In private moments, when I’m not thinking about some chemistry-related train of thought, I often wander to the intellectual bog of religion.  Especially on Sunday, when friends and family are sitting in church and I’m elsewhere.

I try not to write about it too often. It takes a lot of psychic energy to defend an unpopular point of view in public.  I awaken every day with just so many kcals of enthusiasm and am increasingly unwilling to spend it extravagantly in arguments about religion.

One of the surefire ways to rile people into a vein-bursting, mouth-foaming frenzy in this country is to criticize a particular religion or the religious enterprise in general. This sensitivity relates to the nature of the concept of Sacred.  There are several variations on the definition of the word sacred, but the concept in common usage seems to include “to set apart for veneration” or “worthy of respect”.  A corollary is that sacred concepts are to be treated devotionally and are not to be subjected to scrutiny.

Sacred or not, we are starting to see some open analysis of Christian doctrine and are beginning to ask reasonable questions as to the accuracy or validity of the doctrine guiding the religious right. Consider the following analysis from Terri Murray posted at the Yurica Report-

If liberals are more sympathetic to secular humanism than to Christian doctrine it is because Christian Scripture is ambivalent in its view of human nature, and second, because Christian doctrine has over-emphasized Paul’s pessimistic construction of human nature. The latter makes nonsense of moral responsibility, because it posits a deterministic model of human nature that is inconsistent with human experience, moral exhortation and human reason. Jesus’ system of morality, which most liberals greatly admire, conflicts with the misanthropy expressed in Pauline doctrine. Jesus’ ethical teachings are more consistent with the values of enlightenment humanism than with biblical theocracy, which Jesus spent his rabbinical career assailing.

‘Christianity’ is an abstract concept badly in need of analysis and definition. The authoritarian Christian right have assumed, with little argument, that Pauline doctrine is more essential to ‘Christianity’ than the teachings and traditions about Jesus, where they conflict. And conflict they do.

To outline how and where Pauline doctrine is incompatible with the “American worldview” it is important to clarify my terms first. For the purposes of this essay a ‘Christian worldview’ is defined as the Pauline doctrine of salvation, according to which all of humankind are rendered ‘sinners’ by virtue of the past transgressions of our progenitors Adam and Eve, or by virtue of an intrinsic defect in human nature. This same Pauline doctrine also makes it a matter of Christian orthodoxy that Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf atoned for man’s sin and offered each of us redeeming salvation by means of the profession of the Christian faith and obedience to its rules. ‘Christianity’ in this context does not refer to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth but to the Pauline teachings about the significance of his death and resurrection for the salvation of mankind.

As Murray suggests, the strident orthodoxy of the protestant religious right in America is based in large part on a particular slant of interpretation on the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. But rather than anchoring doctrine to his words and deeds, the American evangelical focus is on the special effects of the supernatural transition to the spirit world- part of what Murray calls the Pauline Doctrine. 

I have always been quite uneasy with many aspects of the Christian doctrine.  While I have been able to extract useful concepts by partitioning the doctrine into a) moral philosophy with historical details, b) crime and punishment, and c) an iron age form of cosmology, I have always been uneasy with the necessity of an anthropomorphic deity.  In other words, does the existence of a supernatural being actually solve the problem of how the universe works? Does God use physics, or did he have a backstage pass to do as he pleased?

What makes the universe a workable place is the fact that not everything is possible. There are boundary conditions. Objects and events in the universe exist within constraints. Not everything can happen.  God must have known this and in fact, had to have been the installer of this attribute. As Einstein would have asked, did he have any choice in the the way the universe was constructed?

In the Christian tradition, God lets loose with an occasional miracle. We know by inspection that God uses physics in the everyday conduct of things, but when “miracles” happen, are they quantifiable? Is it possible to have one miracle be twice as big as another? If you divide the number of miracles by the volume in which they occur, you come up with a miracle density. What is the average miracle density of the universe? Is God restricted by the rule that you can’t divide a number by zero?  Hmmm. Maybe He relies on this fact?

Why do we consent to adherence to an ancient religion that is constructed on iron age notions of social order, justice, and the supernatural when we have a modern understanding of democracy, history, and physics that suggests an altogether different organization to the universe?

Religious adherents will guffaw and correct my comments with an assertion that our human concepts of God are too inadequate to subject the diety to such simple analysis. Well, God holds us to standards relating to faith, love, and sin that are assumed to be within our understanding- our sins certainly get the dieties attention. Our mortal souls hang by a thread, based on our thoughts and actions relating to our knowledge of His divine plan. Why would the rest of it be so incomprehensible? Why the disconnect?

Today, the blowtorch of religious conservatism on the public stage has abated temorarily while adherents re-group. No doubt, they will be organized for the upcoming general election in the fall of 2008. I think this time around they need to be questioned a little more closely as to the basis of their doctrines.