What’s not to like?

I received an e-mail from a seminary student that I had corresponded with in the past. He’s had a few changes in his life but wrote to say:

“I nearly lost my faith, but God found me again. I am no longer at the Seminary as I was when we last spoke but have found a new calling for which to serve. My purpose here is to understand in a very succinct and brief way why you feel Christianity as an institution is irrelevant for our society at large and for you personally.

I promise this is not another back door ploy to bring you to faith. The Spirit will work in you if he sees fit. I honestly respect your opinion and would like to further understand what it is specifically about modern Christianity that doesn’t work for you? What are your biggest hang ups with Christians and the church as it represents itself in North American culture?”

I’m afraid this may not be as succint as you might have liked…

As you know, I don’t just reject “modern” Christianity or even just Christianity. I reject all religious claims, modern and ancient, as insufficiently supported by evidence and, therefore, not believable. You seem to be asking what I don’t like about modern religious, Christian culture…and I’ll be happy to tell you, but whether or not I believe something to be true is a separate issue from whether or not I like it.

That said, the modern Christian religion is a mess. There are hundreds of ‘official’ denominations and given the general level of ignorance people have about the religion they adopt and their propensity for molding it to be what they want it to be, one could argue that each individual has their own denomination.

Fundamentalists have a more literal view of the Bible and pretend to follow it based on a plain reading of the text. If Christianity is true…if there is a god and the Bible is his message to the world, then Fundamentalists are the ones who have managed to get it closest to ‘correct’. Yet the actual beliefs of fundamentalists are the most obviously objectionable.

The more liberal varieties have beliefs that are more palatable but they have no sound Biblical basis for their beliefs, they’ve simply chosen to ignore large portions of the text, ignore the history of their religion and interpret selected passages to support a kinder, gentler Christianity – sometimes in direct opposition to a plain reading of the text (as if their god is simply incapable of communicating clearly). They have no more firm foundation than personal opinion.

There is no clear mechanism for discovering if any of them are correct (if there were, we wouldn’t have hundreds of denominations) and there’s no good reason to think that any of them might be correct. Modern Christianity, regardless of the denomination, is based on one’s personal take on two things: the Bible and the recorded traditions of the church. Every denomination and individual is going to view these slightly differently and they’ll support their position with appeals to personal experience and revelation.

Let’s assume, for a moment that there is a God and it’s the one that Christians are trying to associate themselves with…what can we say about this god? Well, for one, he’s apparently very selective about who he reveals himself to. He ignores countless pleas for assistance, revelation, insight and guidance from sincere, desperate people and from reasonable people who could further his cause…yet he’ll reportedly give direct input to countless ignorant bigots who couldn’t put a cogent sentence together, let alone construct a sound syllogism. He also seems intent on keeping himself hidden and mysterious – which seems strange as he reportedly used to show off with miracles and plagues. Lastly (for this exchange), he doesn’t seem the slightest bit interested in correcting people’s various misunderstandings or misrepresentations of him. He seems perfectly happy to have countless denominations getting it all wrong.

So, either he’s malicious, incompetent or he doesn’t exist. (I’m sure there are other options, but those are the 3 most likely).

Christianity, in its various forms is an embarrassment. The literal versions are embarrassing because they’re anti-science, anti-humanity, anti-rights, anti-freedom, etc. The liberal versions are embarrassing because these people have clearly figured out what’s wrong with the literal version, but they’re incapable of letting go…so they support a saccharin, irrational, insidiously poisonous quasi-doctrine which acts as an enabler and shield for the literalists,

There are thoughtful, loving, intelligent people in both camps – yet their minds have been so poisoned by this religious virus that they’re incapable of fully recognizing their potential in those and other categories.

Is there anything other than a religion (or similar dogma) that could make a parent hate their child because of that child’s sexual orientation or beliefs? …or make a parent pray over a sick child instead of taking it to the hospital? … or make someone marginalize the rights of others who disagree on something that does them no harm? …or encourage someone to hide and protect a child rapist from the law and proper treatment? …or…

As I mentioned at the outset, whether or not I believe a claim is separate from whether or not I like that claim. In the case of Christianity, I don’t believe it because it’s absurd and unsupported by evidence – and I don’t like it because it’s obscene, divisive and harmful. That’s true for most, if not all, religions; though some are worse than others. Christianity is one of the worst, partly because of insidious doctrines and partly because of the pernicious effects of the power that comes from the popularity of those doctrines.

There is nothing good and true within religion that requires religion. People have done many good things in the name of religion, but none of those things were predicated on the truth of the religious claims. You can have love, hope, peace, comfort, charity, joy, happiness, and patience without any appeal to any religion.

This is probably the grandest lie that religions like Christianity have propagated; that you ‘need’ what they’re selling in order to have those things – and that those who aren’t part of their group are somehow lacking or deficient in those qualities.

I think it’s fair to label that lie ‘evil’…and as a foundational lie, that turns all benefits of that religion into fruits of a poisonous tree.

Jon Stewart on Texas SBOE

Last night, The Daily Show did a bit on the Texas State Board of Education (4 minutes). If you’ve been following along, it’s worth watching. There’s so much wrong with the Board of Education, that they could have easily done a week-long comedy marathon. They focused on the controversy surrounding Oscar Romero as being worthy of textbook mention.

