Sunday, April 19, 2009

I am the greatest threat to democracy

On Wednesday South Africans go the polls in what some have called the most important general elections since 1994. Many are worried about the recent abuses of power by the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), and there has been much talk that the ANC is now posing a threat to our young democracy.

But the ANC does not pose any threat at all; we should not be worried about our politicians. Rather, we should be worried about our citizens. It is you, me and every other South African who are the threat, because we are the ones who now, through the ballot box, have an opportunity to either keep the ANC as is, or to restrain their power. But of all South Africans, there are three groups who pose the greatest danger.

The first group are those who complain that the ANC has never provided them with water, electricity or housing. They sit around in squalor, bitterly upset over the ruling party, but not brave enough to vote against it. When asked if they will vote in next week's election, they reply: "We are very upset, so we will not vote at all." With this flawed thinking they sit around, waiting for government to take their problems away.

The second group stand around braais on Saturday afternoons and complain that South Africa is "going to the dogs" and will end up just like Zimbabwe or "the rest of Africa". When asked if they will vote, they reply: "I'm not going to vote because all politicians are corrupt. Anyway, I belong to a minority group, so my vote won't make any difference". They sit around, waiting for someone to blame.

Then there are the 'lazy citizens' who do vote when elections come around, but do nothing to strengthen democracy in the interim. They refrain from taking any part, however small, in civil society. When things go wrong, they are normally the ones who plead: "but I did not vote for the ruling party", as if this absolves them from personal responsibility. I admit that I fall into this group. It's a scary thought to think that because of my own laziness, I am the one who poses the greatest risk to our democracy.

I think personal responsibility is what is lacking in the groups I describe above. Many South Africans seem to yield themselves to other people or to circumstance, either by waiting for someone to make their lives better, instead of making a start themselves; or by complaining about problems without taking any effort to contribute to solutions. By voting, a person takes the first step to lifting herself out of powerlessness.

But even for those who choose not to vote, we will all be responsible for the results of next week's election. If we give any party too much power, and if this power eventually leads to a form of tyranny, then we have only ourselves to blame.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Replacing your cross of gold

Over the last weekend I found myself reflecting on Easter. As an outsider to the Christian faith, I've always been interested in the imagery that Christians revere, especially at this time of year. One thing that has continuously perplexed me is the adoption of the cross as the primary symbol that identifies Christianity. Almost every church is adorned by the image of the cross in some way, either hung above the pulpit or attached to the steeple. The cross appears in most Christian material, from books and pictures to clothes and coffee mugs.

But what does the cross mean to me, as a non-Christian? Knowledge of Angels, a fictional novel by Jill Paton Walsh, is about a young child who has been brought up by wolves in the wild, and her subsequent discovery by a highly religious, medieval society. In one point in the book, the young child is introduced to a church for the first time, and is horrified by the image of the suffering Christ on the wall. Without the filters of religious upbringing, she sees the cross for what it really is: misery, violence and death. This sight shocks her, as it seems far more barbaric that anything she would have experienced among animals.

Fundamentalist Christianity in particular seems to have an unhealthy fixation over Christ's death, of the pain, the violence and the blood. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, for example, is one of the most violent movies I have ever seen.

Not only does it symbolise suffering and pain, but doesn't the cross also symbolise the victory of evil over good, of God's brief defeat in the hands of Satan? I'm perplexed because, from what I understand, the main turning point in the Christian story is not the cross, but the empty tomb, when misery was replaced by joy, and defeat by victory.

Should Christianity then not replace the symbol of despair with the symbol of hope, the symbol of evil with the symbol of good? If Christianity has anything positive to say, should you not instead wear around your neck an image of the empty tomb, rather than that of the cross?

Friday, April 10, 2009

A letter to a new ex-Christian

Dear ex-Christian

I just want to thank you for writing to me and letting me know about your recent decision to leave Christianity. I can understand how difficult it was for you.

What I want to say – and as an ex-Christian this is something that took me a while to realise – is that you should never be ashamed of the decision you have taken. I can't stress this enough! Despite what some Christians might claim, the reason for your journey away from faith was not to embrace sin, but to achieve integrity.

What has integrity got to do with changing your beliefs? Well, I once heard the following definition of integrity:

What you think, do, and say is the same thing.

Integrity means being consistent in these (and many other) areas of our lives. It is a state in which an individual can become a whole person, instead of consisting of many different, fractured parts. As individuals, we can never be perfectly consistent or whole, but we can always work towards it, and being mostly whole is a step towards good psychological health.

Many Christians, who I look up to and respect, live with incredible integrity; they exhibit consistency in how they act, and in what they think and say. But during my own faith struggle I eventually reached a point where I could no longer sustain the inconsistencies between what I believed and what I observed in the world around me, causing a chasm to develop between what I thought, what I said, and how I acted. For a while I pretended to be Christian, but pretending to believe when I no longer did seemed dishonest, somehow. So in the end I decided to strive towards consistency, and for me that meant leaving my faith behind – not only in thought, but also in word and in deed.

Christian friends and family who look down on you because of your decision should instead hold you in high esteem, because you are searching for consistency in your own life. Is this not a good value to aim for? Many noble Christians have strived for integrity and have succeeded within the boundaries of their faith. But what if achieving integrity means changing one's core beliefs? If a loving God really exists, I would think he would value integrity and honesty above mere obedience. Well, that's the kind of God I would hope for :-)

Just know that there are others out there who have also reached a point of letting go of faith. You are not alone, and there is nothing wrong in rethinking what you believe. After all, you are becoming a whole person.

Keep well, and let me know how you do.


Thursday, April 02, 2009

Was Moses the author of the Pentateuch?

As I've mentioned before on this blog, leaving conservative Christianity has allowed me to view many things in a new, refreshing light. One of these has been the Bible. When I was a Christian, I believed the Bible to be the inerrant word of God, historically accurate and perfect in every way.

How unexciting!

When I finally accepted that the Bible is a mishmash of different manuscripts from a myriad of unknown authors, pasted together over the centuries, changed and adapted over time to fit different political and religious ideologies, it suddenly became that much more interesting.

Letting go of inerrancy
has allowed me to discover facinating facts about the Bible. Some examples: the word Lucifer doesn't refer to Satan at all, but to the star Venus; the diversity of manuscripts continuously presents translational challenges for biblical scholars; and Matthew mistakenly believed that the virgin birth prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 was a prophecy about Jesus.

Another interesting fact that I've recently learnt, and which is probably old news to most Christians and biblical scholars, is that there is evidence that Moses was not the author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. This runs counter to what I was taught as a Christian.

John Loftus, author of Why I Became an Atheist, presents a number of reasons to this effect (page 167). The more interesting ones are listed below:

  • Deuteronomy 34:6 tells where Moses was buried and states that "to this day no one knows the exact place of his burial." The words "to this day" implies that this line was written some time after his death.
  • Genesis 14:14 states that Abraham chased four kings to the city of Dan. This is interesting, as Dan was not the name of that city until the time of Samson (Judges 18:29), three centuries after Moses had died.
  • Genesis 36:31 mentions the names of kings in other lands "before there were any kings in Israel". There were no kings of Israel in the time of Moses (Saul would later be the first king). So, as the author, how would Moses know that Israel would one day have kings?
  • Exodus 16:35 states that the Israelites ate manna until they came to the border of the land of Canaan. Moses was dead before they eventually reached Canaan, so he could not have written this.
This makes the Pentateuch that much more interesting, because it opens the door to many fascinating questions. If Moses was not the author, who was? Was it a number of authors, or just one? If there were a number of authors, did each subtly bring into the text his own culture, ideologies, concerns and beliefs?