Friday, 23 November 2012

Reality Has A Well-Known Liberal Bias

The title of this post comes from (the brilliant comedian) Stephen Colbert.  For those who may not be familiar with the quote, it's something he said, back in 2006, at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.  In speaking about President George W. Bush, Colbert remarked as follows...

"Now, I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32 percent approval rating.  But guys like us, we don't pay attention to the polls.  We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in reality.  And reality has a well-known liberal bias."

As with much of Colbert's work, the genius of this comment lies in how closely it aligns with the way conservatives actually see "reality".  For example, growing up, I was told repeatedly that the media has a "liberal bias".  It's something I still hear Christians say routinely today.  Heck, maybe the media does have a liberal bias.  Certainly it *could* be true, at least in theory, that people drawn to careers in journalism tend to lean to the left end of the political spectrum (or perhaps they move to the left over time).  It would be interesting to see some hard research on that issue.  At the same time, I do find it suspicious that many of these same people, who claim the media has a liberal bias, are unwilling to admit that Fox News has a conservative bias.  In their minds, Fox just tells it like it is.

Having said that, by way of setup, allow me to switch gears a little.  I've managed, thus far, to stay completely away from politics on this website.  I don't intend to change that now.  What I'd like to do instead, in what follows, is apply and discuss this concept in the context of "liberal" vs. "conservative" Christianity.  I've been thinking a lot lately about the differences between conservative and liberal versions of faith, and how they compare and contrast to my current atheism.  Could it be the case that, when it comes to Christianity, the truth (or "reality") has a liberal bias?  To put it a different way, are liberal Christians closer to the truth than conservative ones?  This might seem like an odd thing, for an atheist like me to be pondering on, but so be it.

Being that I grew up in a strongly evangelical household, liberal Christians have always been something of an enigma.  While I was a Christian, I pretty much just thought they were guilty of not taking the Bible seriously enough.  Incidentally, this is still essentially how a lot of conservative Christians view liberal believers.  Now that I've done more research, on the Bible itself, I can see that, at least in certain select cases, liberal Christianity is (surprisingly) the result of taking the Bible more seriously.  I think Thom Stark does an excellent job, of making this case, in his book "The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It)".  Who would ever want to say, with a straight face, that Stark doesn't take the Bible "seriously"?  (Only people who haven't read the book.)  In my estimation, Stark understands the salient issues much better, than even many of his fellow scholars do, and his so called "liberal" theological views clearly stem directly from that deep familiarity.  By this same logic, one could easily (and, I think, fairly effectively) argue that conservative Christianity is often connected to a poor understanding of the problems inherent to the Biblical texts themselves (among other things).

So, that said, my answer to the aforementioned question, would be "yes".  The more I think about it, the more I become convinced that liberal Christians are indeed closer to the truth, about Christianity itself, than are conservative ones.  When I read Mark Driscoll I agree with very little of what he has to say.  When I read Rob Bell I agree with much more.  And when I read Thom Stark I agree with more still.  In other words, on a sliding scale of conservative vs. liberal, the extent to which I agree with Christian writers is positively correlated with their level of liberalism.

After I came to this realization, I began to actively seek out lines of evidence that would counter my conclusion.  Being as I'm now keenly aware of confirmation bias, I never again want to fall into the all too common trap of believing something to be true primarily because I would prefer it to be true.  I want my opinions to line up with empirical facts about the nature of reality, wherever and whenever possible.  And in those instances where such evidence cannot or has not been obtained, for whatever reason, I am personally committed to holding those particular opinions with a much larger grain of salt.

While I was still thinking on all of this I ran into a piece, over at Debunking Christianity, that would seem, at least on the face of it, to provide empirical evidence in support of my prior conclusions. The article was about two University professors, that I had never heard of before (Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne) and the stir they have created recently at Lincoln Christian University. Frankly, I have little interest in the finer details of their story, but the long and the short of it is they have apparently endorsed views that just weren't conservative enough to keep them out of trouble. Now, if you've been paying close attention, you may feel (as I did) that you've heard this all before. Why is it, I wondered, that University professors, and other eminent Bible scholars, keep getting themselves into so much hot water?  Didn't something similar happen to Mike Licona? And Peter Enns?  And now Christopher Rollston?  I realize that all of these incidents involve different Biblical issues, and I don't intend to obscure the numerous and important distinctions between the various cases.  But, in taking a step back, to look at the broader picture, I can't help but notice that there is a much larger point to be made here.  Namely, there is a trend toward liberalism, among Universities that pursue the best scholars to teach for them.  You might say that those Christian Universities, who want to attract the brightest, are playing with fire, if they also desire to remain acceptably conservative theologically speaking (perhaps within certain predetermined boundaries).

But the deeper question is why might such a trend, toward liberalism, exist in the first place?  I believe it's because the truth *about Christianity* has a liberal bias.  Loftus puts it this way, employing his usual combative style (but making an excellent point)...

"This is the trend folks, toward liberalism.  IT DOES NOT WORK IN REVERSE.  You never see a liberal college gradually become a conservative one.  It only happens by firings or starting new colleges.  The gradual trend over time is towards liberalism, which takes place naturally as scholars interact with other scholars.  Kick against the goads all you want to.  It's the trend.  The only way to stay conservative is to cut yourself off from the wider scholarship at large.  But then you'll just be talking to yourselves and be ignored by others.  Scholars cannot allow themselves to do this and still be recognized as scholars.  They must interact with the wider scholarly community.  So the choice is to either have scholars and risk upsetting your constituents thereby being forced to fire them, or basically be culturally irrelevant as a University.  But what University worthy of the name can stand for that?  None should."

It could also be noted that this makes sense of the fact that many formerly Christian Universities have become, over a long period of time, essentially secular institutions.  I suspect a move to the left happens quite organically, because that's where the evidence leads.  I still remember how surprised I was, as a teenager, when I found out that some of America's top Universities were initially founded as Christian institutions.  Think Yale or Harvard.  At the time it made me sad, because I thought they were straying from "the truth".  Looking back, I wonder why it never occurred to me that the exact opposite might be the case.  Maybe they strayed from their Christian roots because of their commitment to the truth.  It's funny how time & education can change your perspective on things.

Had I encountered the above information, while still a Christian, I probably would have either: a) denied it, b) brushed it off, or c) blamed it on the devil (and/or man's sinful nature).  After all, the Bible says that Satan is the "prince of the power of the air".  In other words, he supposedly controls a lot of things (and people) here on planet Earth.  Most unbelievers don't mean to help out the devil, they just don't realize that Jesus said "he who is not with me is against me".  Poor suckers.  They're in Satan's service and they don't even realize it.  One of my favorite Bible verses also used to be 1 Corinthians 1:25, which says, "For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom...".  This struck me as profound, back then, even though it's really just saying that a god, assuming one exists in the first place, would naturally be smarter than us people are (seems kind of obvious now).

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.  If you're a conservative (aka committed evangelical) Christian, I sincerely hope you won't make the same mistakes that I did.  I made them for 25 long years.  Please consider alternative viewpoints honestly and fully.  I might recommend starting with Stark's book.

At this point, you might be wondering why I consider myself an atheist, instead of a liberal Christian.  After all, I've said nary a critical word about them here.  It's a good question, and one that I'll endeavor to answer in my next post.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Faith, Doubt, And The Power Of Positive Thinking

A loose acquaintance of mine recently got into a bad traffic accident.  You might call him a "friend of a friend of a friend"; we don't really know each other, very well, but we travel in similar circles.

Unfortunately, it appears as if he may now be paralyzed.  Obviously, it's a tough situation but, from what I hear, he is maintaining an extremely positive (even cheery) attitude in the hospital. For the record, and lest I be accused of implying otherwise, I think this is downright awesome. There is a great wisdom in learning to accept those things, in life, that we cannot control.  It reminds me of a saying that my mother taught me, when I was younger;

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference."

