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?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

I wonder what I would have thought about Julia Sweeney?


I recently listened to Julia Sweeney's monologue: Letting Go of God, and I loved it. She eloquently describes many of the same struggles that I have had and how she resolved them. She is both genuine and entertaining and at the same. She describes growing up in a Christian household and earnestly seeking God but in the end finding that the God of Christianity is not there. That summarizes my experience, and perhaps that is why I liked her monologue so much.

But I wonder, if I could go back 14 years and listen to that CD then, what would I have thought? At that time I was a strong evangelical believer. Would I have been critical or dismissive of her story? From my current vantage point I can't determine what my reaction would have been. So much has changed in my life.

Perhaps one way I could get insight into this question is to see the reaction of others who are evangelical believers. Anyone who has listened to her monologue, please feel free to tell me your reactions on the comments to this post.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Are Honesty and Faith at Odds?


Honesty can describe one's interactions with others, but at an even more basic level, honesty is a description of how one informs oneself. Many people deceive others, but I suspect more people deceive themselves. Willing self-deception is what I am here referring to as dishonesty. The opposite of this, honesty, is playing straight with one's self. That is, seeking to be informed by truth and not comforting lies.

Now some things are certainly true, while others certainly false, but many have various levels of likelihood of being true. A form of self deception is to convince oneself that something is certainly true or certainly false when the evidence for either is far from conclusive. A helpful way to think of it is in probabilities: we ought to assess the probability that a claim is true conditioned on the evidence available to us. Unfortunately humans are poor probabilistic or Bayesian reasoners. Nevertheless we can at least make qualitative estimates such as: given the evidence, certain claims are much more likely to be true than others, and so on. Honesty then requires a careful assessment, including gathering and analysis of evidence, for all the claims one wants to make or to believe. Honesty requires discounting irrelevant factors and prejudices one has grown up. Honesty does not allow one to believe something simply because one wants to or it makes one feel better. Honesty can be a painful process.

Now let me contrast this with faith. Unfortunately there are many competing definitions for faith, but here I will focus on the following aspect. Faith involves the choice to believe something firmly and without wavering irrespective of potential new evidences or analyses. Faith demands a binary answer: yes I believe with all my heart and I will never swerve, or not I don't. Not all religions are like this, but many are including evangelical Christianity. While these religions may provide some "evidences" in favor of themselves, these evidences are in no way conclusive; at most they show plausibility. But nevertheless the religions encourage and even demand certainty in their veracity. For example, certain religions or "faiths" demand that one accept that "the Bible is the inspired Word of God." Now the evidence for this is very patchy, if it exists at all. With careful consideration of internal and external evidences one might conclude that certain parts are likely to be from God and other parts are very unlikely to be. But religious faith will have no patience with a conclusion like this: it demands all or nothing, faith or disbelief, no conditional beliefs. But this is contrary to an honest assessment which cannot declare certainty when evidence is weak and cannot discount potential new evidences changing one's belief. Thus to accept the demands of certain faith one must eschew uncertainties, discount contrary evidences and discard honesty.

A person of faith might reply: faith claims demand action based on either an acceptance of or rejection of the claim, and so one is forced to make a binary choice of belief or unbelief. Here's the confusion: it is between belief and action. One may well have to make a binary choice of action, but it can be in the face of acknowledged uncertainty in belief. For example: suppose your friend said he would meet you at 5pm at the coffee shop. Your action is binary: you either go there to meet him at 5 or you don't. But your belief need not be binary. You might think there is a good chance he will be delayed due to traffic and so won't be there at 5, but nevertheless you may still go there at 5 just in case he makes it. Honesty in belief takes uncertainties into account rather than deny them.

So why do so many people choose faith over honesty? While faith sometimes results in physical hardships, it more than compensates by giving one a certainty and an inner confidence. It does not need careful analysis and is easily avilable to all. It builds bonds between individuals and fosters a community of likeminded. But what is the cost of all these gains? By closing the door to tentative beliefs conditioned on available evidence, faith devalues truth. What is important is no longer the truth, but rather that one believes unconditionally.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Is the Incarnation a RPG?


Lots of people claim to believe in the idea of divine incarnation. But few, I believe, have much idea of what that really means. Here's my proposal: The incarnation is God's version of a Role Playing Game (RPG). He creates or selects a character which he inhabits just like you would in a virtual-reality RPG. Then he uses his selected human body to play with the other characters. He feels bad for the other characters when they are hungry and gives them food, helps them move up to higher levels and even sacrifices his character for them. But unlike everyone else who is stuck in his or her human body, God has just temporarily chosen his body, and he can dispose of it whenever he likes or bring it back to life if it dies.

