Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Truth and Faith

At the bottom of Christianity there are some subtleties that belong to the Orient. Above all, it knows that it is a matter of complete indifference whether something is true, while it is of the utmost importance whether it is believed to be true. Truth and the faith that something is true: two completely separate realms of interest--almost diametrically opposite realms--they are reached by utterly different paths. Having knowledge of this--that is almost the definition of the wise man in the Orient: the Brahmins understand this; Plato understands this; and so does every student of esoteric wisdom. If, for example, it makes men happy to believe that they have been redeemed from sin, it is not necessary, as a condition for this, that man is, in fact, sinful, but merely that he feels sinful. And if faith is quite needed above all, then reason, knowledge, and inquiry must be discredited: the way to truth becomes the forbidden way. -- Nietzsche "The Antichrist"

From my observation, in so far as faith is strong, it obstructs inquiry into truth. It speaks with certainty on matters about which reason and evidence have little to say. And when opposed by reason and evidence it rejects these. It permits no serious doubting or questioning. It gives people what they want: confidence that they know the truth, all the while hiding from them the errors of their beliefs. Faith is a spider that catches even the strongest and most intelligent in its web. And what is most subtle is that they are not even aware that they are caught.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Can we know if a message is from God?

Many people have claimed and continue to claim to have all sorts messages from God, but are they justified in making these claims? Let's say one takes the existence of spiritual or non-physical beings seriously and avoids making simplistic assumptions about them. Given this starting point, what can we say about messages that purport to be from a particular non-physical being such as God?

I will start by considering how we know the sources of messages in the physical world. If you claim you have a message from your friend, then you are claiming that the message is not from anyone else. But how can you be sure someone else didn't send it to you? Here are four general methods:

  1. You have observational evidence. For example, your friend gave it to you in person or confirmed it by talking on the phone. You know it is him since you can discriminate his appearance or voice characteristics from those of other people.
  2. The letter has his signature on it. This can confirm that he wrote it if you can discriminate his signature from other people's signatures and also from attempts at forging it.
  3. The letter is written in his style that no one else has and that cannot easily be imitated.
  4. The content of the letter contains knowledge that only he (and possibly you) has. You need to know that only he has this knowledge.

So, do these methods apply to knowing if a message is from God? Let's assume that non-physical beings exist (somehow) and can communicate (somehow) with the physical world. Indeed, Christianity has a plethora of these non-physical beings, sometimes called spirits, including all sorts of angels, demons, and gods (if one takes the Old Testament literally). But a priori we can't restrict ourselves to only the non-physical beings in the Christian Bible, perhaps there are innumerable others of all kinds and abilities. To avoid having the name of the being distract our analysis let us denote the set of non-physical beings as G = {G_0, G_1, G_2, ..., G_n}, where G_0 denotes the Christian God, and G_i(i>0) denotes the other non-physical beings, and n is large and could be infinite. Now say you get a message that purports to be from God, that is G_0. How can you tell it is from G_0 and not G_i(i>0)? Can the methods listed above enable you to tell if it is?

  1. The problem with the first method is that non-physical beings don't have any particular appearance or voice characteristics. At most one sees or hears a vision. But what is to distinguish a vision provided by G_0 from a vision from some other non-physical being, G_i(i>0)? Presumably there are other non-physical beings that could create just as good visions that also claim to be from God even though they are from some other G_i. It seems that appearance is not going to work to tell if it is from God.
  2. What about some sort of God-signature in the message? This is probably the most common means of justifying a message from God, and the signature most Christians accept is a "work of power", or more simply a miracle. But is a miracle sufficient as a God-signature? First there is the problem of showing that it actually is a miracle in some way caused by a non-physical being, but let's assume this can be done. But is it only God that does miracles, of the potentially innumerable other non-physical entities? Surely there could be many G_i(i>0) beings that can do powerful miracles. Ah, the trick that is used here is to assume that everything has one of two sources: either God or the devil. So then once one has a miracle one has only a two-class problem: either it is a God-signature or a devil-signature, and this is potentially feasible to determine if the devil is not very intelligent. But why only two sources and why dismiss all the other sources, G_i(i>0)? This dichotomization is a masterful sleight-of-hand. It is saying that none of the other spiritual beings are intelligent or independent enought to operate on their own or to fool humans. That is definitely not taking the non-physical realm seriously, and can be thrown out as an unjustified assumption. Another objection (from the Calvinists) is to claim that every being acts at the direction of God, and God would not want us to be deceived and so he wouldn't let us be confused by messages from many other G_i's. But even if one accepts the premise that all beings act at God's direction, the conclusion is surely false as it would imply that no human is going to deceive you either. So we are stuck with not having any signature to determine if the message is from God.
  3. What about style as a way to identify the sender? It can work to some extent for distinguishing human messages, as we know the range of styles people have and can sometimes identify unusual aspects of a particular person's style. But that's the rub; what styles do other non-physical beings have in their communications? How can we say a particular style is God's style and not the style of some other G_i? Christian teaching in this focuses on the dichotomized problem: distinguishing God's message from Satan's, but as I argued above this is a false dichotomy as it excludes most of the problem. Alternatively, one claims that it is from God if it is compatible with previous revelation (namely the Bible). But this fails for two reasons: we need to know that the previous revelation was from God which assumes we have solved the problem, and also it assumes the non-physical beings aren't intelligent enough to fool us with messages in the style of previous revelations. Thus style is not going to be a useful discriminant for knowing if the message is from God.
  4. What about the fourth method: the message contains some knowledge that only God has? The classic example of this is future predictions or prophecies. There are a host of problems with prophecies including: showing that they occurred before the event (as much prophetic literature was actually written after the event but slyly claimed to be written before), and showing that the prediction isn't simply a good-guess or lucky fluke, and showing that the prophecy isn't so vague or general so as to have many fulfillments. And indeed all the prophecies I have seen in the Bible suffer from one or more of these problems. But let's assume we can get a genuine future prediction that comes true and wasn't a fluke. Is that a sufficient way to know that whatever message came with it is from God? Well, if non-physical beings are not constrained by space they won't be constrained by time either. Space and time are part of the same physical reality "space-time" that governs physical things, but not non-physical things. So presumably there are other non-physical beings, G_i(i>0), that have access to events anywhere and at any time and so could also be the source of future predictions or prophecies.

