The cost of religion

Sometimes people will ask, “What’s so bad about believing in God? Even if it’s just a myth, it still gives people hope and a sense of purpose. What harm does that do?” If it were simply a matter of motivating people to live good lives and hope for the best, we might say it does no real harm at all. But that’s not all there is to it. There’s a cost to religion. Consider this argument, made by Heather Hughes on the Knoxville News Sentinal web site.

The main comment I seem to hear from atheists regarding Christianity is, “Prove it.” The truth is I can’t. But isn’t that sort of the point? If I could provide solid, undisputed scientific evidence of God’s existence, there would be no need for faith. That trust is an essential part of following Christ.

Faith, in other words, is when you put forth the effort to make yourself believe something for which there is no evidence. As a matter of fact, faith is when you drive yourself to believe things that are actually contrary to the evidence:

Often atheists, and at times even Christians, struggle to believe based on valid questions, many of which I can’t answer. I don’t know why there are natural disasters or why some lives are cut short due to sickness or violence. Even something as simple as why skunks and gnats exist is something I find myself asking occasionally.

But I have to return to that trust that I mentioned and just accept that God’s ways and thoughts really are higher than our own.

Faith, in other words, turns out to be ordinary gullibility—believing things that are contrary to fact and reason, just because “you’re supposed to.” Gullibility has a deservedly bad reputation, because gullible people deceive themselves and open themselves up to exploitation and abuse (and sometimes even self-inflicted abuse). And yet, when you take this same approach to believing things, and call it “faith” instead of gullibility, suddenly it becomes virtuous. People actually admire you for your ability to confront the evidence, and deny it. And that’s the cost of religion: it makes a serious handicap sound like an admirable virtue.

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Our Father, who art a dickhead

I happened to catch a bit of Christian talk radio on my commute home the other day, and heard an exchange that was either funny or heartbreaking or possibly both. The guest was an author who had written a book about “God’s Purpose in Suffering,” or some such, and the point he was making was that God uses suffering to strip away His blessings so that we can learn to love Him for Himself, and not just for the things He blesses us with. He used the book of Job as an example, and quickly sketched out the story of how Satan said Job only loved God because God was richly blessing him, and how God said, “Fine, do whatever you want, just don’t kill him,” and boom, disaster for poor Job. That was supposed to teach us that it’s selfish of us to love God’s blessings, and call it “loving God.” God (according to this author) allows suffering to teach us Who and what we’re really supposed to love.

At that point one of the co-hosts chimed in with a story about her own suffering, and how she prayed and prayed and prayed just that God would provide her with a little bit of inner peace. Just peace. And it never came. You and I know why it never came, and we could probably laugh at her, but at the same time, it’s really heartbreaking to think that so many people are trapped in this kind of self-deception. Here she is, experiencing first-hand God’s absence from real life and His inability to do anything beyond the power of any other Imaginary Friend, and yet what does she do? She blames herself. With the help of this Christian author, she found a way to re-frame her experience of God’s non-existence, and turn it into a fanciful narrative in which He is mercifully trying to teach her a valuable lesson about love.

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Prayers for sale–but not for long

Freedom of religion notwithstanding, it seems that certain types of supernatural products and services are downright unworkable, for entirely commercial reasons. Just ask EBay.

Beginning Aug.30, the online auction site will ban the sale of curses, spells, hexes, magic, prayers, blessing services, magic potions, healing sessions and more…

“EBay regularly reviews categories and updates our policies based on customer feedback,” a statement from the company read. “We are discontinuing a small number of categories within the larger metaphysical subcategory, as buyers and sellers have told us that transactions in these categories often result in issues that can be difficult to resolve.”

I can see where this could be a problem. If I buy something that doesn’t exist, and nothing ever arrives, how do I know if it’s been shipped?

No word on whether or not indulgences are included amongst the list of soon-to-be-banned magical services approved for sale to the gullib general public.