A number of people have written us to ask where is our outrage at the SBOE. We’re outraged, but perhaps we realize, we’re powerless in the short term to stop the crazy. They’ve proven they’re immune to criticism or facts. We hope that during the next election, we oust a few of the creationists and get the SBOE back to its educational mission.

For now, laughter is good therapy.

Communication Interference

In the most simple communication models, you have a single sender, a message (usually represented as an arrow pointing to the receiver from the sender), and a single receiver represented. As communication becomes more complicated, so do the models. One component that can be added to the model is something called “interference.”

Interference can be anything, including more obvious things like loud noise in the environment, or less obvious things like poor communication skills on the part of the sender, or an unconscious personal bias in the mind of the receiver. If the message received is not the message sent, as intended by the sender, there has been some kind of interference–also sometimes called distortion–that you should be able to identify.

Part of religious indoctrination includes inputting interference into a person’s mind by instilling bias. For example, a child who grows up in an area and family where racial hatred is pervasive has a much greater possibility of being, himself, a racist, than someone who is not raised in that environment. He’s unlikely to want to be friends with people in the despised races and to have an unfriendly attitude toward them. He probably will be a bit more dismissive of any research that indicates his reasons for hating are unfounded–he may not even bother to consider it. Additionally, he may fight against any legislation that would result in greater equality and social acceptance of those he hates.

If you’re going to have a dialog about racial equality, having it with this particular person comes with a load of baggage you’ll have to first get past that is “interference.” Your message will not tend to be heard clearly, but rather through a filter of misconceptions and prejudice about what you’re saying–even before you speak a word. This means that communicating rationally with this person will be an uphill climb, with no guarantee of successfully communicating your message at the summit. It means the person who wants to dispel the racial hatred has a hard row to hoe, a great cost of time and effort, with a real possibility of failure at the end. And this assists indoctrination efforts as well, because who is going to want to invest a lot of time and energy with a good probability of failure at the end? Better, in an individually selfish way, to leave this person in his racist delusion. And yet, would any advances against racism have been made if nobody had decided to carry the gauntlet, inch by painful inch, up that hill?

Still it is a demonstration of the walls that indoctrination can throw up against reason and good judgment. This is how indoctrination makes use of interference to help maintain its hold on the adherent.

I explain this because I recently watched a dialog between Alister McGrath and Richard Dawkins, where I noticed a very frustrating level of interference. There was one question that Dawkins presented three separate times, that was never resolved by way of any relevant answer from McGrath. McGrath even stops and enlists the sympathies of the film crew to ask if they can move on to the next question, since he has already answered this one. However, the crew’s consensus is that they’re unclear on his answer as well. And McGrath seems, in all fairness, genuinely confused. McGrath certainly answered “a” question; however, he failed to answer the question Dawkins asked. And he really could not tell the difference in his head between what he was “hearing” and what Dawkins was “saying”–although, to me, and seemingly to the crew as well, the question was simple enough to understand.

In Christian fundamentalist indoctrination, there are a lot of presumptions systematically taught that are intended to head off questions the young Christian might receive by people who aren’t Christians. I recall when I finally learned about other religions, for example, the doctrines were so vastly different than what I’d been taught in Sunday School that I remember alerting our preacher that I’d read some Buddhist literature–written by Buddhists–and it was not true that Buddhists “worship Buddha,” as had been stated repeatedly from the pulpit. I thought I was doing a good thing, enlightening him about a truth. But rather than showing any interest in what I had discovered, he admonished me for having read these things without proper oversight. And even in my late teens or so, I recall thinking there was something very wrong with his response.

What if, rather than read a book, I’d have talked to a Buddhist? During the entire dialog, I would be thinking, “This person worships Buddha”–even though I’d never spoken to a Buddhist in my life or read a scrap of Buddhist literature. I’d simply been told. And that’s what the people who indoctrinated me into Christianity hoped I would believe. They, in turn, probably had never read any Buddhist literature or talked to a Buddhist, either, and had read only Christian literature describing Buddhism. I assume this because even the most cursory reading of just about any Buddhist foundational text demonstrates the assertion is false–or at best an exaggeration of what a Buddhist would describe as his belief.

Often we get this question on our e-mail list: “Why don’t you ever talk to any really intelligent or educated apologists?”

When we get these letters from theists, the obvious shock is that the person asking us to do this is unavoidably asserting that the average Christian person is not intelligent–since we nearly always talk to and about average Christians who engage us on the program.

Beyond that, I’ve been spending a lot of time these days watching theological debates that involve theists of some clout, on many levels of the spectrum–church leaders, mega-church preachers, and most recently this civilized Q&A between Alister McGrath and Richard Dawkins.

Let me just note that I had argued myself out of theism long before I knew who Richard Dawkins–or any other atheist author–was. I deconverted on the weakness of theism’s merits, not on the strength of any atheist’s arguments against the existence of god. And for a few years, after I first heard about Dawkins, the descriptions of him as an arrogant, condescending, anti-theist, ass prejudiced me against even wanting to read his literature or hear him speak. My first encounter was when I finally broke down and read God Delusion–where I dispelled my own “Dawkins Delusion.” I couldn’t have wished for a more patient, well reasoned and fair address of theism than what Dawkins offered. And the first time I finally heard him speak, I was actually shocked by the mild and disarming tone of his voice and the relaxed collectedness with which he expressed even the points on religion he described as most objectionable. He often pauses to think about his phrasing before speaking–even in mid-sentence–a habit I should surely cultivate and employ more often. In this discussion with McGrath, you can almost see the gears shifting in his brain as he considers “How do I put this in an inoffensive way?” What comes out is, more often than not, very gentle compared to how many atheists might well have phrased it.

