What happens when your fundamental assumption and understanding of the world is upended by new evidence or more specifically in my case, evidence you were not ever made aware of?
This is the dilemma I found myself in. I had inadvertently made my way into a paradigm shift in my own understanding of God and the world, and during that process I do not believe I have ever felt more alone in my life.
Yes, I had often had differences of belief with my fellow Christians and family, but they were always within the same overarching framework of Christianity. I might believe in predestination and my other friends or family members believe in free will (a never-ending debate within Christian circles), but it was still in the family if you will.
Now I was in a different place altogether. This new information did not just put me at odds inside the camp of Christian faith. It put me at odds with fundamental theological doctrine in my Christian faith that I had been raised with and had assumed upon my entire life. What’s even more ironic about how I got to this place was a valuing of truth that was fostered in me since I was very young. A core part of the Christian belief is to value and embrace truth, particularly if it is not what you want to hear.
The Problem of Natural Evil and Death
One of the first dilemmas that I had never paid too much attention to, was the problem of death. In the worldview I was raised in, death and evil were understood to have entered the world through man’s sin. As it turns out though, death is baked into the universe. In a way, this should have been far more obvious if I had ever stopped to give it much thought.
Look at the animals and vegetables we eat. All of those must die so that we can live. We live within a large system of life and death, and we depend on the deaths of other things for our survival. One might speculate that something went awry from the very beginning of the universe that caused death to become part of the universe and that the story of Adam and Eve are mythological representations of such an occurrence.
The ancient Gnostics (an offshoot of Neoplatonism) believed the universe was essentially created by an evil entity, that people are essentially spirits trapped inside physical bodies and that Jesus came to liberate us from the lie that we are corporeal creatures.
Yes, that’s right, the Matrix is not an original idea.
That however had its own problems and is a far cry from the typical conservative Christian understanding.
With this shift in understanding, natural evil had now become a prominent problem in my mind. Once I had sort of blithely accepted without much thought that all evil had originated with the fall of man in the garden. Now I was faced with a contradicting reality. Death, chaos and destruction are fundamental realities of our physics universe.
Not only do individuals suffer (sometimes from their birth) and die from random evolutionary reasons like genetic defects, diseases and mutations with no perceivable metaphysical rhyme or reason, but so do entire civilizations.
There is a museum not far from where I lived growing up that has an impressive collection of pre-Columbian artifacts from a civilization that essentially vanished off the face of the earth after Europeans began colonizing the west. Disease exposure wiped out the Native American population and there are many civilizations that have come and gone over the course of time.
Our tiny little planet has been nearly completely wiped out by apocalyptic events before and the threat is still very much real that it could happen again. All seemingly random.
The black plague for example killed half the population of the world in the Middle Ages because antibiotics had not yet been discovered.
The atheists suddenly had a crippling point. If God cares, why would something as simple as antibiotics not have been divinely orchestrated to be available a few hundred years earlier?
Why create a world where random acts of natural evil kill indiscriminately?
Even if we aren’t all killed off by an apocalyptic event, eventually our sun will burn out, and the galaxy and the universe itself will inevitably give way to nothingness.
The amount of pain and suffering inflicted on people because of natural evil is one of the single biggest reasons that many people give for rejecting faith in God, much less a good God. If God is good, they say, he would not have created a universe where so much pointless and profound death and suffering are a basic component.
The Problem of Sin
“Well, we have to recognize that we’re all sinners and we shouldn’t be critical of one another, and we need to be tolerant of each other.”~ President George W. Bush
We can all identify with the sentiment that no one lives a flawless life, even by normative standards. While everyone makes mistakes, there are some deeds that are committed either against an individual or society however that there are seemingly no coming back from.
Not only that, but less egregious mistakes can mount up over time and make community virtually impossible to maintain. A straightforward reading of the Bible will reveal that God cannot abide any sin or leave any sin unpunished. Some see God as wrathful against sin, others see sin as something that breaks relationship with God.
My conservative Christian framework had an answer for sin. Sin nature entered the world through Adam and Eve’s disobedience, causing all human offspring to have an inescapable sinful nature.
Jesus was God who came in flesh and blood to set things right through his sacrifice on the cross. The idea was that, even though we still inherit our sinful nature from Adam and Eve, God took the just punishment for our sins that we deserve on himself on our behalf out of love, allowing us to be free from the judgement for sin that God’s righteousness demanded.
