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.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Giving God The Credit

I'm a sucker for real life murder mysteries; like the ones they feature on Dateline NBC week in and week out.  I think I've seen all the episodes. It's just fun for me to try and figure out "whodunit" (my wife finds these shows a bit creepy, but she tolerates them if there's nothing else on TV).

Recently, I watched one about an innocent man; convicted of murder, in part because of a false confession, some thirty years ago.  I can't remember his name, but frankly (and sadly) it's a story I've heard dozens of times before.  If there's one thing I've learned, through watching so many of these programs, it's to never confess to a crime that you didn't commit.  I don't care if the police lock you in a tiny room, for days on end, or engage in verbal and/or physical abuse...never, ever, ever just tell them "what they want to hear", if it's not what really happened.  (To be clear, I'm not implying police regularly do this sort of thing.)  It can take you a lifetime to have a false confession turned over, even in the face of overwhelming evidence demonstrating your innocence.

Anyway, in this case, I couldn't help but notice that the suspect (and his mother) seized every possible opportunity to promote their Christian faith on camera.  "Glory to God!", he exclaimed upon finally being released from prison.  Who could blame him?

What's completely fascinating to me now though, as an atheist, is the psychology that lies behind these platitudes.  Why do people insist on giving God the credit, and especially so in truly horrible situations?  The more horrible the circumstance is, the higher the apparent propensity to believe that God is somehow working through and in it all.  It doesn't make sense.  I mean, this guy spent 29 years of his life in prison, for a crime he clearly didn't commit.  Yet, upon his release, the first thing he can think to say is "praise God!".  Why?  On one level, I suppose it's simply because that's what he believes.  But I'm inclined to think that it's a lot more than "just" that.

While I was a Christian I never really understood what people meant when they said that faith is a crutch.  I think I get it now.  Let's really think about this guy's predicament.  Here he is, rotting away in prison, year after year, decade after decade, all the while knowing that it's a complete travesty of justice.  He doesn't deserve to be there.  It's one thing to suspect, that someone may be innocent; but it's an entirely different matter to know it for an absolute fact.  Innocent prisoners know they are truly innocent, even if they can't convince a single other person.  How do you maintain a positive outlook day after day, and keep hope alive, when the whole world (or at least the justice system) seems to be conspiring against you?  When analyzed in this way, I think the urge to evoke God makes perfect sense.  Sometimes you've just *got* to believe that there is a larger plan at work; that, somehow or another, even your misfortunes are "meant to be" in the grand scheme of things.  It's the only way you can stay sane, so you grab on to that hope and hold tightly for everything you're worth.  The world may have let you down, but God is still in control at the end of the day.  He's got your back to the finish line and beyond.

Naturally, what doesn't occur to someone, at a time like this, is how utterly illogical this entire thought pattern is.  What about those innocent prisoners who will never be released?  Did God not hear their prayers?  Why on earth would he bother to facilitate the release of one innocent prisoner, but allow hundreds (probably thousands) of other innocent prisoners to spend their entire lives locked up?  There are also plenty of examples of people who have been executed, by the state, and only later found out to be innocent.  How much do you want to bet that most of those death row inmates believed in heaven by the time they died?  The human desire for justice is incredibly powerful and, if we can't receive that justice "down here", we're damn sure going to insist on believing that it will happen "up there".  It's a coping mechanism.

Watching this episode also made me think about how we too have been wrongly convicted.  We've been wrongly convicted by Christianity.  No one deserves to be punished eternally; not even Adolf Hitler himself.  It's deeply messed up to think that a supposedly just God would demand, on threat of never ending damnation, that we believe some very particular things about a 2, 000 year old story; especially one that contradicts itself all over the place (and stems from an age of rampant superstition).  Sometimes I wonder to myself, why couldn't I see this before?  I was a born again Christian for more than 25 years, but it's only since leaving the faith that I feel as if my brain has been released from prison.

The other problem with giving God the credit of course is that it robs from those who genuinely deserve it.  The real heroes, in the above situation, are this guy's lawyers.  They worked tirelessly, through ridiculous shit loads of red tape, to get an innocent man out of prison.