Magic Story Syndrome

Back in the good old days, I once watched an episode of Candid Camera in which Alan Funt gathered a bunch of people with a sub-par sense of humor, told them a joke, and then recorded them trying to re-tell the joke to other people. The bit was pretty comical, because the people tended to mangle the punch line so badly that you could tell they never really understood the joke in the first place. And yet they told the joke anyway, and expected people to laugh.

I’ve been reading some accounts recently of unbelievers trying to have a discussion with presuppositionalists (e.g. Russell Glasser and Aron Ra), and something about presuppositionalism reminds me of Candid Camera. It’s almost as though the presuppositionalists are just repeating a story, with no real understanding of how that story is supposed to work, in order to obtain an expected response. And in fact, I think for many believers, that’s exactly what is happening. The Gospel isn’t just a story, it’s a magic story. Maybe there are things about it that you don’t understand. Maybe there are things that don’t make sense. But never mind. Just tell the story, and sooner or later it’s going to produce a magical result, and people will be saved.

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Primitive Creationism

One thing I think Ken Ham and Kent Hovind do rather well is to remind us how primitive young-earth creationism really is. They know, even without looking at any evidence, that the primitive God of Genesis 1 and 2 hasn’t got a chance of coming up with anything as advanced as our modern, scientific understanding of biology. Being a primitive invention Himself, He is limited to using only the techniques available to the imagination of unscientific and illiterate people.

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3rd degree gullibility

There are three degrees of gullibility. First degree gullibility is when you believe something because you don’t know any better, like a very young child believing in Santa. Second degree gullibility is when you become aware of conflicts and inconsistencies in what you believe, but you do not admit that they are genuine conflicts and inconsistencies, like when a creationist suggests that the speed of light was higher in the past and therefore the existence of visible stars more than 6K to 10K light years away does not contradict Genesis. And third degree gullibility is when you admit that there are conflicts and inconsistencies in what you believe, and yet you sincerely argue that people ought to believe it anyway. I haven’t got a one-line example of that last one, but “bobby” at has a longer one. And he even got an Editor’s Choice award for it.

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The next Harold Camping

I’ve actually picked up a couple new commenters at Evangelical Realism recently. One of them is tokyotodd, whose philosophical arguments I touched on yesterday. The other is Mike Gantt, who reminds me a lot of Harold Camping (without the end-of-the-world fixation). Speaking of his views on hell, he writes:

I came to it by reading such Scripture passages in context, thus allowing its words to be understood in the ancient milieu in which they were uttered. It is the distorting lens of institutional Christianity and secular modernity that obscure the Bible’s plain teaching on the subject.

Like Camping, Gantt seems to make no distinction between “the Bible’s plain teaching” and his own personal interpretation of the Bible. He can readily see that other people, including William Lane Craig, have interpretations that are wrong (i.e. that conflict with his interpretation), and he even goes so far as to claim that the institution that created the Bible is also at fault for distorting it (i.e. producing teachings that conflict with his interpretation). But it’s very difficult to challenge his interpretation because, in his words, you’re not challenging his opinions, you’re challenging the plain teaching of Scripture.

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Missouri votes on redundant First Amendment amendment

The Chicago Tribune is reporting that the voters in the state of Missouri will be voting this fall on a proposed amendment to the state constitution protecting the right to pray in public places.

While the U.S. Constitution protects the right to pray in public places, supporters of the Missouri ballot issue want to clarify those rights. In House committee testimony last year, they said there is increasing ignorance about religious expression. Opponents testified that the amendment adds nothing to existing law and may invite litigation.

Here Fido, here boy, who’s a good doggie then? Now roll over.

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Morality or tyranny?

PZ Myers has a post up about the old “objective morality” gambit popular with Chrislamic apologists these days. It seems a couple of Christian debaters managed to derail the debate by asking “is there an objective morality that determines whether you would torture a toddler?” PZ gives four pretty good criteria by way of answering that question in the affirmative, so I’ll let him cover that aspect of the issue. Meanwhile, I’m going to turn that question around and ask, “Is there an objective morality by which we can judge whether God’s commands are right or wrong?”

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