Evolution however challenged this fundamental concept. How could sinful nature be a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience when they evolved? Animals kill and even murder other animals of their same species all the time, including chimpanzees and lions.
Over time it became clear to me that, when factoring in the reality of evolution, the more obvious reason people trespass against their neighbor is because people see their trespass as furthering their own desires or interests which are rooted in an evolutionary system of competition that has developed over millions of years. So the strong eat the weak or the weak team up and take over the world.
Politics and Religion
I still thought (hoped) conservative Christianity to be a haven from the normal evolutionary pressures of humanity. This was dispelled however in the 2016 republican primary and general election.
In the 80’s, the Christian coalition and the religious moral right was a powerful political force in the US. Christians back then relentlessly attacked anyone found to have moral failings, inside and outside the church. Jimmy Swaggart, an Assemblies of God television evangelist, was caught in a hotel room with a prostitute, and it was a disgrace. Jim Bakker was prosecuted by the department of Justice for fraud. Evangelicals excoriated Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky issue.
Fast forward to 2016.
I watched in shock as Donald Trump rose to overwhelming prominence in the Republican Party. The same party that has previously championed the cause of integrity and compassionate conservatism.
Far more shocking however, I watched as conservative evangelicals did a complete 180 degree turn, winking at Donald Trump’s litany of immoral, unethical and ugly behavior, excusing him of any Christian conservative moral standard, responsibility or accountability.
I would have never dreamed growing up that the Christian right would support / elect someone like Trump. Later when Trump was found to have paid off a high-priced call girl, evangelicals again, (largely) looked the other way.
In fairness there was a small group of evangelicals that did say something, but they were very much in the minority, often getting shouted down. Those with a large platform to speak Christian moral truth to power however, almost unanimously chose to remain silent. To do otherwise meant giving up their platform, influence and probably their livelihood.
It was a game of survival, and concerns about principles or being salt and light in the world, holding those in power accountable, was sacrificed so that the in group could win.
It was group selection (aka evolution) to gain and consolidate resources, influence and power.
For me this represented something much deeper than an election. It was yet another confirmation of how evolved traits of tribalism overpower loftier convictions when faced with tribal pressures.
I expected Christians to be different as a whole and live up to their own standards of morality and holiness. What I never expected was to watch Christians sacrifice their principles and integrity for tribal pressures.
If Christians were truly different than everyone else, then this is where it would have surfaced.
When it was not in the conservative Christian camp’s tribal interests to call out the moral failings of the de-facto political representation of the Christian right.
In fairness to Christians and Christianity, there are also plenty of examples both in history and in the modern day where Christians have actively chosen to deny their self-interests and freely chosen self-sacrifice even to the point of death for their faith. One recent example was the group of Christians executed by ISIS and posted to their social media. Christianity is replete with these types of stories, of peaceful resistance against oppressive and persecutory powers.
There is still a large degree of nuance in these stories though as well that are often not readily apparent. For instance, in pre-Constantine Rome, we see that there were deep tribal pressures at play there as well.
A Christian who recanted their faith under threat of Roman execution would be shamed by their Christian community. It isn’t hard to imagine that many would rather choose death than face being disowned by their family and their community during that time.
At least some of the stories of martyrdom show the power of tribalism, instead of the strength of one’s personal convictions or the validity of one’s faith.
To go even deeper, no one really knows to what degree the tribal effect of acceptance vs. rejection plays within the scope of faith in general and those inside the tribal group have no interest in finding out.
There are certainly those who genuinely believe and would believe even if it did not gain them any type of tribal acceptance. The more I looked at history, sociology, psychology and even the Bible itself, the more suspicious I became that much belief, regardless of the belief system is based primarily on tribalism and the deep evolutionarily evolved sociological and psychological need to belong.
Acceptance and belonging for ancient man into his respective tribe was quite literally a matter of life and death because of the difficulty of surviving on one’s own without the larger support network of the tribe.
This feature of human nature is deeply embedded within us biologically and exists today, in modern, individualistic western societies. To see the foundational mechanics of this in action, one need look no further than the data on dopamine’s release in the brain from seeing likes on one’s social media posts.
I needed something more substantial considering this devastating new reality of evolution, if I were going to find any hope for resolving these issues with my struggling Christian faith.
What I faced was a real dilemma of truth. I wanted to know what was in fact true, even if it meant disproving my own reasons for faith in God altogether.