My Journey From Religious Exclusivity: The Birth of “The Empathy Imperative”

Until now, I was not going to post about my novel because I felt it would sound too much like self-serving promotion for monetary gain. Yet, after reading an impressive post by another blogger concerning a similar journey, I’ve decided to post the preface of my novel, The Empathy Imperative.

The preface elucidates not only the reasons I left Christianity behind, but clarifies how I believe all people of faith should view the world around them. It is an appeal to reason—an appeal to look beyond the walls of exclusivity and sectarianism and understand what it would take to make this vehicle we call Earth a much better place to live for everyone.

I am not so naive as to think I could make a dent in the established citadels of theology especially given the deep emotional attachment of billions of people. I only invite the curious minded reader to understand my social philosophy and, perhaps, I can move just a few to begin their journey.

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Preface to The Empathy Imperative

In 2008, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) aired the BBC/WGBH Boston production, God On Trial. It is a play, written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, based on an event told by Elie Wiesel in his book, The Trial of God. It is a story about a group of Jews, imprisoned at Auschwitz, a Nazi death camp, holding court and trying God in absentia.

The charge was that God broke His covenant in allowing Hitler to commit genocide against them. In testimony, they deal with questions of justice and purpose (e.g., if God is just, then why does He allow, not just suffering, but also suffering on a scale such as the inhuman savagery of the Holocaust?).

It is a powerful and riveting play so well written and with such passionate acting, one hardly notices nearly the entire story takes place within one room.

I began writing The Empathy Imperative long before this play aired and found, once having seen it, that many of the questions raised in the film I had included in the pages of this novel, although in greater depth and with a different verdict. They are profound questions that test the parameters of our view of God’s justice, mercy and benevolence, in contrast with our own. What is justice? Is our sense of justice good, such that God, Himself, approves? Is divine justice something other than what we believe to be just?

The Empathy Imperative, like God on Trial, is a theological and philosophical exploration, but goes further in suggesting what would be necessary, theologically or through secular philosophy, to move our world into a future where empathy, not personal gain, is our primary motivating force.

The questions addressed in the following pages are a source of consternation in the minds of many, often exposing popular but strongly held contradictory views. It is no easy matter for one to examine, with objectivity, the religious “truth” he or she was taught as a child, especially those propositions deeply believed by the society in which one lives. Nevertheless, it is something that I feel must be done if we are to move beyond the walls of sectarianism, and view the world with understanding, compassion, and reason.

My journey beyond those walls began during my high school years when Bible class was offered as an elective and I, desirous to be counted among the faithful, faithfully elected to attend. Having been raised a Bible believing, saved-by-perseverance Methodist, I had no doubt that God was in His heaven, that Adam was the first human being, that one of his ribs was appropriated to fashion his helpmate, Eve, and that humankind came by its various languages in one fell swoop at the Tower of Babel. I believed, as well, that two representatives of every species of animal on earth held first class tickets to a cruise aboard the good ship, Noah’s Ark.

For me, there was no alternative but to believe such propositions because the fundamentals of the Judeo-Christian faith were what I was taught from my diaper days. By the time I reached high school, I was vaguely aware of other religions by way of various derogatory comments I heard and condescending movies I saw, but that was about as far as it went.

Perhaps, had an objective, world religions course been offered in my high school my natural curiosity would have spurred my interest, but I will never know because there was no such course. As for human evolution, it wasn’t so much as mentioned in biology or earth science.

It was with poetic irony, then, that my first serious doubt emerged from reading the Bible and thinking about what I was reading.

Late one night after a hearty round of supplications, I was repeatedly opening the Revised Standard Version at random, expecting God to give me a message by way of the first verse on which my eyes fell. I did indeed get a message, but, apparently, it was not from God. The verse that captured my attention was Revelation 13:8;

And all the inhabitants of the earth shall worship [the beast], every one whose name was not written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the lamb that was slaughtered.

