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Stop-gap Answers

R. S. Martin

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I was posting some of this in the Lion's Den for our Recovering Atheist and it occurred to me how seriously off-topic it was so I'll repost it here for further discussion. I was thinking about topics like the End of the World, the Great Judgment, where people went when they died, what the preachers said at funerals--and how things didn't hang together. It occurred to me that a lot of stuff religion tells us and forces us to believe on pain of excommunication may be nothing but stop-gap answers. I will share some things I learned over the years that turned out to be stop-gap answers. Feel free to add your own. Maybe we'll solve a few mysteries in the process.


I realized that there were a lot of things that I wasn't supposed to notice, and if I did notice, preachers and other church people would only say things like, "How glad I am it is not in my place to judge!" Wasn't the preacher really saying: This man really was a very nasty person and never kept the rules of the church very well and by all rights he aughta be in hell but it would be incorrect for me to say so in front of all his relatives so I will play humble and ignorant and let an all-wise God be the judge.?


If THAT is what he was saying, how much other stuff was the church saying that they really never said? For example, when I was in the class for baptism as a 17 year old, the normal age for my church, the preachers and other adults told us in their wise and solemn voices that we would not understand it all now and that was okay; we would learn as we got older. Of course, we were also invited--even begged--to ask if we had any questions. So I did ask a simple question of the lady I was working with. It was just a definition for a word I didn't quite understand. She was my mother's age and a preacher's daughter so I assumed she was very wise. I never asked another question because she didn't even get what I was asking and finally told me that I would understand after my first class. I most certainly did not understand but one thing was clear: Asking questions was not the way to get answers.


Many years later I asked a deacon a burning lifelong question and all he did was quote bible verses, as though I had not read the Bible and had not sat through twenty-five years of sermons. I guess perhaps most people comprehend very little of what they hear, and think about it even less. I was made to believe that this stuff was deadly serious so I took it that way and did all within my power to learn and understand it.


So that was then. I hung around for a while longer and hit forty. I realized I was now "older." I realized something else: I was not one bit closer to answers than I had been at seventeen or 25. Hmmm. I had kept all the rules. I had gone out of my way to be very faithful and obedient to the church. I had also read the Bible and everything else I could lay hands on. Life was totally not worth living. None of the wise sayings and home remedies and sure cures helped me in the least. I had tried EVERYTHING. God and the church promised all along that doing all these things would automatically bring peace. And I had never been further from peace and happiness.


After investigating absolutely everything and weighing every last pro and con (and believe me the cons were HEAVY) I decided to get myself a university education with the goal to become a counselor. I set things up with the hope to try it out without getting myself excommunicated before I knew whether I wanted to go that route. Excommunication from the church was a very real risk IF people knew what I was doing. My strategy worked so well that people didn't find out until I chose to come out of the closet fourteen months later; I had been studying all that time. And then the universe exploded.


However, I saw it coming and I was prepared. I had made arrangements that morning to go to the modern Mennonite church the following Sunday. (It happened on a Sunday.) Immediately after these plans were in place I had the new birth experience. It was a very vivid experience of liberation, peace, and joy the likes of which I did not know humans could experience. And it happened at the precise moment that I turned my back on all I had been taught to consider holy. That carried me through the debris of the exploded universe for months until I felt a bit more solid footing. Maybe years.


Probably every last person on these forums except me would say the church I started going to was hard-core fundy. And it was. Mennonite brand charismatic fundy. Coming from a horse and buggy community where piety was measured by length of dress on women and width of hat brim on men, and where all musical instruments were banned, a church with a worship band where women turned up in shorts and cut hair and men wore the same--well, you can guess that had I not been reading Norman Vincent Peale's Guideposts for fifteen years I might have been in for a severe shock. As it was, I had worked through these issues. I saw that people were smiling and I believed it was the joy of the Lord.


I interpret it differently today but I believe it was just as genuine and just real as the solemnity of the Mennonites I had been with all my life--just a different form of the same expression. The one group believed it was disrespectful to crack a smile during service; the other group believed it was ungrateful not to dance and clap for joy. All did it to the honor and glory of God--that was the conscious intent. (Not everyone danced and clapped and it's not my nature to respond like that, so I did not feel obligated. Some people always showed up in formal dress and so did I. However, I liked the small informal group.)