It makes one wonder: is it really a big deal if someone operating at a higher level has more powers, can do miracles or even chooses to sacrifice his character others? I could do miracles and sacrifice my character for lesser beings in World of Warcraft. I may even be able to raise characters back to life. But please don't worship me.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Three Sources of Darkness


Light and darkness are themes used throughout the Bible. Light refers to truth, instruction, good, etc., whereas darkness refers to blindness, ignorance, deception, death, evil, etc. Such broad meanings are confusing, so in this article I will restrict the meaning of darkness to blindness to truth including deception and ignorance. Now Christians preach against the darkness of the world and offer a light to eliminate darkness. This is the central message of the gospels. But is it true? Is the world really dark in the sense of blindness to truth, and is the light they offer really a way to remove darkness? Here I will examine the relationship of the three central pillars of Christianity (and other religions) to truth. These pillars are: revelation, authority and faith.



Revelation: This is the claimed foundation for Christianity, and yet it suffers from three fatal flaws:

  1. We can never show that any revelation is actually from God as opposed to some other non-physical entity, see: Can we know if a message is from God?

  2. We cannot distinguish between voices and visions generated by the receiver's mind and those generated by some external entity (be it God or other). Even the hearer or seer can never be sure a claimed revelation is actually a revelation and not his imagination.

  3. Finally, there is no truth test for revelation that deals with spiritual or non-physical beings, see: What do miracles prove? This is precisely the area where revelation should be useful, and yet there is no way to distinguish its claims from empty claims. The evidences people use to demonstrate revelation are no better than those used by fortune tellers and psychics; if one statement that he/she makes turns out to be true, that validates the rest of what he/she says, and of course dubious, ambiguous and false statements are ignored.

Hence, claiming with certainty that a revelation is from God and preaching it to others as true is then either an act of self deception, or a decision to deceive others or both. The reliance on revelation is like consulting an astrologer. What could be a greater source of darkness than that?



Authority: Christians must rely on mediated revelation, that is, revelation that came through someone else usually long ago. How is one to know which of the millions of claimed revelations to trust? That is where authority comes in. Authority is ascribed to certain books and these are regarded as "true revelations". Authority allows all kinds of bold claims to be made about the revelation and how to interpret it. Authority cannot be questioned but must be obeyed. It provides a skeleton to religion on which all its practices and rituals and teachings hang. Preachers speak with authority, especially when quoting passages of the Bible. Followers seek refuge in authority as it gives them something certain to hold on to. But what is the relationship between authority and truth? None. Actually quite the opposite. Authority acts to keep truth hidden. By denying questioning, doubting and testing of alternate ways it is denying people the means for finding truth. Basing a statement of fact on authority is an empty sham; it means there is no basis for the statement. (It is very different from quoting an "authority" whereby one is really citing the evidence gathered by that person and not saying something is true simply because that person says it is true.) Where does authority come from? Its advocates claim it comes from God. But there is no evidence for this, only authoritative claims that this is so. Thus divine authority is circular. It is a means to make bold claims with no basis for them. Is it possible to find a greater source of darkness than this?



Faith: The final ingredient needed on top of revelation and authority is faith. Faith enables people to accept revelation and authority with certainty and without question. It gives people confidence and comfort in their beliefs. It works by sidestepping critical analysis of the evidence and instead directly accepts revelation and authority. But it is more than just believing something more strongly than warranted by the evidence; it is a state of mind in which one chooses to not to question or doubt the particular revelation or authority. It is the glue that holds religion together. And it is also the glue that shuts people’s eyes. It keeps people from inquiry and honestly testing the truth claims of revelation and authority. It is hard enough to critically analyze the revelation and authority one has grown up with or lived with, and it is near to impossible when one has faith in them. Faith surely equals if not surpasses revelation and authority as a source of darkness.



So Christianity is right that much of the world lies in darkness. However the sources are not what Christians claim they are. The darkness is not that people believe the wrong doctrines or worship false gods; these are outcomes of darkness. The darkness is the reliance on false means for obtaining truth, namely: Revelation, Authority and Faith. These hide rather than reveal truth. When Christianity converts followers from other religions it is replacing one form of darkness with another one.



I claim that there is much more light in the world than Christianity admits. The scientific method of inquiry is capable of lifting us out of darkness. It does this by building explanatory hypotheses, evaluating them based on the evidence, and obtaining various levels of certainty according to the available evidence. In addition philosophy can shine light onto the realm of morality, see: Is morality subjective or objective? Ethical questions can be addressed based on our knowledge of humankind, rather than on commandments given in God’s name. The tragedy is that when Christianity seeks to relegate the scientific method to the sidelines and claims that revelation, authority and faith ought to be the central focus of one’s life, it is replacing light with darkness.