Thursday, August 21, 2014

Harry Potter and the Logic of Religion

I have been reading Harry Potter, and have been quite amazed at how believable it is.  While I don't really believe that wizards and witches are learning magic at Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic is  altering peoples' memories, nevertheless the story is told so well that I feel almost ready to live in the alternate reality it presents.  What is it that makes the idea of magic, that I normally dismiss as a silly superstition, so attractive?

I think the key is that magic is given a logic of its own.  It has its own structure and system of rules that seem plausible.  There are spells and counter-spells that work like arrows and shields except using a wand.  Voldemort's historic attempt to kill Harry Potter fails due to a deeper magic whereby the sacrifice of his mother protected him.  A voluntary giving of one's life has got to do something right?  Voldemort later fails to kill him because their wands share an inner core.  Sharing an inner core must mean something right?  Then Voldemort fails to kill Harry twice because he used Harry's blood in regenerating himself and in so doing bound Harry's life to his own.  If your life was built on someone else's blood then you can't kill him.  And of course Voldemort could protect his own life by putting bits of his soul in horcruxes.  You can't die if you can't destroy the soul and if some of your soul is hiding someone else then you can't be killed even if your body is destroyed. 

The logic is there, ready for you to immerse yourself in it.  That is part of why the books are so addictive.  But of course that doesn't mean I truly believe the logic.  I temporarily assent to it and enjoy the stories and then go back to my regular life.  But what about faiths or religions?  Aren't they very similar?

Indeed I think successful religions are the ones who present a plausible logic that people hold onto and don't let go.  Christianity is a prime example.  In my old days as an evangelist I used to present this logic to potential converts: God originally created the world good and pure (so God is blameless).  People rebelled and sinned, so should justly be punished (in hell).  But God had mercy and sent his only son to voluntarily die for us and so wipe away our sin and save us.  If you have any conscious you will accept his deep sacrifice and worship him (or else his sacrifice won't count and he will be forced to let you go to hell).  There is certainly a logic to this, as well as inducements to feeling guilty.  Christianity holds so long as one remains convinced by this logic.  Looking at it now this logic seems faulty on many levels, but nevertheless it was strong enough to hold me for many years. 

There is no proof for logics like these, but external proof is too much to expect for any logic.  So why do some people hold onto these logics so strongly while others reject them?  Why are some logics that used to be plausible (and believed to be fact), such as Greek myths and Odysseus's adventures, no longer seem believable?   Christianity has held sway for a good 2000 years.  It certainly changed and mutated a lot initially, and continues to evolve.  These changes are likely driven by what logic people find plausible.  We drop or modify parts we no longer find plausible, like a god called Yahweh, who was one of the gods, fighting for his chosen people, and make him now into the one and only God.  Other parts we sort of brush aside, like Jesus spending a lot of his time casting out demons which apparently were a regular part of society (like witches).  We add a trinity that is really one and three at the same time, even though we can't say exactly what the one and the three are.  It is a logic that has certainly swayed great minds. 

Longevity tends to engender the assumption that it will go on forever.  But I wonder if the days of Christianity are numbered?  Is its logic is starting to fray in people's minds?  Are people seeing the holes and starting to categorize it as one of the great myths of our time? 

 

Sunday, December 01, 2013

A Unitarian Universalist Church

I have recently visited a Unitarian Universalist Church. It is quite an interesting institution.  They pride themselves in being a religion that is not united by dogma (or doctrine), but rather with the ideal that God, if there is one, loves all humans. It is an concept that all humans have great value and none will be sent to hell.  I remember if my old days looking down on this view thinking how ridiculous it was and how God has to punish people in hell for justice to win.  But now I think this need for hell-fire is wishful thinking built on a mistaken and simplistic view of the world.  Not only this but hell-as-punishment makes God into either a malicious tyrant or an impotent one, but that is not the point of this post.

Back to Unitarian Universalism: what is important about us is not what we believe, but how we act.  Ah, this is extremely refreshing, and actually it reminds me of the book of James where faith is known by its actions.  One of the amazing consequences is there are UU atheists and UU theists and they get along in the same religion!  Quite interesting: a religion that accepts rationalists and atheists.  I guess it comes down to members not needing to agree in what they believe but rather in what they value. 

Someone asked me what UU sermons are if they don't have doctrines.  Well, actually not having doctrines is actually a great benefit.  Teachings cannot be justified based on a doctrine.  Instead truth has to be discovered on its own terms.  Actions aren't evil because they are condemned by a verse in the Bible, but rather because of the harm they cause to humans.  And UU communities are just like other communities with the same struggles and joys, and the need for encouragement and guidance.  So I find that I don't cringe during sermons as I used to when I hear specious arguments justifying doctrines.  Instead I find a much greater sense of humility in UU sermons along with empirically based teaching.
 

Monday, April 08, 2013

Reflections on a loved one dying

Three months ago she was frail but capable; going for long walks, preparing food for family, holding grand-kids, buying bargains at Costco, and giving tips on healthy living.  But those three months seem like many long years.  The cancer has metastasized. It is taking over her lungs, her body, her strength.

Breathing is painful and getting harder.  She needs constant oxygen.  Her face has turned gray and wrinkled.  The skin is taught and gaunt.  Life is seeping.  The world is spinning.  Soon it will spin beyond reach.  All we can do is wait.

It makes me feel small: like an ant living my life on a small mat floating down a great river.  I arrange my belongings, work hard, gather food, live my life.  But I know I am approaching the ocean.  It could be around any bend in the river.  And when I reach it I will be cast adrift in the boundless emptiness.

And yet, I am content.  I am content with my life, be it short or be it long.  It is already longer than I have right to demand.  I am happy for the good times.  I am even happy for the struggles.  I don't demand eternal life, or hope for the afterwards.   Yes I do have hopes and dreams and fears.  I want to achieve great things, and see my kids grow up and have kids of their own.  Those may or may not happen, but I know there will be a day when I take my last breath.  And what I want to say on that day is "I am content."

Addendum 13 April 2013:
This morning she died.  She was not afraid.  And to the end she was more concerned for the sicknesses and ailments of others than for herself.  The previous night she was giving me advice on getting over my cold/flu, while she was dying.  

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Politics and Faith

Despite the title, this post is not political.  Rather I am asking the question: what can politics inform us about faith and ourselves.  As I will point out, there are similarities between our political loyalties and our faith or religious loyalties.  By examining peculiarities of political allegiances, I think we will gain insights into how faith and religion operate.

First a background on faith.  There is a big emphasis on having faith all the way back to the gospels.  Jesus told parables about it (faith as small as mustard seed will move mountains), commended people who had it (the centurion), and rebuked those who failed to have it (Capernaum).  His followers asked for it ("I do have faith, help my unbelief").  The current evangelical movement is all about spreading the faith, making believers, and maintaining the faith of believers.

So is having faith easy or hard?  Well billions (or millions depending who you ask) of people have it, so surely it can't be too hard.  And yet there are plenty of people who struggle with it for many years.  Why is it so easy for some and so hard for others?  It is not because unbelievers are weak or smug or want to be immoral or self-centered  or other of the many explanatory aspersions I have heard.  No, I think the answer to why some have it easy and others don't can be observed and found in a related endeavor: politics.

Political affiliations are powerful things.  They affect how we see the world.  We tend to have very strong biases in favor of those we support and against those we don't.  Here is an observation that I have made about myself.  When a politician who I support says or does something a bit suspect, I feel myself giving him the benefit of the doubt.  I start with the assumption that there is probably a valid explanation for why he said or did that.  And I don't really want to dig up the details; rather I want it to go away.  On the other hand, if a politician from a party I dislike says something suspect, I assume the worst about him and that reinforces my negative view of him.