Here's what I was taught about how the end of the world would happen:


Jesus came like lightening and that was it. The Great Judgment followed right after and immediately people were divided into sheep and goats and ended up in heaven or hell (I always wondered how even God himself could instantly go through the Books of Life and judge billions of people that fast but so be it; all the songs mentioned "the Great White Throne"). The confusing part was that at funerals the newly dead people were assumed to already be in their final resting place and weirdly enough it was always assumed to be pleasant no matter how kind or unkind they had been in life, no matter how well or how poorly they had followed the church rules (who were the large number of bad people who went to hell? Jesus did say very definitely that most people would end up in hell because broad is the way and wide is the gate and many there be that find it). Thus a final judgment doesn't really fit in but there absolutely has to be one because the Bible says there is one.


Another thing I found out only when my own mother passed away. I saw her in the hospital only hours before she died. I saw her again after the undertaker was done with her. I also heard the comments people made about her "peaceful" expresssion. There is the belief that the expression on the face of the dead person shows whether that person died with peace with God, whether the soul is with God. I did not see Mom when she stopped breathing. However, I don't believe she had the expression at that point that she had in the coffin. What she had in the coffin is something I had never seen. Nor had I ever seen what I saw in the hospital. These were the two extremes: one in the hospital was the face of agony and the other was the face of perfect rest. I do not believe that conscience had a single thing to do with either. I had no desire to "enlighten" the superstitions of the religious person who commented on her peace. I believed that I was seeing for the first and only time the mother she was never able to be in life. I wanted to treasure the memory.


Thus, perhaps the "final judgment" is itself nothing but a stop-gap answer for people who cannot otherwise deal with the injustices of life. I do know that when I deconverted and one of my sisters tried to reconvert me I explained about waiting all these years to get older in order to understand and I still don't understand. You know what she told me? She said, "Maybe we don't have to understand." Talk about wanting to scream! I had not waited all these years to get "older" only to be told I would never understand. THAT was a broken promise if ever there was one.


I don't care that she's another generation and not the same person who made the promise in the first place. If she considers it to be in her place to take over where Mom left off when it comes to teaching and admonishing me, then she can take on the responsibility to fill Mom's promises that Mom didn't live to deliver. And I am quite sure Mom would have said the exact the same thing, word for word. It's STOP-GAP ANSWERS WRIT LARGE. This is the kind of thing that makes me want to break stuff.


It's one more piece of evidence that perhaps I did make the right decision. Every stop-gap answer we can dig up will help even more. So feel free to share yours.


This got a bit longer and more involved than I had intended....

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That's good Ruby. I like that word "stop-gap answers". It sums up one of the sides to religion. I've realized religion is successful with many because it covers so many different areas in the human psyche, and this is definitely one of those sides. All the questions and wonderings we have - because of our evolved intelligence - and religion provides stop-gap pseudo answers like sugar-pills to help people's mind relax and forget to ask. It's the perfect tool for political control. Give a religion to people, and you can control their minds, their will, their dreams and their actions. This is why it is successful, but also why it is so dangerous.

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That's good Ruby. I like that word "stop-gap answers". It sums up one of the sides to religion. I've realized religion is successful with many because it covers so many different areas in the human psyche, and this is definitely one of those sides. All the questions and wonderings we have - because of our evolved intelligence - and religion provides stop-gap pseudo answers like sugar-pills to help people's mind relax and forget to ask. It's the perfect tool for political control. Give a religion to people, and you can control their minds, their will, their dreams and their actions. This is why it is successful, but also why it is so dangerous.


Thank you.


The person who helped me see that there was a certain thought structure behind religion was an atheist female professor from an Orthodox Jewish background. She talked about her cousin who was such a strict Orthodox Jewish rabi that he couldn't eat at just any Kosher restaurant, it had to be the right kind of kosher. (Don't ask me the details on it because I haven't a clue; I just know there are a heirarchy of holy and more holy details in Orthodox Judaism just like there are in ultra-conservative Mennonitism. And he adhered to the most holy ones.) She said her mother went half-way from Orthodoxy and she went the rest of the way. According to the pictures I've seen of Orthodox Jewish men, the Jews are barely distinguishable from the horse and buggy Mennonite men. This lady was not many generations removed from Yiddish, which is similar to Pennsylvania German. She and I shared a definite kinship on a lot of levels.


