I had an interesting exchange with Kel Munger a couple weeks ago at her delightful talk for SacFAN.

Her topic was “The United States of Armageddon”: our native infatuation with apocalyptic theories and literature, which is kind of like end-of-the-world pornography. Why do we have this? — what is its scriptural basis? — can we get rid of it? — Munger was addressing questions like these.

William Miller, 1782 – 1849

In the Q&A following her presentation, someone asked about the astonishing process whereby cults recover from that awkward situation where their elders have promised a Second Coming and nobody comes. The classic example is the Great Disappointment of the Millerites, on October 22, 1844. Jesus did not appear, yet not all the Millerites lost their faith. “Since apocalypse is to be longed for,” Munger had said, “disconfirmation does not discredit the doctrine.” William Miller’s career did not end. Many people continued to take him seriously; some of them went on to found Seventh-Day Adventism.

So someone in the audience came back to this and asked: how can this be? How can an event like the Great Disappointment not immediately terminate the career of the cad who instigated it?

Munger said (I am quoting from memory): “Well, in fiction, it’s called the willing suspension of disbelief. People like stories. They like story-tellers. They want to believe.”

I put my hand up and made eye contact. “Suspension of disbelief sounds like a fair description if we’re talking about the folks in the congregation. But if we look at the professional Bible-thumper who who led them into this mess, wouldn’t lying through one’s teeth be more accurate? It seems to me that ‘the doctrine is not discredited’ only because someone’s income depends on it.”

She blanched. “I don’t think that’s fair,” she said. “Most preachers are not liars. You can’t tar all of them with the same brush. Most of them are not evil men. They are trying to do the right thing for their community, according to their best understanding.”

Caught off-guard by this likable woman’s evident distress, I backed down. “OK, separate topic,” I said. “Some other evening.” But later in the Q&A someone else revived the issue, and Munger said a little more.

“I do agree with Roy,” she said, “when it comes to people like Billy Graham and Rick Warren. The Left Behind guys. The mega-church people. I can agree that those people don’t believe in anything but making money — that they literally worship Mammon. But picture a much more common scenario: the well-meaning pastor and his 50 congregants in a storefront church in, say, rural Idaho. As I mentioned, that was my whole environment growing up. I know how it works. This is not a guy whose whole program is to rip people off. He believes in what he’s doing. He’s trying to do right.”

I shook my head. “That’s very hard for me to imagine,” I said. “His job is to tell the congregation things that are not true. He makes his living by telling lies. How is that ‘trying to do right’?”

Kel said, “Lying is when you say what you think is not true. That’s not what preachers do. They say what they think is true. You might call it delusional, and you might be right, but that still doesn’t make him a liar.

When I got home I expressed my frustration to Vicky; but she agreed with Munger. “If they believe what they’re saying, then it’s simply not correct to call them liars,” she said. “The word doesn’t mean that.”

“But I’ve written a whole book demonstrating that they don’t actually believe anything they’re preaching.”

“But people are not familiar with that thesis.”

“No, and I didn’t bring it up.”

“So you shouldn’t have expected people to know what you meant when you described priests are liars. They thought you were talking nonsense, and they were not completely wrong.”

“So what can I say? What is the preacher in Idaho doing? If ‘lying’ is the wrong word, what should I call it?”

“I don’t know, Roy. There doesn’t have to be a one-word solution.”

~ • ~

That conversation took place a couple weeks ago, and I’m still mulling it over.

Priests (preachers, imams, rabbis — anyone who tells people what to do and claims that it’s based on their religious understanding) aren’t liars, because they happen to believe what they’re saying. They might be mistaken, or even deluded, but they’re not lying. Sounds reasonable — but I can’t let it stand. I think there are at least two reasons to resist this formulation.

