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When Religion Supplants Empathy

Posted at 16:24:05, 2016-05-28

As most of you who either know me or read my articles are aware, I have considered myself a Christian for most of my life. I probably would have been born a Christian if that was something that made any sense.(1)No, it is not possible to be born religious. I became a full-fledged Christian (i.e., was "saved") when I was 9 and was baptized into official church membership at age 14. I have served as a church usher in the past, have taught Sunday School lessons, have taught bible lessons for Vacation Bible School, and have played piano for church services as often as I am able.

The point is that I've done quite a lot for my church over the past twenty years. I don't really expect anything in return; the members have been something like a family to me growing up, sending me well-wishes while I'm away at university, giving me gifts, helping with student loan repayments, and so forth. I help at church because it's a second home to me and I enjoy it.

As far as the religion itself, the church is Christian Northern Baptist. The belief is that the bible is the pure, authoritative revelation of God, and that we as Christians are supposed to base every aspect of our lives on the directives outlined throughout the whole book, from the law of Moses to the letters of Paul. Though context is occasionally required to clarify certain archaic meanings and phrases, what is written is to be taken as literal truth, no matter by whom it was written—its presence in the bible is enough.

Don't Worry About It

I'll admit that I have always had misgivings. There have always been obvious problems, like the condemnation of homosexual relationships and the second-class status of women, but I always found a way to tell myself that it was okay, because there are diverse beliefs even among Christians – I didn't have to believe in those old, obviously inhumane teachings to call myself a Christian.

I just had to quietly disagree. And I was okay with that.

Because when you have fellowship with a group of people whose belief is that the entire bible is to be taken literally, you have no other grounds upon which to argue otherwise; what the bible says goes, whether you like it or not. Even moral arguments have no standing against what is taken to be the Word of God, because moral arguments come from human wisdom, not God's infallible wisdom.

Of course, it cannot be proven that the bible is the Word of God. Most scriptural arguments and declarations of such are obviously circular in reasoning. It has to be taken on faith—faith that the bible is part of God's vast plan for humanity, stretching across the millennia and providing just enough understanding for us humans to properly participate in the way that God intended.

Well, faith can be an incredibly powerful thing.

Where It All Went Wrong

No one at church knew I had a girlfriend until I mentioned offhand that she & I were going on a small trip. I mentioned it only because it was going to keep me out of church the following weekend,(2)Not really in my nature to find excuses to talk about my girlfriend or my private life, y'know which was normal enough; my church attendance was far from perfect, and my absence was noteworthy only because I was the pianist for the church services.

Well, that was when the questions started, the most important being:

Is she a Christian?

No, she is not, and I'm okay with that.

I was fairly good friends with our new pastor at this point, so perhaps this is why he felt comfortable enough to start sending me links to articles about why Christians should not date non-Christians. Now, my wife & I, from the day we became a couple, determined that our different belief systems would not be an issue. She had heard my beliefs, and was okay with them. I, in turn, have always had respect for her beliefs as well. This, for us, was not an issue, but apparently my pastor was not okay with it. On the other hand, he told me that he wasn't trying to interfere in my personal affairs, so... maybe he just thought I'd be interested in a bit of light reading?

Aside from this odd little wrinkle of conflict, things remained as they were with me & the church. I kept going, I kept playing, and I even brought Starlette(3)Charlotte's daughter, now my daughter as well for all intents and purposes with me to church every now and then. I did realize at one point that I had not been asked to teach our Sunday School class for quite a while (we rotated teachers on a weekly basis), but whatever. I wasn't terribly concerned.

It wasn't long, though, before Charlotte got annoyed enough by my pastor's indirect, feckless attempts to undermine our relationship that she insisted I arrange a meeting for the three of us. I eventually did, and believe it or not, it was a pretty amicable affair... until the meeting's real purpose made its way into the conversation. Charlotte laid it all out for him; told him the things that I would not: the pastor was acting as if Charlotte was a threat to my spiritual well-being. It took probably half an hour, but she did eventually get him to admit in straightforward terms that if Charlotte did not convert to the church's version of Christianity, this was indeed the case: Charlotte was going to force me to choose between her and the church.(4)Have you picked up on the irony in this accusation yet? In case you haven't, I'll give you the quick version: it is very easy to sound prescient when you predict something, fulfill the prediction yourself, and blame the outcome on something else.

The most maddening thing to us about this meeting, though, was that Charlotte (who, of the two of us, did most of the talking) was trying to appeal to the pastor's empathy; the pastor, on the other hand, would acknowledge the line of empathetic reasoning only to countermand it with religion. Biblical doctrine. They spent most of the time talking past each other and, for the most part, did not meet in the middle at all.

