Carnival of the Godless #73

CarnivalCarnival of the Godless #73 is up at In Defence of Reason. I submitted two pieces for this round, and asked them to pick the one they liked best; but instead they just ran them both, “Someone’s looking out for me”: God and the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse, and Eternal Fire: What Jesus Says in the Gospels About Hell. I’m not sure if they really liked both pieces or were just too lazy to pick, but in either case I’m grateful and am not going to argue. Thanks!

A Self-Referential Game of Twister: What Religion Looks Like From the Outside

(Quick explanation: I’ve been in some frustrating debates with religious believers lately — one in particular — and it seems like the point-by-point squabbles have been missing the point. This piece is an attempt to step back from that, and look at the whole disagreement from a larger perspective.)

Here’s the thing, Rev. Cawley. I’m not dying to continue the point-counterpoint debate on the points you raised.

Cross_in_the_sky_2Instead, I want to step back for a moment and give you an idea of what your arguments sound like to someone who isn’t already a Christian. Not just to someone who’s a pretty convinced atheist, but to someone who doesn’t know what they think one way or another, who’s looking at different religious beliefs and deciding what to think. You seem to be at least somewhat sincere about wanting to understand non-believers, and I want to give you, and other believers, an idea of what religion — and religious apologetics — looks like to us.

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“A magnetism that will not let go”: The Drooling Homophobe Series, Part 764

Do these people listen to what they say?

Don’t they know how obvious this “lady doth protest too much” thing is starting to get?

Pass_the_saltPandagon has the story of right-wing Christian extremist Dave Daubenmire of Pass the Salt Ministries, who, with his flock, has been on a crusade to disrupt the church services of gay-friendly churches. But that’s not even the best part of the story. As is so often the case, the best part of the story is in an almost offhand remark.

In a Bible-spewing homophobic rant earlier this year about a visit to the Gay Pride Parade, Daubenmire had this to say:

“The ‘meat’ on display will forever change the way you view homosexuality. Sin has no boundaries, no clutch, and no emergency brake. Once you dip your toe into the pool of sin, especially sexual sin, there is a magnetism that will not let go.” (emphasis mine)


Gaypridesaopaulodrags_fullLet me put it this way. The straight guys I know who visit the Gay Pride Parade do not describe the event as having “a magnetism that will not let go.” Their reaction is more along the lines of, “Nice dress, dude.” They describe it as interesting, entertaining, touching, hilarious, kind of tedious when the “polo-shirted employees of boring corporations” contingents go by, etc. But they do not describe it as a pool of sin with a magnetism that will not let go. The straight guys I know are not forever changed by the sight of gay male “meat on display,” and they are quite capable of resisting the magnetism of homosexuality. They find the magnetic pull of homosexuality pretty gosh-darned unmagnetic. That’s kind of what makes them, you know — straight.

Ted_haggard_3So I just have to ask: Do Dave Daubenmire, and Ted Haggard, and all the rest of the right-wing Christian leering brigade, really not know what they sound like? Do they really not see that frothing at the mouth closely resembles drooling?

Blog Carnivals: Feminists, Liberals, and Humanists

CarnivalIt’s blog carnival time!

Carnival of the Liberals #45 is up at The Greenbelt. They included my piece on the Blowfish Blog, Right Wing Hypocrisy, or Why Sex Guilt Fucks Things Up For Everyone, which makes me really happy since I think that’s one of the better pieces I’ve written of late. Carnival of the Liberals is a very selective carnival: they only include ten posts per issue, so I’m always extra-happy and honored to be included. And they illustrated the posts with cute pictures of dogs in birthday hats, so that’s a good time right there.

Carnival of the Feminists #43 is up at Femtique. They included my feminist rant on The Devil Wears Prada and its fucked-up view of professionalism in women, so thanks for that.

And The Humanist Symposium #6 is up at A Load of Bright, with its usual excellent collection of positive atheist blogging. I didn’t get a piece in this time — I’ve been Miss Negative Cranky-Pants lately when it comes to the atheist blogging — but if you want written proof that atheists have more to say about atheism than just complaining about religion, be sure to check it out. Ta!

Eternal Fire: What Jesus Says in the Gospels About Hell

Biblefire_2For some reason — maybe it’s just coincidence — this has been coming up a lot lately. I’ve been in three separate debates in the last couple of weeks — here on this blog and elsewhere — in which Christian theists have argued that Jesus’s teaching in the Bible didn’t say anything about Hell as a place of eternal damnation, burning, and torture… or if he did say that, he didn’t really mean it.