McGrath, for his part, is every bit as genial, and even more enthusiastic, in his expressions. On several occasions when McGrath spoke, I shut my eyes and thought, “Listen. Really listen and try and hear what he means.” I wanted to see if McGrath would offer some clue to his beliefs–as an educated and respected theologian. I sincerely wanted to understand what he believes and why. But after finishing “Part 15 of 15,” posted on Youtube, I had failed. After listening to McGrath explain his position, uninterrupted, in a conversational style, for his part of approximately an hour and a half, I still can’t tell you what he believes or why he believes it. And if this eloquent, well mannered, educated and willing theist can’t offer an explanati
on that makes sense, what hope does that average theist have?

Initially, my desire was to do an analysis of the entire debate, detailing where the communication interference was happening every step of the way. But, the length of my input regarding the first question alone was so long that I understood immediately I was too ambitious. I may do a full breakdown in sections at some point, but for now, I’m going to deal only with the central question of the dialog that would matter most to atheists: the reasons for belief.

There were many points in the footage where I thought, “OK, I understand what you’re saying, but wouldn’t that raise this other question or problem?” And as I thought these questions, McGrath would finish, and Dawkins would ask them for me. And I would be glad, because I wanted to know how McGrath resolved these issues. I wasn’t hoping for a fail. I was hoping for a resolution from McGrath to something for which I was unable to imagine a resolution.

Oddly, when McGrath would be asked to further explain some point of his stated position, it often sounded as though he was negating, or at the very least mitigating, everything he had previously asserted. I was left with a feeling that whatever I had learned from him in his prior explanations was now being described, by him, as either “wrong” or “unimportant.” In the end, I was left confused about which parts I was supposed to carry away as consequential or correct about his position on faith and god. Did I misunderstand his meaning? Did he not say what I thought he had just said?

McGrath begins by explaining his background growing up in Ireland as an atheist. He sees religious violence and equates it, understandably, with religious differences. He also says he studied Marxism and natural sciences. In response to Dawkins’ request for an explanation of how he moved from atheism to theism McGrath responds, “I began to rethink things. I began to realize they weren’t, perhaps, as straightforward as I thought. And certainly it was at that point that I really began to feel that Christianity offered a better way of seeing things and making sense of things than I’d imagined in the past.”

When Dawkins asked, “What kind of reason, what kind of evidence do you use to support your faith?” He was asking the same question we ask time and again on the show: Explain what you believe and why you believe it. I would assume that whatever McGrath offered next would be the underpinning of his belief. Here was his chance to give the evidence and reason behind why he decided to become a theist. This was an edge-of-my-seat moment, to be sure.

McGrath started out rationally enough. He noted that not all of our beliefs are based upon what we might consider hard evidence. When I measure the distance from one wall to another, my belief that the room is 10-feet wide is based on solid facts. However, someone’s belief that their spouse is stopping to put gas in the car on the way home, may be just as strong, and even perhaps just as right, but not as fact-based. Our brains are constantly testing the consistency of the reality in which we live. And it certainly makes determinations based on many different levels of evidence about what it will accept as true, and what it will not.

In order to function, depth perception, the length of the room, is important. Having some concept of how far things are from one’s self and where they are in relation to one’s self is fairly integral to the existence of any sighted person. But whether a spouse is gassing up the car may be something one cares not at all about. By and large, in most day-to-day scenarios, the main thrust of pressure put upon a person to care about their spouse’s fuel situation, would be pressure only from within. We really can ask, “Does this matter to me? Do I need an opinion on it?” We aren’t called upon in life to consider all questions equally–or at all–or to make conscious decisions about truth values on all propositions.

This means that if my spouse tells me he is stopping by the gas station on the way home to fill up his car, I don’t have to believe it, or even consider if I believe it. I can merely accept it’s what I’ve been told, and go about my life. If he forgets to fill up the car, if he changes his mind during his commute–nothing is lost. And if someone asks “Where is your spouse?” I can say, “He said he was stopping off to get gas on the way home.” I don’t have to assert “He’s at the gas station,” although it’s unlikely anyone would fault me for asserting it and even believing it was true, based only on my spouse’s word.

So, with any proposition we are presented, we can believe, not believe, or believe the opposite. I can accept my husband is at the station (believe it), not have an opinion on it (not bother to believe it), or believe he’s not at the station (he forgot, changed his mind, was waylaid, or lied). And McGrath understands this, when later in the discussion he explains the following (emphasis mine):

“I think that one of the big questions one has when one tries to make sense of anything that is big, for example, ‘what is the meaning of life?,’ ‘Why we’re here?’ things like that, is that there are many explanations. And inevitably this means we have to try to do what Gilbert Harmon described as being fair to the best explanation…We have to make a very difficult judgment: ‘Which is actually the best of these?’ And the real difficulty…is that evidence takes us thus far, but when it comes to a number of competing explanations, it is extremely difficult to have an evidence-driven argument for those final stages…I believe faith is rational…It tries to make the best possible sense of things. But in the end it has to move beyond that, saying ‘even though we believe this is the best way of making sense of things, we can’t actually prove this is the case.’ And therefore, although I believe faith is rational, in that it can give us the best possible case it can give, there is a point at which it goes beyond the evidence. And it’s at that point…that your concern that it might be irrational…comes into play.”