Now I see this bias tendency in myself even though I try and avoid it and attempt to be objective and non-partisan.  I see it even more strongly in others who are partisan and make no such attempts to be objective.  Any failings or evils in their party are minimized while failings or evils in the opposing party are magnified.  The politicians they support can do no wrong (in their eyes) while the opponents can do no right.  The name I want to give this is: attachment politics.

In attachment politics one has chosen a side.  One has a personal stake in one's party doing well.  One is loyal to one's party and party goals.  One believes the good things about one's party and minimizes the negative.  One dismisses the beliefs and goals of the other parties, and doesn't understand why partisans of other parties don't see the errors in their ways.  It takes a awful lot of hard, negative evidence before one would lose trust in the politician or party one supports.

Now religious faith is very similar to attachment politics.  Consider faith in Jesus.  One has a personal stake in following him (it's a relationship, remember).  One is loyal to Jesus and his teachings.  One believes the good things written about him and dismisses the negative.  One dismisses the beliefs of other religious groups and cannot understand why those in other religions don't see the fallacy of their beliefs.  It takes an awful lot of hard, negative evidence before one would lose trust in Jesus.

This attachment is a powerful thing and not easily lost.  In that sense, faith is easy.  I remember feeling that way when I had an attachment.  But some people do lose it, including me.  For me this loss was a long, hard struggle as I sought to resolve evidences and contradictions.  It is not analysis of the evidence that is so hard, it is letting go of the attachment that is hard.

And now that I no longer have this attachment, I believe I can see clearer.  I consider finding truth a higher ideal than achieving or maintaining faith.  I look at the claims followers make about Jesus and compare this to the scholarly evidence, and see a huge conflict.  I look at the reasons followers give for belief in God and see them severely lacking.  And yet the good memories I have of faith are still there.  I still believe in some of the ideals, and that God, if there were a god, would be good.  Perhaps I still have the desire for faith, and yet with the attachment gone I can no longer sustain the faith.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Escaping the Moral Certainty Dilemma

A Christian friend recently forwarded me an article about women in Islam.  The article described a lot of horrible ways women are mistreated as part of their religion.  I have no basis for judging the truthfulness or not of the claims.  But for argument's sake, what if it is true and that the God of Islam in his revelation really did mean that women should be treated as sub-human creatures.  Is my Christian friend then justified in concluding that Islam is barbaric and its God is capricious and immoral?

Let me consider possible ways a Muslim might reply:
  1. We cannot understand God and the reasons for all his commandments.  He has the long-term perspective and what seems immoral to us may actually be for a good purpose that we cannot fathom.
  2. God made us, not we him.  He is the potter, we are the clay. Who are we to tell him how we should be treated?  If God determines that some be treated better than others, that is up to him.
  3. Ultimately it is God who determines what is morally right and wrong.  We have to live according to the guidance revealed in his book to us.
Here's the funny thing: these are the very same kind of arguments Christians use when confronted with God's seemingly immoral behavior in the Bible (God ordering massacres of innocents etc., see my original post in this blog: Is God Good?). On a side note: observing Islam is actually pretty helpful for Christians, if they are willing to be self-critical, as it lets them look in a mirror.  Many of the specks or logs they see, actually exist in their own eyes.  Perhaps not all the same outward behaviors, but many of the underlying justifications for their beliefs are shared between the religions.

So, back to the moral issue: what we have are two religions each of which claim absolute certainty in what is morally right and wrong and yet they conflict.  How can we judge which is right?  By using empirical measures of which actually treats people better?  Both would surely both deny that (at least when they discover that their own followers are behaving badly).  Ultimately each claims correctness based on divine revelation.  Can we judge which revelation is correct?  No -- who are we to tell God how he can or cannot reveal himself to humans.  Christians love to critique the divine inspiration of the Koran, but actually many of the same criticisms apply to the books of the Bible.  So we are stuck with two camps claiming "God told me this!"  "No he told me that!"  Each camp can make all kinds of unequivocal proclamations about what is morally right and wrong, but when one investigates one finds there is no basis (beyond blind faith) that it is true

Let's contrast that with the way much-maligned humanism would approach ethical and moral questions.  Here we observe that humans are sentient beings with needs and wants as well as things that hurt and harm them.  We reasonably assume the needs and wants of any one human are not inherently more valuable than any other human.  Then what is morally good and bad is judged based on the amount of good or harm it brings to humans.  In general actions that harm others are morally wrong to the extent that they harm others.  It may not be easy to judge in every case, and there may be gray areas (see a previous post on ethics).  The key is that whether an action is morally good or bad is an empirical question of the good and/or harm caused by the action and this can be investigated.   The secular humanist is not stuck arguing about indemonstrable claims of divine authority, but can judge moral questions on the merits and consequences of the actions.


Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Bible, the Truth and the Flood

One of the chief ways by which the evangelical movement seeks to distinguish itself from the "world", other religions, and even other Christian movements is how it treats the Bible.  The Bible is central; it is the filter through which evangelicals understand God.  It is often proclaimed as the means by which we can know what is right and wrong.  This is enshrined in doctrines central to the faith of many churches and para-churches.  For example, here is a doctrinal statements from Wheaton College, one of the top evangelical colleges:
WE BELIEVE that ... the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original writing, so that they are fully trustworthy and of supreme and final authority in all they say. (http://www.wheaton.edu/welcome/aboutus_mission.html)
And here is a part of the long doctrinal statement from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS):
We believe that the whole Bible in the originals is ... without error. (http://www.dts.edu/about/doctrinalstatement/)
These doctrinal statements by evangelical colleges are serious: the faculty members must regularly assent to them or else they are out the door.  Those groups or people that do not hold to this view of the Bible are viewed as "liberal" and fallen away from the truth.

But do those who seek to enlighten the world with the truth, truly, honestly, value the truth?  Let's say, hypothetically, that we found that some part of the Bible is clearly mistaken in what it says.  Wouldn't that pose a severe test to the faculty at Wheaton and DTS?  If they admitted that there was an error in the Bible they would lose their jobs. To keep their jobs they must deny that they see any errors even in the face of compelling evidence.  So if this hypothetical situation were to occur, that an error in the original manuscripts of the Bible could be indisputably established, then to continue to support the doctrines of Wheaton or DTS would be an act of doublethink (as described in Orwell's 1984); asserting that two contradictory things are true.

But is this thought experiment purely hypothetical, or are there really passages in the Bible that are clearly mistaken in what they say?  Most of the important teachings in the Bible are outside the range of testable statements.  For example there is no way to confirm or disprove God appearing to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  There is, however, an important story in the Bible about which we now have very strong scientific evidence: Noah's flood.  First a quick summary of the flood via a selection of verses from Genesis 6-8:
And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. ... For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. ... In the six-hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. ... The flood continued for forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. ... The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep.  And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. ... And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; ... and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. ... Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ ... The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled.
The Genesis flood story is an important part of the Biblical message and of Christian faith.  It shows God's judgement on the human race and all animals.  These are only saved from extinction by the righteousness of one individual: Noah, and his obedience to God in building an ark.  This theme of salvation through a righteousness-man-of-God is repeated numerous times in the Bible, from Abraham to Moses to Jesus.  The theme of judgement-on-wicked-people is also repeated numerous times in both Old and New testaments right through to its culmination in the Book of Revelation which is almost a repeat of the flood except with lots of fire and blood.  If the flood story is mistaken, that throws into question a whole lot of other claims in the Bible.