My conclusion is that the only way we can be confident in the source of messages from non-physical beings is to assume that they are all, apart from God, less intelligent than humans and so unable to fool us. However, if one really believes in non-physical beings, then one should surely take them seriously and acknowledge that there may be many of them, that they may be far more intelligent than humans, and that they may intentionally deceive us. As I have argued here, none of our usual method for identifying sources of messages works with intelligent non-physical beings. Thus since our knowledge of them is limited to what they choose to tell us, and who they say they are may not be true, we have no way of identifying the actual source (God or some other G_i) of any particular message.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Life is Beautiful and Short

When I step back from the hustle of urgent deadlines, I see the sun gliding through the sky. Plants are growing. Creatures are swarming. Waves are breaking, and foam is tossed onto the rocks. I know it won't last forever. The sun will set on all I see and know. But I am satisfied to be here and now for this thin slice of space-time.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Inescapable Bias?

I have observed in myself a bias towards those with whom I share a commonality. In particular I am thinking of political and religious contexts. For example, when I hear of a politician accused of being unethical, I have noticed my reaction varying depending on whether he shares my political views or not. If he shares my views, I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt, whereas if he has views I strongly dislike then I find myself more sceptical of him. Now I know this reaction is not rational, as the politician's ethical conduct is not going to be better or worse if he shares by views, so I find my reaction curious. It is a trusting of, and a partiality towards, the in-group contrasted with a suspicion towards the out-group.

Now I believe this kind of reaction is very common currently and historically. It is a good excesize to search for it in your own reactions to different people. Can you find yourself putting greater trust in someone simply because he/she has a commonality with you such as the same race, gender, ethnicity, language, nationality, home-town, religion, political-orientation, or some such thing? These in-group preferences are not rational in the sense of truth-serving, and in some cases have lead to all kinds of nasty behaviors such as to slavery when applied racially or ethnically. So I see this bias towards the in-group as an evil that we have to struggle against.

Addressing religion, I believe there is a more insiduous working of this bias that I have observed in myself and others. In various churches that I have been a member, I found myself putting great trust in the leadership and doctrines of the church. I would put significant weight on the particular leader's interpretation of the bible, or his views on divisive issues like homosexuality or the role of women. But why did I put so much weight on the views of my church as opposed to the multitude of other views of other churches many of which are even better considered? Somehow I absorbed the idea that my church was special and had a special corner on the truth. This applies not only between churches, but between religions. I put far greater trust in the teachings of my religion and its holy book, than any of the other religions and their books. But why, if a priori there is no reason that one religion or revelation should have greater insights or be more likely to be true than others? Well, that was the role of the evangelist; to sell Christianity as having a corner on the truth that no other religion has. Indeed the salesmanship worked on me and I believed for a long time that Christianity and the Bible had a hold on the truth. And this was self-reinforcing as I would naturally trust the claims of Christianity and the Biblical writers as I considered them part of the in-group. In fact it took many years of struggle to escape from this in-group allegiance I had. Now that I can look back from the outside, I see that I was sadly deceived in part by this tendency to trust the in-group. Indeed, I see many deceived in the same way I was and I don't know how or if they will escape. But at least from my experience I know there is hope and a way out for those who seek.

Saturday, September 08, 2007


I have started reading about humanism. A good summary is the Humanist Manifesto III. It is interesting how it is diametrically opposed to much of what I learned growing up in a Christian household. Humanism, as its name implies, has a very positive outlook on humankind, whereas Christianity takse the opposite approach: as fallen creatures we are essentially evil and can do no good unless enabled to do so by God. (Depending on one's brand of Christianity this is emphasized to a greater or lesser degree.) So which attitude is right?

Everyone would agree that humans can do much evil; that is evident by looking current or historical events. But as humans are we condemned to committing evil? Humanists are the optimists and say: No, we are capable, given the right philosophy, of doing great good and living good and productive lives. Christianity is the pessimist in this regard: due to Adam and Eve eating the fruit we are lost in a vicious circle of evil begetting more evil. Only God's intervention can enable us to do good.

Is there any way to decide between these competing claims that good is a result of human motivation or only as a result of divine intervention? Unfortunately there is no way to determine if any action was caused by divine intervention. Good (and evil) actions can be done as a result in a belief in God, but a belief in God is much different than God actually intervening. So a choice between these isn't going to be made on physical evidence (although a choice might be made on a lack of evidence for supernatural intervention).

So it seems to me that a lot depends on a choice in attitude. It is either:

  • I can live a good life on my own and will strive to do this, or

  • I can't live a good life on my own. I will need to rely on God and he will make me good.

Which of these will be more successful in living a good life? I don't think it is the second. While it might seem attractive by its apparent modesty, I think it is a false modesty. By denying our ability at the outset it instills defeatist attitude. While it is true that none of us is perfect, that doesn't mean we can't be good, despite Christian claims to the contrary.

I believe the first option will lead to a better life. By pursuing the very things that make us human: rationality, creativity, compassion and love, we can live a good life. The good life is thus the fulfillment of being a human. Surely that is worth striving to achieve.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The Gods of the Bible

Christianity has developed a very strongly monotheistic world view. God is immaterial spirit, omnipotent, all-knowing, the creator of everything else, and so on. We have all this baggage in mind whenever we read the word "God" or "Lord" in the Bible. Unfortunately this prevents us from seeing the God that is actually revealed in the Bible. I've been reading the book: "Is it God's Word" by Joseph Wheless, and he brings up a lot of things that are brushed under the carpet in regular Christianity. While he has a negative view of Christianity, nevertheless he makes many points that Christians should consider before concluding that they have the right view of the Bible and its revelation. In this post I will bring together and summarize some of his points about the God we find in the Bible. To see a much fuller analysis, read Joseph Wheless "Is It God's Word" (available from Amazon) pgs. 75-80, and 201-235.

The first thing that is often brushed asside is that the Hebrews recognized a pantheon of gods, similar to the Greek gods. Each tribe or people had its own god or gods. The Hebrews had their own god, Yahweh, who demanded that the Hebrews worship him alone and not any of the other gods. The terms El, Elohe, Elohim used to denote god or gods (with no special capitalization) are applied to Yahweh and to the other gods. Many, many times the Old Testament writers recognize these other gods. Here are just a few examples:

  • Genesis 31:30-34. Laban had caught up to Jacob and demanded of him: "But why did you steal my gods?" Jacob replied "But if you find anyone who has your gods, he shall not live" although he didn't know that Rachel had taken the gods. [Here we have Jacob recognizing Laban's gods]

  • Exodus 20:3 (The first commandment): You shall have no gods before me. [The gods of other nations are recognized, and the same in the next 2 quotes]

  • Exodus 31:14 Do not worship any other god, for the LORD (Yahweh), whose name is Jealous, is a jealous god.