I now realize that this is what's known as the serenity prayer but, as a kid, it just seemed like another one of those deep things my mom said (she said a lot of those).  Of course, today, as an atheist, I no longer believe that it's god who grants serenity.  The truth is, it comes from within us.

A few days ago, I became privy to an update on this acquaintance of mine.  The message, in part, read as follows...

"...(he has) inspired many with his faith and total trust in the Lord as he seeks to honor Him while clawing his way back.  The most beautiful part of this is the fact that he knows the Lord has never changed in the midst of this."

As I was reading the update, and the above section in particular, it hit me that Christians routinely confuse the ideas of faith and positivity.  In the mind of the Christian, persistent faith and trust in god, even in the face of great tragedy, is equated with internal strength and fortitude.

In similar scenarios, you will often hear believers speak of how so and so has been a real "witness", to the doctors and nurses.  In other words, their positive attitude has caused the medical staff to wonder about (or even envy) their Christian faith.  This is part and parcel to being "salt and light", to "the world", a great source of pride for the believer.

But, let's suppose, for a moment, that you or I were to become suddenly paralyzed (or we received some other devastating medical diagnosis).  We would be faced with two basic cognitive choices, in the aftermath of such terrible news: a) believe that god has a plan and, as such, that we were paralyzed "for a reason", or b) believe that we were paralyzed simply due to a freak accident (no plan, no reason, it just sucks).

Now, which one of these things is easier to believe?  I'm not asking which one is better, or which one you personally believe, I'm asking which one is easier to believe.  (Go back, and read them again, before answering too quickly.)

It seems clear, when reflected upon in this way, that many would admit it's probably easier (at least for most people) to believe that their paralysis (or what have you) is all part of god's ultimate plan in some mysterious way.  If this is the case though, than why is maintaining faith in god viewed as a sign of strength in such situations?  Wouldn't losing your faith actually take more strength, according to this same logic?  After all, then you would have to fully admit that it's up to you, to make the best out of your really difficult situation.  No miraculous healing will come, and there is no grand plan from above.

At this point, one might be inclined to see the latter option as depressing.  Is it even realistic, to expect that someone could maintain a positive attitude, while viewing it in this way?

Yes.  I'm certainly not claiming it's easy, but many have proven that it can be done.

Allow me to offer up Christopher Reeve, as just one shining example.  I greatly admired (the late) Reeve, for displaying to the world a stellar attitude, despite his significant health challenges.  I have nothing but the highest respect for those who, like Reeve, steadfastly refuse to feel sorry for themselves. Incidentally, Christopher Hitchens handled himself with a similar grace, during his final days.  I think it's pretty clear that strength comes the inside, as I have claimed, and it actually has nothing to do with the supernatural at all.  Having said that, I do think that believing in god can make it much easier for someone to come to terms (internally) with such tragedies. I don't fault Christians for this.  I understand the appeal, of believing as they do, in particular since I once believed it myself.

All of this does imply, however, that religious belief acts as something of a crutch, or at least that it provides great emotional comfort, since it infuses meaning into things which would (otherwise) seem senseless and random (making them feel even more tragic). It's one of the factors that makes faith so prevalent, and difficult to shake off, especially for those experiencing a lot of hard knocks in life.  Staring reality square in the face can be pretty daunting. Incidentally, I've written a little already about how (I believe) faith acts as an emotional coping mechanism, right here, but it's a topic I will likely return to again and again.

For now, let's circle back to the question I started with; why do Christians equate faith with internal strength?  I think the answer is found by taking a step back to examine, more broadly, how Christians see the world from the outset.  When they trumpet the fact that so and so continued believing, even after something admittedly awful, what they're really saying is that he or she persisted in their faith despite evidence that might seem to suggest the contrary.  In other words, they're continuously affirming, to one another, that even though such and such may *seem* random (or meaningless), it's really not what it seems.  It's akin to saying, "our in-group believes that god has all things under his control, so we're going to esteem you verbally, for still believing in that, despite what you're going through right now".  It is for this same reason they will often admonish one another, with faith affirming platitudes such as "keep the faith!", as if doing so were just inherently a good thing.  This assumption, that religious faith is always good and right, by its very nature, is simply never challenged inside the Christian bubble.

My goal, in this post, has been to untangle the concepts of faith and positivity.  As it happens, I think the same sort of confusion exists, on the flip side, regarding the concepts of skepticism and negativity (or cynicism).  I consider myself to be a skeptic, and proud of it, but I am not a "negative person", nor am I cynical in any way (admittedly, I can be sarcastic sometimes :)). Doubt is not a bad thing, it's a sign of intellectual maturity, so a skeptic should never be accused of bringing negativity into a discussion (simply because they have introduced doubt into the given equation).

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Repent And Believe

Recently, I attended an evangelistic outreach type meeting. Y'know, the kind where they hold an invitation, at the end of the service, and ask people to come forward to "accept Jesus as their lord and personal savior".  It's the first such event I have attended, since becoming an atheist nearly 3 years ago now.

As you might well imagine, such experiences strike me a lot differently than they used to.  For example, I couldn't help but notice how strongly the evening, as a whole, played to people's emotions.  Was church always like this, I wondered?  Perhaps it was, and I have just forgotten all too quickly.  Somehow that world feels so foreign to me already.  Quite frankly, a few of the personal stories, shared that night, were downright gut wrenching.  Anybody with half a heart would have been profoundly moved, by certain aspects, and I was.  It served to remind me, rather poignantly, of something I already knew (but sometimes forget); namely, that a lot of people come initially to belief in Jesus because of how it makes them feel.  I've written about this dynamic before, right here, but it was a good reminder nonetheless.

It was the invitation itself though, that really grabbed my attention.  There was nothing unusual about it, per se, in fact you might even say it was pretty ordinary (as far as invitations to accept Christ go).  The preacher focused heavily on the guilt that we all should feel, for having done bad things in our lives, and then moved straight into the "Jesus can forgive you" clincher. The line that I remember most, went roughly something like this, "by coming forward tonight you are saying to God 'I repent of my sins, and I believe that Jesus was your son'".  As the preacher continued on with his plea, it occurred to me that this simple line of his encapsulates one of my single biggest objections to the Christian faith.  

Let's look at the line again, and see if you can guess what I will take issue with.  (Keep in mind these probably weren't his exact words, but it matters not to my general point.)  Here it is again, "by coming forward tonight you are saying to God, 'I repent of my sins, AND I BELIEVE THAT JESUS WAS YOUR SON'".  Let me state my objection plainly...

The preacher was pitching repentance but, in so doing, he was smuggling intellectual assent through the back door.  

Now, you might be tempted to ask, so what?  What exactly is the difference anyway, between repentance and "intellectual assent"?  I might have asked the same question, only a few short years ago.  Let's think about it for a moment.  When Christians speak of the need for "repentance", what they basically mean is that the given person needs to feel badly for falling short of God's perfection.  So, to "repent" is to turn around, admit your wrongdoing, and head in the other direction.  That's essentially it.  But what on earth does this have to do with the purely historical proposition that Jesus was God's son?  I'll tell you what...nothing whatsoever.

On the rare occasion I bring this objection up to Christians, they tend to say something along the lines of "well, it's impossible to repent to someone that you don't believe in".  True enough.  But this is precisely my point.  Intellectual assent (belief) is a non-negotiable, according to basic Christian theology.  It may not be the only thing needed for salvation since, after all, "even the demons believe" (that there is one god), but it's certainly one of the required elements.  