Now it is quite clear from the story that the flood is intended as a global flood that kills all of mankind and all land animals except for those God rescued by the Ark.  Not only is this stated explicitly numerous times, but the whole story depends on it.  If it were just a local flood in the Near East, then there is no need for an enormous Ark to save sheep and giraffes and cows, as these would have survived just fine in their populations in other parts of the world.  All one would need is a small boat to save Noah and his family.  Also a local flood would not have killed all those people in China and the Americas, removing Noah as the ancestor of all living humans -- a key requirement of God's-covenant-with-mankind portion of the story.  So there is no getting around that the author intended this to be a historical account of a global flood that killed all humans and animals except those on Noah's Ark.

Many Christians would dismiss the issue by placing the global flood in the myth category (along with Odysseus' Odyssey); that is, it didn't really happen but it can teach us important lessons.  That, however, is precisely what conservative evangelical doctrines seek to counter: according to them no part of the Bible is historical fiction.  They don't deny metaphor and poetry, but that is clearly not the case for the Flood as the Bible presents it as an essential part of our history and lineage.

So here is an important part of the Biblical account that makes very strong claims about the world, and these claims are actually testable given modern scientific knowledge.  We can look for evidence of a global flood occurring in the last few thousand years.  What do we find?  We find overwhelming evidence that no such flood occurred. The evidence is so strong that to believe in a global flood is like believing in a flat earth or that the sun orbits around a stationary earth.  Just one example that I find compelling is from ice cores.  These are layers of ice that are laid down annually in Greenland and Antarctica (just as tree rings accumulate annually) and extend back hundreds of thousands of years.  If there were a global flood it would have deposited a vast layer of sediment in these cores at some point in that time.  But there is no such layer.  Hence there cannot have been a global flood.  If you want to read a plethora of evidences pointing to the same thing, have a look here: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-noahs-ark.html

We face a contradiction.  We have a key Biblical account that is clearly mistaken in its central claims. We also have numerous doctrinal statements by a plethora of evangelical groups, colleges, churches and seminaries that deny that errors in the Bible are possible.  Moreover we have thousands or millions of Evangelical Christians who claim to represent the truth who at the same time strongly believe in and support these doctrinal statements that are clearly false.  How can this be?  What do the faculty at Wheaton say: do they deny the Bible as the "supreme and final authority in all that [it says]?" or do they deny the ice cores?  Could it be that 1984 has already arrived?

Friday, June 25, 2010

My Contradictory Beliefs about God

As I reflect on my beliefs, I notice a curious contradiction.  On one hand I feel that God must be good, loving and caring towards humans, and that he is certainly not cruel and vindictive.  On the other hand, I don't believe that God exists.  How can I have both of these beliefs at the same time?  How can I have any opinion on what God is like if I don't think he exists?   Perhaps examining these beliefs more carefully will reveal why.

My belief in the goodness of God comes from my childhood and youth. Presumably that is when many of my subconscious assumptions about the world formed.  It was a time filled with teaching about a good God that sacrificed his son for us.  I heard numerous stories and commentaries on this at home and at church.  Also I read many Christian novels, such as the Chronicles of Narnia, whose main point was to teach and illustrate the goodness of God and how we must have faith in this.  So I became imbued with this sense of God's goodness.  It is an emotional belief;  I simple feel that God is good.

My disbelief in God's existence came through a long and tortuous route.  This route was primarily intellectual; I sought to examine my beliefs and resolve contradictions and errors.  Some of it is described in my post on Losing my Faith.  Other aspects of this struggle are recorded in various posts of this blog, including the very first post, Is God Good?, in which my underlying belief in God's goodness is contradicted by what I find written in the Bible.  Here my intellect is in combat with my worldview.  In my mind I have decided that I will seek to believe only what is true, and I have discovered that some of my cherished beliefs have grave errors in them.  If I am to be honest with myself I cannot maintain beliefs that I have concluded are false.  And the chief belief that I have concluded is false is in the existence of God.  Hence I cannot believe in God's existence.

Despite my belief that God does not exist, I find him lurking in my subconscious.  Although I know what I ought to believe, like the Apostle Paul, I find my inner self at war with my mind.  My subconscious beliefs rise up and take me captive.  Who will set me free?  Well, not Jesus who set Paul free (Romans 7:21-25), but perhaps this blog?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Carrot-Stick Hypothesis for Why We Believe

Here is a curious observation: given the same evidence, people generate very different beliefs. This includes different political beliefs, different economic beliefs (like what is wrong with the economy) and different religious beliefs. Even those that share a religion, such as Christianity, diverge into all sorts of denominations with conflicting beliefs. And the divergence of beliefs is not only between people, but in the same person.  Thinking of myself: my beliefs have changed dramatically over the course of my life.  If it is not the evidence that has changed, then what drives this divergence in beliefs?


My hypothesis is that a carrot-stick combination drives our beliefs. On one hand we have a strong tendency to believe that which we find attractive. This includes those things that are familiar or that are respected by our peers or by those we admire.  These ideals are like carrots that attract us until we make them our own. Reality, on the other hand, is a stick that can hit us on the head when our beliefs diverge too much from it. So, while we might find it attractive to believe that we can walk on water, it does not take too long for reality to dissuade us from that belief. Our beliefs are pulled by carrots and hemmed in by sticks.  Ideally carrots would always pull us in directions compatible with reality, but clearly this is not the case as many ideals are opposed to reality. People can progress a long way following carrots that are contrary to reality, but if they are seeking truth they are liable to be corrected by a stick at some point.


Now our world is filled with carrots. Every family, every community, every society, every civilization has its own ideals, all coexisting and to some extent competing with each other. So perhaps it is not surprising that there is such a divergence of beliefs; we humans are capable of finding many different things attractive.  


Beliefs that grow and propagate widely have a number of properties. They are, or can be, attractive to a large number of people. They spread from person to person. The more they grow the more attractive they become. And finally, but quite importantly, they are not easily opposed or smacked down by reality. Belief in God is a prime example. We instinctively crave order and safety in the universe, and what can give greater order and safety than an all-knowing creator? The fact that others believe in God and find fulfillment in their belief is itself attractive, enabling this belief to propagate. Parental belief in God is easily absorbed by children. And since God is postulated to be invisible, he is (mostly) safe from the stick of reality. So we should not be surprised that theism has conquered much of this world. But every community has its own concerns and ideals that it finds attractive, and hence there are likely as many beliefs in what God is like as there are believing communities.


I can understand my own life using this carrot-stick model. Growing up in a Christian family and Christian community I absorbed their ideals and along the way was drawn to the same beliefs. The ideals spurred me on and deepened my involvement with the community and in evangelism which resulted in bigger and better carrots as my faith grew. So what brought it all to an end? You can read about it in this post: Losing My Faith. In effect it was reality smacking me on the head and my decision not to retreat from reality, but rather follow it. It is natural, when reality smacks us, to avoid it by rationalizing it away to enable us to keep our carrots. I certainly did not want to lose all I had acquired (my community and church and hopes) and certainly I had many times kept that stick at bay. But this time, after a long, extended struggle, the stick knocked me off one path onto another. Am I still lead by carrots? Undoubtedly so. But my path is now aligned better with reality.