Yes, in fact, that is the point at which the concern it becomes irrational comes into play. To be fair, Dawkins prefaced his question, with a statement saying that he perhaps has not given sufficient attention to how religious people might use the term “faith” differently than he does. However, his question was, again, “What kind of reason, what kind of evidence do you use to support your faith?”

McGrath offered an explanation, I suppose in one way, of how he uses the word “faith,” and how it relates to reason and evidence; but I have to admit his answer seems to demonstrate an interpretation of the question I would never have arrived at. At the end of his answer, he hasn’t really told me anything I don’t already know, and, really, anything anyone else doesn’t already know, either. Surely he didn’t assume Dawkins was asserting people never draw conclusions without iron-clad evidence? Any nation that has courts understands there are times you could be forced to make decisions without benefit of conclusive evidence. Surely, McGrath knows someone as intelligent as Dawkins is not asserting it is impossible for a human to draw a conclusion without conclusive evidence? That would be a idiotic assertion, indeed, from anyone–but most especially so from a literate and educated person.

The question, I assumed, was a request for McGrath to explain specific evidence and specific reasoning that has led him to draw his conclusion–to become convinced where he was once skeptical–“a god exists.” And no matter how many times you read his answer above, you will not find that offered or explained.

Carl Sagan once shared a story about a question he was asked regarding whether he believed in the existence of extra-terrestrial life. He replied that there was currently no evidence to support that conclusion. The reporter pressed and asked something to the effect of “What do you think in your gut?” Sagan responded that he didn’t think with his gut, and that it is fine to hold off drawing conclusions until there is sufficient evidence available to support a conclusion. Sagan, who strongly supported efforts to seek extra-terrestrial life, here admitted that while he held it was true such life was possible–perhaps even probable–he would not extend belief to “it exists,” until he saw that conclusion was demonstrated by evidence–presumably when such life was actually discovered.

I absolutely concede that I could hardly live my life without some attempt to draw conclusions without conclusive evidence, on occasion; but compared to the comparatively limitless conclusions I draw based upon solid evidence every millisecond of every day, conclusions based upon insufficient evidence are actually relatively rarely required to be drawn. I hardly have to know “what is the meaning of life?” or “Why am I here?,” in order to live my life, or even enjoy the life I live. I can safely say many people live and die and never find any answer to those questions–perhaps never even consciously ask them–and lose never a night’s sleep over it. Try and kill such a person, however, and you’ll see firsthand how much they value their own life–even if they can’t explain to you what their life “means.” Truth be told, if there is some cosmically imposed meaning, the fact people have been arguing over the answer for millennia is near enough an indicator that there is no clear answer–and yet we all continue, somehow, to go on living our lives–many of us enjoying them–in spite of that.

Interesting as these questions are, are they “necessary” to answer, as McGrath asserts? If I know I prefer to live rather than die in most situations, and I extend that assumption to others in order to do what I can to mold a generally pleasant society, but I then miss out on the cosmic meaning–does it matter? If there is a cosmic meaning, and we don’t know what it is–how can we answer the question of whether it’s beneficial to know it? In fact, I can just as well consider that such questions are as near unanswerable as any questions can be, and go on using my reasoning skills–god given or not–to figure out what sort of life I would like to live and try to live it.

If I’m a generally good and kind person–would finding out there is a cosmic mind that has a plan, which is that people should be good and kind–make a speck of difference? Alternately, as a generally good and kind person, if I stumbled upon a cosmic plan that included I should blow up a building filled with people, I would be highly unlikely to comply–so that would make not a speck of difference in my life, either. There could, I suppose, be a god who would wish to punish me for not completing the proper sacrifices, or praying in the wrong direction, or for thinking the wrong things; but unless I have some really compelling reason to think such a thing exists–the details of what it expects of me never become any more important than what alleged alien abductees describe as their experiences–both wonderful and horrific–aboard spacecrafts.

But read McGrath’s answer again, and note the areas I have highlighted. He presses that these questions are necessary to answer–and he equates the question “does god exist?” with those questions that demand a conclusion be drawn. But, it isn’t one of those questions that requires a response. We aren’t in a jury box being told a man’s life and society’s safety are in our hands, and our decision on insufficient evidence must be determined. “Does god exist?” may have implications for the believer–once the mantle of belief is taken up. But until belief is merited, questions related to what happens after that belief are unimportant. The question “does god exist?” has no greater significance before you believe it than the question “do aliens exist?”