Allow me to further illustrate my point...let's suppose that someone is generally o.k. with the idea that we're all imperfect, but they have serious doubts about whether or not Jesus was God, rose from the dead, or performed miracles etc.  Can such a person make it to heaven, without changing their mind on the factual claims?  I have yet to meet a single Christian who answers "yes" to this question (in fact, most give it a resounding "no").  In other words, a lack of intellectual assent (aka belief) precludes you from being a Christian.  Right?  But the preacher said nary a word, during the course of the sermon, about why we should believe the proposition that Jesus was God's son.  Not one word.  After all, Jesus could well have been something else, like just a man, yes?  So, what gives him (the preacher) the right to insist that people intellectually assent to something they haven't properly investigated; especially something so incredibly important, and controversial?  Isn't this bordering on the irresponsible?  Was he meaning to implicitly suggest that unbelievers go home, read up on the relevant research, and then come to an informed conclusion, on their own, when they feel ready to do so?  Quite the contrary!  In fact, he implored the audience members to make an immediate decision, to "accept or reject" Jesus, before it was too late for their very souls.  What's worst of all, to me, is that he did it under the pretext that they were merely admitting to having done some bad things in life.  (Who hasn't?)

To be perfectly clear, I don't mean to imply there was deceitful intent, in the way the gospel was presented that evening.  On the contrary, I think the preacher's message was actually quite representative of how the Christian message is very typically packaged.  I've heard hundreds of salvation sermons throughout the years and, as best as I can recall, only a tiny handful of them have so much as *mentioned* issues relevant to the historical claims of Christianity. Even in those rare instances, often the "facts" are given a shallow, Lee Strobel-ish sort of treatment.  It may sound impressive enough, to the totally uninitiated, but (unsurprisingly) the counter arguments are rarely broached in any serious way, if broached at all. (I led many people to Christ myself, while I was a believer, and usually via "The Romans Road".)

I couldn't help but wonder, as people stepped out to get "saved", how many of them were versant in the historical research pertaining to Jesus.  Had they sufficiently considered, for example, the evidence pointing to him as a failed apocalyptic prophet?  (For a taste, see here, here, and here.) I strongly doubt it.  In fact, I doubt that most of them would even have known what an apocalyptic prophet was.  Regardless, they were tacitly assenting to the belief that Jesus was God's son by going forward.  Given that the sermon focused almost exclusively on repentance, the brute reality is these sorts of intellectual questions were, rather ironically, likely the furthest thing from their minds in that moment.

In Christianity, the belief often just comes as part of the package deal.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Hearing From God

September tends to be one of my busiest months of the year, if not my busiest, which is why it's been so long since my last post.  I will (hopefully) be able to put a little more effort in here, moving forward.

This time around I'd like to offer a few of my current thoughts on how Christians hear from god. You see, I have a Christian friend who recently experienced a major professional disappointment. I don't want to get into the details but, suffice it to say, a project they were working on did not turn out the way they had hoped and expected it would.  I did my best to be encouraging, even complimentary, since I felt they had done an excellent job on the project (regardless of the outcome).

But here was the really interesting subsequent conversations my friend indicated that, despite the initial disappointment, she was ultimately o.k. with the failure of the project itself. What was confusing her now was one question, and one question only, namely "where is god in all of this?" (Her words.)  I had to admire her candor, and willingness to be vulnerable.  After positing this question, my friend shared with me about how she felt god had spoken very clearly to her, during a Christian event, telling her to move forward with this particular project.  Prior to that point, she said, her focus had simply been elsewhere.  In other words, she would not have pursued the project, to begin with, had she not felt that god was literally telling her to do so.  

So, what happened?  In my observation, there are three ways (possibly more) that Christians internally process these sorts of scenarios.  Let's look at each of them, in turn, and then I'll offer a few thoughts of my own...

I Didn't Hear From God Correctly

I suppose one possibility is that my friend simply didn't hear from God correctly.  Perhaps the physical sensations, that she says she felt, were nothing more than a chill in the air because the room temperature was too cold that night.  Or maybe the devil was trying to deceive her, by pretending to be god.  I hear Satan does that sort of thing sometimes.    

God Wanted To Teach Me Something

Another extremely common response, in the wake of such disappointments, is to claim that god's ultimate goal was to teach the believer something.  It is true, after all, that we often learn and grow as a result of our failures.  Would any reasonable person want to deny this?  On top of that, according to the Christian worldview, god's ultimate goal is to mold us into his character.  Given this, the "success", of this or that earthly initiative, is not really his main concern at the end of the day (even though it might sometimes be ours).

God Wanted To Test My Obedience

Even in those cases where the believer might feel as if they didn't consciously learn anything, from the experience, they still have an out.  It remains possible, even after every other potential avenue has been exhausted, that god simply wanted to test the given believer's willingness to obey.  Would my friend follow through, on what god had clearly asked her to do, or wouldn't she? The choice was hers to make (and god was watching).  Perhaps this whole situation was primarily intended as a test of her faith.

So why do I, as an atheist, and former Christian, now reject each of these interpretations?  Let's go through them again...

I Didn't Hear From God Correctly

The problem with this one, as I see it, lies in the fact that there are no unambiguous "hearing from god" criteria, in Christian circles.  I mean, how is one to know whether or not they are hearing from god "correctly"?  Isn't it something of a crap shoot?  (Excuse the term.)  Believers will typically encourage one another to match these sorts of personal revelations to the Bible (to be sure they are, at the very least, not anti-Biblical) but, other than that, how is one to know?  Can a Christian ever be entirely confident that they have indeed heard from god?  If so, how?

God Wanted To Teach Me Something

This is especially tricky because, as I already pointed out, we do often learn things through failure. There's no doubt about that.  In my friend's case though, the project in question was actually quite similar to one they had undertaken previously.  As such, even after it was over, my friend didn't feel as if they had learned anything new, per se.  They pursued it anyway because, in their perception, god told them to pursue it, period.

God Wanted To Test My Obedience

Christians have this bizarre way of taking things that "should" cause them to doubt, and flipping them around into faith building exercises.  For example, if God feels silent, in your daily quiet time, it's not because he isn't there.  It's because he wants to see if you will still remain faithful, even in the midst of the silence.  Or, when a loved one dies of cancer, god is quietly asking, "will you trust me now?"
When caught up in this mode of thinking, as I once was, there is literally *nothing* that counts as a strike against your faith.  You've re-structured all of life's events, both good and bad, into a giant faith affirming, totally unfalsifiable paradigm.  It's not unlike the way Christians view god's potential answers to prayer; namely, yes, no, or wait.  But given that those are the only three options, even in theory, how would a believer ever come to the conclusion that prayer doesn't work?  Perhaps it explains, in part, why so few of them do come to that conclusion.  

I'd like to close by telling you what I suspect really happened, in my friend's case.  I'm not claiming to know for absolute certain, of course, but if you'll humor me I'd like to give it a whirl...

I think my friend probably felt torn, about whether or not to pursue this new project, but was leaning in the "no" direction initially.  The clock was ticking, on the potential for implementation of the project, so on one level they knew that a decision would need to be made on it fairly soon. Something was said, during the course of the evening, that my friend took to be a word straight from god to them.  Every Christian knows what I'm talking about here.  It's like you are the only one in the room and, somehow or another, god has given the speaker just the right words to say. Those words were meant for you, of that there is no doubt in your mind.  God not only wanted you to attend the given event, he even orchestrated in advance the words that would be spoken (knowing, of course, that you would be there).  This is pretty rad stuff.

Circling back to my friend, these words caused an emotional reaction in her, at a deep level, leading to physical shivers and the whole deal.  I believe most of this happens beneath the level of conscious awareness.  Due to her worldview, she naturally interpreted her reaction as a primarily spiritual (rather than primarily emotional) effect, it was god telling her to pursue the project.