To conclude, we like to think of ourselves as masters of our beliefs; able to discern truth from falsehood and superstition from science. But I postulate that humans are actually closer cousins to donkeys than rational agents. We herd together and our beliefs are primarily pulled by carrots. Sometimes, though, we hit ourselves against a stick and change course.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Is God's Creation Good?

Christians frequently point to the beauty and elegance of nature as a reflection of the goodness of the creator.  And indeed nature is wondrous in many ways.  But there is a problem: many of the key underlying characteristics that lead to survival and multiplication of posterity are not those that Christians would like to ascribe to God.  These include: deception, predation, sickness, disease, death, fear, pain, poison, starvation, ruthlessness, and so on.  These properties are not simply add-ons to nature, but are deeply embedded in its design and fabric.  Let me illustrate some of these:

Fear and pain.  One of the great evils in this world is to be tormented by fear and pain.  Yet fear and pain play a crucial role in nature, spurring animals to find food and avoid predators.  A gazelle living in fear of mountain lions and wolves will remain alert and has a far better chance of survival than one without this fear.  The fear of the pain of being ripped apart will drive it to flee a pursuer with the last drop of its strength.   Furthermore, when prey are scarce, pangs of hunger will drive a wolf to seek prey with all the strength it can summon.  Fear and pain are like a force of nature, propelling the life cycle onward.

Predation.  Much of the diversity and beauty of nature is a result of each animal being optimized for a niche both in what it eats and in the ways by which it escapes predators.  For instance, panther chameleons are slow-moving tree-climbers that are experts at creeping up on insects and then grabbing them with their tongues that are almost as long as their bodies.  Cheetahs' camouflage and litheness enables them to silently creep up on a herd of impalas and catch one in a high-speed chase.  The impala, on the other hand, with its large eyes seeing in almost all directions and keen ears is highly suited to escaping swift predators.  Without predators, many of the impala's tightly honed features would be superfluous.  If the cheetah ate grass, its features would be superfluous, if not harmful, and it would do much better in a form similar to an impala or a cow.  The key reason for diversity and variety in the animal kingdom is the enormous number of techniques animals have developed both for avoiding being preyed on and for preying on other animals.  The predator-prey relationship is a harsh but necessary component of the beauty of nature.

Death.  Death is an essential part of life for many creatures.  Consider flies.  An apple falls on the ground and a fly lays eggs on it.  The eggs hatch, become maggots and consume the apple.  Once the apple is gone, either the maggots die or they must escape.  Well their plan is to escape by becoming flies which look for more fruit in which to lay eggs.  Imagine flies never died; their numbers would keep increasing with each fruit that fell until the world was 3 feed deep with swarming flies.  But this applies not only to flies, consider caterpillars: they eventually become butterflies whose job is to mate and lay eggs.  Some butterflies have no mouth for eating so living forever is out of the question.  The incredibly elegant and complex reproductive and mating system for animals is based on the inevitability of death.  Without death, any species the reproduced would eventually cover every square inch of the earth's surface.

If nature sings the praises of its Creator, what is it telling us about him?  One must look not only at the love a mother shows her offspring, but also at the cuckoo that kills the other chicks in its nest and the parasitic wasp that lays eggs in a caterpillar that eventually devour the caterpillar alive.  What does it tell us about the Creator that animals (and humans) are designed to suffer fear and pain and to starve and die?  What does it tell us that the winners in the animal kingdom are typically the strongest, fittest, most fertile, most well-camouflaged, most deceitful and most ruthless?  God must value those qualities highly since he made them the criteria for success in his creation.

Now here is the answer that puts all these worries about God to rest.  These bad characteristics are simply a result of The Fall; when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and God cursed the creation.  Since then not only have women suffered pain in childbirth and men had to work by the sweat of their hands, but death and pain and all bad things we see entered creation.  So these bad things we see do not reflect God's plan or his original creation, rather they are just his punishment on earth for man's sin.

As a myth this might be a fine solution for taking God off the hook for designing all the cruel ways in which animals kill and devour each other.  But it fails when it claims to be historical or scientific.  It implies that before the fall that the world was good and these cruelties, including death, were absent.   Cheetahs could chase impalas to stay fit, but they better not sink their teeth into their necks.  For that matter, since impalas don't need to fear cheetahs, they could stop looking around them and grow fat eating grass.  It means that flies and caterpillars better not be multiplying.  Actually no animals should mate unless ways of populating other planets were devised.

There is another problem too: the fossil record clearly records the death of animals for hundreds of millions of years.  That is far longer than anyone would claim humans were around, and far before the fall.  And life and death back then was surely no pain-free picnic.  A fossil (right) that struck me, in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, has been kept in the same pose in which it was excavated showing the dinosaur's neck arched back in its death throes, perhaps as it is buried alive in burning ashes.  And no one can tell me animals didn't suffer pain when chomped in half by the enormous teeth of a TRex or belly slashed open by a deinonychus.    For that matter, what kind of loving, caring creator would bestow an enormous dagger on the foot of a deinonychus?  What was God thinking he would do with it?

It is clear that nature as a whole does not now, nor has in the past, embodied the loving, caring, self-sacrificial  ideals we would like to ascribe to God.  Rather, if it were an intelligent mind that devised the deceitful and brutal ways for animals to catch, kill and eat each other, that mind certainly lacks empathy and care for the downtrodden and weak.  And perhaps taking an intelligent mind out of the creation equation provides hope.  We don't have to accept that humans are doomed to be cruel or evil by nature.  Rather the intelligent minds are now, us!  We have an ability to reason and to empathize with those that suffer.  We do not have to model society after the survival of the fittest model.  Instead, perhaps dignity, freedom and compassion can replace eat-or-be-eaten.

Friday, April 09, 2010

The Problem of Hell and Honesty

The doctrine of hell is certainly a key component of Christianity.  Being "saved" means, in large part, being rescued from eternal damnation.  What motivates many in doing evangelism is saving the "lost" peoples of the world from being being cast into the flames of hell.

But hell creates problems for Christians too.  Are good people who are not Christians going to hell?  What about the millions, if not billions, of people who have not even heard the gospel -- will God torment them for eternity in hell?  Would a good, loving God send someone to hell because he was born in a Muslim community where he never heard the gospel?  What about babies, children, mentally-handicapped that are unable to "accept Jesus into their hearts".  Are they doomed?

There are plenty of Christian answers to questions like these.  One goes like this: God's justice requires that he punish people for their sins, and the punishment for sin is hell.  The problem with this is that surely a just punishment must be in some way commensurate with the crime.  But a punishment lasting eternity, is a punishment far beyond anything we can conceive, and far beyond any sin that a two-year old, or five-year old, or 20-year old or even the worst person you can image, could commit.  Surely it is not justice that forces God to dole out eternal punishment.

Another answer is that Hell is simply the consequence of sin. It is not like justice but more like gravity; we are all pulled down.  Only God can rescue us and he has provided a way for us to escape via belief in and submission to Jesus.  One might then ask, why does God require people be privy to this special knowledge in order to be saved?  What is going to happen to all the people who have never heard or who are mentally unable to understand?  If one is consistent, then one must conclude that they get shipped off to hell when they die.  It also makes one question God's goodness if he is populating this world with millions of people who he knows are never going to hear the Gospel and so are doomed to burn in hell for eternity.