It was my first bout with an apparent conflict in my theology. There I was, a teen taught from tothood that I had a choice whether to follow the ways of righteousness and be rewarded with an eternity of blissful paradise, or to follow the ways of wickedness and reap an eternity of unrelenting torture.

Yet, try as I might to rationalize otherwise, the only interpretation I could deduce from the verse was that of predestination. If that were so, I reasoned, then God knew before the existence of humans, that most of them would be destined to eternal agony, no matter how good they may strive to be.

“Why would God,” I asked myself, “condemn souls to Hell before they were born?”

The next day, I prodded the teacher for a different interpretation. After a thoughtful pause she replied, “We’re not supposed to know everything.” I was taken aback as I had expected a bit more than a dodge, but I accepted it. Her answer, however, gave birth to another question. I wondered why a perfect god would not be perfectly clear in words He inspired someone to write and for us to read.

I suppose the verse could have been interpreted as meaning the Book of Life was begun with the first human, and then each name was added as each person came into existence and demonstrated he was worthy of salvation. However, that would be salvation through works, not through grace, and it would cause a problem with the King James Version of the same verse, which states:

And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

This verse seemed to say the “Lamb”—taken to mean “Jesus”—was destined to be slain from the creation of the world. Thus, although the wording was different, predestination was still painfully clear.

For some time thereafter, I pondered and prayed, reread the chapter, and pondered some more. In time, I moved on, but the questions remained resident in my mind.

Not long after high school graduation, I found myself in Army Basic Training. One afternoon on a weekend as I lay on my bunk reading, some friends who knew me to be a devout Christian came in and asked me to assist them in a debate they were having with a professed atheist.

Never one to miss an opportunity to proselytize, I donned my godly armor of faith and sallied into battle. With my friends gathered around, I dodged and ducked every salvo of my foe’s arguments and responded with my own volleys of piety and scripture. The end of the battle came with a total rout—mine.

Thoroughly shaken, I laid out a smokescreen prophesying divine retribution for my faithless adversary and withdrew from the battle. Hastily applying a sturdy brain-splint of seasoned prayer, I retreated for weeks into mental convalescence.

It had been my first contact with the enemy and he had come to the field of battle with an awesome weapon entirely new to me—well reasoned, evidence-based arguments.

His knowledge of the Bible was greater than my own, his knowledge of other religions was far beyond mine and his knowledge of evolution caught my ship-of-ignorance broadside.

Bertrand Russell wrote of Pierre Bayle, French philosopher and critic in the late 17th century, that Bayle would compose lengthy arguments on the strength of reason over orthodox belief, but conclude, “So much the greater is the triumph of faith in nevertheless believing.”

Perhaps such sentiments are necessary to placate the troubled minds of a great many people, but for me, there was something deeply repugnant about willful self-deception.

It was this abhorrence for intellectual dishonesty that seriously weakened the walls of my theology and set me up for the final blow—my own, reasoned argument.

An acquaintance of mine, having noted my air of piety, invited me off post to dinner and conversation at his home. That evening, seated in his living room, he and two others engaged in a concerted effort to convert me to Mormonism. Among other arguments, they contended that baptism into the Mormon faith was necessary to achieve salvation.

Marveling at their confident posture, I asked, “How do you know you are right?”

“We know in our hearts we are right,” they replied.

“Yes,” I responded, “but so do the Jews, the Hindu, the Buddhists, the Muslims, and the Catholics. They all know in their hearts that they are right. Every person of every religion believes himself to be right.”

After dinner, having made no commitment, I thanked them for their hospitality and took my leave. Returning to the base that night, something was bothering me, the cause of which I could not ferret out.

When I awoke the next morning, the insight came in a flash. The rebuttal I had made in reply to their heartfelt belief that they were right, applied to me as well.

The logic was clear; I had no more reason to believe I possessed the sacred truth than did anyone else. I had grasped the indisputable fact that one’s religious beliefs have more to do with happenstance of birth than with truth. A person is most likely to believe the theology taught by his parents, which is most often the predominant religion of the society into which he is born and that belief is often unshakable for the rest of his life.