The first reason has to do with the nature of their pronouncements. Kel Munger’s talk was on theories of the Apocalypse. The followers of apocalyptic personalities are told that the world is going to end. Everyone is going to die, except the Special Ones. A preacher describing the coming Apocalypse is not just expressing an opinion on scriptural eschatology, he is predicting a shattering end to human affairs. This prediction, if true, should prompt a drastic response from everyone who understands it. If we really think that the world as we have known it is going to end, we are going to start taking radical action. Wikipedia says that some of the Millerites gave away all their possessions. (It doesn’t mention the money and goods that were given to Miller himself; but preaching was his profession, so he was certainly paid something, which I guarantee you he accepted, even if he couldn’t possibly need it after October 22nd.) If you had an injury or a disease it would make perfect sense to put off any treatment. After all, you wouldn’t still have it in Heaven, right? The same reasoning applies to personal issues. If you’re having serious problems dealing with your husband, your job, or your alcoholism — none of that would be likely to still be bothering you after the Second Coming, so why worry? Because of this, the Millerites (and the victims of all other end-time prophecies) will be saddled with horrendous problems when the world doesn’t end. There will be all kinds of things they will wish they had attended to before it was too late.

A preacher who plans to risk getting his congregation into this kind of fix needs to be really sure that what he is saying is the truth. Would you get up on a stage and tell people about a major catastrophe, the kind that would require every sensible person to literally drop everything and literally run to the hills, taking nothing with them, if you were not pretty god-damned sure it was happening? That would be irresponsible, to say the least.

But what if you thought you could make a good living by delivering such speeches? I know: you still wouldn’t do it. Neither would I. But some people would.

Even if it’s true that he believes what is saying, he is saying something that should not be said without an extremely high level of confidence. And that, he does not have. Maybe he has gone through some sort of scriptural calculus to arrive at the predicted date. Maybe he’s thought about it a lot. Maybe he’s “prayed to God for guidance.” That’s not enough. To put the matter as generously as possible, he does not know what’s going to happen. He has a kind of feeling about it. He has no evidence. Maybe he say truthfully that he “firmly believes” the prophecy. But he cannot truthfully say that he knows. How would he know? — is there a way to check? Of course not. And if you can’t check, you don’t know.

“The world is about to end” is something you really shouldn’t say unless you know. That’s obvious — and therefore, to say such a thing is to promise that you do know. But you don’t know; so the promise is a lie.

~ • ~

Here is another reason that I hesitate to abandon my shocking accusation of lying on the part of apocalyptic preachers. I don’t think that ideas such as the Rapture can really be believed.

The Rapture is a belief that all ‘true Christians’ will be gathered together in the air to meet Christ at his return.

That’s how Wikipedia describes it. The exact formulation is not important. Note the word belief, which would be included in almost anyone’s definition. This is wrong. The Rapture is not a belief. It’s nonsense.

There’s a difference.

Atheists often accuse the “faithful” of having nonsensical beliefs. Sometimes the faithful agree! They’ll say things like, “I know it doesn’t make sense, but I believe it anyway.” For thousands of years, theologians have warned us that doctrines such as the Trinity cannot be understood by mere mortals. They use the word “mysteries” to make the concept more palatable, but it is garbage. You can’t believe something you don’t understand.

Tell me that the American River is 1,500 meters from here, and I might believe you. If you change your mind and say it’s 1,500 kilometers, I won’t. But if you say it’s 230 blivs from here, and also that you don’t know what a bliv is, I can’t have an opinion either way. I don’t agree or disagree — I don’t believe or disbelieve — I simply don’t know what you mean.

The same is true of “all true Christians will be gathered together in the air”. The problem with this statement is that it mixes categories (as does the simpler story of the resurrection of Jesus). What can it possibly mean for one person, or thousands, to float into the air?

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that physically, scientifically, it’s impossible. My point is more subtle. I am saying that the story makes no sense. For thousands of human beings to float into the air to meet Jesus would require the suspension of thousands of well-known physical laws. Gravity, for example. And if you go high enough, you can’t breathe. So, yes, it’s impossible — but it’s much worse than that. As soon as the story tells us that all those laws are suspended, we don’t even know what the story is saying anymore.