I should also point out that, from my purview now, this sort of thing is another clear example of patternicity + agenticity.  The speaker in question likely said something reasonably vague, that could be applied to any number of situations.  (Think fortune cookies, horoscopes, or even the prophecies of Nostradamus.)  Depending on their emotional state, many in the audience (perhaps not all) will hear these words and apply it (internally) to their own situation(s).  This first part is called patternicity.  In other words, they have established a connection between what was said, however general, and a very specific and personal situation.  The second step, of course, is to attribute this new mental connection to an agent; namely, in this case, the Christian god that the audience members already believe in.  So, the full pattern goes like this: a) vague, but inspiring, statement made, b) vague statement internally applied to personal situation(s) = c) god must be speaking to me, through one of my fellow human beings, about my personal situation.  In short, it's a false pattern applied to an intentional agent.

I don't realistically expect Christians to immediately abandon their worldview, if/when they get confused about whether or not god has spoken to them in a particular scenario.  My goals here are a little more modest.  What I would like, and don't see as unreasonable, is for them to at least consider the fact that natural explanations *might* be more plausible.  Maybe god's voice is confusing because he doesn't speak at all.  And maybe he doesn't speak because he isn't real. Maybe your perceived "relationship with god" is a product of factors internal to your brain, and nothing beyond that.  Maybe, just maybe, it has always been this way.

I realize it's still a very tall order.  (Believe me, I've been there.)  

These are the things I wanted desperately to say to my friend, but couldn't, since she believes that I am still a Christian.  Instead, I just did my best to be supportive, and I shied away from offering the sorts of pat answers I suspected she was getting from some of her other friends.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Christ-Like Atheism

Now that I'm an atheist, I can't help but notice that a lot of believers strongly associate particular virtues with Christianity.  Some of these laudable attributes have become so closely tied to the Christian faith, in fact, that some people have difficulty even recognizing the distinction between Christian beliefs and "Christian values".  In their minds, Christianity is a package deal.  What I mean to say is, "Christian values" have become bound, intractably, to the belief that Jesus was god, that he rose from the dead, and so on and so forth.  If you accept one (Christian beliefs), in so doing you accept the other ("Christian values"); and if you reject one (Christian beliefs), it is assumed that you have also rejected the other ("Christian values").  Or so the thinking goes.

But, does Christianity really have ownership over these values?

Clearly not, because I am an atheist who still believes in many of these (so called) "Christian" ideas.  Is this merely because I was raised in a Christian home and culture?  And does it also make me a Christian (or Christian-ish) atheist?  Is such a thing even possible?  Let me offer some examples, so you can see what I mean; three concepts; commonly associated with Christianity, that I still adhere to...


I was taken aback, a few weeks ago, while browsing another atheist's blog (not one from my blog roll).  The author, whose name I can't even remember, was listing off certain elements of Christianity that they now repudiate.  A little dramatic, perhaps, but fair enough.  I agreed with the content of everything they were saying.  That is, until they happened to throw forgiveness into the mix.  Whoa.  Wait a second here.  You reject forgiveness?  Why exactly?

Don't get me wrong, I'm open to the suggestion that forgiveness *might* be a bad idea.  But I strongly suspect that Christians have it exactly right, when they extol forgiveness as a virtue.  I would need to hear a pretty solid argument that it's not, before just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  In the absence of such a well formulated case, it seemed to me that this might be precisely what the atheist blogger in question was doing.

Having said that, I do think that a lot of people misunderstand forgiveness.  As I see it, forgiveness is not about releasing the offender from responsibility for their actions.  Rather, it's about releasing you from the resentment that resides in your heart; this resentment is, quite possibly, rotting away at your insides anyway.  A number of studies have shown that people who forgive report less health problems.  They are also happier.

And forgiveness doesn't imply that what the offender did was o.k., as if you had somehow sanctioned their actions by releasing your anger.  You can forgive someone, fully and completely, but still not wish to ever so much as see or be associated with that person again.

Now, I obviously no longer believe that we are commanded, by a supreme being, to forgive (lest we not be forgiven ourselves, like the Bible threatens).  Doesn't such a threat cheapen forgiveness anyway?

But I still think forgiveness is a pretty darn good idea, at least most of the time; and I don't need to believe Jesus rose from the dead to see that.

Serving Others

I won't spend a lot of time here because, in so far as I can tell, most atheists are completely with me on this issue. It's one of the things I appreciate most about blogs like "Friendly Atheist", for example.  Hemant frequently spotlights atheist humanitarian initiatives, of one form or another, and I say the more the better.  This is precisely the sort of thing that atheists need to become known for, in my view, if we are to change the public's perception of atheism.  (Need I remind anyone that polls generally show we are not viewed favorably by society at large?)

I have often wished that there were more secular organizations offering the equivalent of the church mission trip.  These trips, even though they often last only a few days or weeks, have given many a Christian a sense of real purpose and meaning (especially young people).  Atheists need to make it abundantly clear that you need not buy into the Christian worldview to have such purpose.  You can serve the poor without proselytizing.  In fact, you don't even have to do it "in the name of Jesus".  How about doing it simply in the name of compassion and empathy for your fellow man?  What's wrong with that?  Is any additional motivation really needed?  (Side note--If anyone does know of atheist organizations, that offer something comparable to the church mission trip, please enlighten me in the comments section below.)

When atheists show, through their actions, that they are good people it has a weird (cognitive dissonance) effect on Christians.  It becomes increasingly difficult to imagine that someone *deserves* to burn in hell, for all eternity, when every time you see them they are on their knees serving food to the poor (or something equally awesome).  This is a dynamic that I have previously termed "The Ellen Effect".

Let me also point out quickly that serving others goes well beyond charity work.  It applies in the business world (serving the customer), in marriage (serving our spouse), and so on.

I still believe in service, and that leads me nicely to my final point.


Humility is one of those things that's challenging to write about.  As soon as someone begins to wax eloquent, on the topic of humility, they run the very legitimate risk of being accused of arrogance.  It's like the old joke, about the guy who wrote the book, "101 Ways To Be Humble...And How I Achieved It".

So, I do not intend to claim, or even imply, that I am a humble person myself.  But I do want to make the point that I still very much believe in the concept of humility.  Nothing will cause me to gain (or lose) respect for someone, more quickly, than the perception of humility (or the lack thereof) in that individual.  It's a character trait that I greatly admire.

So, there you have it--forgiveness, serving others, and humility--three "Christian" values that I still believe in.  In my opinion, the emphasis Christians place on these attributes, and others I haven't mentioned, is representative of the very best that Christianity has to offer the world today.

What's my point, you ask?  Well, I have two of them, and with those I will close...

My first point is that "Christian values", such as the three I've listed here, have nothing to do with the claim that Jesus was god.  Let me say that again; "Christian values" have nothing to do with whether or not Christianity's core assertions are true.  This might seem obvious, and it is, but it needs to be said out loud because many Christians assume that it's their values us skeptics are rejecting at root (instead of their beliefs).  This is a hidden subtext in statements like, "he's just rebelling against god", but it's completely ass backwards.  As I have just explained, I still accept many "Christian values", but I think I've also made it clear, in previous posts, that I fully reject Christianity's historical claims.

My second, and I think most important, point is this...what many people refer to as "Christian values" are not unique to Christianity.  "Christian values" are only considered "Christian values" because, over time, certain concepts have become attached at the hip to the Christian message.  Is forgiveness discussed in the Bible?  Sure!  But that doesn't mean it's an exclusively Christian idea.  In fact, nearly every religion teaches on forgiveness.  Humility is also seen as a virtue in numerous religious and philosophical traditions.  Christianity has co-opted plenty of good ideas, but that doesn't mean Yahweh or Jesus invented them (yet this is precisely what some believers think).