Certainly if either proposition is true, it could be life altering. I don’t wish to be kidnapped and violated by aliens any more than I would wish an eternity of hell upon myself. I don’t wish my children or friends to be maltreated by gods or aliens, either. And if I believed aliens were abducting humans for experimentation, I’d be up in arms demanding some sort of protections from my society or government. But until I believe, it matters not at all in my life. The believer may assert it matters in that I’m not wearing a tinfoil hat in order to avoid mind control by the aliens–but really, that’s him overlaying his perspective as a believer onto me. I don’t do anything in my life where I first consider, “Now, since I don’t accept aliens are abducting people, how do I wish to handle this situation?” The question of abductions is not a question that demands I deeply consider whether or not I believe it’s true. And the question “does god exist?”–whether believers assume horrific consequences or not–is no different than that to someone who does not yet believe.

What this means is that the end leap of faith McGrath describes is not required. And what that means, is that it is not a reasonable leap of faith. It is not, as Josh McDowell also asserts, “evidence that demands a verdict.” If I were in a jury box and forced to decide, then yes, I must do my fair and level best to make the most rational decision with whatever evidence is presented. But there is no such pressure applied to the question “does god exist?”–outside of whatever pressure indoctrination has pre-inserted into the adherent’s brain.

Not only did McGrath fail to provide any specific reason or evidence for his particular faith, he failed on a general level to explain what sort of reason he applies, because the sort of reason he describes is not reasonably applied to this particular type of question. The final “required” leap of faith, in the area of religion, he has not justified, only asserted.

Thankfully, but not surprisingly, this doesn’t escape Dawkins’ notice when he explains it is this final leap–not supported by rationality or evidence, and not required–that he would describe as the employment of “faith.” I would assert not only faith in a conclusion, but faith in a pre-existing prejudice that the conclusion was already very likely true in the first place; otherwise, why would the question even have mattered to McGrath any more than the question of alien abductions?

I’d finally like to hit on McGrath’s statement that “faith is rational in that it can give us the best possible case it can give.” This is nonsense. Anyone who holds any belief, no matter how ridiculous, can give us “the best possible case” they can give. That in no way makes their belief “rational.” As a joke, I sometimes invent conspiracy theories on the fly–putting unrelated groups and events together to assert one is privately colluding to produce the other. It’s amazing how many reasonable-sounding arguments you can create for absolutely fabricated assertions. Often, others will join in to add their “evidence” for the conspiracy–laughing as we build upon it. We actually can put together explanations for these fantasy conspiracies that sound reasonable. But we’re just making it all up. And our “rational” explanations are not at all likely to be true. But,
if rational can be defined as “making the best case possible,” we’re absolutely being “rational”–but also, no doubt, ridiculous.

Again, I really only addressed one small segment of the dialog here. If I have time in my future, I’ll address more. But clearly there is, throughout these videos, a huge communication divide–a gargantuan level of interference. McGrath seems unable to hear and understand what Dawkins is even asking. And I’m left wondering, is an intelligent theologian merely a person who makes nonsense sound better than most theists can? Is he merely someone who puts forward inarguable realities we might all agree with, sprinkled with unsupported assertions, and who fails to address the questions being asked?

Is that what it means to debate an educated and intelligent apologist?

We get email: the resurrection yet again

Not all the email we get from theists is totally marinated in crazysauce. Often we get a good letter from someone who doesn’t understand a few basic concepts, and is asking sincere questions. Here’s a recent email from a fellow trying to make the case that the contradictory Gospel accounts of the resurrection — which I dissected in this post from last year — help to support, rather than discredit, the story.

Whenever I hear atheists talking about contradictions in the Bible (The New Testament specifically) I just don’t understand why they think that this is evidence against the veracity of the main message in the Bible. For example, the story of the empty tomb and the contradictions that surround it, is often cited as reason to doubt the stories of the gospel. However contradictions are to be expected! Take the case of a car accident. You could have many different eye witnesses there, and it is almost guaranteed that they will all have some variation in their account of the accident. The same goes for the tomb account. Contradictions due to memory lapses, additions deletions, incidental changes, etc. are to be expected, but ultimately the main message is still there. This in my mind points not to an undermining of the Bible, but rather to the authenticity of it.

Another example that provides evidence for the authenticity of the story is the fact that a woman/women were first on the scene. If the empty tomb was a fictional story then why would they have a women first, when in those days women were not seen as first class citizens or trusted to be reliable.

Anyways I’m just curious as to why these contradictions are used as evidence to doubt the truth of the bible as I have seen done on your show before. (If I remember correctly it was around the time of Easter and Jeff Dee was either the host or co-host)

Okay, fair enough, but our correspondent is missing some basic points. First off, he’s not the first fellow to have thought of this. The Rashomon scenario is a common one: different eyewitness accounts, different versions, who do you trust? But there’s a little more going on here than that.

When you are faced with different versions of the same basic story, then the question you ask is: how can I verify any of these stories? What evidence can I examine independently, to determine whose version is closest to the truth? The problem with the resurrection story is the same problem faced by all other Biblical accounts of miracles. There is no evidence to examine either way. So you are left with conflicting accounts.

Fine, you say. But that’s true of all historical accounts of the ancient world. There’s no way to confirm what any of the Egyptian pharoahs did either. So how can you trust all those temple engravings? The thing is, historians aren’t dumb, and they know you can’t, completely. In the past, just like today, people wrote through the filter of their own biases. Accounts of ancient pharoahs are full of events that enhance their deeds to make them seem godlike. So you basically have to take these things with a grain of salt and see where you’re led by what little evidence you can actually dig up.