I'm not sure if she used the word "stop-gap" but she used terms awfully similar. "Closed system" was a term she used. The course I took with her was in anthropology of religion and we looked at many different kinds of religion and their spiritual practices. This included prayer and magic and other rituals among tribes all over the world. We watched many videos of these people and their rituals. She explained about answers for when the rules don't work. And that is basically what I mean by stop-gap answers. I think that is what she meant by a closed system.


Perhaps the most commonly mentioned "rules that don't work" scenario on exC is unanswered prayer and how Christians have answers to "stop the gap" or "close the system." I was taught God answers prayer if we pray in faith. "The prayer of the righteous availeth much if it is sincere" or something along those line was an oft-quoted verse. Thus, when a prayer is not answered, people can always say, "You didn't have enough faith," or "You didn't pray hard enough," or "You weren't sincere enough," etc. "A broken heart and contrite spirit, O Lord, thou wilt not despise," was another verse often quoted to prove that God does hear--and answer--prayer IF it is earnest. But it MUST be earnest. And you must pray BELIEVING it will be answered; otherwise it won't be answered.


In a way, this differs significantly from what a lot of people on here were taught. A lot of people here say they were taught God's answer is: Yes, No, or Later. That is so "cut and dried" compared to what I was taught. But still, it's a stop-gap answer, a closed system, that let's God off the hook no matter what the out-come. It also allows for human interpretation as to what constitutes an "answer."


I saw one situation that really had me scratching my head. It was a family that believed firmly that God would heal the cancer patient in the family. They seemed to believe that God's answer could not be No because they prayed with the right kind of faith and the Bible promised. The patient died and they proclaimed that God kept his promise; the patient was now healed of his cancer because he was now in heaven where there was no cancer. When Dad's baby brother (who was like a big brother to me) died of cancer quite a few years ago, Dad called very early one morning with a similar message. He said, "Well, Menno has overcome."


I was stumped. What did he mean? I thought Menno was on the mend. Did he take a turn for the worse? Dad continued talking almost incoherently and I pieced together that Menno had died. I concluded that the battle with cancer was over, and from a faith perspective it might be said he "won" the battle in a spiritual way, kind of like the story above.


If I remember correctly, I asked Dad plainly, "Did Menno die?" He answered in the affirmative. It seemed to drain him of all energy. I never heard any of the details around Menno's death. At one point when I started asking about it Mom hushed me up and said we had to forgive people--everybody did the best they knew. I take it there may have been serious disagreement around medication and that his death may have been brought on because doctor's orders were not strictly followed. But that's a lot of guess-work build on bits and pieces of hearsay. The point here is that Dad would have known all about it if there were any dusky goings-on and he would have needed stop-gap answers like never before.


I don't believe anybody intentionally killed anybody but I believe some people in the situation may have had limited intelligence. Menno never seemed like an overly intelligent person to me and the woman he married was not a person I would have wanted to be dependent on when critical life and death decisions had to be made. I saw how she cared for her babies, which was at times not at all. I don't think it was intentional neglect so much as lack of insight. They all grew up and and that's all that counts in a community that embraces the dumb-ass because Jesus commended the poor of the earth and denigrated the proud. (Proud for them automatically means high education and high fashion.) Lack of intelligence must be borne as a cross and accepted as God's will, no matter how many generations (or centuries) of in-breeding have contributed to the situation.


Anybody see a stop-gap answer in there???

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In my wanderings up and down the internet I came across some more of those stop-gap answers that used to drive me crazy. It’s on ministerturnsatheist.org. He’s looking at the different kinds of arguments his Christian friends and relatives use to get him to come back to the fold.


As to why we can't see God--"he's too holy, too powerful, too

great for us, etc." Wouldn't it be so much easier for all involved if they could just come out and say, "Actually, nobody knows for sure if he exists but we think, hope, trust, and believe he does." Wouldn't that be so much more honest? You wouldn't have to swear your soul away to be a member of your native community. You could harbor doubt and still be a member of good standing in the community.

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