But probably the answer that is most popular among Evangelicals is we get what we choose.  That is the theme of C. S. Lewis's book "The Great Divorce". Those that seek God, what is good and what is true, get to be with him for eternity (including for example the pagan God-fearer).  On the other hand, those that run away from God and seek evil, are banished from his presence for eternity (i.e. hell).  It is a nice resolution in the sense that what can be more fair than getting what you truly want, and it addresses the problem of those who haven't heard the Gospel.  The problem with this argument is that a key assumption is invalid; namely that pursuing God is equivalent to pursuing what is good and true.  Let me make this personal.  I am dedicated to seeking what is true and what is good.  And through my searching, (as reflected by others posts on this blog), I have concluded that the God presented in the Bible and taught by Christians is not good.  Furthermore, weighing the evidence as objectively as I can, I have concluded that this God does not exist.  So, if I am to be honest in pursuing what is good and true, I must reject the God of the gospels.  But according to most Christian doctrines, that would send me to hell.  The only way I can think of getting around this (as Pascal might advise me), would be to believe something I have carefully concluded is not true.   But surely there is something wrong if escaping hell requires me to be dishonest.

Now that I have finished this post, it occurs to me that I have repeated some of the themes of an earlier post.  Perhaps what is bugging me even more than hell, which I no longer believe in due to the reasoning above, is this: Christians are imbued with a feeling (and plenty of teaching) that the true Christian is honest whereas even the thoughtful non-believer is either dishonest or deluded.  However, I believe that careful analysis will show that very often the opposite is true.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Thoughts on Respect for the Bible

I grew up being taught that the way to respect the Bible is to read it, believe it and obey it. That is certainly the dominant view among modern evangelicals. But it is not the only view held by the church. Nor may it actually be the most respectful. In this post I will consider different ways in which the Bible is respected.

How to treat and respect the Bible has historically lead to many disputes. These disputes included which language to use: the originals (including Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek), or translations into Greek, or Latin or old English or modern English or other languages. Also in dispute is which ancient texts to use and which books to include, and who should read it and interpret it. Does respect for the Holy Bible require that the church be the caretaker of it, and explain it to the masses? Some certainly believed so.

Nowadays we look back to the Reformers (including Luther and Zwingli) as those who freed the Bible from the chains of the church and used printing presses to make it available to the anyone who wished to read it and in their own language. We take this for granted now, but this was considered dangerous, if not heretical, by the church. And indeed it did turn out to be dangerous as it surely was a major factor in the splintering of the church first into Catholicism and Protestantism, and then no longer constrained by a single church hierarchy, the protestants fought over interpretations of the Bible and split into numerous sects and denominations.

Even though this freeing of the Bible from its caretaker, the church, and its dissemination to all lead to much conflict and strife, it was surely the appropriate, right and respectful way to treat the Bible. It was a maturation or coming-of-age event. Once it was freed, there is no putting it back in the hands of the church. To do so would be like sending an adult to live as a child again.

Nevertheless, once the Bible was let loose, the reformers and their followers got nervous. It was not long before doctrines were established to contain and protect the Bible. These doctrines included "Biblical authority", "Biblical Inspiration", "Plenary Inspiration", "Biblical Inerrancy", and such like. These doctrines elevate the Bible above other books but at the same time they constrain how one can read the Bible. One must read it literally, or follow the intent of the author. One cannot question the veracity of its claims. So, while the Bible cannot return to being a child in the care of the church, neither could it be treated as an adult. Rather it was to be constrained like a teenager with strict rules governing it and its readers.

But if the Bible is a great book, which surely it is, it deserves to be treated and respected as an adult. How should we do this? Robert Price, in the introduction to his excellent book "The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man," argues that the historical-critical study of the Bible is the new reformation. This approach starts with the Bible as an historical book, and seeks to discover how the Bible came to be, what factors influenced it, shaped it, who wrote portions and when, how reliable are the stories, and what can we know or surmise about the events it describes. The Bible is not placed on a pedestal. No questions are off-limits. It is not assumed a priori that the claims of the various authors or editors are true or false. Rather discovering this is one of its goals.

Historical-critical methods respect the Bible by treating it as an historical document and freeing it from dogmas and doctrines. What the text says is not sacrosanct. Rather the text is a window into the ancient world. It contains history and it contains propaganda. It also contains poetry, myths and conflicting stories that have been meshed together by later redactors. Through careful historical analysis, and by not imposing doctrines such as inerrancy, innumerable treasures of can be discovered in the Bible. For example, Richard Friedman's tracing the development and redaction of first five books of the Bible in his book "Who Wrote the Bible" is a fascinating account of religious history. Using critical analysis of the texts, rather than simply citing church tradition or special revelation, he reveals clues in the text that illuminate the authors and redactors of these books and reveals their goals and motivations.

There are various possible objections to this proposal. The first that comes to mind is this: "Doesn't the Bible claim to be inspired by God and so shouldn't one respect that claim?" The problem with this justification for inspiration is that it is circular. Only if one first assumes the Bible is fully true and inspired by God would one accept such a statement at face value. Here is a classic case of dogma driving the reading of the Bible. Another objection might be that the historical-critical method kills faith. I don't know if this is true or not as careful study certainly makes one more careful about what one believes, but this objection is irrelevant. It is not the role of truth to be constrained to fit our faith, but the reverse.

So, to conclude, the Bible is not a child that needs to be kept hidden away from general view. Nor is it an adolescent that must be constrained by religious dogmas. Rather, to respect it we must treat it for what it is: a complex historical document written and edited by many authors over hundreds of years. On a pedestal it becomes a god to obey, but under historical analysis it is a record of religious development and a window into mankind's search for meaning.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Does God Care for You and Me?

Instinctively I have to, or want to, say "Yes, certainly God cares for me and everyone else (at least if he exists)". But why should I be so confident in that? Perhaps is it my background: growing up in a Christian family and inheriting that assumption. Not all religions would teach that about God. If Christian doctrine is a sufficient reason for you believing something, then no need to read further. But if like me you want something more, then join me in asking this question:

Is there any actual evidence that God cares for people in general, or Christians in particular?

I remember from my church-going days a proof given periodically by preachers of this. After preaching on God's care for his followers, the preacher would ask a question like this: "Is there anyone here who God has not provided for when you were in desperate need?" And of course no one raises a hand. Wow -- surely most people have been in some sort of great need during their lives, and if God provided for them then that's a 100% batting average on God's part. What more could you ask for?

There are a number of problems with this demonstration, and here is the big one that made me a bit uncomfortable even in much church-days. Say someone was in desperate need and God didn't provide. Well, he would die. And clearly there have been many Christians in desperate need of healing or something else to keep them alive, but didn't get it and died. By asking this question to the living members of his congregation, the preacher has effectively excluded anyone who could convincingly say "No, God didn't provide for me and I died." So if you exclude the nays, then it is not too surprising you will get 100% yeas.

The classic demonstration from nature that God must care for us is attributed to Jesus. Consider Luke 12:22-24: And [Jesus] said to his disciples, "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!" Granted, we are more valuable than ravens. And granted, I have not seen any dead ravens. I am not sure it follows that God feeds them in their need. If so the population of ravens would have exceeded all other birds by now. Rather it seems more likely that ravens die of starvation or thirst when food or water are scarce just like other animals. That puts a pretty big hole in the argument that God cares for us by analogy to ravens.

Instead of discovering evidence that God cares for those in need, the opposite seems to be the case. There is so much needless suffering in this world, and so many untimely deaths. Here I am not addressing the problem of suffering; I just want to find some positive evidence that God cares for those in need. Anecdotes of good coming out of times of desperate need are encouraging, but have to be balanced by the innumerable times desperate need leads to tragic death. So I am at a loss in finding evidence that God cares for you and me.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Two Faces of Christianity

There are two conflicting sides of Christianity that I see in our culture. Let me call these the Utopian side and the Militant side. Both of these are found and justified in many passages of the New Testament. And yet they present divergent, if not diametrically opposite, views of what Christianity means.