A cascade of questions followed, the foremost of which was: Could there be a good and compassionate god who condemns billions of souls to eternal torture for having been taught to believe the wrong religion? Since adherents to other faiths believe their “truths” every bit as passionately as the Christian believes his, how do I know I was taught the right one?

I decided, therefore, to place my faith in abeyance and view my beliefs with an objective eye. I would return to school and acquire a much wider breadth of knowledge so vital for sound reasoning.

I vowed to study with an open mind and follow the arguments to their logical conclusion. I promised myself that I would accept the conclusion no matter how uncomfortable it might make me feel, for if I refused to do so, I would live a life of intellectual dishonesty.

Throughout the ensuing years I applied a strong dose of reason to each of my attempts to fashion a new theology.

In pursuit of truth I opened my mind to philosophy, world religions and evolution. I read and contemplated the arguments of current and past theologians, scholarly evolutionists and philosophers.

It was during this process that I came across a famous statement by the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716). In an attempt to reconcile the existence of evil with the idea that God is omnibenevolent (all loving), omnipotent (all powerful), and omniscient (all knowing), he suggested that God gave this world the best balance of all possibilities, good and evil. So that humans might act as free agents (possessors of free will), He gave us the ability to choose between the two. Therefore, Leibniz concluded, it must be that God blessed us with “the best of all possible worlds.”

Leibniz’s proposition that this is the best world possible stuck in my mental craw where it festered. I recall thinking about the world; its wars, its hungry masses, its disease-infested children (what is more innocent than a child?), the horrors humans inflict on their fellow humans and concluding that Leibniz’s best possible world conjecture was demonstrably false.

It was the age-old philosophical conundrum: If God is omniscient, then He knows of the intolerable suffering of billions of people through no fault of their own. If He is omnibenevolent, then it is reasonable to suppose that He would want to alleviate at least the depth of suffering. If He is omnipotent, then He could act on His desire. He does not alleviate the depth of suffering. Therefore, either He is not omnipotent and can do nothing about suffering, or He is not omniscient and does not know humans suffer, or He is not omnibenevolent as most of the world, astonishingly, thinks Him to be.

It was against this best-world proposition that I debated through my college years, but my post-college profession in quality management occupied so much of my time and raised my level of stress to such a degree that little time or inclination was left to ponder this primary interest.

In time, out of concerns for my health, I resigned from that profession and eventually became a long haul, professional driver. This occupation appreciably lowered my level of stress and allowed me the time I needed to read and ponder my philosophical and theological interests.

It was early in this new career, while again considering the best-world proposition, that I realized neither I, nor anyone with whom I had debated, thought to ask the obvious questions: If this is not the best of all possible worlds, then could it be that we do not have the best of all possible gods? In addition, if this isn’t the best world possible, then what would a better world look like and how could we get there?

These are the questions about which I began to research and write, and which The Empathy Imperative attempts to answer.

I do not presume to believe this book constructs the best of all possible worlds or gods and indeed, I am sure it does not. But I do not need to construct the best of either. I just need to demonstrate that, theologically, better gods and better worlds are possible.

Since any such qualitative construct necessarily deals with ethics and justice, I must deal with questions relevant to the omniperfection of God and it is with this discussion that I feel a word to the wise reader is necessary.

For the purpose of this exploration, I began by assuming the King James Authorized Version (AV) of the Bible was literally true—both the Old and New Testaments.

Obviously, I had to deal with some misinterpretations and inconsistencies in the scriptures, while at the same time trying to remain true to the fundamentalists’ view that the entire Bible is the infallible word of an infallible god. This struggle becomes evident in the progression of the narrative.

I am well aware of considerable controversy in matters of scripture analysis and translation, but my thrust is not to make arguments of interpretation. It is rather to demonstrate that, again theologically speaking, a better world could have been created, and if a better world could have been created, then it follows that the god of the Bible, Yahweh, was not the best of all possible gods.

