked the text of the Yishtabach prayer (though I liked the tune)
May your Name be praised, our King, the God, the great and holy King, in heaven and on Earth. Because, our God and God of our forefathers, you deserve song and praise, lauding and hymns, power and dominion, triumph, greatness and strength, praise and splendor, holiness and kingship, blessing and thanksgivings now and forever.
It seemed to me that the Rabbis thought that God had a self-esteem problem, and His ego needed massaging. Even as a religious person, I thought these prayers were inferior to the Psalms, which often expressed delight and gratitude rather than the obsequious praise of the courtier.
In life, I can think of two reasons why you might flatter someone. First, the person might be insecure, and out of compassion you might say a little white lie that makes them feel better. Second, the person might have power over you, and you tell a lie in order to elevate them in the hopes of reciprocity, that they will elevate you, or at least not punish you.
This sucking up to God seems to me like the flattery of the poweful. The extravagent praise of the Yishtabach prayer strikes me as something done to propitiate a powerful and potentially dangerous Being that could destroy you.
Does God need our glorification? A mature person does not need constant praise (though a heartfelt thank-you every once in a while is appreciated).
Let’s take a look at his concern and see if we can find a solution.
The problem of forcing religion on children
Now, I have a different view of worship than many Christians. I think it’s better to worship God in the public square, not just in church. I believe in worshiping with theological truths and with publicly available knowledge, such as describing the scientific discoveries that led to our knowledge of God’s role in creating the universe. And I believe in talking about God’s worth to non-Christians, not just Christians.
Surprising as it may be to many Christians, as someone who was not raised in a Christian home, I really struggle with the church. Unlike Rick, I enjoy ascribing worth to God. I think that voluntary worship is best, because you make your own case based on what you know about God from your own study. But I also think a prayer like Rick’s may be appropriate, but only after you convince yourself it is true.
I want to go on to make a general point about the way religion is presented to young people.
A lot of people who have religion crammed down their throats at a young age end up either rebelling or just going through the motions until they leave home. What I noticed about Rick’s post is that sounds like he was being made to do things that he didn’t want to do. Can you imagine what would have happened if he told the church elders or his parents that he was uncomfortable mouthing these parrot-praises?
This is the problem. Church elders and parents are long on ordering people around, and short on answering questions. They don’t try to convince you of anything, they just demand visible behaviors. Rick might be willing to say that prayer, but first he deserves to be convinced. It is not enough to just pressure him into mouthing the words. He needs to persuade himself that the words are true, by studying the facts!
The problem is that parents and the church won’t lift a finger to present religious truth claims the same way as truth is presented in the classroom, the lab or the workplace. Children know when they are being told fairy tales. We need to give them public knowledge! Show them some debates! We need to put in the same effort into persuading people about religion as we do about any other area of knowledge.
I once exchanged e-mails with a fundamentalist Christian who explained to me how her approach to atheist’s questions was to quote the Bible to them. I asked her whether it might not be better to appeal to scientific or historical evidence, instead, since atheists don’t believe the Bible. Naturally she cited a Bible verse to me, in order to justify her not having to answer anyone’s questions.
A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away. (Matthew 16:4)
Now the thing is, this woman had no idea what this verse was saying. She was just trying to justify being lazy. But every serious Christian knows that Jesus is predicting his own resurrection in that verse! That is what the sign of Jonah is: 3 days in the tomb and then out of it. So Jesus is saying, you guys are going to get a historical event, and it’s going to be done right in front of you as a sign to prove my claims.
This is exactly how the early church presented the resurrection (e.g. Peter in Acts 2:14-41). Non-Christians were supposed to form their opinion of whether Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, or not, based on a historical event. The whole Bible is chock-full of examples of faith founded on fact! But you would never, ever know that by watching parents and churches present religion to children.
I hereby apologize to sincere atheists, agnostics and deists for these experiences. But guess what? Authentic Christians like William Wilberforce agree with me on this.
What would William Wilberforce think?
Well, take a look for yourself, from his own writings:
Look at the facts. Do cultural Christians view Christian faith as important enough to make it a priority when teaching their children what they believe and why they believe it? Or do they place greater emphasis on their children getting a good education than on learning about the things of God? Would they be embarrassed if their children did not possess the former while basically being indifferent about the latter? If their children have any understanding of Christian faith at all, they probably have acquired it on their own. If the children view themselves as Christians, it is probably not because they have studied the facts and come to a point of intellectual conviction but because their family is Christian, so they believe they must be Christians also.
The problem with this way of thinking is that authentic faith cannot be inherited. When Christianity is viewed in this way, intelligent and energetic young men and women will undoubtedly reach a point where they question the truth of Christianity and, when challenged, will abandon this “inherited” faith that they cannot defend. They might begin to associate with peers who are unbelievers. In this company, they will find themselves unable to intelligently respond to objections to Christianity with which they are confronted. Had they really known what they believe and why they believe it, these kinds of encounters would not shake their faith one bit.
I fear for the future of authentic faith in our country. We live in a time when the common man in our country is thoroughly influenced by the current climate in which the cultural and educational elite propagates an anti-Christian message. We should take a look at what has happened in France and learn a lesson from it. In that country, Christianity has been successfully attacked and marginalized by these same groups because those who professed belief were unable to defend the faith from attack, even though its attackers’ arguments were deeply flawed. We should be alarmed that instruction in authentic faith has been neglected, if not altogether eliminated, in our schools and universities.
Is it any wonder then that the spiritual condition of our country is of little concern to those who don’t even educate their own children about true Christianity? Their conduct reflects their absence of concern, not only for the state of Christianity in our own country, but also for the need to communicate the message of Christ to those in other parts of the world who have not heard this truth.
This is the guy who stopped slavery in the UK, folks. My advice: let’s do whatever Wilber says.
In a forthcoming post, I’ll look at another childhood experience that causes problems for people. It turns out that bad views of economics can be traced to childhood experiences, just like bad views of religion.