The Utopian Christian loves his neighbor (and everyone in the world) as much as himself. He has compassion on the poor and downtrodden and sacrifices his well-being for theirs. He rejoices in affliction and even afflicts himself with fasting and other hardships. He does not judge or condemn others. He gives to whoever asks from him. He is a pacifist who will not strike back or retaliate when slapped on the face. He loves his enemy, will not speak evil of him behind his back, and prays for his well-being.

The Militant Christian, on the other hand, sees this world as a spiritual battle ground. What is important is whether people are going to heaven or hell, not their physical condition or whether they are fed or content. Evil spiritual forces are impinging on good and must be fought. People must be pulled out of the jaws of hell. Whatever means that accomplish this are justified even if they harm people. Evil is defined as what contravenes the revealed will of God (i.e. Bible). Condemnation of immorality is a staple, especially anything to do with sex or sexual orientation that isn't sanctioned in the Bible.

If something saves lives or pulls people out of poverty or helps the downtrodden or leads to greater happiness, the utopian Christian is likely to support it. These factors, however, are not particularly relevant to the militant Christian. Things for him are judged on an absolute moral scale, rather than on a harm/benefit scale. The militant Christian attacks policies that could be seen as condoning immoral behavior, even if they could literally save thousands of lives. This includes attacking sex education and providing condoms to poor nations to protect them from the spread of HIV. A similar reasoning leads to attacking same-sex marriages -- it doesn't matter whether or not it could lead to happier people. All that matters is that it contravenes what they see as God's ideal for the world. Other similar ideals by some Christians include banning contraception use including condoms, (even though contraception undoubtedly protects millions of unwanted children from coming into the world), and banning suicide and euthanasia even for terminally ill people in great pain. The merits of each of these could be debated on a harm/help basis, but this is irrelevant to the militant Christian who sees everything through a black-white, moral-immoral lens.

Freedom of belief and religion are certainly not ideals of the militant Christian. If a belief system (or religion) is going to lead people astray and into eternal torture in hell, why should that be legal or tolerated? The militant Christian has few qualms in leveraging the state's powers to further the spread of the gospel and halt the spread of other "nefarious" beliefs.

I have just described the extremes of these views. Both can surely find plenty of support in the Bible. And Christians hold a whole spectrum of beliefs spanning these two extremes. But what I find sad is that the second of these faces seems to be winning. While modern Christians still pay lip service to the utopian ideals espoused by Jesus, in practice they have ditched them as ineffective. I presume they judge it less effective to live a selfless life, than to rail judgments against all the evils they see and lobby politicians to fight their cause. Turning on the radio or scanning the blogsphere or listening to sermons, it is the shouts of Christian soldiers that are drowning out the quiet voices of their utopian brethren.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Guilt: a reason to believe?

Why should one believe in Christianity? What evidence can one present to the skeptic or doubter or even the believer? Miracles are a popular one, but most have never seen one. Thinking back over the evangelism I have done and observed, the guilt argument is one of the most effective at making converts. Here is how it goes:

We are all sinners and guilty of breaking God's universal moral law. The evidence for this is the guilt we feel -- surely no one will deny that we each suffer from feelings of guilt at times in our lives. Hence we are each aware of being transgressors of God's law. Now the wages of sin are death, but the free gift of God is eternal life. One simply believes and repents and one will be forgiven one's sins. Moreover, this is right way to overcome our guilt.

I certainly believed this line of reasoning for many years. A favorite anecdote in sermons is that of a non-believer being driven by his or her overwhelming feeling of guilt to the forgiveness of Christ. What makes this powerful is that guilt is real, undeniable, and impacts everyone. If it is evidence for Christianity, then indeed one should pay attention.

But is it really evidence for Christianity? Is the argument sound? As I Christian I did not really think to question it; I knew what I wanted to believe and since it supported my beliefs I was happy to include it in my reasons for belief. Now, however, I only want reasons that hold water, and I fear this one does not. Here are the problems I see with it.

First, is it really evidence of a God-instilled moral code? As described in the Wikipedia article, "Guilt is an affective state in which one experiences conflict at having done something that one believes one should not have done." So guilt is evidence of internal conflict, of failing to meet one's own expectations. This conflict need not be between one's actions and God's laws. Rather, our moral expectations of ourselves can easily have purely natural sources. That is, guilt and feelings of right and wrong need not originate in God but are simply a component of our evolution as social beings. (I won't argue that here, but here is a post makes that case: http://www.steelcityskeptics.net/2008/09/08/secular-morality/.)

So guilt need not require the existence of a God-given universal moral code. But is it nevertheless a side-affect of this moral code, and so still useful evidence? The problem with this is the huge variability in guilty feelings, both between different people and in response to similar actions by the same person. Some people are highly sensitive to feelings of guilt; a minor infraction will send them into the depths of guilt. Others are impervious to guilt. While others may commit great crimes without guilt and then have great guilt for a small action. A measure with such variability is a poor indicator of a universal constant or a universal moral code.

A reponse to this is that those who willfully sin sear their consciences and lose their feelings of guillt. But is that really a satisfactory explanation for the variability of guilt? It does not explain why some feel guilt for certain small infractions but not other major ones. Nor does it explain why some are hypersensitive to guilt. It may be that some people can reduce their feelings of guilt through repeated efforts, but a better explanation for its variability among people is that just as physical and emotional attributes vary between people due to genetic and nurturing differences, in the same way sensitivity to guilt will vary.

As a final note, I wonder if it is true that Christianity offers an "answer" to guilt. Rather, from my observations of others and myself, it tends to enhance guilt, particularly in the case of small, inconsequential harms. I can say that from personal experience: as a child of about 5 I once stole a key from my grandfather's desk and then denied it to him when directly asked. I lost the key and so never returned it, but guilt from this sin stayed with me for many years and reoccurred most strongly during revival sermons. I wondered if that sin was the reason God didn't give me the gift of tongues, and other such blessings. Even though I many times asked Jesus to forgive that sin, the guilt from it did not go away. I never told anyone about it but finally, desperate to overcome the guilt, at the age of 15 or so I wrote a letter to my grandparents admitting and apologizing for my grievous sin against them. Then, in a letter to my whole family(!), they added a couple lines addressed to me thanking me for my admission. I think it was the annoyance that they would do that to me that finally overcame my guilt. But now that I look back at the experience, I think it was Christianity that harmed me by nurturing and feeding my guilt and keeping it in my mind as a possible reason that God may be witholding blessings from me when the guilt should have dissipated long before.

So to conclude, I do not believe that our feelings of guilt imply the existence of a God-given law. Rather guilt an important component in the interactions between social beings enabling others to forgive and so overcome wrongs. But guilt is also a useful tool for religions, both for making converts by offering people a way to overcome it, and then in keeping followers in repentance and submission by actually nurturing and spreading guilt.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Apologetics, Anecdotes and Aspersions

I agreed to read Ravi Zacharias's book "Can Man Live Without God" because of a deal with my Mom. She would read Dan Barker's book "godless" (see my review) if I would read this book. Another motivation of mine was that I remember listening to a talk by Zacharias when in college and being impressed. But back then I was a Christian. So I wanted to see what I still thought of him. Also, it has been a while since I have read an apologetics book, and this would be a good chance to reassess the Christian apologetics literature.