But getting back to the resurrection, there are problems with the story that emerge even before you talk about the contradictions, and the big one is this: what is being claimed is that a man came back from the dead. Right there, the story moves out of the realm of ordinary historical accounts (like “Caesar led his armies against the Gauls”), and into the realm of extraordinary claims. And extraordinary claims, as the saying goes, require extraordinary evidence. Most historians wouldn’t have a problem accepting accounts of Caesar’s military campaigns based on routine scholarship. But if someone started claiming that Caesar could teleport and frequently visited his Galactic Overlords at their secret base on Neptune to discuss battle plans, then you’ve got some red flags going up.

So the problem with the resurrection account is bigger than the problem faced by other, more conventional historical claims. Basically, it’s this: You have a book claiming a dead man who was actually a god returned to life after his execution, and the book itself is claimed to the be divinely inspired word of an infallible perfect deity, yet it contains confused and contradictory accounts despite this. For anyone not already so immersed in the faith that they’re beyond questioning its claims, you’re already into that “Caesar on Neptune” red flag zone even before you start talking about the specific contradictions.

What we’re being asked to accept is that, at one point in history, one dead body behaved in a manner no dead body has behaved before or since. And we’re not only asked to accept this without hard evidence, but all we’re given as a scholarly account is a holy book written by numerous hands, who can’t even get their accounts straight.

Where this fellow sees these differing accounts as somehow confirming the truth of the event, I see mythmaking in action. The Gospels were not written until at least a generation after Jesus’s death, by which time Paul was already actively engaged in promoting the Christian faith as an act of political rebellion against Rome. It’s easy to see how a mythology surrounding an otherwise unexceptional Jewish rabbi (who, as most rabble rousers living in dictatorships often do, got himself executed for being a pain in the ass) would have captured some momentum. It also helps to remember that there are far more manuscripts claiming to be eyewitness gospels that didn’t make it into the NT than those that did, and the NT we have didn’t really take shape until the beginning of 4th century.

So yeah, there are far more reasons to be skeptical of the resurrection account than there are to accept it. The contradictions are an interesting detail to discuss (mostly in the context of replying to claims about the Bible’s infallibility), but they’re just a bonus.

Revised Texas Social Studies Curriculum

Thomas Jefferson was involved in producing the Constitution of the United States. Fortunately, he left us clear writings as to the meaning of the Establishment Clause—the clause that forbids government involvement in religious matters that would mean government showing favor to one religion over another.

Our neighbors “across the pond” often write to us to express their amazement that while their church is very much part of their state institutions, it is hardly a force of any consequence, whereas in the U.S., they hear we have actually undertaken an experiment in secular government, but are inundated by religious influence and intrusion to a degree they find unbelievable and shocking. They ask “why?” We answer, “we’re not entirely sure.”

I don’t know what makes one state-involved religion relatively benign—as is the case in some modern European nations—and what makes religion a force for death and human rights abuses in some other regions of the world. But I’m willing to wager that if a definitive answer to that question is ever found, it will involve quite a lot about paranoid fear and also something about religious fundamentalism, which is involved with feelings of near certainty in the face of inconclusive—someone less generous might say “ridiculous”—evidence to support unjustified conclusions. Actually, this attitude is often the root of paranoid fear. We have all observed, as well as heard, that “the truth has nothing to fear from investigation.” But poorly justified “truth,” has a great deal to fear from free inquiry and open debate; and, so, protecting such “truth” actually requires some level of suppression of evidence and contrary thoughts. And when I say “some level,” with regard to protecting religious ideas, I shouldn’t need to explain what “levels” that includes.

The “wall of separation” was described early on by a Baptist, Roger Williams. He viewed the wall as a protection of private practice of religion. And, no doubt it does protect religious freedoms—which many religious people daily demonstrate they are either unable or unwilling to understand. Later, the “wall” was described by Jefferson to mean religion’s influence in politics—a prohibition against religious involvement on the secular side. Really, these are not two sides of a coin, but two ways of describing one side only: No religion may call “shotgun.” They must all ride in the same seat as far as the government is concerned. The problem, missed by many, is that in a world where each person carries their own personal and unique concept of “god”—you can’t so much as pray to a “god” with governmental endorsement without stepping on some toes—not merely those of the godless, but those of other religious people as well, who don’t share your personal views on religion. For example, what of those who would pray to the “gods,” instead? It really is best for everyone—religious or not—to allow free private practice and not issue government decrees or endorsements of anything regarding religion or religious worship, whenever it is not an absolute dire necessity to intervene against oppression, both on behalf of religious citizens, as well as on behalf of those they have been known to oppress.

Recently, and unsurprisingly, the SBOE in Texas decided to downplay Jefferson’s role in American history, and include, rather, a list of others who influenced American history and thought, including one, John Calvin, who was a man, among many others, involved in the Reformation. First let me say that there is no doubt the ideas of the Reformation—of which Calvin was certainly a part—have influenced American thinking in the realm of religion to this day. There is some suggestion he also influenced capitalism and democracy, although whatever his idea of “democracy,” it would have clashed considerably with just about everything represented by our Constitution, if his actions and writings constitute any indication. Still, I must admit that, religion being the powerful mechanism it surely is in the U.S. today, impacting religious thought is no small matter. I think it’s fair to say religion in our country would not be what it is today without Calvin’s influential ideas within the Reformation. However, to read that as complimentary would be to miss my meaning entirely.