That's good enough for me.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Collateral Damage, Part 2

What follows is the second half, of my review of Norman L. Geisler's "If God, Why Evil".  If you haven't read part one, please do so now.  We have a lot to cover, so let's not waste any time...

Chapter 6, "The Avoidability of Evil":

In this chapter Geisler attempts to answer the question, why did God not choose to make a better world?  He suggests five possibilities:

1. No world at all;
2. A world with no free creatures in it;
3. A world with free creatures who could not sin;
4. A world with free creatures who would not sin;
5. A world with free creatures who would sin, but all would be saved.

Geisler's basic approach, in cases one through four, is to argue that these worlds are not in fact morally better.

In case number 3 he (finally) addresses the argument that I raised, in my discussion of chapter 3, namely, why did God not just create heaven to begin with?  His answer is nothing, if not gutsy, "...some things cannot be created directly; some things can be produced only through a process. Again, patience is produced through the process of tribulation (Romans 5:3 KJV).  Trial forms character (James 1:2), and there can be no sense of forgiveness without sin.  In short, God has to create free creatures who could sin before He could produce free creatures who can't sin...God had to give us lower freedom (freedom to do evil) in order to achieve a higher freedom for us (freedom from evil)."

Wow.  So let's take the example of a child who dies from starvation in Africa.  According to Geisler God's purpose, in allowing this to happen, is to build character through suffering.  Just for a moment let's suppose this were true.  Let's suppose that God is trying to teach the mother, of that starving child, patience, or trust, or some such noble thing.  As despicable as that sounds, even on the face of it, there is a yet bigger problem.  Doesn't this turn the child into nothing more than a meaningless pawn in God's (rather sick) system?  Was the child also supposed to be refined (morally) through the process of their own starvation?  Was God's ultimate goal merely to turn them into a better person, through suffering, so that they would be ready for the sort of (perfect) freedom heaven offers?  This seems to be precisely what Geisler is saying, and it makes me physically ill.

Let's skip forward to number 5, where he argues, "a free world where all would be saved may not be actually achievable".  This one word, achievable, is very key to Geisler's argument; and, in fact, to the premise of the entire book.  "A world with even one person in hell would not be the best world conceivable.  But granting that creatures are truly free, a world with an untold number of people in hell may be the best world achievable.  This is because not everything logically possible is actually attainable."  In other words, sure, perhaps you or I could conceive of a better world, but that doesn't mean it's achievable!

Geisler sums up chapter 6 as follows, "This present world is not the best of all possible worlds, but it is the best of all possible ways to the best of all achievable worlds."

And lest you accuse God of an "ends justifies the means" ethic remember, as we established in chapter 3, "God is not producing or promoting evil means, to attain a good end.  He is permitting them."

Poor God, you've really got to feel sorry for the guy.  This was clearly the best he could "achieve". Cut him some slack, won't you?

Chapter 7, "The Problem of Physical Evil":

If all moral evil can be explained by free choice, as Geisler believes it can, than how to explain "physical evil"?  After all, "no one wills a lightning strike or a tsunami...".

Geisler's solution is to try and connect all physical evil to free moral agents, either directly or indirectly, come hell or high water.  And when he can't blame it on humans he resorts to, you guessed it, evil spirits (demons).  "Some have suggested that these spirits could be behind the other physical evils not attributable to human free choices (e.g., see Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil)."

How convenient.

"According to one view, Adam's sin alone could account for all physical evils.  Add to that the evils inflicted by Satan and evil spirits and one need look no further for the possible explanation of all physical evil."

Of course, in order to do so, one must completely ignore (as Geisler does) modern scientific evidence against Adam & Eve.  In fact it now seems quite clear, to anyone versed on the issue, that they didn't exist.  One must also try really hard to forget totally about the fact that there is not one shred of credible evidence suggesting the existence of invisible beings like Satan, demons, or, for that matter, angels of any kind.

Chapter 8, "Miracles and Evil":

Even if evil is the result of free choice, God could still intervene to prevent undesirable physical consequences; so why doesn't he?  "For example, every time a would-be murderer attempted to kill an innocent person, God could intercept the bullet before it hit its victim.  Every knife used in an attempted assault could be miraculously turned into jelly.  In every attempted choking, the noose could be turned into a noodle.  All poison aimed at killing someone could be chemically neutralized, and so on."