  • Exodus 23:24-25 Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. Worship the LORD (Yahweh) your god...

  • Deut. 10:17 For the LORD (Yahweh) your god is god of gods and lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, [Yahweh is the chief god, like Zeus]

  • 1 Sam 5:2-3 Then they carried the ark into Dagon's temple and set it beside Dagon. When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the LORD (Yahweh). [Here is one of a number of competitions between Yahweh and the other gods showing that Yahweh is greater, but in so doing recognizing the other gods.]

And there are a multitude of other passages similar to these where the Hebrew god, Yahweh, is one of the gods, albeit a possessive one that demands that the Hebrews do not worship any of the other gods.

Wheless points out that one of the reasons that God (god) being one of the gods is often missed by modern readers is an intentional mistranslation of the reference for the Hebrew god. This God/god has his own name just like the other gods (Chemos, Dagon etc.) have names. He reveals it to Moses in

  • Exodus 6:2-3: God (Elohim) also said to Moses, "I am Yahweh (the LORD). I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El-Shaddai (God Almighty), but by my name Yahweh (the LORD) I did not make myself known to them.

Thus God has a proper name, Yahweh, like your name or my name, that distinguishes him from the other gods. God is refered to as Yahweh some 6000 times in the Old Testament. But translators are uncomfortable with God having a name like the other tribal gods and so the translate it: "the Lord" or "the LORD". But this is wrong. The word "Adonai" means lord and is used to address Yahweh as well as human masters. So this mistranslation of the Hebrew god's name, Yahweh, into "the LORD" makes it easy for us to read all our baggage belonging to the concept of God into the Old Testament references of Yahweh. Reread the scripture quotes above and see how replacing "the LORD" for "Yahweh" changes the implication. We can see more clearly the polytheistic world view of the ancient Hebrews.

Now Yahweh is a god with very human qualities. He could be heard walking around in the garden (Gen 3:8). He sits on a throne, not just figuratively but literally as seen by various prophets. He has sons who take for themselves daughters of men and have children, (Gen 6:2). He comes down to earth in human form many times including to speak with Moses Exodus 33:11 Yahweh ("the LORD") would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend, and also to meet the other leaders of Israel: Exodus 24:9-11 Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank. This is despite what John claims in John 1:18 No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known. Clearly John is uncomfortable with the Hebrew concept of a god that can be seen. But nevertheless lots of prophets claim to have seen God including

  • Daniel 7:9 "...the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool...",

  • Isaiah 6:1 I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple,

  • Job 42:5 My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you

  • Amos 9:1 I saw the Lord standing by the altar...

And like the Greek gods, Yahweh dwells in particular locations; wherever the ark travels he travels. He is a god of war, as quoted by Joshua 10:11 As they fled before Israel ... Yahweh (the LORD) hurled large hailstones down on them from the sky. And when the Israelites were fleeing Pharoh's army Moses tells them: Exodus 14:14 Yahweh (the LORD) will fight for you. And indeed in v. 24 the LORD looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion.

Then there is the creation story in Genesis 1. Here it is not just Yahweh doing the creating, it is the assembly of gods creating the world. It starts

  • Gen 1:1 In the begining Elohim (the gods) created the heaven and the earth."

The plural, Elohim, is used. To see that this refers to an assembly of gods look at:

  • Gen 1:26 Then Elohim (gods) said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness...
  • Gen 3:22 And the LORD God (Yahweh-Elohim) said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.

So man has become like one of the gods, as pointed out by Yahweh to the assembly of other gods.

It is interesting how we smile when we think of the pantheon of Greek gods and their escapades with humans. We never think that the bible contains similar stories, and yet if we are willing to read what is written in it and don't force a harmonization with much later monotheistic dogma, then indeed we find many stories of gods and men. It is the forced harmonization with church dogmas and Greek philosophy that blinds us to the vivid polytheistic stories of the Hebrews.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Does God Fear Human Greatness?

The story of the Tower of Babel is quite revealing; not so much as a historical document, but for its insight into God's perspective. Here's a summary of the story from Genesis 11:1-9:

The people of the earth were establishing a city and proposed using new technology (bricks and tar) to build a skyscraper to unite them and make a name for themselves. This is similar motivation for today's skycrapers, although brick and tar won't make a very tall tower. But then God came down to earth to take a look and said: "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other." And so God used a nasty trick of confusing their communication to scuttle their plans.

But why, if God is so great, should he be worried about a tower that is a hundredth of the height of modern skycrapers? Clearly it is not just the tower, but the whole idea of human cooperation and progress that he doesn't like. But what is wrong with cooperation and progress? Surely those aren't bad. So it has got to be the greatness humans achieve through cooperation and progress that has God worried. Human progress and greatness threaten God, and so God knocks us off the ladder.

Perhaps it is like this. One child with an infinite number of Lego sets sees another child with just one lego set starting to build himself a tower. The first feels threatened and knocks down the second child's tower.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Is God Just?

Christians always protray God as being a just judge. But on what basis do they claim God is just? I think primarily it is because they want it to be so; "If God is the ultimate judge, well he better be just." Or if he is not just, then he is not perfect and surely God had better be perfect. At least since the ancient Greeks people have created an ideal of perfection which is ascribed to God. And to Christians perfection includes justice, and so God must be just.

But does this ideal actually correspond to reality? One can mathematically describe a perfect circle, but that does not mean there are any in reality. To decide if this ideal is true, we need evidence. What would make good evidence for God's justice is debateable, but there is one thing that Christians will definitely accept: the Bible. What does the Bible indicate about God's justice?

But before going to the Bible, let me lay the groundwork for my argument. To show that someone is just is hard. Let's take a judge as an example. It would entail going through all (or a very wide sampling) of his cases and confirming that they were justly decided. But to show that a judge is unjust, one simply needs a few examples of unjust decisions. For example, if we found a judge accepting bribes by his clients who he gives favorable decisions to, well we would conclude he is not just, even without going through all his other cases.

We can do an analogous examination of God's judgements that we find in the Bible. For many we do not have enough information to determine whether they are just or not, or it may not be easy to determine from our vantage point. But there is a class of judgements which I believe we can clearly judge as being unjust. This class involves punishing one person for a crime committed by someone else.