This hit me like a ton of bricks, a few weeks ago, when a friend told me that, of all the Christians he knew, I reminded him the most of Jesus.  (He never would have said this, of course, had he known he was actually talking to an atheist.)  My first internal reaction was, "wow, what an incredible compliment".  My second, almost immediately after, was, "hold on a minute, something's not right here".  As I thought about it more, I realized that what he meant to convey is he sees in me characteristics he finds admirable.  In other words, my friend was simply assuming (wrongly, I think) that Jesus was the embodiment of all things commendable in human behavior. According to this logic, if you are kind, gracious, forgiving, or whatever it might happen to be, this automatically means you are "like Jesus".  It's the ultimate conflation of "Christian values" and Christian beliefs.  I suspect that most Christians think this way about Jesus.  Sometimes they will also take it a step further; picking up on something that Jesus said or did, in the gospels, and then attempting to frame that thing as if it were his central message while here on Earth ("Jesus was 'all about' serving the poor, didn't you know?").

So, as it turns out, the title of this post is something of a misnomer.  To say that someone is "Christ-like', is to assume: a) that Jesus was in fact "the Christ", and b) that Jesus had the very best character traits any human being could ever aspire to.  I don't happen to think either of those things are true.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Does God Heal?

I didn't realize, until well after my de-conversion, how often Christians use the word "miracle" seems to be especially prevalent in relation to physical healing.  Miracle is just another one of those words that you grow accustomed to hearing, when you're part of the Christian subculture, so it doesn't really draw mental red flags in the way that it probably should.

Under the category of "million dollar questions", here's a biggie; do physical healing miracles happen today?

I certainly can't *prove* that they don't, but let me just say instead that I am no longer convinced miracles exist as a real entity in any supernatural (god directed) sense at all; or that they ever have.

It seems to me a sizable chunk of evangelicals are already skeptical of the so called faith healers, such as Benny Hinn or Todd Bentley, and well they should be (even though both of these guys have large followings; Hinn in particular).  Given their already controversial nature, even within Christian circles, I'm not going to waste much time commenting on that movement (despite the Hinn photo above).

Instead, I'd like to discuss briefly the very broadly accepted Christian belief that god regularly heals people as a result of the prayers of their friends and family.  If you are a Christian, chances are high you believe this to your very core.  You probably know someone, or even several people, who have received a "miracle" by way of god's physical healing.

There are two such cases, that have come to my attention quite organically, which will serve to illustrate my recent observations in this respect.  In both of these cases it was the word "miracle" (or "miraculous"), which initially grabbed my attention and got me to thinking.  Before I jump into it, let me be quick to admit that anecdotes never *prove* anything, one way or the other (and we could trade them back and forth all day).  So my intention here is simply to use these two cases as a springboard for further thought & analysis, specifically on the issue of god's supposed involvement in physical healing.

I should also mention that these cases represent people I know personally.

Case #1

A few months back, I went to the website of a Christian leader (an individual who is incidentally sort of a mini-celebrity, in certain limited circles).  I don't want to get into the specifics, so as not to reveal her exact identity, but there was a line in her biography that really leapt off the screen. It said that she was "miraculously healed of a terminal illness".  Wow.  That sounds really cool, and it certainly helps to give her story some serious street cred.  (*Note to those who weren't raised in a Christian Christian culture, the more stuff that you've been "saved from", the cooler you are considered to be.  It's an odd dynamic.)

As it happened, she actually also mentioned the name of the illness, but only in passing, so I decided to look it up on wikipedia.  You may have trouble believing this, but I always try to keep an open mind about these sorts of stories.  I realize, on one level, that I could be wrong about atheism.  I sincerely don't think I am wrong, but I am not so arrogant as to rule out the very possibility.  Maybe I was right before, and Christianity is true?  If that's the case, I want to be the first to find out.  This is, in part, why I retain a certain curiosity about statements like the one contained in her bio.

Anyway, to my genuine surprise, the wikipedia article included the following line, "remission can be achieved in up to 60-80% of cases".


How could she not have mentioned this??

If "remission can be achieved in up to 60-80% of cases", than why did she refer to the healing as "miraculous"?  This is extremely confusing to someone like me.

The ironic thing is it actually would have been more "miraculous", if you want to put it in that way, if she had not gone into remission after treatment.  If remission is achieved "in up to 60-80% of cases", the odds were actually in her favor!!

See my problem there?  

Case #2

Although it bugged me a little, at the time, I quickly forgot about case number 1 and moved on with my life.  That is, until a few weeks later, when I had a prolonged conversation with another Christian who also threw out the word "miracle"; and once again in reference to a personal illness. While my other friends, who were also a part of the conversation, were busy saying how awesome they thought that was (and relating their own stories of god's healing of their own friends/family members), I took it upon myself to ask her what the name of her sickness had been.  I also expressed to her my sincere congratulations, on the fact that she was o.k. now, and I did my best to divert away from the god talk.  I simply wanted to connect with her on a human level, but she was pretty intent on bringing god into the dialogue at every opportunity.

Later that day, I decided once again to look up the given sickness on wikipedia.  In this case, it was actually something, quite rare, that I had not even heard of before.  Could it be that this woman had experienced a genuine "miracle", I wondered to myself, as she had claimed?

As you've probably guessed by now, much as it had before, wikipedia told a very, very different story.  Included, in the article regarding her illness, was the following line, "the cure around 90-95%".  Yes, you read that right, "the cure around 90-95%"!!!  I have to tell you, I nearly fell out of my chair when I read that line.  This woman seemed to me to be a perfectly *normal* Christian, if you know what I mean, and my (intelligent!) friends seemed also to believe that she had experienced a legitimate "miracle".

But why?

I received a clue, a few days later, in a seemingly unrelated conversation with one of these same friends.  As she expressed it to me, her personal belief is that it is preferable to always "give god the credit" for something good in your life, even if he might not be responsible for it.  Far better to thank god, and be wrong, than to not thank him at all she would say.  My suspicion is this sort of (in my opinion) warped thinking stems from the Bible itself.  And I think it may explain, at least in part, why it is so extremely difficult to divest everyday Christians of the "miracle" type language they use ever so casually (and irresponsibly).  When my friend said this, Proverbs 3:6 came immediately to my mind, "in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight". Could it be, that Christians are desperate to "acknowledge" god, in "all things", because they believe they are commanded to do so?  I think this may well be the case.  The problem, of course, is that it tends to lead to a highly credulous approach, as illustrated above, to "all things" that their god *might* have been responsible for.  This, to me, is a major flaw in my friend's logic.

Christians will sometimes falsely say that there is no amount of evidence that will convince a skeptic to believe in god (or, in my case, to believe in god again).  We skeptics are simply determined, they will say, to persist in our unbelief.  I was just accused of this myself (under the comments section of this post).  But it's an entirely false charge.  There are in fact many, many things that would convince me Christianity is true.  I would be happy to provide specific examples, if you're interested in hearing them.

But it occurs to me there is a flip side to that coin...perhaps there is no amount of de-bunking that will convince some believers they are mistaken.  In other words, no matter how many "miracles" are explained, and shown to be (plausibly) quite natural events, these brand of believers will always cling to the hope that at least *some* genuine miracles still take place.  It may not be this particular story or that particular story, which qualify as a miracle, but until skeptics are able to explain away literally every potential miracle, the *possibility* remains that supernatural miracles are real.  But how could skeptics ever accept this massive challenge? We can't, of course, and it is irrational of such believers to even expect us to do so.  Doubt and skepticism are not signs of weakness, despite what you may have been told.  They represent the mature approach, as Michael Shermer demonstrates in his excellent book, "The Believing Brain" (see, for example, the Shermer quote at the end of this post).

So here's my bottom line...when Christians say something was a "miracle", what they often really mean is that it was unexplained.  Do people sometimes recover, from physical illnesses, where the odds are much lower than "60-80%", or "90-95%", in their favor?  Even when the odds are stacked strongly against them?  Of course they do...sometimes...but often they don't.  You can't count only the healing hits, chalk the misses up to god's sovereignty (or ignore them completely), and then call it "evidence" for god's involvement.  It just doesn't work that way.  Unexplained recoveries happen every day.  We should expect them, because the odds are never 100% in either direction.

