It seems to me like modern culture has long forgotten what “evidence” and “proof” involves. I certainly didn’t understand the two terms when I was a Christian. Inevitably someone’s going to howl that Christianity is true because their auntie got “healed” of a broken foot. Well, it healed faster than expected, anyway. And she is a citizen of a first world country, so it’s not like she didn’t have access to medicine. But JESUS, don’t I see? And there was a time when I’d have nodded in perfect understanding and praised the lord for his marvelous works.
In high school, I remained impressionable. Like Michele Bachmann famously does, I more or less believed anybody who told me something as long as the speaker seemed sure enough of what was being claimed. Certainty trumped uncertainty. And being accepted trumped being an outcast. I was gawky, awkward, and generally lonely when my family up-ended me from Alabama and we moved to Texas in the mid-1980s. All things aside, the 80s were an awesome time to be a teenager, and Houston was a great place to be one. But I had a lot of trouble fitting in again. Playing D&D was a great substitute for having actual social skills, and in the absence of other gamers in my heavily religious public high school, I had nothing. Though I was polite and thoughtful, these qualities didn’t translate well onto the social stage at school.
When a popular junior girl named Jennifer acted very friendly toward me for no reason whatsoever a month into my new school experience, I accepted her invitation to a “church pizza blast” without hesitation. The church event happened at a burgeoning Southern Baptist megachurch in the area that seemed to have everything but a bowling alley (though I was assured that one was coming for the “youth” because the church was buying a supermarket across the street to convert to that express purpose). I was blown away. I got my first taste of contemporary Christian pop; I heard people shouting and saw them waving their hands. The message wasn’t pre-canned out of a missal; the hymns were repetitive and super-easy to learn and designed to seize the emotions of anybody hearing them. These people were absolutely insane for God. They seemed indescribably happy. And they desperately wanted me to join them in their journey.
Like a lot of people, I just wanted to belong. That’s human nature, after all; we’re tribal at heart, social creatures. I didn’t know about love-bombing at all and certainly didn’t understand that someone can be very, very sure of something and still be dead wrong about it. I didn’t act sure of anything unless I knew it was true, so I assumed everybody worked that way. And whoa nelly did these guys act sure of what they were saying. By the end of the night I’d been baptized (by immersion, natch) and gotten a huge white faux-leatherbound Bible with tons of color plates in it. If my mother was displeased or concerned by my sudden heavy re-involvement in church, she didn’t say a word–but neither would she drive me to church or attend herself. If I was going to hell in a handbasket with the Southern Baptists, I could jolly well do it by myself.
(Those who are familiar with Jennifer’s style of proselytization will recognize instantly why she was being so unusually friendly to me, and will not be surprised at all to learn that after that night, her mission accomplished, she never talked to me again.)
I was assured that there was tons of proof for what these preachers were telling me, and I was content to think that I just didn’t know that proof yet, or perhaps wouldn’t be able to understand it. I didn’t read the Bible enough to see that proof’s all over its myths:
* Pillars of fire from the sky or out of nowhere (Exodus 13, 2 Kings 1, 2 Machabees 1:22 which okay isn’t strict canon, but still, 2 Chronicles 7, and one very dramatic contest in 1st Kings 18).
* Healings all over the place (2 Kings 4:32-35 and also 5:14, 5:27, 13:21; Matthew 8:14-15, 9:2-6, 9:27-29, 9:32-33, you get the idea, I hope; healing’s kinda Yahweh and Jesus’ thang, an understandable obsession given the state of medicine in those days).
* Stopping the sun in 2 Kings 20:8-11, repeated in Isaiah 38, and Joshua 10:13. Also don’t forget the “darkening” of the sun after Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke 23:45.
* A variety of evidences that sound downright weird to us today, such as making a bit of wool wet (Judges 6:36-40), making an iron axe head float (2 Kings 6:6), and slaughtering children with bears for making fun of a prophet (2 Kings 2:23), but which probably sounded really compelling to ancient people.
* The Ten Plagues, and destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the decimation of Jericho, and of course the Great Flood, which would have gotten a lot of people’s attention (but which, weirdly, did not in actual history, but let’s gloss that for the moment). Let us not forget that this god was also happy to “harden Pharoah’s heart” (Exodus 4:21, 7:3, and 14:4), overriding the poor man’s natural inclinations toward mercy, to make the plagues, Passover night, and Exodus absolutely inescapable for the Jews (oh, and this same hardening action resulted in the murder of the Pharoah’s young son and most of his army in the ensuing railroading of God’s “chosen people”). God was totally cool with doing stuff to confuse and bewilder people (Genesis 11:7 and Jer 1:17); Jesus would continue in the same vein later by deliberately obfuscating his teachings to confuse people so they won’t get forgiven for their sins in what I can only call the dick move of all dick moves (Mark 4:10-12, an attitude continued in 1 Cor 1:27).
Taking all of the evidence into consideration, we’re left with a set of conclusions that point to these facts: a god who really, really, really wants to make himself clear to people in his sourcebook, a god who is quite capable of providing clear and compelling evidence of himself, a god who doesn’t care if he’s overriding people’s free will at all, and–most importantly–a being who has a variety of means at his disposal to accomplish all of these goals.
So… what’s with the coy act? A deity who can summon pillars of fire, turn people into salt, destroy countries with plagues, and resurrect people from the dead by accident (2 Kings 13:21)–and today he’s down to finding great parking spots and rushing the healing of someone’s foot in a First World Country? What, did he run out of mana? Given the myths, it should not only be obvious that Yahweh exists, but blindingly obvious. It should be inescapable. It should be painfully clear. But it simply isn’t. Nothing like what I’ve outlined from the Bible happens today. There are only two conclusions my adult self can draw from this inescapable fact: either there is some convoluted reason why God suddenly decided not to do that outrageously obvious stuff anymore (in contradiction to assertions like Hebrews 13:8 and Psalms 102:26-27), or the stories are just that: stories, myths, fantasies.
But I didn’t know enough then to know that the “proofs” I was hearing were not proofs at all. If someone’s story of “proof” ends with “Well, you might not think that’s proof, but I do,” then that isn’t proof. It’s an anecdote the Christian thinks is compelling. Proof doesn’t care what religion the listener is. Evidence doesn’t care how someone feels about it. It is what it is regardless of either of those things, regardless of what angle it’s viewed from or what the fallout of its perception might be.
But I didn’t know that then. I joined the Southern Baptists, and attended there for a few months before I began to feel unsettled by what I viewed as a weirdly hypocritical worldview. I began to notice that the same girls acting so pious and ethereally spiritual on Sundays were the girls doing the most sinful things during the week, and that the church seemed obsessed with money and tithing.
My own feelings about tithing were straightforward: I didn’t work, so I didn’t have to tithe. But that didn’t fly with these guys. I should give “something” to demonstrate my commitment to Jesus. Just being committed wasn’t enough. I had to give money too. So much for faith vs. works! My mother put her foot down here. She was happy to give me a dollar for the collection plate, but tithing was out of the question; she didn’t even tithe to the Catholic church (she gave 10% to secular charities, I would discover much, much later), and she’d be damned if she’d contribute money toward the greasing of the wheels of her own daughter’s hellbound train. I’m sure she was vastly relieved when I began drifting out of that church, though the worst for both of us was yet to come.
If you want to hear about an honest-to-dog exorcism, stay tuned.