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A Pagan lesson for an evangelical

posted by Gus diZerega

I was having a coffee and some fascinating discussions about the implications of thought forms with a retired physicist friend  at Starbucks today, Saturday.  As we began to wind our conversation down a young man sitting nearby indicated he enjoyed overhearing our discussion and said he hoped we’d include him at another such gathering if the three of us were there.  My friend said “Sure, yeah.”  Then I noticed his cross pendant along with another cross printed on his t-shirt. I suspected this nice young man had an agenda…

“Sure,” I agreed, “But you should know that I am totally uninterested in hearing any evangelical stuff.  I’ve heard it, worked with evangelicals, coauthored a book with one, and frankly am not interested in any more discussions.  I’m not in the market for a new religion. But if you simply want a good discussion, feel welcome.”

I flashed him my pentacle.

From his reaction it was clear to me he had evangelical intentions.

My friend departed and the guy persisted trying to open a conversation.  I’ll call him John.  John did so in a friendly way and seemed both sincere and genuinely well meaning. He was young, intelligent, and hopefully not yet so frozen mentally as not being able to consider arguments he had not encountered in Bible school. He might be able to be saved…. Had he been older I likely would not have bothered, because older folks are old enough to know better.  As I remembered from when I was young, things seem simple when you don’t have a lot of experience.  I had wanted to do some work on writing projects, but decided maybe the time would be better spent educating him about a religion other than his own.

So we began. I stayed friendly but I never allowed him to set the terms of the discussion because, frankly, I find those terms and assumptions ludicrous. For example, John wanted me to acknowledge if there was a deity, that deity owned the earth.  Therefore everything we had we owed to Him, and even our acts of generosity towards others were false because we acted with goods we did not own unless we were at peace with God.  This is the perversion of spirituality that comes from injecting eonomics into religion.

I told him I did not think ‘God’ owned anything, which implied distance between God and the world.  Rather the Sacred was in everything.  I wanted him on my turf because then we could have an interesting conversation and he might learn something to deepen his understanding.

John’s most common tactic was to try and  emphasize what we had in common once he knew I was not an atheist, trying to build a bridge between us.  Normally I am into bridge building, but only when the other side is willing to respect mine.  I knew this was not the case with any evangelicals I had ever met.  The tactic was to open us up for the sales pitch that would inevitably come.

Consequently whenever he remarked on how much we had in common I would return to what we did not have in common, particularly their claims they were the only true and that there was something particularly special about Christian morality or practice.

I said of course we have some things in common, but there is even more that divides us.  I have never seen in theory or behavior anything to set Christians aside as uniquely special ethically.  Where’s the evidence?  Also, while you have not said it, you believe you have the one true path. I say there is no such path.  While you have not said it, you also believe all alternative religions are deluded, demonic, or deeply in error. I do not.  He did not contest my statements. He could not and still be an evangelical.

As we neared the end of our conversation he brought up an old Christian saw that I think illuminated much more than he intended.

“Do you believe in an afterlife?” he asked.

“I think there is something after death, yes.  But I’m not sure what it is and I don’t think very much about it. I’ve seen spirits without bodies in our sense and had spiritual experiences.  But mostly it doesn’t interest me very much.

“This world is sacred and beautiful, and I am interested in living in harmony on it. If there was no afterlife and I knew it I would act in largely the same way.”

He replied “If I didn’t think there was an afterlife I’d probably act very differently. Wouldn’t you if you really thought that? Just get all you can and not care for others?”

“I thought you said earlier that love and kindness were virtues that could not be faked in your God’s eyes,” I said.

“Yes.”

“Earlier you also told me that doing kind and loving things while expecting a payoff, perhaps in someone’s esteem or making a connection, was not really being kind or loving?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Now you are telling me you are acting in a ‘Christian’ manner because you expect to be paid for it with heaven.  I’m reminded of what Friedrich Nietzsche said about Christians: ‘Principle of “Christian love”: it insists upon being well paid in the end.’”

He got uncomfortable.

“Most Pagans in my experience act decently because it feels good doing so.  Certainly that’s why I do. The act is its own reward. We do not do it so the Gods will pay us for it.  It would be nice if They did, but it’s not why I do it.  For that matter, I know plenty of good and decent atheists, and they clearly do not act in expectations of a later divine payoff.

“By your own reasoning many Pagans and atheists are far better at kindness than you Christians. Why should we be impressed by Christian morality?”

He switched to saying that he also acted kindly for its own sake, which I suspect was the truth, at least much of the time.  But in the process he undermined an argument his professors had likely taught him about the importance of religion for morality, a false argument based on the belief that there is no inherent value in the world, no sacredness within it, no morality separate from God’s commands and his threat of damnation for those who don’t toe the line.

In other words, he made an unintended admission of the fear lying at the heart of so much Christian practice.  Fear of themselves if not under divine command, fear of the world as a place of snares and traps, fear of other faiths and people with different ideas as sources for immorality and fear of eternal damnation.

His intrinsic decency took pleasure in kindness but his religion hid that fact from his explicit recognition until I rubbed it relatively gently in his face.

His belief system is very bad at two levels.  First, by cutting himself off from recognition of his own nature he was made dependent on the Bible as interpreted by his teachers to have any confidence in right acting.  Otherwise it would seem to him that his more aggressive urges would simply take over.  These urges exist in all of us at times, they do in me anyway, but they exist within a deeper context of being able to care for others.  It is by acknowledging those urges when they arise and not acting upon them because we  desire even more not to hurt others and because we enjoy kindness and generosity that we are enabled to grow stronger.