Geisler formulates the argument this way:

1. If God is all-powerful, He could supernaturally intervene to stop all physical evils.
2. If God is all-good, He would miraculously intervene to stop all physical evils.
3. There is much physical evil that God does not intervene to stop.
4. Hence there is no all-powerful and all-loving God.

He concedes points 1 and 3, but he spends a fair bit of time trying to refute number 2.  In doing so, Geisler gives numerous reasons that God does not always miraculously prevent physical evil. Included in his list are things like, "It is not possible to have a regular miraculous interruption of the natural order", "constant miracles would defeat the conditions for moral improvement", and, my personal favorite, "continued miraculous intervention would eliminate an important pre-condition for achieving the best world possible".  In other words, "No pain. no gain.  Without danger, the virtue of courage cannot be developed.  Without trials and tribulations we can have no patience.  God has to permit sin before we can experience forgiveness.  Higher order virtues are dependant on allowing lower-order evils.".  This last sentence is probably one of the most important, in the entire book, since it cuts to the heart of Geisler's overall case.  But even if one fully accepts the suggestion, that evil can be used to refine us, and create "higher order virtues", how does that account for the especially gratuitous examples?  How about the child who dies of cancer?  Or the one who is locked in a basement dungeon, year after year, and repeatedly raped by some crazy sicko?  According to Geisler these children, and others like them, are just ***God's collateral damage***; an unfortunate side effect of his much larger plan to ultimately create the best "conceivable world" (in heaven).  Geisler claims that God already does stop as much suffering as he possibly stop even one more person's suffering would somehow destroy his master plan.

Do I even need to explain why I find this objectionable (and utterly unbelievable)?

Chapter 9, "The Problem of Eternal Evil (Hell)":

I've written before, about some of my problems with an eternal hell, so I'll do my best to be quick here.  In this chapter Geisler discusses his reasons for rejecting various of the "category alternatives", to an eternal hell (ie. "rehabilitationism", or "annihilationism" etc.).

Before he even gets into this discussion though, Geisler engages in more circular logic, arguing for things like, "Jesus affirmed the existence of Hell", "The Bible affirms there is a Hell", "The Cross Of Christ Implies Hell", and so on.  I need not refute these individually or, frankly, even comment on them at all since, as I say, they are entirely circular on his part.  It matters not to me that the Bible teaches there is an eternal hell, for example, since I no longer accept the Bible as either authoritative or necessarily correct on any given issue.  Let's move on.

Most of Geisler's arguments, or should I say counter-arguments, in this chapter center completely around the premise (popularized by CS Lewis), that the gates of hell are "locked from the inside". Everyone in hell is continuing in their rebellion against God, thus they still deserve to be there (and this will remain the case eternally).  But does Geisler really believe that not one of the people in hell will realize the error of their ways and cry out for mercy?  Actually, yes he does!  From within Geisler's impenetrable bubble, there is literally no one on the face of the planet who rejects Christianity for intellectual reasons.  All unbelievers are living in willful rebellion against a God they know exists.  Period.  As he states, near the end of the chapter, "All who go to hell could have avoided going there if they had chosen to do so.  No pagan anywhere is without clear light from God so that he is without excuse."  Since I reject this premise (and, to be honest, have difficulty even taking it seriously), I need not refute the rest of Geisler's points.  Pretty much his entire argument, in chapter 9, hangs and is built on this.

So, in the interests of brevity, allow me to simply offer myself as a refutation...

I, Respectful Atheist, rejected Christianity for intellectual reasons.  I am not in rebellion against God, nor do I hold any acrimony against him or my Christian experience.  If it turns out that I am wrong, in my honest assessment of the factual claims of Christianity, I will indeed cry out for mercy in hell, admitting fully the error of my ways and asking for God's forgiveness.