What could be more unjust than being punished for someone else's crime? Surely an inherent aspect of justice is that one is punished according to one's crime, which does not happen when one is being punished for someone else's crime. Let me motivate this with two examples. Consider someone steals a car, but the judge sends his neighbor to jail as punishment. Surely that is an injustice, and one would not excuse a judge who did that intentionally and knowingly. Another example of injustice is group punishment. I remember a teacher in school punishing our whole class for making too much noise when it was just a subset of the class that was talking, and certainly not me. Group punishments might be an effective way to control his class but they are not just punishments as some people are punished for the actions of others.

Now on to the Bible. Certainly the writers of various Psalms and the book of Isaiah ascribe justice to God. Such claims are easy to make in the abstract, but are they actually true? To decide that, let's look at some of God's judgements.

Here are three examples, from many possible ones in the Bible, where God punishes or promises to punish someone for the sins of another. The first is God promising to punish children for the sins of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Moses has gone up to meet God, and then God appears to him. Exodus 34:5-7: Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."

The important thing to note is that it is not just that children suffer the evil consequences of the sins of their parents. Rather, God says that he [actively] punishes children for the sins of their fathers. Tell me, how can that be just? If that is just, does justice have any meaning?

Now here is another example. Pharaoh won't let the Israelites leave Egypt, so God's final punishment on him is not just a punishment on him only but on everyone in Egypt, recorded in Exodus 11:4-6: 4 So Moses said, "This is what the LORD says: 'About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. 5 Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. 6 There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again. Is that just, to kill the firstborn of the slave girl because of Pharaoh's sins? What did she do wrong that God is punishing her? Clearly he is punishing her for Pharaoh's sin.

My final example is recorded in 2 Samuel 24. It starts: 1 Again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, "Go and take a census of Israel and Judah." David takes the census, but then apparently that was a great sin: 10 David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the LORD, "I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, O LORD, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing." God's answer is to let him choose his punishment (or actually the punishment on Israel) which turns out to be a plague: 15 So the LORD sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the end of the time designated, and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beersheba died. So God kills 70,000 people as punishment for David's sin. How can that be just? It is not hard to find many more similar examples in the Bible. It seems to me that speaking of God's justice is a form of double-talk. If any one else killed 70,000 people to punish David for his sin, we would call it a grave injustice, but when God does it, Christians call it justice.

There are some potential replies to this argument. One is that sometimes justice entails incidental suffering on others. For example, if a father is sent to prison for his crime, then his family suffers. But note that this incidental suffering is quite distinct from active punishment; if the whole family were sent to prison for the crime of the father we would call that unjust. The examples I listed involved active punishment of the innocent, and not just incidental suffering.

Another reply is that since God gave us life, he can take it away without being unjust. But this reply goes too far. It says justice makes no contraints on God at all with regard to his creation, and so he can do anything at all to us while still being just. That is, saying "God is just" is saying nothing about how God acts towards us. If we are nothing but clay in the hands of a potter, let's scrap the whole pretence of justice; when did clay ever claim to be wronged or demand justice? But actually I think this reply fails for another reason: if one gives someone a gift, one no longer has a right to take it back. So if God has given us life, he does not have a right to take it back whenever he feels like it.

My conclusion is that God, as we see portrayed in the Bible, is not just. Read and see, you will find plenty more examples of God punishing some people for the crimes of other people. Furthermore, if God is not just in this world, why should we think that he will be just in the next? I think Christians have to either give up their cherished ideals of God or else give up the Bible. They can't both be right.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

My Great Fear

My great fear is to be passionate for a cause that turns out to be a fraud. That is, I fear pouring my energies into achieving a goal that I later find out to be empty and false. I'm not saying that everything I am passionate for must be guaranteed to work out or succeed. I can still be passionate for social or political goals in so far as they bring good. No, what I fear is dedicating my life to a cause that is based on deception. The reason for that fear is that that describes a large portion of my life so far.

Until my mid to late twenties, my life had been dedicated to the cause of Christ; that is furthering the message of redemption, salvation and a future life in heaven, and seeking to overcome the opposites: sin, death and hell. I fervently believed the key claims of Christianity and was eager that others would be similarly enlightened. I admired those who died for the faith, and those who spread the gospel message to the unsaved. I read the Bible through at least once a year and actively participated in Christian events.

But now I see that it is a great fraud. I feel betrayed by others and by my own credulity. Looking back I see myself as deluded and unwilling to see the problems with my belief. How did I manage to blind myself to the truth for so long?

That is not to say there aren't many good teachings in Christianity, and that its followers don't do many good things. I have benefited in many ways by the good aspects of Christianity; by friendships, by support of other followers, by helpful guidance and similar things. All that, however, does not mean that its core claims are true. Rather now I see that the core teachings about God, the afterlife, the incarnation, the spiritual world, and obtaining truth through faith and inspiration are baseless.

This blog is in part an exploration into reasons why I have concluded the message is not true. What if I had continued to believe and spread the gospel message until I was 50 and then found out it was a fraud? What if I had brought up my children to believe in a false message? I can thank God (in a figurative sense) that I avoided that. But I know many good people who are blithely pursuing a fraud. Why don't all Christians give some heed to the possibility that they may be being deceived? Perhaps this blog will help some to come closer to the truth. Perhaps it is also an atonement for my holding onto those beliefs so ardently for so long. Also I hope it will be an exploration into what are the alternatives going forward.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Freedom from Certitude

What is it like to lose one's faith? That is an interesting question and one I have asked myself as I look back on my experience. There are a lot of aspects to it including gains and losses. In this post I want to describe one of my chief gains.

The main benefit I feel is one of intellectual freedom: freedom to pursue the evidence where ever it leads. There is no need to claim I know the truth if I'm unsure. There is no rush, no deadline, no evil consequences for doubt.

This contrasts sharply with what I felt as a Christian. My attitude was that not only were my central beliefs true, but they had to be true. While I may not have sufficient evidence at the moment, or I may encounter contrary evidence, I was certain that after all was said and done my beliefs would be vindicated.

This attitude of certitude is fostered and encouraged in evangelical circles, and at first blush does not sound so bad. It enables people to express themselves with great confidence. People say things like "God wants you to do such and such," or "If you don't believe this message you're going to hell." But now as I look back on this, I see this attitude of certitude in religious things as very harmful.