You can believe that god is responsible, for your mother's/aunt's/sister's/best friend's physical healing, if you want to insist on doing so, but I sincerely hope the above will help you to understand, if even just a little, why former believers like me no longer find this stuff very convincing.

I would leave the believer with one final question, to ponder.  It is a question that haunted me, during my de-conversion, and it eventually helped to engineer a major shift in my thinking.  The question is simply this, "why won't god heal amputees"?

Do you have an answer?

Please think about it.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Empty Platitudes

The longer I am an atheist, the more I realize how much I have truly changed (and am still changing).  As I said to my wife, the other day, what I am coming to recognize lately is that I have a burgeoning passion for, what one might generally term, critical thinking skills.  I'm not sure if I even thought of critical thinking as a skill, per se (as in something that needs to be developed/strengthened), while I was a Christian, but I can see now that it is precisely that.  In some ways this new found passion of mine is also broadening my palette, because lately I am equally bothered by all manner of poor thinking (whether or not it has anything to do with my background in Christianity).  What I mean to say is the changes in me are not *just* about my leaving the Christian faith, as if that complete worldview shift weren't dramatic enough; they go much deeper.

That said, in this post I'd like to discuss three common examples of (what I deem to be) poor thinking in society.  These are views (most?) people seem to endorse that, in so far as I can tell, just don't stand up to scrutiny.

What Doesn't Kill You Will Only Make You Stronger

This is one of those phrases that we hear all the time.  Even Kelly Clarkson has a hit song about it.  But what do people really intend to communicate, when they say it to someone they care about?  Well, first off, I think it's clear that they are not talking here about physical strength.  If someone is in a horrible car accident, for example, but it "doesn't kill them", it seems to be quite obvious (and uncontroversial) that the person in question may additionally not be "stronger" for having had the experience (in fact, they might end up in a coma, or a wheelchair...etc.).  So, we can safely scratch physical strength off the list of possible meanings.

No, what most people intend to say instead is that difficult experiences make you emotionally stronger.  And this is where things get tricky because, for the most part, I actually agree with this sentiment.  I myself experienced some abuse, as a child, and today I firmly believe that I am stronger (in certain ways), than I might otherwise have been, specifically because of the abuse.  How crazy is that?!  I suspect that many others, who were abused, would say similar things.

But is it always true, emotionally speaking, that "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger"?  No. Terri Schiavo wasn't killed, by her initial collapse, but did it in any way make her "stronger"?  I think one would be pretty hard pressed to make that case.  Or how about people living with ALS, such as Stephen Hawking?  Would Hawking have been a weaker (or less brilliant) man, had it not been for the diagnosis?  Again, I would have to say the answer here is probably "no".

Sadly, some Christians would thoughtlessly espouse a philosophy, similar to Norman Geisler's, that has certain people pegged as essentially collateral damage in god's grand scheme (although it's doubtful they would dare use that term).  If this is correct than god's ultimate goal, in cases like these, could be to actually make other people stronger (friends or family, for example).  This sort of thinking turns god into a demented sicko, who uses his children in (quite frankly) pretty despicable ways.  It makes us all mere pawns in his chess game.

All Things Work Together For Good

This is the only one, of my three examples, that is discussed directly in the Bible.  The whole verse goes as follows, "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28, KJV).  Incidentally, it's one of the many, many verses I memorized, back in the day, when I went through the Awana program.

There are two catches here.  Notice, first off, that the verse only promises that "all things work together for good" to them that love God.  This provides the perfect out, for Christians, when discussing the general concept in relation to non-Christians.  After all, the Bible never even promised that all things would work together for good for us wretched heathens.

But, even among believers, it seems clear that *all* things still don't work together for good.  How about the couple who loses their only child, to a stray gunshot in a bad neighborhood?  Will that 8 year old's death "work together for good"?  Now wait just a doggone minute, I can almost hear the Christians saying, how could I possibly know that it won't work together for good?  Well...I don't know that, but remember that I'm not the one making the bold claim here.  I'm simply saying that the evidence would seem to suggest that ALL things do not work together for good (even for Christians) in ALL situations.  The onus of proof now lies on the Christian, to attempt to demonstrate otherwise.  I need not prove your belief to be completely impossible, for it to be highly improbable.  As John Loftus has often pointed out, this is an entirely unreasonable standard.

This brings me to the second catch; heaven.  I've noticed that, on this issue, and numerous others, Christians use heaven as the ultimate escape clause.  If you argue effectively that something they believe doesn't hold water, they run immediately to the "but all will be made right in heaven someday" cop out defense.  It's a variation on what I have previously called playing the faith card.  But where is the evidence that heaven even exists?  (Are books like "Heaven Is For Real" the best that Christians have got?)

This also raises another interesting question...does eternal punishment, for unbelievers, somehow also work into something "good" in god's eyes?  Or does he only apply this principle to his chosen elect?  Either way, I'm curious as to how sending sincere unbelievers to hell, for all eternity, might (even in theory) work into the necessarily "good" plan that god supposedly has in place.  You'll have to forgive me if I find literally any master plan, that includes never ending punishment as one of its tenants, to be just a little confusing and extremely hard to swallow. 

Everything Happens For A Reason

This one feels like *the mother* of all false beliefs, and I'd venture to say it's also among those that bother us atheists the most.  Few people seem willing to accept the idea that seemingly random events in life are...well...random!  Come hell or high water, we desperately want there to be a reason behind every little (and big) unfortunate thing that happens. Even Justin Bieber once famously said that rape happens for a reason.  He has no clue what that reason might be, of course, and the truth is Bieber was merely parroting something that falls perfectly in line with his Christian worldview anyway.  (So it was a little unfair of us to blame him for simply saying it out loud.)  If god truly intervenes in the world though (and, if he doesn't, than why bother praying?), indeed it does follow logically to think that "everything happens for a reason".  Having said that, if ever there were a statement that had nearly ridiculous shit loads of evidence stacked against it, this would be the one.  Does every tsunami, earthquake, holocaust, infant death, accidental drowning, freak accident, and so on, happen "for a reason"?  If so, this brings a whole new meaning to the phrase "God works in mysterious ways" (which, as it happens, is itself another totally empty platitude).  I now believe this "everything happens for a reason" business to be simply another manifestation of agenticity.  As the thinking goes, if someone is up there controlling everything, than seemingly random events must not be random at all.  Never mind what the evidence points to, you just have to take it on faith.  (Surprise, surprise.)

As I wrap up, I'd like to circle back, ever so briefly, to make an additional comment on my second platitude; "all things work together for good".  I want to make it clear that, in one sense, I do believe that terrible things can work together for good; but only when we, as human beings, choose to make it so.  Let's re-visit the example I gave, of the child who dies from a stray there any way in which this event could ever be used "for good"?  Well, yes, actually there is.  Let's say the parents of that child decide to travel the country, telling their son's story and speaking out against gun violence.  Truly, this would be a "good" outcome, and something that resulted indirectly from an otherwise horrific situation.  But does this mean that ALL things work together for good?  Of course not.  And it certainly doesn't mean that the child died "for a reason" either.  In fact some parents, who lose a child prematurely, are unable to even muster the strength to continue on with their own lives.  How utterly sad.

At the risk of ending on a cheesy note, allow me to use this opportunity to remind my fellow unbelievers that we need to rally around one another during the tough times in life.  It really is all up to us, at the end of the day, so let's make as much "good" as we can out of the lot that we happen to be dealt.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Soul Mates

I have a confession to make.  I watch The Bachelorette faithfully (don't judge me).  I realize guys aren't *supposed* to like this show, or so I've heard, but it's my guilty pleasure.  I think I enjoy it primarily because I've always had a strong interest in psychology, especially as it relates to the complicated dynamics of interpersonal relationships.  I'm fascinated by the way in which the guys (or girls) interact, in "the house", as they compete to win the heart of the Bachelorette (or Bachelor). It's like watching survival of the fittest in action.