While Zacharias is certainly eloquent and makes moving speeches and tells powerful anecdotes, he makes almost no arguments. He just states his positions and relies on the implications of his anecdotes to support them. Perhaps this is effective at convincing most people who rely on emotional appeal rather than reasons for belief. I can see why his books are popular among Christians; those who share his beliefs don't need or want arguments, and they would rather have emotional anecdotes. Compare that to Dan Barker's book "godless" which is full of arguments -- one may disagree with inferences or assumptions in them, but at least Barker provides a reasoned basis for his positions.

I was a bit preturbed to find Zacharias using the term: "antitheist" for atheist. I suppose this is because the term atheist has lost most of its perjorative sense. Right from the beginning this illustrates how he intends to convince his reader of his points: use rhetoric, imagery and other tricks to make his opponents look bad. But in reply to his use of the term "antitheist", consider this distinction: There are hundreds or thousands of gods that people past and present believe in. A monotheist rejects belief in all but one of them. An atheist rejects belief in one additional god. So far so good. Hence it is strange that rejecting 100% versus 99% of gods should make one an "anti" something. Rather Zacharias is simply using it as part of his arsensal of attacks on atheists.



Zacharias loves to find examples of well-known atheists who make outrageous claims or do something outrageous, and then lump all the other atheists in the same box as them. The problem is that atheists are as varied as theists. There are probably as many different ethical systems among atheists are there are among theists. His strategy of telling with relish an anecdote of Stalin pulling feathers out of a live chicken implying that atheists have no basis for morality is like me finding something nasty or brutish taught by some religion (say burning slaves to the sun-god) and implying that all theists (Christians included) are heartless slaves of their gods. Zacharias loves to use Nietzsche as a kicking bag for all of atheism. The problem is two-fold. First he takes Nietzsche's aphorisms far too literally. Second, Nietzsche is not a general representative of atheism; I'm sure far many atheists disagree with much of what Nietzsche proposes.



Zacharias summarizes one of his main claims (pg 32): "Antitheism provides every reason to be immoral and is bereft of any objective point of reference with which to condemn any choice". Contrary to this, and plenty of similar claims (and aspersions), it *is* possible to have an ethical system without need to rely on a deity's wrath or reward. Perhaps Zacharias does not read ethics? For example, Peter Singer provides an ethical framework in his book "Practical Ethics". Also Barker, in his book "godless", describes how he went from assumptions similar to Zacharias's to realizing that an ethical system that truly values humans is one that is based on human needs and characteristics, rather than those of a deity.



My biggest disappointment with the book was Chapter 12 "Getting to the Truth". Here is Zacharias's opportunity to argue constructively for how we can find the truth and distinguish truth from falsehood. There are a lot of falsehoods out there, and people could surely use some good instruction on how to discriminate between what is true and false. Here are Zacharias's 3 tests: (1) logical consistency, (2) empirical adequacy, and (3) experimental relevance. After stating these, Zacharias then goes on to ignore (2) and (3) and relies only on (1). Granted, logical consistency is an important identifier of falsehood. But most real-life falsehoods we encounter are logically consistent (or vague enough to it is hard to show them inconsistent). So how is someone to determine from the myriad claims out there (that aren't clearly logically inconsistent) which ones to trust and which ones to reject? Zacharias gives us no help. The answer lies in a field that Zacharias almost completely ignores (except for a few derogatory comments he makes about evolution). It is found in science. The scientific method is our best tool for acquiring knowledge about the world. It consists of three components that work together: (1) observation, (2) hypothesis creation and (3) hypotheses testing. And there are three main tests for hypotheses, these are: (i) logical consistency, (ii) accuracy (how well the hypotheses describe the observations), and (iii) parsimony (how succinct the hypotheses are). Together these methods and tests are extremely powerful tools for discovering truth about the world. One could wish that Zacharias had applied them to the problem at hand.


There are plenty of other points in his book that I would dispute. The main issues, though, are how one can find the truth, and how one seeks to illuminate the truth to others. Apart from insisting on logical consistency, Zacharias seems quite confused on how to find the truth. He certainly does not make a reasoned case that Christianity is true. There are many strong counter-arguments to his case for Christianity that he ignores (such as those found in Barker's book). Furthermore his method for illuminating truth to others is quite deceptive: he discredits viewpoints by recounting examples of extreme followers, by making broad, unsupported attacks on atheism with the aim of nurturing fear amongst Christians of the rise of amoral atheists, and by using anecdotes as justifications or proofs.


On the other hand, perhaps the problem is that I am not his target audience. These are the very tactics used every Sunday by pastors in countless churches to sustain the faith of their congregations and keep followers from venturing beyond the safe havens of the Christian religion. Certainly these tactics have power to retain followers in the faith. Ravi Zacharias is simply one of those pastors who has put his preaching into print. Considering that the prime use of a book like this is to provide arsenal to pastors for apologetic sermons, I think a more appropriate title for his book is: "Anecdotes of foolish, deluded and nasty atheists."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

godless

I just finished reading the book "godless" by Dan Barker, and was extremely impressed. Here is my review of his book.

Barker grew up smack in the middle of the evangelical movement. From a young age he was an enthusiastic follower of Christ and leader in evangelism to the unsaved. He lead missionary trips to Mexico, he wrote songs and plays that were published and widely distributed by Manna Music, he was ordained as a minister, he spoke in tongues, and so on. But after 19 years in the ministry he started to reevaluate his beliefs. And he came to the conclusion that what he believed in, had faith in, simply was not true. That lead to his rejecting his belief in God and a major realignment of his life. But it did not change the central core which was seeking to know the truth and tell others about it. Rather, one could say this change was simply a large step forward in this goal: he determined that his beliefs were in error and he corrected them and continued on. Of course this did not happen overnight, and in the first part of this book is an engaging account of his life as a Christian and his change in direction.

A consequence of his deep involvement in Christian ministry is a deep understanding and respect for Christians. This is in contrast to some of the other recent books on atheism by Dawkins and others that are dismissive of Christian beliefs. Here is someone who understands and experienced Christianity from the inside and the knows the reasons why Christians believe and nevertheless has rejected those beliefs. In this book he provides a clear and compelling account for why he does not believe the Christian message.

In the second portion of the book he challenges some frequent assumptions of the Bible and Christianity. In the chapter is titled "The Bible and Morality," he argues that the Bible is not a good moral guide. In the Bible things aren't inherrently right or wrong; rather it is whatever the strongest person around says is right must be right. The strongest person happens to be God, so what ever he is feeling like at the moment is right, even if that includes killing or raping prisoners, sacrificing your son or daughter, or plenty of other horrific things he did or told his followers to do. In the Bible morality relies on authority, namely: might makes right. Humans have no right to be treated fairly or with respect; whatever God decrees goes. One can start to understand with this basis for morality all kinds of horrific acts could be done with the belief that they are God-decreed. And God's moral decrees in the Bible are no better than moral precepts found in other societies. The 10 commandments do not give much useful guidance. Two examples: "Do not make a graven image" does not give moral guidanace. "Do not kill" as an unqualified commandment is not very helpful: are there no exceptions like in self defense? And Barker argues that "kill" is the better translation than "murder". But even if we take it as a prohibition on murder, it is not an improvement on laws that plenty of pagan societies developed on their own. Moreover, it is undercut by the actions of God himself who frequently and somewhat arbitrarily killed people for minor offenses or ordered his followers to kill them.