Following that day, I could finally see the storm coming. It was a pivotal moment, Charlotte having a one-on-one with our pastor, and he, through his inability (or unwillingness) to listen to what she had to say, quite soundly ensured that she would never step foot in that church in her life. The pastor didn't even know at that point that I had been living with Charlotte for a while, and I realized in short order that I was basically keeping that fact a secret from people at church—the only one there who knew was my dad. I got pretty good at giving non-answers to questions about "life in Humphrey" and "the drive over the hill" and other such references to my dad's house. The strange thing about it though was that I wasn't making a conscious choice to be secretive; I was automatically concealing that I was living with Charlotte.

This part is important though: I was not ashamed. I felt no sense of wrongdoing in any aspect of my relationship with Charlotte, and I never have, either. I acted in this manner within my church not out of shame but out of tact, knowing that my life with Charlotte, which was really none of their business, would cause issues.

So it really should have come as no surprise when the pastor arranged another lunch meeting with me (just me this time) because he had "heard" that I was living with Charlotte—or, in terms of what was important to him—living with a woman to whom I was not married.(5)Which, incidentally, was technically my living situation for four of my university years but no one seemed to have an issue with it back then! I was honest with him, and, knowing what the following conversation was going to be like, I laid out a great deal of what Charlotte & I were dealing with at the time, putting forth why it made simple sense for us to share an address. Again, these were really none of his business, but I was still trying to salvage my relationship with the church, having not yet acknowledged that said relationship was definitively dead now that my living situation was broader knowledge.

Personal Truths Illuminated

As a small digression, I should point out that my involvement in Sunday School discussions, had anyone (myself included) been really paying attention, could have revealed quite a lot about the true magnitude of my dedication to the church's doctrine. I was always making arguments about what the bible had to say about how we should behave as humans towards each other, and what the church at large can do to improve its image in the world. Most everyone else, on the other hand, would make arguments about what the bible had to say... period. Absolute truth comes from the bible, and that's it. Why does the bible say this? Just because. Just accept it, like a good Christian is supposed to.(6)And, of course, don't ever question the validity of what the authoritative bible has to say about anything... like a good Christian.

So when it came to this unwanted discussion with my pastor over the morality of me living with my girlfriend, I, just as Charlotte had before me, found myself trying to countermand his biblical arguments with ethical arguments. I was trying to argue against doctrine with reason.

I was trying to appeal to his empathy while he tried to appeal to my religion.

Following this lunch, I was so tired of my useless efforts to please my church that I lost all interest in going at all, and my persisting absence did not go unnoticed. I've gotten occasional contact attempts from members telling me they "miss me and my piano playing".(7)The implication of my true value as a church member here should not go unnoticed. If I run into other church members elsewhere in town, they'll point out that I haven't been to church in a while, though no one ever seems to ask me why I haven't been going...

I'll Tell You Why

The last contact I had with my pastor was via text message. He not only wanted to meet with me again, but he wanted to bring another high-ranking church member with him.(8)Why? For more firepower, perhaps? With some encouragement from the woman who at this point had become my fiancée, I finally said no. I was tired, and I was done, especially when it seemed he didn't have the courage to tell me his intentions before "getting together" with me. Our exchange went pretty much like this:

I wanted to touch base with you about getting together [sometime this week]. Would one of those work for you?

I was waist-deep in rehearsals for a show I was music-directing, so...

I am way too busy this week. I work every day and rehearsals run pretty late. What is it you need to discuss?
I am concerned about your walk with God and your faithfulness at church. I know [member] is too, so we would like to talk to you.

Another day goes by...

Sorry to bother you, but would you be willing to meet with [member] and me [in a few days]? We are flexible on the time.
To be entirely honest, no. I do not believe there is anything more to be gained by talking about this. Despite my best efforts to avoid it, it has been made quite clear to me that my place in the church is unsustainable for the mere reason of a few rules that I do not believe in. I am sorry that you are so concerned for my well-being—and I certainly will not tell anyone not to pray for me—but I do not believe at all that the life and family God has given me are going to lead to my self-destruction. We are not going to agree on this no matter how many discussions we have on the matter, so I would much rather that we consider the issue closed and be done with it.
Thanks for your honesty, Luke. I know we disagree about some rules, but I hope we will both let the Bible be our final authority. I'm sorry if I divorced the rules we have talked about from the eternally-important matter of following Jesus Christ. John 14:15 – "If you love me, you will obey my commandments." Yes, [member] and I wanted to talk about these things with you, but also wanted to let you know that the church leadership has asked you to step down from playing piano because we believe your conduct is not honoring to Christ – the position of piano player being a public ministry. We would like to explain further, but a text is not the place for that. Please be assured of my prayers for you and your new family.

And that was it. I finally got him to admit the church's real intention: to "discipline" me and make an example, as if I wasn't doing the church a favor by acting as one of two musicians in the entire lot, the other of which is getting on in years and would probably jump at the opportunity to "step down".(9)'course, now that I'm gone, that person is not likely to get the opportunity anytime soon. It was finally revealed to me my true value as a member: that I had no value. Without a clear and concise following of some hilariously archaic and nonsensical rules based on a 21st-century reading of a 17th-century translation of a small collection of 1st and 2nd-century documents, I was no more than an ass in a seat, despite everything I'd done for them over the years.