By blinding himself to his good side John did not deepen his understanding.  Like a child he simply follows rules based on Higher Authority.  Often those rules say not to steal or lie, and so the rules and the best sides o who we are are in harmony – giving the illusion we act this way because of the rules.  Under the proper circumstances this confusion raises the rules above our innate decency and thereby enables many like him to set decency aside to “serve God” by oppressing the “Godless.”

It is our own hearts that ultimately give us the strength to act well, not fear of a divine master. But we need to exercise that capacity to develop strength.

Second, he is blinded from seeing the goodness in this world, and in being blinded made suspicious of all unlike himself who are good only because they follow their Divine Boss in the sky.  He is cut off from immediate connection with the Sacred as it manifests most directly to human beings: the beauty of the world and the love within the human heart. Not being able to see the goodness in others and in the world, again with urging from trusted authorities, those like him have committed and are continuing to commit crimes against other people and against the world.

We parted on a friendly note, and  I hope our conversation demonstrated to him the world is far more complex than the simpletons who taught him religion have any conception.



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Diana Rajchel

posted August 7, 2011 at 12:57 pm


You are far more patient than I am. I wouldn’t engage at all, quite simply because I’d be too offended this guy had an agenda.



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Helen/Hawk

posted August 7, 2011 at 3:55 pm


Oh that poor young man…..into Starbucks for coffee and leaving w/ his foundations rocked.

OTOH, that’s what growing up is all about, isn’t it?



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Glenn Turner

posted August 7, 2011 at 4:51 pm


Great post, Gus.

As a pagan raised an atheist, it is often hard to explain why ethics are important without a bible to give “rules”. I like the way you posit an innate goodness and love; this should be found in most people who’ve had early nurturing.

I also liked your comments about Xian pay off for being ethical. It connects well with a youtube piece I watched earlier today by Barry Schwartz, author of “Practical Wisdom”. One of the things he stressed was that uniform rules hinders wisdom that comes from not having rules to follow blindly, by by trial and error, and examining mistakes. True empathy does not assume “what is good for me is good for you”.



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Glenn Turner

posted August 7, 2011 at 4:54 pm


Oh, I forgot to add the link to the youtube site for: Barry Schwartz – Practical Wisdom. It’s http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=y2f17aNrKag

It’s rather long, but I actually liked the end of it best, and his answers to some audience questions.



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Hecate

posted August 11, 2011 at 7:07 pm


Gus, I’ve taken the liberty of linking to this and discussing it at my blog. Great example of how to frame discussions.



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AmberSpirit

posted August 14, 2011 at 7:59 pm


I just had tomment on this article. I work with a Christain, a Southern Baptist to be exact and this sounds exactly like what a conversation between the two of us would be. She is so closed minded, and miserable, yet she does everything she does because that’s how you get to heaven. Not because it’s the right thing to do. She is closed minded, and if things are the way ‘they’ think (believe) they should be they’re wrong. Again I loved you article and it so it close to home! I can’t wait to read more of your work.



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*Diuvei

posted August 31, 2011 at 3:43 pm


Gus, your insight into how evangelical Xian morality is really just another reward-driven consumer mentality (I’m good only in order to get paid for it) is brilliant and true. Everything in that religion seems obsessively materialistic, right down to its insistence on the literal printed word of the Bible and the bodily resurrection of the flesh.



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Cheryl Hill

posted September 12, 2011 at 5:35 pm


Wow Gus, you certainly gave that young man something to think about! As Helen/Hawk said, you rocked his foundation. It’s the first step to freeing his mind; bravo!



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Lynn

posted September 14, 2011 at 11:40 pm


Great commentary, Gus.
As one who was raised a fundamental Baptist and now a happy pagan, you had some great points to make and share with this young man. The deceptive simplicty of evangelistic religion robs people of a true connection to God and to each other. Instead of joy, there is fear.
Oh, and by the way… I enjoyed dinner last evening with your neice, Margaret. She is a bright, engaging and caring young woman. I hope we have the opportunity to continue working together.
Take good care,
Lynn



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losconinhum

posted October 9, 2011 at 4:29 pm


This is very true to the evangelical way of thinking . They are simply brainwashed from a early age and are very simple minded and will not question their beliefs , even if they are shown proof of some things . Their religion is the only religion and everyone else is going to hell in their belief .



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losconinhum

posted October 9, 2011 at 4:33 pm


godisimaginary.com



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Gavin Andrew

posted December 18, 2011 at 9:57 pm


Hi Gus,

I fully agree with your critique.

One aspect you didn’t touch upon, except to some extent in discussing life after death, is the profound terror of the cthonic that haunts the Christian world-view. This is the hidden side of the desire for eternal reward you very correctly critique.

There is also the inherent contradiction in Christian theology that Michael York pointed out recently, that their God can somehow be both omnipotent and all-good.

As for common ground, I devote a chapter to this in my short book “Paganism & Christianity” (please excuse the shameless plug) released in two days time. Most important for the years ahead, I suspect, will be our mutual rejection of a Free Market morality that devalues human being as anything other than consumer.



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Gus diZerega

posted December 19, 2011 at 1:39 am


Good luck Gavin. May it do well.
Yes, the problem of a good omnipotent God is pretty serious IF it is assumed to be, as Western Christians do, fully transcendent.

I think the Orthodox have an easier time of it – if God is thought of as Panentheistic – both within and transcendent to the world – this problem becomes far less of a problem in my view. But them omnipotence really becomes difficult to get a grasp on – which I think is good. I think it’s a stupid motion.



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Hsdkjahsd

posted January 3, 2014 at 9:30 pm


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