Firstly, very bold statements are made about things which to which we have no access to verify. The usual justification is that: if is says so in the Bible it must be so. This is a very strong dogma that is relied on extensively by preachers and missionaries as it allows them to speak with authority. But what is the justification for this? The Bible doesn't itself claim to have no errors, and even if it did that would be circular reasoning to use it to justify itself. The various arguments about divine inspiration fail to demonstrate this dogma; we simply cannot know who was inspired and what inspiration would imply about their words. For example, if God inspired fallible humans, it could be that even their inspired sayings or writings could have errors. Why not? There are lots of reasons for doubting the infallibility of the Bible, but I won't go into that now. Ultimately Christians seem to simply accept the dogma "on faith" and then apply it. Thus they begin their path of certitude.

Here are some of the unfortuate implications of this venture into certitude. It is like one is trying to solve a problem in a textbook, but one has looked up the answer in the back. So it doesn't really matter how one solves it, as long as one's explanation looks superficially okay (enough to fool the examiner) and gets the correct answer. There is an enormous temptation to jump to the conclusions that one "knows" must be right. One doesn't have to justify all the steps one takes or consider all the alternatives before one gives a definative answer. This is the route taken by appologetics books: they start from the answer, find plausible reasons for it and dismiss anything that doesn't agree with it.

Another unfortunate consequence is that evidence is devalued, both positive and negative. I realize that my attitude was that whatever evidence I found had got to support Christianity if it is properly interpreted. Conversely negative evidence must be apparent only and break down when properly understood. I could say that because I had already "seen the answer." Hence there is a tendency among Christians to be uncritical of evidence used to support one's beliefs and to disregard negative evidence. For example, I remember someone bringing up the problem of God ordering masacres in the Old Testament and asking how that was compatible with God being good. I didn't find it hard to simply claim that God was not bound by the constraints that bind us. I started with the assumption that my beliefs about God and his goodness must be true, and so any negative evidence like this must be wrong and so there was no need to treat it seriously. Only now do I see how careless I was towards knowing the truth.

Another common consequence of religious or biblical certitude is young-earth creationism, or the slightly more subtle old-earth but still anti-evolution beliefs. We know the answer in the Bible: the earth was created 6000 years ago, and all humans are decended from Adam and Eve who were created from dust and a rib, and so evolution must be wrong. It doesn't really matter what the evidence is, the scientific establishment must be wrong in its understanding. Christians don't need to study the evidence; as long as they find some appealing reasons why evolution can't be right in the creationist literature, they are happy to accept it. That is how I was when I was applying to universities. I remember being asked in an interview if science obviated the need for religion, and to counter this I pulled out a "fact" that disproved evolution (in this case it was that the dust on the moon was only a couple inches deep and if it were billions of years old it would be much deeper -- a long before disproven reasoning that was still being published by creationist literature). Or I could have used the complexity of the eye to "disprove" evolution without the need to study the genetic and other evidences for how the eye has evolved.

The field of ethics is often short-circuited by certitude. People start with quotes from the Bible, (often ones that confirm their own prejudices) and then don't feel the need to reason why these should be morally binding on us. For example, the gay marriage debate is skewed by people who base their views on ancient views enshrined in the Bible. Is it really harmful to anyone else if gays can marry each other? How will it harm your marriage? Isn't that better than their not marrying?

My main problem with this type of certitude of faith is that it is an intellectual cocoon. One lives in a protected environment where one can disregard anything that would upset one's beliefs. And there is no need for real justification of one's beliefs; one can simply quote a verse or two from the Bible and it is settled. It is a comfortable place to live: away from the moral and epistemological uncertainties of this world. I see my loss of faith as an emergence from this cocoon into the wide world of truth seeking.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Superstition and Prayer

As an educated Christian I was always somewhat proud that I wasn't superstitious. I thought it was silly to avoid the number 13, fear seeing black cats, or read the astrology section of the newspaper. Of course I didn't think any of my own beliefs were superstitious, like my belief in prayer. But was I right? Is belief in prayer superstitious?

The following, I think, is the essence of a superstition: one discovers or hears from others of a pattern (perhaps from a single event like something bad happened after someone saw a black cat), then one extrapolates it (bad things are likely to happen after seeing black cats); any occurrences that support this reinforce the belief, but any counter examples or contrary evidence is discounted. The last point is key to what makes it superstitious or irrational; the believer wants to believe, will find some positive examples and will ignore any negative examples. And humans are very good and finding patterns in a chaotic world, but are not good at determining which are statistically significant. And so many of us are superstitious.

In general it is not possible to logically disprove most superstitions; at most one could say there is no reason or evidence to believe them (not meaning that bad things never happen after seeing black cats, but that statistically bad things don't happen more or less often after seeing them). That is unconvincing to the superstitious who will doggedly point to some positive examples that prove the superstition to him. Since negative examples don't rule out his belief conclusively, he ignores them.

Superstition sounds very silly, but what about belief in prayer? Why do people believe in prayer? In part because they have been taught it by people they respect and heard of fabulous "answers to prayer". Also people are sure to point to examples when they prayed for something and miraculously the prayer was answered. But are these answers to prayer statistically significant; namely does prayer actually make a difference in the likelihood of positive or "miraculous" things happening? That is a hard question to answer, especially from anecdotal evidence which invariably reports the positive and leaves out the negative examples. The best study on this, a multi-year, double-blind, prayer-for-healing test funded by the Templeton Foundation obtained statistical evidence on this and concluded that prayer did not make a difference. But for the believer that is irrelevant. He will point to positive examples of answered prayers. When asked about prayers that weren't answered he will say either: I continue to ask for it, or else God answered "No". So in his mind there is no space for negative evidence. And this is exactly the same as a superstition.

So my conclusion is that belief in prayer that allows no mechanism for being shown false is just like the multitude of superstitions that beset mankind. Let me ask the reader: if you believe in prayer, what possible evidence would you accept that could disprove it?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Is Morality Subjective or Objective?

People have quite differing views on whether morality is purely subjective or an objective reality. And if is is objective then does it get that from God? In this essay I will examine to what extent morality is objective and what is the source of this objectivity. The book I found most helpful in thinking through these ideas is George Smith's "Atheism", and a good many of the ideas here are from his analysis of ethics.

I will use morality synonymously with ethics which is a study of human values and how humans ought to act. There are two aspects to ethics: a descriptive component that answers: "What are human values?" and a normative part that addresses: "How should humans act?" I will consider each of these.

The question: "What are human values?" can be answered by looking at the facts and evidence. Humans have physical and psychological needs and desires and these can be found through scientific analysis. For example, maintaining life is an important value of living things, evidenced by how ardently living things seek to survive. Determining the whole range of values is difficult and constrained by our limited knowledge of the human mind and body. Nevertheless, our current limited knowledge doesn't mean it can't be studied scientifically which it surely can. Hence the descriptive component of ethics is the science of an objective reality.