The other thing I find interesting is the way in which The Bachelor/Bachelorette, in this case Emily Maynard, goes about making their decision as to who they will pick in the end.  In nearly every season, the given star of the show comments on how they are falling (or have fallen) in love with more than one person at the same time.  This always seems to come as a total shock to their system, the implication being that there must be something terribly unnatural about having feelings of love for several people simultaneously.  In Emily's case, the cognitive dissonance that results leads her straight into a period of deep confusion, during which time she considers the idea these conflicted feelings may themselves serve as proof that both of her top two guys are in fact wrong for her.  In other words, as the thinking goes, if one candidate is not very clearly better, than each of the others, something just must not be right (because it's not supposed to feel this way).  Sadly, there are others, close to Emily, who encourage this type of thinking, which only ads to her confusion for a time.  She *should* feel much more strongly for the guy she is *supposed* to choose, because that is the one guy she is *meant* to be with...right?


I personally think the widespread belief in soul mates is just another example of agenticity.  Let's think more about this for a moment.  What are the chances that 30 random guys/girls, from all across the country (assumedly chosen by the show's producers), will just so happen to include the given Bachelor/Bachelorette's "soul mate"?  First off, this could only be true if god exists, and involves himself in such things.  He would necessarily need to be guiding the hands of the producer's, as they narrow the field, to be certain that Emily's soul mate makes their final cut.  If there is a god, and he is loving and personal, than it follows logically that he would have one person set aside for each of us to marry (unless, of course, he intends for you to stay single forever).  As mere mortals it becomes our only job, at that point, to find and recognize that special person.  But I think The Bachelorette itself clearly shows the dating process to be much more complex and nuanced than this sort of top down style of reasoning would suggest it to be.  In fact, as I referenced above, the whole scenario is also much more driven by a survival of the fittest type thrust than many would ever care to admit.  (Remember, a significant percentage of the American public doesn't even believe in evolution.  I imagine that some of those same people are fans of the Bachelorette, so of course they aren't going to think of it in these terms.)

As I see it, modern day Internet dating websites, such as eHarmony, would also seem to suggest that god has not chosen one person for each of us to be with.  These sites work, to the extent that they do, because they match people on dozens and dozens and dozens of criteria points. Compatibility is often the end result of this (rather involved) screening process.  It doesn't always work perfectly, of course, but sometimes it does work and that's the point.  Could someone please remind me again how & where it is that god becomes involved in things like The Bachelorette and eHarmony?  If god is indeed trying to help us find our "soul mates", than he would need to be doing an awful lot of micro-managing.

It IS possible to fall in love with more than one person, at the exact same time, and we should expect nothing less when we engineer such bizarre scenarios.  In our culture, it's not considered normal to date 30 people at once (in fact, it's generally frowned upon!), so it's just that we don't often see these dynamics in action.  The truth is there is no one person who is *meant* to be with you or I forever.  I know this all sounds terribly unromantic of me to say.  Please understand that I say it as a guy who is very happily married, and plans to remain so until the day that he dies.  But isn't this more romantic (than believing in the idea of "soul mates") anyway?  I'd much rather marry someone who promises to stick with me, through thick and thin, even when their feelings wax and wane.  You can't "fall out of love", because love is not a feeling to begin's a choice.  I realize that choice is driven by feelings, and I wouldn't have it any other way, but it's still a choice at the end of the day.

We tend not to give ourselves enough credit; Maynard included.  She need not deny, or be in any way embarrassed, about the fact that she fell for more than one guy on the show.  Sometimes there is no *one* right way to go, even in cases where there is a choice that clearly needs to be made.  This is my larger point.  I think we all hope that she will make her choice (as spoilers would indicate that she does) and live happily ever after.  And those people who would have had Emily doubt herself, simply because her love has not been directed at one man exclusively, are very well meaning but misguided.  What Emily needs to do instead is make a rational choice....based on her feelings, yes, but also based on her head.   If she ultimately decides, on her own, that neither of these guys is right for her, than so be it.  Relationships are tough, perhaps especially so when they begin in such a highly manufactured (and overly romanticized) fashion.  I wish her all the best in the future and, come next season of The Bachelor/Bachelorette, I'm sure I'll be sucked in once again.

Monday, 16 July 2012

I Still Like The Bible

I admit the title of this post is somewhat misleading since, the full truth is, I still like *some* of the Bible.  However, when phrased in that more nuanced (and admittedly precise) way, it just doesn't seem to have the same ring to it.

Atheists have nearly made a sport of ragging on the Bible, and I think rightly so, but in this post I will attempt to show the flip side of that same coin.  I want to push back against the understandable misunderstanding, held by some Christians, that atheists hate the Bible and, as such, cast aside everything it says as a matter of atheist principle. This simply isn't true.

It's been some time now since I rejected the hypothesis that the Bible is the "word of God".  In fact, I've written against that idea on numerous occasions already.  One might even say it's been one of my persistent themes on this blog.

But, as I have gained more intellectual distance, from my old beliefs, I have come to realize that there are still some things in the Bible that I very much appreciate.  Let me offer three examples, and these will suffice to make my point...

The Book of Proverbs

I remember my Dad (a pastor) telling me, many years ago, that the book of Proverbs spoke only of likelihoods.  At the time I thought this a little strange, since essentially my Dad was admitting that there are clear statements, found in the Holy Bible, that may seem like promises at first blush (especially to the untrained eye), but really they were never intended to be promises to start with. I mean, when you think about it, a keen sense of observation is all that's needed to write about mere likelihoods.  So, where exactly does Yahweh come into play?  A good illustration of this dynamic is found in Proverbs 22:6, "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it."  (KJV)  Clearly, this isn't a promise.  One need only look around at all of the children who "depart" from their parents ways.  Many of them do come back, mind you, to something at least resembling their parents ways, so I still think the axiom is worthwhile in a more general sense.

Of course, now that I am older, and much better read, I realize that the book of Proverbs is basic wisdom literature.  Nothing more, nothing less.  As wikipedia states, a proverb itself is "a simple and concrete saying popularly known and repeated, which expresses a truth, based on common sense or the practical experience of humanity".  (In what sense then, is the book of Proverbs "the word of God?") 

With that little misunderstanding out of the way, I must say that, even as an atheist, I still love the book of Proverbs.  Probably my favorite verse comes in Proverbs 15:1, "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." (NIV)  As far as wisdom sayings go, this is great stuff.  I can't tell you the number of times I have applied it in everyday life.  For example, at my place of employment, I am the unfortunate one who gets to deal with customer complaints if/when they arise.  It's not an official part of my job description, it's just that my colleagues have figured out that I'm really good at it (lucky me) so I am frequently elected to respond.  Proverbs 15:1 has become indispensable to me, at times like this, and it comes often to my mind.  I've found that, when interacting with an angry person, the absolute worst thing you can do is return anger for anger.  The "secret" to talking someone down, if there is one, is to thank them (sincerely) for their feedback, show that you clearly understand things from their point of view, and then, calmly and rationally, explain where it is that they may be misguided.  Nine times out of ten, when handled in this manner, you can take the wind out of a complainer's sails (and, to my surprise, often even convince them that they were the one in the wrong to begin with).

In other words, "a gentle answer turns away wrath...".  It really does work, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I learned this from the Bible.

1 Corinthians 13 (the "love chapter")

The first thing to note, when talking about 1 Corinthians 13, is that this passage is actually about spiritual gifts, not romantic love (despite its popularity at weddings).

Even still, what a great description of love it is (and love is something that is notoriously hard to capture in words).  Starting at verse 4, "Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs...".  Excellent!

Think of the divorces that might have been avoided, for example, if both husband and wife had lived according to the creed, "keep no record of wrongs".  Or think of the spousal abuse that could be prevented if the perpetrators truly *got* the fact that love "is not easily angered", "is not proud", and "does not dishonor others".