Julia Sweeney has a great example in her show, Letting Go of God. Some Mormons are telling her about Heaven. She’s thinking: this is way too similar to Earth. You rejoin your whole family there? — who would want that? And then they say that your body is restored to perfect health, and she thinks, well, wait a minute — what if you had had a nose job, and you liked it? The Mormon picture of Heaven isn’t just ridiculous, it’s self-contradictory. It’s incoherent. It can’t be true that in Heaven everyone’s body is as good as new, and that it’s anything like the body each of us had when we were taken up; or that you have a physical body, and that you don’t age. It’s not just that it’s impossible: it makes no sense. So when people propose it, we literally don’t know what they mean.

And neither do they.

There is another example in a YouTube video by philhellenes, which I blogged about just a couple days ago. In Hell there’s supposed to be fire, which will burn you for all eternity. Now, the only kind of fire we know anything about works by burning fuel. If it burns for long enough, it will use up all the fuel and go out. But the fire in Hell doesn’t do this. Therefore, it’s not physical fire: it’s magic fire. But we don’t know anything about magic fire. Not one single thing. Apparently it is fundamentally different from physical fire, but in what way? — we don’t know. I say again: we know nothing about this magic fire. And therefore, when people tell us about it, we literally don’t know what they mean. And neither do they.

Hell, Heaven, the Rapture — no one knows the first thing about any of these things. But it’s worse than that. It’s not that there’s insufficient information, it’s that the only “information” we have contradicts itself. And a message that contradicts itself doesn’t say anything at all. “Heaven is in the sky” might make some kind of sense; “Heaven is not in the sky” also might. But “Heaven is in the sky and it is not in the sky” does not. Of course the way our minds work, we’ll automatically try very hard to make sense of it. Well, we reckon, it’s in the sky in a manner of speaking — and not in the sky in some other manner. But remember that we have no information on this. In what way might Heaven be in the sky, and in what other way might it not be? We know nothing whatsoever about Heaven. The raw contradictions are all we have.

So when someone says, “I believe in Heaven,” they can’t be right. There is no proposition there for them to believe. All we have about Heaven is nonsense, and nonsense is not a proposition, and if it’s not a proposition you can’t believe it. To believe is to have an opinion about a proposition. If it’s not a proposition, you can’t have an opinion about it. Just as you can’t lift something that’s not physical, you can’t believe something that’s not an idea.

Now someone might say, “You can lift something metaphorically — like, lifting someone’s spirits.” To which I would reply, “Well, do you really believe in God, or just metaphorically?”

~ • ~

Is it wrong to describe a priest who is preaching to his congregation as a liar? Really, I don’t think it’s too far off.

For one thing, he cannot possibly have the kind of confidence in his message that he should have, given the colossal ramifications of the message itself. At the very least, he has not done due diligence. He’s behaving recklessly. And through this reckless and irresponsible behavior, he’s making a living off the people who trust him. I’d call that lying, and I’d call it fraud.

For another thing, the idea that he believes what he is preaching is logically dubious. What he’s saying is utter nonsense, so I don’t think you can really say he believes it. The word ‘belief’ is inappropriate here. He’s not believing, only preaching. Maybe it would be wrong to characterize his sermons as lies, if he sincerely believed them — but he can’t believe them. No one can. They are not things that can be believed.

One last point.

If you prefer to think that he really believes these things, does that not make him dangerously delusional? If he really believes, for example, that the Earth is about to be destroyed and everyone will perish except very certain special folks, his intellectual and moral compasses are catastrophically skewed. Seriously, this person cannot be trusted to make important decisions for other people. Yet, he is counseling his flock on decisions of supreme importance! Whether to get married, and to whom. Whether to have children, or practice birth control. Who to save, and who to kill. What to spend their money on — all their money. He will tell them anything and everything, including real matters of life and death. These are not just opinions of the sort that everyone has and, like, “it’s a free country.” A church is not a free country. You don’t get to be a member of that church and do whatever you want. Many of the pastor’s pronouncements are not opinions but direct commands, and to disobey them is to cut yourself off from the rest of the congregation. You may be shunned, or ostracized — or much, much worse.

All day long this man tells his flock — his paying customers — things that are patently untrue. Is the spell he’s under really that strong? — or could this be all about his livelihood? Could he simply be making a living from lying? It’s not as if no one’s tried that before.