A reason why many think descriptive ethics is subjective is that it is difficult to consciously know one's own values let alone others' values, and moreover these values may differ to some extent between people. Addressing the second point first: the similarities between humans far outweighs the differences. We all have similar physical and mental needs. But there are differences and these differences can also be analyzed scientifically, and hence are simply part of the objective reality ethics seeks to describe. Back to the first point that it is difficult to know our values. But this is actually one of the key reasons why ethics is important as it helps us become consciously aware of our values, and it is not an objection to the objectivity of ethics.

One can ask what is the most basic value for living things. I think it is one's well-being. It is a somewhat vague term, and it includes life and happiness. We each seek our own well-being, even if what it means may differ to some extent between individuals. We have other values too which may be subsets of this or even in conflict with well-being, and descriptive ethics will seek to determine and categorize these.

The second component of ethics is the normative part: "How should we act?". It is expressed at a conditional statement: One ought to act in such and such a way so as to achieve one's values. For example: one ought to love one's spouse as this improves one's well-being, or another example: one ought not to lie as this damages one's credibility. Expressed this way with a goal, ethical or moral claims can be analyzed scientifically; what are the actions that people should do to achieve their values? Similarly medicine is a goal-directed normative science: the doctor ought to give the patient the medicine, so as to save his life.

Ethics deals not only with individuals and their values which may have internal conflicts, but also with groups of individuals whose values may conflict with each other. Ethics must weigh the values of someone wanting to walk on a plot of land with the owner wanting to keep people out and so determine the rightness and wrongness of trespassing. Another consideration is that other people's well-being is often in one's own interest. For example, one is much happier when one's spouse is happy, and his/her well-being is linked to one's own; that is another reason for loving one's spouse. Thus ethics determines guidelines of conduct that enable people to achieve individually and corporately their values.

One response is that ethics ought not to be goal directed, but rather a duty. But with no goal to achieve it becomes empty. Even Christian ethics is often expressed as goal directed as illustrated by this conversation: "Don't lie." "Why?" "Because God says not to." "But why obey God?" "Because it will make him happy or because you'll go to heaven and escape hell" Namely the goal is to seek God's well-being or human well-being, albeit in the afterlife. On the other hand, ethics simply as a duty with no goal is divorced from human welfare and hence arbitrary.

Another objection is the claim that weighting differing values and interests to make an assessment of the morality of an action is a subjective process. It is true that it can be difficult to weigh the interests of freedom of expression against the interests of a copyright holder not to have his work borrowed (or is it plagiarized?). But many fields dealing with objective reality have this difficulty; whenever heterogeneous data are modeled this problem emerges (for example in modeling the motion of particles both time errors and distance errors have to be minimized but how does one choose the relative weighting of these?). There is some arbitrariness in assigning weights, but this can be reduced by assuming that all humans are due equal consideration and so my need for safety has the same value as your need for safety. Some arbitrariness or subjectivity remains in comparing disparate values, but I suspect this is not so great as we all share similar physical and psychological needs and hence have comparable ideas of well-being and hence right and wrong.

In both aspects then, the descriptive and the normative, ethics is primarily an objective reality. In some cases normative ethics may require relative weighting of disparate values to this extent relies on agreed-on weights. It is here that some arbitrariness or subjectivity enters. There remain hard, unanswered questions raised in ethics, but by learning more about humans needs and values and how these can best be fulfilled, ethics will make progress. There is no need to refer to "God" in relation to an objective morality. Actually including God doesn't change the nature of ethics. It only detracts from the consideration we give to human values.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

No place for truth seeking

One of the things that I have come to understand is that Christianity does not have a place for truth seekers. This realization was gradual and painful. As a devoted Christian for many years, I thought I believed the truth. But when I eventually began to struggle in my faith and with issues such as I've described in this blog, I needed to know that I was believing the truth. But what I found, when I opened my eyes to it, was a Christian culture that was hostile to truth seeking.

This hostility to truth seeking has itself become a cause for me to distrust the truthfulness of the message. Truth need have no fear of open, honest and critical inquiry. It is falsehood and error that have need to stifle inquiry lest they be exposed. I have always wondered what is the essence of a cult? That is, what is the chief factor that enables the perpetuation of destructive behaviors of these groups? Now I think that essence is a hostility to open and honest truth seeking. Encuraging honest truth seeking would surely bring an end to any cult. On the other hand, innoculating members to truth seeking is the surest way to ensure they don't stray. It is unfortunate then that evangelical Christianity shares this trait with cults. Here are some ways that I've experienced this hostility in my time as an evangelical Christian:

I have listened to innumerable sermons, but now I realize that they are of little help for truth seekers. The goals of sermons are to convert the lost, to build the faith of the believers and instruct them on the path of righteousness. Anything that supports these goals is fair game, but on the other hand nothing that could hurt these goals will be related. This creates a strong bias in sermons preventing an honest evaluation of evidence (that is, negative evidence will never be considered or related). The greatness and benefits of faith and of Christianity are generously given. These are contrasted to the harms and evils of all other beliefs. The general method for establishing the truth of something is to use a combination of authority and anecdote. The ultimate authority relied on is the Bible, although sometimes a preacher will use a bit of his own authority. Finding a verse or chapter that supports a claim is the way to prove something. Then illustrating it with an anecdote or personal story, especially a miraculous story, firmly grounds it in the minds of the congregation. This is all effective in propagating a belief system, but does not help in looking for errors in that belief system and so is not really concerned with truth seeking.

But I cannot accept authority and rhetoric as means to finding truth. These are used more often to hide than to reveal truth. If sermons were about spreading truth, why don't people in congregations challenge a preacher if he makes a false or misleading claim? (And I have heard many false and misleading claims in sermons.) Why do evangelical preachers always dismiss or ignore historical critical analysis of the bible? For instance there is very good evidence that many of the Biblical books are much younger than traditionally thought and not written by the traditional authors. This includes very strong Biblical evidence that the Mosaic law was written centuries after Moses and was unknown to the old prophets like Samuel. Why did I never hear this ever at church, even though it is very relevant to understanding the Old Testament Law? The reason, I have concluded, relates directly to the goals of sermons which do not include expanding knowledge and understanding of the congregation and rather are much closer to indoctrination. By not expanding knowledge and understanding, preachers are actually being hostile to truth seeking.