Some of Calvin’s fine thoughts still in circulation include the following:

1. God’s absolute sovereignty:

Just as the Taliban promotes, whatever your god asks you to do, obey without question—no holds barred. And frighteningly, just like the Taliban, Calvin believed that anyone who didn’t accept the “truth”—as he understood it—deserved execution. Free speech? No. Open, public dialog and debate? No. Capacity to criticize religious thinking? Again, no. Just as, for want of a sense of humor, a rabid mob of Muslims became intent on murdering a Dutch publisher, Calvin saw little reason to allow anyone to criticize what he knew was god’s intent here on Earth—and live. In fact, in response to a fellow theologian’s criticisms, he wrote:

“Servetus has just sent me a long volume of his ravings. If I consent he will come here, but I will not give my word for if he comes here, if my authority is worth anything, I will never permit him to depart alive.” (1)

For the record, we get a lot of “ravings” e-mailed to us at AETV. But I have yet to hear anyone involved with our program suggest, even as a joke, that we ought to consider silencing these people for eternity. Honestly, they are some of the greatest sources of humor on the list—if, perhaps, not also somewhat tinged with a sad and pathetic quality. Pity and humor seem a more appropriate response to “raving” than murderous impulses.

But back to Calvin, who, it turns out, was able to make good on his word. Servetus—who was a man of some scientific accomplishment in addition to a theologian—was burned at the stake—along with his books, it should be noted—for “heresy.” Ironically, put to death by Calvin’s supporters, who were, as labeled by a differently thinking church authority, simply another brand of “heretic.” And also ironically for one of his ideas being that infant baptism was incorrect—a position most protestants would today agree with. When Servetus was facing trial, and possible death, for his ideas, Calvin compassionately wrote:

“I hope that sentence of death will at least be passed on him; but I desired that the severity of the punishment be mitigated.” (2)

By “mitigated,” Calvin did not mean sentencing Servetus to 100 hours of community service instead. He meant that he preferred beheading to immolation. And he demonstrated this preference as well when he consented to the beheading of Jacques Gruet. To be fair to Calvin, though, Gruet was guilty of having written a letter which, I’m sure it was demonstrated, “threatened god,” as well as god’s emissaries here on Earth. And there can be no doubt of Gruet’s guilt, as he made a full confession—under torture.

2. Total depravity of the human condition:

The Wikipedia entry states: “The term ‘total’ in this context refers to sin affecting every part of a person, not that every person is as evil as possible.”

I’m grateful to have this clarification. Just so we are all on the same page, it’s not so much that human beings are totally evil, as that every part of every human being is polluted with evil.

This doctrine is, itself, perhaps arguably, the most “totally depraved” contribution to the world stage religion has ever supplied us—especially as it is taught to children as soon as they’re able to grasp the concepts involved. For one person to believe such a ludicrous and dysfunctional concept about himself would be merely shocking. For many to believe such a thing undermines humanity and society, and can only be combated wit
h as much real education as we can unrelentingly hurl at it.

Like many marketing schemes, religion invents a problem, exaggerates it to frightening proportions, applies it to as many as possible (in this case everyone), then sells the solution at a hefty individual and social price. The problem it invents in this case results in mistrust of one’s corrupted self, of all one’s corrupted neighbors, and even of one’s corrupted children and parents. And when an idea like this catches fire, anyone who rejects it can only be suspect of being so utterly corrupt they cannot see their own corruption. That person—the one saying humans are basically alright for the most part—becomes, unbelievably, the threat to social harmony and cohesion. What a backward and perverted social perspective. But yes, it certainly has influenced American culture, I must sadly concede.

3. Predestination

Predestination is not, strictly speaking, “determinism.” However, they have a bit in common. If anything drives unavoidable fate, it is determinism. If god drives it, it’s predestination. There is certainly an irony to theists who accept this doctrine claiming that without god they would have no reason to go on living. But beyond the humorous aspects, the obvious problem in this idea is that anything and everything that occurs can be defended with divine preordination—from 9-11 to any dictator’s divine right. Combine this with number 1 above, and you have the perfect recipe for brutal politics. And I daresay that number 2 only functions to dismiss critics of the institution produced by 1 and 3, out of hand.

Calvin had all sorts of other wonderful and interesting ideas, including some about Jews, which his supporters can only defend by saying he may not have been as bad as some of the other anti-semites of his day. Still, it isn’t exactly anything to brag on:

“I have had much conversation with many Jews: I have never seen either a drop of piety or a grain of truth or ingenuousness—nay, I have never found common sense in any Jew.” (3)

My main objective in all of this is to demonstrate that a man like Calvin would openly oppose our current Constitution in the U.S., where we actually allow open public dialog and debate, and we allow free and unhindered expression of religion—by anyone, no matter what they believe, or don’t.