When my kids are old enough to enter into romantic relationships, I can think of no better chapter (in any book) to read to them, than 1 Corinthians 13.

"Love is patient, love is kind", can I hear an atheist "amen"?!?

Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery

I still remember how shocked and disappointed I was, to discover that this wonderful story (found in John 8:1-11) does not appear in the original manuscripts of the gospel of John.  Did this event actually happen, while Jesus was on earth, or does it merely represent things that later Christians believe Jesus stood for?  I'm not sure that any of us knows the answer to that question (or that we ever will).

Even still, it's always been one of my very favorite Jesus stories.  Still today, when I am dialoging with Christians about the various problems with the Bible (contradictions, historical inaccuracies, and so on), I find myself quite reticent to use this story as an example of New Testament difficulties.  I don't want them to lose faith in it, I guess, since I personally like the picture of Jesus that it paints.  In other words, if they're going to continue believing in Jesus anyway, these verses represent the sort of Jesus I want them believing in.  "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone".  This is classic stuff, and for good reason.  It is true that I no longer believe in the concept of "sin", per se, but I still acknowledge of course (as do all atheists) that there are pro-social and anti-social behaviors.  I would like to live in the sort of society where we take the log out of our own eye, before attempting to remove the speck from our brother's eye (to use another Biblical reference).

Well as I said, at the beginning, my goal in this post is not to take back anything that I have previously said about the Bible.  I still don't think it's "God's word" or, frankly, that God had anything to do with it at all.  If you believe that he did, the onus of proof rests firmly on you.  This is a point that I have made, and attempted to convincingly demonstrate, numerous times over. But, in my zeal to debunk my old belief system, I would never want to give the impression that I have some sort of hate on for the Bible and/or for God.  It may be that some atheists do feel this way; I certainly can't speak for all of them.  But, even in those cases, I suspect the hate is mostly reserved for what the Bible represents, and how it has been used over the years and still is today (to justify all sorts of bigotry, violence etc.).  This is also something I have written about previously and, if god does exist, than Christians need to grapple with the uncomfortable fact that he himself is partly to blame.  Having said that, contrary to what some might think, it's literally impossible for a thoughtful atheist to hate God.  Since atheists no longer have faith in his very existence, it would be something akin to hating the tooth fairy.  Imaginary beings, in and of themselves, tend not to elicit strong emotion (unless/until other people use them for destructive ends).

The challenge for me, moving forward, will be in passing these good principles along to my children without using the "God said it" shortcut that the Bible provides for Christians.  Some days I'm not sure if I'm up to the challenge (parenting can be a scary endeavor), but I'm going to give it everything I've got.

To the atheists reading this blog, are there other Bible passages that you still like?  What is it about them that you appreciate?

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Public Witnessing Opportunities

In this post I'd like to offer a few additional musings, on a theme that I loosely alluded to last time; namely the very strong urge, among Christians, to publicly "witness for Christ".  I can't be the only one to have noticed that believers, by and large, are nearly obsessed with it.  (Full disclosure***I used to be too.)

A number of years ago, while I was still a Christian, there was a large amount of buzz re: a pop band called Sixpence None The Richer.  You see, Sixpence None the Richer, or simply "Sixpence", is a Christian group.  You'd never know it, from their best known song "Kiss Me", but it's true.  They had a quasi-successful run, in the Christian music world, before exploding on to the larger scene around the late 90's.  As a result of their new prominence, lead singer Leigh Nash was invited to chat a little with David Letterman. Here's what happened...

Now, as you can see, Letterman threw the door wide open for Nash to talk about her faith, if only but for a brief moment.  I've actually got to hand it to her for staying on message, amidst all of the interruptions and distractions.  Come to think of it I always liked Sixpence actually and, in certain ways, I still do.  Anyway Nash said her piece, Letterman agreed that it was a "beautiful" sentiment, and that was it.  No big deal, right?  Well, if that's what you think, than oh how wrong you are :). Had you been a Christian, at the time, you would have realized that this was in fact a HUGE deal. A cool Christian artist, now respected by the mainstream music world, mentioned C.S. Lewis on national TV; not only that, but she gave a "clear presentation of the gospel message"!  You would have thought, from the reaction of Sixpence's Christian fans, that secular viewers the world over were falling on their faces that night, in front of the TV, giving their lives to Christ right then and there.  Had they stopped to really think about it, of course, these same Christians would have freely admitted how ridiculous this sounds.  It's just that strong emotion has a way of preventing rational analysis.  As a Christian, all you feel certain of is that it's an awesome witnessing opportunity that God can (somehow?) use for his glory and benefit; and that's about as much thought as you put into it (then it's forgotten until the next witnessing opportunity comes along).

Looking back, I realize how completely silly it was for us to get even slightly excited about what Leigh Nash said on Letterman that night.  It was barely noteworthy, but you never would have known that *from within the Christian bubble*.

Of course, this same sort of thing still goes on today.  The recent Tim Tebow phenomenon is the most obvious example.  There are plenty of others.  Christians also get pretty pumped when Christians songs are performed on American Idol.  I've additionally noticed that my believing friends are more inclined to follow (and root for) the Christian performers who happen to make it into the top 12.  And if a "Christian artist" is invited to perform on the Grammy's, that's an even bigger deal.  Such a thing, on the rare occasions it happens, becomes a major topic of conversation & post-analysis for several days afterward.

But there is a question that rarely occurs to Christians in these sorts of scenarios; what do public professions of faith accomplish?


My belief now is that they accomplish nothing at all, except they excite and energize the "in-group" members (fellow Christians).  This, and this alone, is the true result.  At the end of the day, it's just sort of neat to think that some really famous person holds to your worldview.

It's also worth pointing out that in-group/out-group dynamics are a clear development of evolution, yet many of the Christians who are most prone to this sort of in-group favoritism don't themselves even believe in evolution (oh, the irony)!

All of this would be well and good, I suppose, were Christians to realize that it was just about in-group dynamics, and probably nothing more.  There's certainly nothing wrong with that.  You witness the same sort of dynamics at play, among atheists, when Ricky Gervais plugs his atheism at the end of the Golden Globe's.  We're just happy to have atheism mentioned, because it shows that he's "one of us".  But I don't think that most Christians would be willing to fully concede that this is what it's truly about.  I suspect the majority of them sincerely believe, as I once did, that ground is somehow being mysteriously taken for Christ in the public sphere.  Is there any hard evidence to suggest that proclamations of faith lead anyone closer to accepting that Jesus was God and he died for your sins?  No, there certainly isn't to my knowledge.  And why should there be?

Now, I suppose it could be argued that celebrity witnessing opportunities provide a sort of reverse peer pressure, especially for impressionable young people who are already being pulled away by "the world".  After all, teens often idolize rock stars and athletes, and it can't hurt for them to know that there are some cool Christians out there.  But if this is actually true it would only further illustrate a dangerous phenomenon that I've discussed on this blog before; namely that, in my observation, Christians tend to convert for an assortment of emotional (rather than intellectual) reasons.  Do we really want to be teaching our kids to make massive life decisions, about their worldview, based on what others happen to think?  I certainly would never want my children to embrace atheism, simply because it was the "in" thing to do or because some celebrity they liked was an atheist.

What Christians also fail to remember, in the heat of the moment, is that most non-Christians (at least here in the Western world) are already familiar with the Christian message.  They've very likely considered Christianity previously, and have their own (often very private) reasons for not embracing it.  So the mere mention of C.S. Lewis, or John 3:16, or how God helped you win your award, will probably have absolutely zero effect on the general public.  Zero.  If you want to promote your faith anyway, go nuts, but please don't fool yourself into thinking that it equates to an influential witnessing opportunity the Holy Spirit is using in people's lives.  It may get your fellow Christians talking, but that's about it.