Next, I have found that doubt is regarded as the enemy of faith and so is expunged from Christian circles. Someone who doubts or questions too much is looked at with fear and resentment "Is he still a Christian? Why can't he just believe?" people mutter amongst themselves. "Go read your Bible and pray" is the usual advice. I have learned that even the patient Christian cousellor eventually gives up addressing the doubts and rebukes the person for his doubts; in the words of James "But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind." The ideal for the Christian is to accept the gospel message on faith and cast asside doubts. The truth seeker, however, will have honest doubts and want to know the basis for belief. If there isn't a good basis, then he is not going to claim certainty.

The church is a community. Unfortunately the basis of that community is not a shared desire to know the truth, but rather a shared faith (which in practice means a shared belief in a set of doctrines). There is great pressure to maintain the common beliefs, or at least to maintain appearance of belief. If someone admits he doesn't think one of the core beliefs is true, such as the doctrine of the incarnation or that Jesus rose from the dead, then he risks losing his place in the community. He is viewed as a pagan and is no longer a true member. Christians fear that he has lost his moral basis. They pray for his salvation and try to persuade him of his error. Relationships that were once deep are now strained to the breaking. All this because someone was honest and forthright with what he sees is true and false. There is something wrong with a religion that elevates faith above truth.

What does the Christian do when he comes to some doctrine or teaching that doesn't make sense (like the Trinity or the incarnation) or is very dubious (like various miracle stories such as the one in Matthew where the dead saints rose and came into the city)? He simply accepts it based on authority of the Bible or church. In the case where things don't make sense, he claims it is beyond his comprehension, but nevertheless he still believes it even though he doesn't know what exactly he is believing. Why doesn't the Christian consider the possibility that there was a fabrication in the account or an error in the doctrine? It is because that will expose the fragility of using authority as a basis for truth; if the authority is wrong in one thing, perhaps it is wrong in another, and there is no way for us to know. That is a scary thought and so questioning authority is not allowed.

If one looks for truth in apologetics books, one will be sorely disappointed. These books are aimed at answering the question: "How can I justify my belief to myself and others?" This is very different from trying to answer the question "What is the truth?" as the former question knows the answer and just wants convincing. Witnesses and claims that support the faith are given great weight by apologists, but those that don't are attacked in various ways: like being ungodly, leading to immorality, blinded, etc. The problem is that faith is not ultimately based on reason. And so instead, the appologist seeks to extol the virtues of faith and expose the vices of everything contrary. That does not help an honest seeker.

But the greatest cudgle held above the truth seeker is the threat of hell. He better not go so far as to lose his faith, because an eternity of torment awaits him in that eventuality. Ultimately, your reasons for belief and their validity don't matter, all that matters is that you are saved. It took me many years to overcome the fear of hell. But in the end I couldn't believe something just to save my skin from the flames, I had to honestly be convinced it was true. Also I could not believe that God would send someone to hell for for honestly seeking the truth. So I escaped the mind-control, but only after years of agonizing.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Ethnic cleansing and sex slaves

There is almost universal condemnation of the Holocaust (at least in the Western world). We consider it such a horrific crime to systematically wipe out an ethnic group like the Jews or the gypsies that there is almost no one who will seek to justify it (at least publically)

However there are similar crimes described in the Bible that people rather than condemning actually approve of. Consider the following story in Numbers 25 and 31. As a bit of background, Moses had fled to Midian from Egypt and stayed there many years, married a Midianite. His father-in-law, Jethro, was a Midianite priest. But none of this seems to matter. Here is Numbers 25:

1While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab.
2For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.
3So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the LORD was angry against Israel.
4The LORD said to Moses, "Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the LORD, so that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel."
5So Moses said to the judges of Israel, "Each of you slay his men who have joined themselves to Baal of Peor."
6Then behold, one of the sons of Israel came and brought to his relatives a Midianite woman, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, while they were weeping at the doorway of the tent of meeting.
7When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he arose from the midst of the congregation and took a spear in his hand,
8and he went after the man of Israel into the tent and pierced both of them through, the man of Israel and the woman, through the body. So the plague on the sons of Israel was checked.
9Those who died by the plague were 24,000.
The Zeal of Phinehas 10Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
11"Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned away My wrath from the sons of Israel in that he was jealous with My jealousy among them, so that I did not destroy the sons of Israel in My jealousy.
12"Therefore say, 'Behold, I give him My covenant of peace;
13and it shall be for him and his descendants after him, a covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the sons of Israel.'"
14Now the name of the slain man of Israel who was slain with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, a leader of a father's household among the Simeonites.
15The name of the Midianite woman who was slain was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was head of the people of a father's household in Midian.
16Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
17"Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them;
18for they have been hostile to you with their tricks, with which they have deceived you in the affair of Peor and in the affair of Cozbi, the daughter of the leader of Midian, their sister who was slain on the day of the plague because of Peor."

[The story breaks and then continues in Numbers 31:]

1Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
2"Take full vengeance for the sons of Israel on the Midianites; afterward you will be gathered to your people."
3Moses spoke to the people, saying, "Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian to execute the LORD'S vengeance on Midian.
4"A thousand from each tribe of all the tribes of Israel you shall send to the war."
5So there were furnished from the thousands of Israel, a thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed for war.
6Moses sent them, a thousand from each tribe, to the war, and Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, to the war with them, and the holy vessels and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand.
7So they made war against Midian, just as the LORD had commanded Moses, and they killed every male.
8They killed the kings of Midian along with the rest of their slain: Evi and Rekem and Zur and Hur and Reba, the five kings of Midian; they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword.
9The sons of Israel captured the women of Midian and their little ones; and all their cattle and all their flocks and all their goods they plundered.
10Then they burned all their cities where they lived and all their camps with fire.
11They took all the spoil and all the prey, both of man and of beast.
12They brought the captives and the prey and the spoil to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest and to the congregation of the sons of Israel, to the camp at the plains of Moab, which are by the Jordan opposite Jericho.
13Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the congregation went out to meet them outside the camp.
14Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, who had come from service in the war.
15And Moses said to them, "Have you spared all the women?
16"Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD.
17"Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately.
18"But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves.
19"And you, camp outside the camp seven days; whoever has killed any person and whoever has touched any slain, purify yourselves, you and your captives, on the third day and on the seventh day.
20"You shall purify for yourselves every garment and every article of leather and all the work of goats' hair, and all articles of wood."
21Then Eleazar the priest said to the men of war who had gone to battle, "This is the statute of the law which the LORD has commanded Moses:
22only the gold and the silver, the bronze, the iron, the tin and the lead,
23everything that can stand the fire, you shall pass through the fire, and it shall be clean, but it shall be purified with water for impurity. But whatever cannot stand the fire you shall pass through the water.
24"And you shall wash your clothes on the seventh day and be clean, and afterward you may enter the camp."
25Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
26"You and Eleazar the priest and the heads of the fathers' households of the congregation take a count of the booty that was captured, both of man and of animal;
27and divide the booty between the warriors who went out to battle and all the congregation.
28"Levy a tax for the LORD from the men of war who went out to battle, one in five hundred of the persons and of the cattle and of the donkeys and of the sheep;
29take it from their half and give it to Eleazar the priest, as an offering to the LORD.
30"From the sons of Israel's half, you shall take one drawn out of every fifty of the persons, of the cattle, of the donkeys and of the sheep, from all the animals, and give them to the Levites who keep charge of the tabernacle of the LORD."
31Moses and Eleazar the priest did just as the LORD had commanded Moses.
32Now the booty that remained from the spoil which the men of war had plundered was 675,000 sheep,
33and 72,000 cattle,
34and 61,000 donkeys,
35and of human beings, of the women who had not known man intimately, all the persons were 32,000.
36The half, the portion of those who went out to war, was as follows: the number of sheep was 337,500,
37and the LORD'S levy of the sheep was 675;
38and the cattle were 36,000, from which the LORD'S levy was 72;
39and the donkeys were 30,500, from which the LORD'S levy was 61;
40and the human beings were 16,000, from whom the LORD'S levy was 32 persons.
41Moses gave the levy which was the LORD'S offering to Eleazar the priest, just as the LORD had commanded Moses.
42As for the sons of Israel's half, which Moses separated from the men who had gone to war--
43now the congregation's half was 337,500 sheep,
44and 36,000 cattle,
45and 30,500 donkeys,
46and the human beings were 16,000--
47and from the sons of Israel's half, Moses took one drawn out of every fifty, both of man and of animals, and gave them to the Levites, who kept charge of the tabernacle of the LORD, just as the LORD had commanded Moses.

So a whole tribe or ethnic group was wiped out by the Israelites on the orders of God. What was their crime? Some of them invited the Israelites to come and worship their gods with them. Should anyone, let alone children, be killed for that? What I find most apalling is Moses' reaction when the soldiers brought back the captives (after killing all the men): "Have you spared all the women? ... Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves." And then he goes on to tell them how to be cerimonially clean. There is not a thought to the lives of the children or the families that already lost their husband and father. What is God's reaction? It is to tell them how to divide the booty and captured women "who have not known man intimately". Eleazar the priest gets 32 virgin women for his own pleasure.

Any way I look at it, this is a horrific crime. There is not much difference between this and the Holocaust; the magnitude is somewhat smaller, but this was more effective in wiping out a people-group. And yet ask a Christian if he approves of it and what will he say? I'm almost sure he'll find some way to justify it! But if he approves of this, then it is hypocritical of him to find fault with someone who approves of the Holocaust.

So why is it that Christians will approve of the slaughtering and enslaving of the Midianites? It is because it is approved by the Bible. If they are to condemn this action of God revealed in the Bible, then either the Bible has errors in its portrayal of God or God is imperfect. Neither of these things is palletable to Christians. So instead he will cling to the Bible, and try to ignore the crimes contained in it and approved by it.

The way I escaped from this, and indeed I used to feel the actions of Israelites in killing the Cananites was justified, was by getting some distance from the Bible. I used to read it every day and finish once a year. But with such an attachment it is almost impossible to see or admit its faults. What is necessary is to stop, get some distance by not reading the Bible for 3 months, and by reading some critical literature on it. For example, read Joseph Wheless "Is it God's Word" (available on amazon.com. While I don't agree with all his points, he does make many good points about the Bible). If someone simply wants to maintain his beliefs, then he should not seek, but if someone pursues truth as the pearl of great worth, then he will give sober consideration to opposing arguments.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Difficulty in Finding Truth

Many people from all different religions and non-religions want to believe in the truth, and many believe they have found it. The problem is: these beliefs conflict with each other in numerous ways, including in what they think about God or gods, the supernatural, what happens to people after they die, who God's prophets really were, who really is speaking from God and so forth. Because the beliefs conflict, and because the truth cannot be inconsistent, a great many (if not most or all) of the beliefs are false, and hence a great many people are deluded. How can this be?

I do not think it is because Satan has deluded the masses (which is what I heard when growing up). That is surely a copout. What evidence is there that Satan deludes anyone? What is the mechanism by which he does this? If this is possible, how do you know that Satan hasn't deluded you?

It seems to me that this must have something to do with our tendency as humans to develop loyalties to a particular cause or group. Once we develop this loyalty it is very hard for us to crically evaluate claims of the group. Rather we tend to give it the benefit of the doubt, often to a very high degree. Just consider the crazy things done by members of small cults on the orders of their spiritual leader; once they develop a loyalty to the group or leader it is very hard for them to objectively see the teachings and see how crazy they are. Of course none of us would consider himself deluded by a cult, but nevertheless we have the same human nature and the same processes could be biasing us in favor of our beliefs. To illustrate this, consider how strongly many people feel about their political party, even though the parties are often not very different from each other. It is easy for a Republican to see the mistakes and foolishness in the Democratic party, and similarly it is easy for a Democrat to see the mistakes and foolishness in the Republican party. The strange thing is that while they can see their opponents errors clearly, they are usually blind to their own party's failings. It is this inability to critique one's own beliefs that leads people astray. It is not good for political parties, but more importantly for this discussion, it leads to people being over-confident in the truth of the teachings of their religion.

To conclude, my explanation for why many people who want to know the truth end up following a particular religion or ideology that is filled with errors is that they develop a loyalty and attachment that makes is very hard for them to be properly critical of its teachings.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Does God's Goodness Matter?

In my first post of this blog I argued that God, as presented in the Bible, is not good due to his many evil actions. I have not heard any good arguments countering this. But an important question is: why does it matter if he is or isn't good?

The reason it is important is that if Christianity is true, then at the very least its claims must be interally consistent. Truth cannot contradict itself, but falsehood can and often does. Now a chief claim of Christianity on which it recommends itself to the world is that God is good and he loves people. Evangelists proclaim his goodness to the heathen telling them to seek his forgiveness. When Christians meet together they worship and praise God for his goodness. But how can this be? Haven't they read the Bible which clearly witnesses many of God's evil actions? Aren't they concerned about this major inconsistency? Is truth of no value?