Geisler only has two choices remaining: a) call me a liar, or b) revise his argument.  Truth be told, there are probably millions of people who reject Christianity for very similar (ie. mostly intellectual) reasons.  They, like me, are just not convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, the Bible was inspired by God, and so on and so forth.  To Geisler, this is tantamount to bald faced "rebellion", and it deserves eternal punishment.

Chapter 10, "What About Those Who Have Never Heard?":

In Geisler's final chapter he speaks to the eternal fate of those ("multimillions") who have died, or will die, without ever having so much as heard about the gospel of Christ.  Are they condemned to hell also?

"There are two basic responses to this question by orthodox Christians: inclusivism and exclusivism.  The first view (inclusivism) claims that while no one can be saved apart from the work of Christ, they can be saved without knowing about that work, providing they meet certain prerequisites.  The second view (exclusivism) holds that they cannot be saved apart from the work of Christ, nor can they be saved without knowing about the work (called the gospel) and believing in it."

If inclusivism is true, evangelical churches need to seriously re-think their approach to missions work.  According to this view it would be better for someone to never know about the gospel, than to hear and reject it.  A person in this first situation (never having heard) may still find themselves in heaven but, in the second (hearing and rejecting), they are surely condemned to hell.  The problem is, statistically speaking, the majority of people who hear the gospel do reject it, so this makes missionaries, and those who support them financially, foolhardy at best.  It's like playing Russian roulette with people's eternal souls.  It would be far more compassionate to allow the unreached people groups to remain unreached, if inclusivim were true.  In any event, Geisler is an exclusivist, so I need not say anything further about inclusivism.

"For exclusivists, the problem of those who have never heard has an even greater intensity.  How can God be all-loving if He condemns people to eternal hell who have not even had a chance to hear the plan of salvation?"  Geisler answers this question with four points.  I'll comment on each briefly.

1. Everyone Has General Revelation in Nature.

The Bible says that unbelievers are "without excuse", because God has "been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made...".  I suppose this would be a reasonable argument, were it not for the fact that science has progressed in leaps and bounds, over the past few thousand years, calling this very premise into serious question.  In "Bible times", there was little (if any) rational alternative, to "God did it", but this just isn't the case today.  As Richard Dawkins is famous for saying, "after Darwin, you can be an intellectually fulfilled atheist".  So, it seems to me that, contra what the Bible says, us heathens in fact have some pretty great "excuses" for not believing.

2. No One Can Be Saved Apart From the Knowledge of Christ.

Uhhh.  Isn't Geisler just re-stating his conclusion here, using slightly different wording?  How is this even an "argument" at all?  (Back to that circular logic thing again.)  Next point please.

3. Everyone Who Seeks God Finds God.

This is perhaps the most dubious of Geisler's four points.  What proof does he have, for such a bold claim?  I can certainly understand how it would make him feel better, but there is no good reason to believe it to be true.  Besides, there are many who "seek" God, but do NOT find him. For example, there are large numbers of atheists who, like myself, arrived at their current beliefs only after seeking God and finding nothing.  Geisler makes no attempt to defend this claim (other than quoting Bible verses...surprise, surprise).

4. God Has Many Ways to Get the Message to Those Who Seek Him.

Geisler wraps up his final chapter with another blanket statement that he is unable to demonstrate (just a couple of anecdotes, and more Bible verses).  Perhaps it is fitting.

"If God, Why Evil?" closes with three appendixes; "Animal Death Before Adam", "Evidence for the Existence of God" and "A Critique of The Shack".  I won't take up any more of your precious time, by analyzing these sections.  They're not part of Geisler's core argument and, frankly, I think I've said more than enough in response already (especially for a book that runs less than 175 pages in total).

If you've read both parts, of my review, you might have the impression that I think this is a terrible book.  I don't.  Geisler does a fair job here, of defending the Christian perspective on suffering and evil.  It's as good as most anyone could probably do (as I pointed out, at the beginning of part 1, Geisler is no dummy).  But therein lies my broader point, and the reason I even took the time to put together this review; at the end of the day, after the ink is spilled and all the hand waving is done, the problem of evil still stands.  It remains a highly potent objection to the Christian faith (arguably the most potent of all), and Geisler's book does nothing to change that fact.