Therefore, in order for the astute student of theology to appreciate the point of the book, he will need to suspend his urge to fractious debate over scriptural interpretation and tentatively accept my general premise that this is not the best of all possible worlds.

As for the version of the Bible, I chose the King James because it was the one believed and preached by the lead character’s father and because it was the version with which most Christians were familiar, at least during my early years of study.

Another note of interest for the Christian true believer—when the Time of Sorrows begins, the lead character, Mark Jefferson Hale (Jeff), is a politically aware, evolutionary biologist, and a causal determinist.

Jeff’s view of strict, causal determinism (cause and effect) is explained in the second chapter of part 1 as he attempts to avoid dealing with a culmination of unsavory events—the foremost being the death of his estranged, fundamentalist father.

To the Jewish reader, you are already aware that I spell out sacred words. I do this because I feel it is necessary for the integrity and flow of the narrative.

For the politically inclined reader, chapters three and four set up the political condition of Jeff’s time, suggesting what might happen if the political pendulum did not swing back, but became immobile far to the right, caught up in an entanglement of corporate greed and religious fervor, triggered by the beginning of the Tribulation—the Time of Sorrows. This political theme mingles with theology throughout part 1.

Part 2 begins an exploration into our view of the nature of justice in relation to events described in the Old Testament and in relation to the culmination of events described in prophesies.

I am sure many will say that I cannot judge the acts of God described in the Old Testament by modern, ethical standards, but they will be wrong.

I am exploring Christian theology and embracing the popular notion that the god of the Old Testament is the same god of the New Testament whose being and temperament does not change.

I am proceeding with the idea that we believe our sense of morality and justice is good and that it is God sanctioned. Therefore, in order to conduct this theological exploration honestly, I must view events in the Old Testament through the moral lens of modernity.

–Max T. Furr

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Creationism in Science Class: Why Not?

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I recall reading a joke some years back that asked, If evolution is true and humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes? Answer – Well, because some were given a choice. I laughed, but there is a molecule of passive truth there. Natural selection, though not offering a choice, is in fact, selective, although blindly so.

I’ve been considering this article for months now. It is no easy task to attempt an empathetic approach to such an emotional and divisive subject—emotional and divisive, of course, for biblical literalists. Yet, in order for there ever to be some progress in finding common ground, first and foremost we must not approach the subject of human evolution in a confrontational manner. We are creatures of reason and through reason we can find solutions—if we want them.

The impetus for moving ahead with this article was provided by a follower of my blog who opined recently that even though he agreed with me that creationism does not belong in science class, he felt that neither does “Darwinism.”

I can understand the blogger’s frustration. There is a world of misinformation about the Theory of Evolution and the great majority of Americans have little or no formal education in evolutionary biology. The great majority of folks have been taught from tothood that God created the world and all thereupon much as we see it today.

But evolution is not a theory of the origin of life. It is a theory of the origin of species—not how life on earth began, but how it became so diverse.

In this article, my intent is not to convince anyone of evolution or creationism, but to try and dispel some misconceptions about science. Understanding these misconceptions is the only way common ground can possibly be achieved.

Many folks over the past century and a half have learned to accept the growing body of scientific evidence for evolution by deciding that evolution was likely the way God chose to create human beings and that the Genesis creation stories are meant as metaphors. That’s fine. After all, nowhere in the corpus of the Theory of Evolution does it deny that a supreme being started the “Ball of Cause and Effect” rolling.

For many, adding to the difficulty of accepting the science is the fact that reading scientific articles on the theory can be quite dry and boring. Most folks have enough on their hands just making a living and finding time to feel at one with the family—to maintain that sense of identity and belonging we humans need. Thus, there is little time or inclination to sit down and educate oneself about evolution.

Too, I am well aware that the idea of human evolution is considered by many theists to be cold, soulless, without purpose, and therefore quite frightening. It is no wonder that biblical literalists do not want their children exposed to the theory and want it replaced in science classes by Intelligent Design (creationism). It is thought, too, that if one accepts evolution, then he no longer has a moral foundation on which to build his life. This is a false notion. A philosophical foundation for a moral and empathetic life can be every bit as strong as a religious foundation.