Jesus himself had many moral failings. One significant example is that he never spoke out against slavery. Rather, from the use of it in his parables and teaching, it seems that he approved of it. Imagine how much untold misery over 2000 years perpetrated through human bondage could have been eliminated if Jesus, or Paul for that matter, had condemned slavery. His moral exhortations contain plenty of things that aren't wise or moral (and are not followed by most Christians today) such as: Don't make any plans for the future (Matthew 6:34), Don't save any money (Matthew 6:19-20), Marrying a divorced woman is committing adultery (Matthew 5:32), Hate your family (Luke 14:26), and so on.

Rather than requiring an external source to direct us in morality and provide punishment, Barker claims that Atheists have a better source for morality, namely nature itself. "Morality implies avoiding or minimizing harm." The morality of actions is determined based on their effect on humans. Actions are evil because of the harm they cause, rather than because they break a command in a book or because the offend a diety. True morality does not consist in obedience or subservience to an authority, but in rationally choosing actions that benefit rather than harm humans. God is not needed or even helpful in this endeavor.

He addresses a common Christian argument from C.S. Lewis who said of Jesus: either he is "Lunatic, Liar or Lord." I have always been unhappy with this simplistic trichotomy, and Barker adds on a much more likely fourth alternative: "Legend". That is, much of what we have in the Bible regarding Jesus is really legend. He illustrates this with the ressurection stories of which there are 5 accounts in the New Testament. The earliest account written during the lifetime of Jesus followers is by Paul (I Corinthians 15) in 55 AD. This account is understandable as a purely spiritual resurrection. The next account is by Mark, 70 AD, 40 years after Jesus' death and after almost all adults alive in 30 AD would be dead. Accepting that the last 12 verses are a later addition, Mark has no resurrection appearances at all, only a young man saying "he is risen" with perhaps a spiritual interpretation possible. The later accounts written 50 or more years after the event start including physical body appearances of Jesus and other fantastic happenings. The interesting thing is that the earliest accounts have the fewest fantastic or miraculous elements and the later the account the more miraculous elements are included in the stories; a good sign of a developing legend. Additional evidence that it is a developing legend is that the accounts contain many irreconcilable events; it is not possible to create a single account of what happened after Jesus died that includes all the details of all the accounts as they contradict each other. The problem is that Christians today refuse to consider it a legend. Rather they take the oldest accounts, written well into the second or third generation after Jesus, and claim those are the very things that his followers believed right after his death.

In my opinion this is an ideal book for a Christian wishing to critically examine his or her beliefs. I know from personal experience that this type of critique is very difficult to do from inside the faith. But for those Christians who value knowing truth over any particular set of beliefs, here is a book that will challenge them in assessing their own beliefs and reasons for belief.

Friday, October 10, 2008

My Great Ponzi Scheme

I just had a great idea for an unbeatable Ponzi scheme. Offer a reward of infinite riches, everlasting life and an enduring relationship. Tell people that it is a free gift; all they have to do is accept it. Once they join, get people actively involved and emotionally attached. Encourage them to build relationships with other members, and to volunteer their time. Encourage them to give a portion of their income. Use their money and their efforts to grow the scheme. As necessary make use of additional tools like guilt to ensure people are participating. If people lose their sense of urgency or feel too burdened by their participation or are drifting away, give them some perspective: a little temporary pain now is nothing compared to the everlasting torment that is in store for all those who are not in the scheme.

Most Ponzi schemes have fatal flaws that eventually cause them to fail. Either they are exposed as frauds or at some point their growth tapers off and outlays exceed their income and they collapse. This scheme avoids both of these failure modes: it is impossible to disprove its key claim of reward after death, and so it cannot be shown to be a fraud. In addition, this major outlay never actually has to be made to participants (until they are dead), and so it will never run out of resources. At the same time as avoiding typical failure modes, this scheme can do what Ponzi schemes do best: leverage the income and effort of current participants to bring in new participants. I imagine this scheme could last thousands of years.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Freedom and Gay Marriage

Most people love to advertise their support for freedom. But what galls me is when people support freedom in their words but deny it in their actions and in their voting. It is easy for us to see this hypocrisy in totalitarian regimes, but it occurs frequently in our own society. The following is a contemporary example that has been bothering me for a few years.

We hear our politicians talk about spreading freedom to other countries in one breathe, and then in the next breath we hear them advocate that we deny freedom for gays to marry. "Denying gay marriage" is an abstract term to most people, so it helps to think more specifically. What would you say if the government did not permit you to marry the person you chose? Surely that would be severe curtailment of your freedom. In the same way denying gays the right to marry is a severe restriction on their freedom.

We outlaw certain actions that cause harm to others, such as stealing. But the harm has to be real. For example, a general discomfort with interracial marriage is not a sufficient harm to justify denying people the right to marry outside their race. So what specific and real harm does gay marriage cause that would be enough to deny them the right to marry? If a gay couple living next door to you got married, how would that harm you specifically? Would that harm your marriage? If not, then what business do we have telling gays they are not permitted to marry?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Some Thoughts and Sites


I haven't posted in a long time. Guess it is because I haven't had any burning thoughts on God and truth. But I have found some cool web sites, so here are a couple:

Yesterday Randy Pausch, Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, died of Pancreatic Cancer (see here). It is a tragic loss: he has a family with three young children, and is in the midst of making great contributions academically. He gave his "Last Lecture" last year. There is a quote I especially like from it: “I have experienced a deathbed conversion. I just bought a Macintosh.” Having heard numerous stories of death-bed conversions to faith during my growing up in a Christian environment, it is such a relief to see someone not clinging to religion and empty promises of salvation, even when he is confronting the end of his life.

The Japanese Zen monks have a long history of death-bed statements in the form of Haiku poems, which fairly often include self-deprecating humor. Hoffmann's book on Japanese Death Poems is a classic that I enjoy reading. Here's a one by Gaki (1927):

One spot, alone,
left glowing in the dark:
my snotty nose.



I went to an event called "Drinking Skeptically" the other evening -- and enjoyed meeting various similar minded people. There is a site with a calendar of local events (in Pittsburgh) called Steelcityskeptics.net

A site I wandered onto and enjoyed a lot is Atheist Girls. They have some good tales to tell on their experiences with and without religion.

Another site I enjoy perusing is: Atheist Ethicist when I feel like commentary on recent political or ethical debates.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Does the Atonement Make Sense?


Atonement is an explanation for how God can forgive sins. It is often presented as penal substitution: Christ took the punishment that we deserve as sinners when he died on the cross. He payed the debt we owe to God for our sins. Thus God is free to forgive our sins and still satisfy the blood requirements of justice.

Here is the problem: say person B commits a horrible crime against person A (for example, say he kills all of person's A's family). Naturally when B is caught, A wants him punished for his crime. Then person C says: I'll take the punishment instead of person B, so you can let B go free. So person C is executed instead of person B and justice is statisfied, is it? Is justice really blind to who it punishes? Even if person A decides to forgive person B and gives up his demand for punishment of B, what is accomplished by person C being executed in B's place? Or consider this, person A says: you can let B go and execute me instead of him.

What a strange idea of justice: a crime is committed and someone has to die for it. But it does not matter who dies: either the ciminal or an innocent, willing substitute, even the victim or the judge. Atonement lies at the heart of Christianity, and yet when examined closely one must ask: What is moral, good or just about this teaching? Why can't God, like us, simply unconditionally forgive?