I have had no contact with the pastor personally since, though he and the "church leadership" have certainly gone out of their way to go through the motions of official discipline in my absence. I've received a series of letters from them, one of which in great detail outlined my transgressions that had forced them to take those steps.

And Charlotte, of course, is now my wife, so the whole living-with-someone-to-whom-I-am-not-married thing doesn't even apply anymore. In a spot of irony, the church had a public vote to have me "removed from fellowship" – during our honeymoon.

Great Story, But So What?

In the interest of this thing not sounding like a blog or a sounding board, I would like to make an actual point of this plague of annoyance that has followed me & my wife for the past several months. Personally, I do not hold a grudge against this church, because despite everything, the church itself is not responsible for what happened. Even the religion the church is based on is not responsible—not really.

See, there are hundreds of religions all over the world,(10)Probably millions of them all over the universe, but let's not get into that. and, going on the assumption that God is real, no matter how you perceive the nature of God, it seems pretty likely to me that most religions, if not all of them, point to the same supernatural being. Unfortunately, one of the major flaws most religions share is that this possibility is pretty soundly denied. Religions have a tendency to denounce every other religion as "cult leaders" or "followers of a false god" or something ridiculous like that.

You want to know what a false god is? Your TV. Your money. Your liquor. Those are false gods, and most of us certainly worship one of them from time to time. Most religions use "God" or "Allah" or what-have-you to refer to the omniscient, unknowable creator of the universe. Even seemingly disparate categories of religions, like monotheism and polytheism, probably worship the same being; polytheistic religions simply view God as manifesting in different forms to perform different tasks.

I remember a Sunday School lesson we had when I was a kid in which our teacher posed a hypothetical scenario in which a man in a tribe in the Amazon grew up, lived his whole life, died, and went to hell because he didn't know Jesus Christ. He had never even heard the name. Our teacher was trying to make the point that when this happens, it's our fault as Christians for not doing enough in the field of missions, but there is a very obvious flaw in the reasoning of this story. Christians are taught that when children die, they go to heaven because they are incapable of making the decision to reject Jesus and thus are not guilty, even though we are also taught that every single human is born into sin and needs to actively accept Jesus to go to heaven. But if that's the case, then that man in the Amazon is also innocent because on the basis of academic knowledge alone, that man is also incapable of rejecting a man he's never heard of. The church's counterargument is that we humans, according to the bible, have God's law "written on our hearts," a concept we refer to as a conscience, and this encompasses our ability to perceive that the universe must have been created by a supreme being.

But it still doesn't justify the man in the Amazon going to hell. Of course he knows about God; his tribe has probably been worshiping God for thousands of years. Does he deserve to go to hell because he didn't have the privilege of a visit from the white man to tell them about this guy who lived thousands of miles away from them and died thousands of years ago? It's not like the religious leaders in his tribe were going to figure that story out by observing the creation around them.

See, the problem isn't religion: it's the fact that we are taught that religion is the most important thing in our lives. Religion must form the basis of every single decision we ever make, and when it does not, we call that sin or transgression or what-have-you.

Worst of all, we are taught that religion is more important than one of the things that makes us truly civilized as humans: empathy.

Two things form the backbone of our society: intelligence and empathy. Intelligence enables us to create great things, and empathy enables us to cooperate with fellow humans enough to sustain those great things. Animals have empathy, but they lack enough intelligence to create anything more complex than basic communities. And if we intelligent humans lacked empathy, everything we built would be quickly torn apart by other humans.

I am not one to argue with people about their religions. I have only recently been clearly shown the insanity of certain aspects of the religion I have claimed to be a part of for most of my life. I was raised in this church, which I now know is the only reason I ever ascribed to it; if I was introduced to this madness now, I wouldn't go anywhere near it. I was duped, because I was told the pretty parts as a kid and expected to adhere to the mad parts as an adult. But again, your religion is fine, so long as it follows a new rule I have decided I am going to follow for the rest of my life, and I hope you will consider it for yourself as well:

Religion is a personal choice. It affects how we treat other people, but religion itself is not meant to be applied to other people. You can no more change how other people think than you can change the color of the sky. Therefore, your religion, under no circumstances, should ever supplant your empathy. Believe me, your empathy is more important. If you believe in God, you know that God provided this world for you to live in, and other people to share it with. God also provided you with a brain to enable you to make logical choices, and empathy to force you to base those choices on what is best for everyone.

Whether or not you believe in God, you are insane to allow religion to supplant your empathy. Do you know what we call a person who is able to deprioritize their empathy?

We call them sociopaths. And apparently I just escaped from a church led by a whole bunch of them.

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