Greatly complicating the issue of creationism and evolution is our own language, and topping the list of complications is the word, “theory.” Dictionaries offer several meanings and even some of these are lacking.

Merriam-Webster, for example, offers the scientific definition as: “a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena <the wavetheory of light>.”

While this definition is true, it really doesn’t do justice to the word—i.e., it doesn’t explain the special method used to reach scientific acceptability. One is, therefore, left with something akin to the popular definition of the word “theory,” which is a “speculation,” or “hunch,” or “assumption,” as in, “that’s just a theory,” or, “It is my theory that the butler did it.” This popular definition is fine for the general public, but not for science.

Wikipedia has a decent definition in the last sentence of its first paragraph:

A theory is not the same as a hypothesis [Hypothesis: an intelligent deduction or guess based on known facts, experience and past scientific studies] . . . a theory is a ‘proven’ hypothesis, that, in other words, has never been disproved through experiment, and has a basis in fact. (Bracketed comment and italics mine)

Note that the word “proven” is in quote marks followed by a meaning not normally used in everyday language. That is because, ideally, science does not consider a theory to be the final and ultimate “proof.” For example, we all know that gravity exists, but science refers to it as the “theory of gravitation,” which is an ongoing field of science as is the theory of evolution.

Simply put, a scientific theory it is a systematically, methodically and independently tested, best explanation for understanding natural phenomena based on evidence—a theory was a hypothesis, but has withstood the rigors of the scientific method. Here is a simple example of the scientific method:

A scientist observes a natural phenomenon, the origin or nature of which is not fully understood.

The scientist attempts to explain the phenomenon by formulating a hypothesis based on her knowledge of a history of observations, studies and experiments that may be relevant.

The scientist then formulates ways to test her hypothesis such that, if it is true, a particular outcome is predictable.

If, at any time during her testing, she disproves her hypothesis—her prediction was incorrect—she throws out the hypothesis in favor of another that better fits the evidence. Then she sets about testing the new hypothesis.

If, after exhausting all tests, she cannot disprove it, then she publishes her findings and the details of her experiments in a peer reviewed, scientific journal. This allows other scientists in her field to independently duplicate her tests for validation and develop tests of their own in an effort to further verify the hypothesis or disprove it.

After many years of predictions and testing demonstrate that the hypothesis cannot be disproved, the hypothesis becomes accepted as a scientific theory. And, that theory is a tentative conclusion because, ideally, science is always open to new evidence that might render the conclusion false.

This is the scientific method and it is why the theory of evolution belongs in science class. Without it, so much of biology and medical science would not make sense.

On the other hand, a creationist begins with the conclusion that God created everything very much as we see it today (I call this the “Poof Hypothesis,” not meaning to be condescending, but descriptive). Most often the research of the creationist is trying to find ways to refute evolutionary science. He will search in nature or mathematics for facts that might be construed to place some aspect of evolution in doubt. All evidence found that may support evolution is discarded or reinterpreted. At no time will the conclusion—that God created all things very much as we see them today—be doubted. This is not the scientific method, and therefore, does not belong in science class.

So, why is there so much misinformation about the theory of evolution? Sadly, all too often in their zeal to debunk evolution as a science, creationists will propagate incorrect information by extracting out of context comments by evolutionary scientists, thereby misrepresenting what the scientist actually said. For more information on this, see http://ncse.com/book/export/html/6711

Too, we have the ridicule factor:

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I would highly recommend watching the free reenactment (video) of the Dover, PA trial, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. The site offers the trial transcript by which one may download to verify the authenticity of the reenactment. The reenactment, however, not only follows the transcripts closely but also demonstrates the unfortunate social cost to the community.

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Max T. Furr, author of the novel, The Empathy Imperative, a philosophical/spiritual drama.

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