As I have admitted already, we have examples of the church and state living, relatively speaking, harmoniously in some regions of the world. However, we have other examples where church and state, relatively speaking, demonstrate lethal and oppressive combinations. And in those states, what do we see? We see staunch believers who adhere to the three Calvinistic concepts listed above, for which the man is most remembered. Considering the continued efforts of Christian fundamentalists—admittedly influenced by Calvin—to affect political power in this nation—why on Earth would anyone assume they’re not interested in religious impositions upon society? What would be the basis for assuming this well organized group of religious zealots is fighting for political influence with the noble goal of preserving a religious freedom we already enjoy—rather than a goal of imposing religious oppression by instituting self-serving, government-sanctioned religious privilege?

By all means, feel free to teach children about Calvin and Calvinism and his influence on American thinking in our schools. Be sure to teach them, as well, how extremely lucky we are that Calvin’s relaxed attitudes with regard to comingling religious and state authority, to purposeful deadly effect, were ultimately not embraced by this nation. In fact, they represent, eerily and precisely, the same views driving the terrorist actions with which we are waging war in the world at this moment: God is sovereign and demands the death of anyone who criticizes Him or His messengers.

I wonder whether that will be included in our new Social Studies Curriculum Standards here in Texas when Calvin is mentioned? Like the fundamentalist-groomed children in science classes “challenging” overwhelming scientific consensus, one wonders whether free-thinking children will raise a hand to ask whether it is, in fact, true, that Calvin promoted executing people for expressing their ideas and questions? And, if so, isn’t it rather a boon that we escaped a number of the man’s toxic political influences, if not his religious ones?

I’m happy to say the church in the U.S. no longer burns people who don’t agree with them. But it is impossible to miss that this protection is offered, thankfully, by secular laws imposing on religiously prescribed dictates, rather than any divine prohibition. It is, in fact, quite fortunate we did not take our cue from the Bible—or Calvin’s view of it—when it came time to author our national laws and Constitution.

Thankfully reason prevailed, once again, over religion. But the price, as always, is eternal vigilance.


(1) Drummond, William H. (1848). The Life of Michael Servetus: The Spanish Physician, Who, for the Alleged Crime of Heresy, was Entrapped, Imprisoned, and Burned, by John Calvin the Reformer, in the City of Geneva, October 27, 1553. London, England: John Chapman. pp. 2.

(2) Calvin to William Farel, August 20, 1553, Bonnet, Jules (1820–1892) Letters of John Calvin, Carlisle, Penn: Banner of Truth Trust, 1980, pp. 158–159. ISBN 0-85151-323-9.

(3) Lange van Ravenswaay, J. Marius J. (2009), “Calvin and the Jews”, in Selderhuis, Herman J., The Calvin Handbook, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., ISBN 9780802862303 (translation from the Dutch, Calvijn Handboek, 2008 by Kok, Kampen).

Sorry for the quietude

It’s been a little quiet around here the last few days, I know. Sorry for that. I think we’re all just concentrating on real-life stuff lately. There have been some things of atheist interest happening, though, so I’ll chime in on those as I have time. But for now you can consider this an open thread on the following theme: sexual shenanigans among public figures. Take, as your inspiration, the following: much as we all love to hate Fox News, I must confess their headline writers have a good sense of humor.

Kathleen Johnson: “A Place at the Table”

Here’s the video from a recent ACA Lecture Series lecture with Kathleen Johnson, titled “A Place at the Table.”

On February 26th, 2010, Kathleen Johnson, American Atheists Vice President and Military Director and the founder of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, spoke at a historic meeting with the Obama administration at the nation’s capital. The event, organized by the Secular Coalition for America, focused on three issues: faith based medical neglect, proselytizing in the military, and administration support for faith based initiatives. This occasion was a prime example of how a variety of different secular groups can unite for a common cause and accomplish significant political actions. Ms. Johnson will speak about her experiences with “having a seat at the table” and the importance of effectively setting aside political and positional differences to effectively advocate for common causes.

“A Place at the Table”

Mp3 audio is available here.

Atheism in the news? Not really…

Read this post from the blog of the religion reporter at our local newspaper.

My comment was long, so I wasn’t sure if it got posted and thought I’d post it here, as well.

Three comments, in mixed order:

First, the study isn’t worth the attention it’s getting. In addition to all of the other problems with IQ, the variance here simply isn’t notable. This is a weak correlation and little more.

Second, the UTSA event is not to everyone’s taste, but your question; “why equate it with pornography?” is an interesting one. The implication is that you’d like to label porn as ‘bad’ but the Bible as ‘good’ or ‘not as bad’. I don’t find pornography objectionable, yet I find the Bible incredibly objectionable…so, your implication is correct, they’re not equal. I think most Bible-supporters know this which is why, despite calling it the “Good Book” not one of them would agree to let me read Bible stories of my selection to their children.

Some people are uncomfortable about nudity and sex, and that’s their prerogative.

Those, though, who would exalt a book that explicitly endorses slavery – the owning of another human as property, the beating of that property and the instruction for slave to obey cruel masters – just one of many objectionable points, can never claim the moral high ground. They have sacrificed their humanity for a poisonous and corrupt ideology.

And that, leads me to the third point – the focus on the fact that this individual had books on atheism and demons. There is nothing within atheism (because it’s a single position on a single question) that would direct one to burn a church. Atheism is not a necessary and sufficient cause for any act, let alone this one.

But the problem here is the self-righteous bigotry in both the headlines, the focus and the commentary. Where is the headline that reads “Bible found among clinic bombers belongings”?