I’m not posting this to stir up those debates again. But when I got into those debates, I wound up citing this piece of research I did that got buried in the comments on this blog. I think it’s an important point — I suspect I’ll be citing it again in the future, and I’m thinking that other atheist bloggers might want to cite it as well. So I’m pulling it out of the comments and making it into a post of its own.

Fire1It’s a list of all the places in the Gospels where Jesus is quoted as teaching about hell, damnation, wrath, judgment, etc. — with brief explanations of the context. (My apologies for any typos, btw: I couldn’t find an online version of the Revised Standard Bible to cut and paste from, so I had to just type all this in by hand.)

Fire_3_2And it looks to me like it’s a very prevalent theme. It’s not a small number of passing references — it’s quite plentiful. And the references aren’t out of context or jarringly inconsistent — they’re woven into the text fairly seamlessly, and a number of consistent themes emerge, such as people being damned to hell for hearing and seeing Jesus and still not believing in him and repenting.

Coal_and_fireThis is by no means an exhaustive list. There are several other more indirect allusions to these concepts: implying it in parables, using words like “punish” or “condemnation” instead of “hell” or “fire,” etc. — but I limited myself to the most direct and explicit ones. In addition, there are several other references in the Gospels to these concepts spoken by either John the Baptist or by the narrator/gospel writer — but I’m limiting myself to sayings that are quoted as Jesus’s own words. And there are also other troubling words from Jesus in the Gospels that aren’t about judgment and hell but that also aren’t in keeping with a message of love and tolerance — but I’m limiting myself here to teachings about hell, wrath, judgment day, etc.

Flying_skeleton_hellThere are definitely more in Matthew than any of the other four, although Luke has quite a few as well. John doesn’t have as many as those two, but the concept is far from entirely absent (plus John does have a fair number of the abovementioned indirect allusions and comments from John the Baptist and the narrator). Mark seems to have the fewest (although again it has a fair number of indirect allusions that I didn’t list here).

The list begins below the jump.

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The Atheist’s Wager, or Why Blaise Pascal Can Go Suck an Egg

Dices16I love this.

I only just saw it today, in an offhand remark in a comment on Pharyngula. But I’d never heard it before, and I love it.

It’s the atheist version of Pascal’s Wager.

Blaise_pascalIn case you’ve never heard of it, Pascal’s Wager is an argument for believing in God that goes roughly like this: If God doesn’t exist, nothing very bad will happen to you if you bet wrong and believe that he does. But something very bad will happen to you — i.e., you’ll go to Hell — if God does exist and you bet wrong and believe that he doesn’t. Therefore, believing in God is a better bet.

Religious_symbolsNow, there are a million things wrong with this argument. The most obvious ones are: (1) how do you know which God to believe in, and which of the zillion existing religious practices he wants you to follow?; (2) a Pascal’s Wager belief isn’t a sincere belief, and if God does exist he isn’t going to buy it; and (3) many people, myself included, strongly disagree with the assertion that nothing bad will happen if you believe in a non-existent God. (Despite it being a crappy argument, assorted versions of Pascal’s Wager still get used again and again by many religious believers; hence the discussion on Pharyngula.)

But this is just excellent: It’s the atheist’s version of Pascal’s Wager.

Here’s how Tatarize (of God Snot, Where God’s Not) put it in the Pharyngula comment: “Do good, then if there’s a evil God everybody is still screwed. If there is a good God then you go to heaven, if there is no God then doing good is its own reward.”

And here’s how I’d put it, slightly fleshed out:

Be a good person, by your own good faith beliefs and efforts, and don’t bother with what God thinks.

Far_side_god_1If God is a capricious evil bastard who keeps changing the rules and doesn’t play by them anyway, it doesn’t matter what you do. You have no way of knowing what he’ll reward or punish. So you might as well just do what you think is right, regardless of what God may or may not think.

Jesus_healing_the_sickIf God is good, by any reasonable definition of the word “good” that we can comprehend, then he’ll reward you for being a good person regardless of whether you believe in him or not.

No_godsAnd if God doesn’t exist, there are still plenty of reasons to be a good person: feeling empathy for people and a sense of connection with them, yada yada yada.

Goofus_and_gallantI don’t know why this tickles me so much. I certainly think there are better, more serious arguments for atheism than this one. But Pascal’s Wager is just such a millstone around our necks, and I think this is an unusually witty and clever response to it. I’ve always thought that fear of God and hell was a terrible reason, ethically speaking, to be good; a child’s reason, really, “If you hit your sister you’ll get sent to your room.” The religious believers that I like and respect aren’t good people because they’re afraid of hell. They’re good people for good reasons, grown-up reasons, “empathy and connection” type reasons. And regardless of whether you’re a believer or not. I think the Atheist’s Wager points up beautifully the absurdity and childishness of the fear-based, “hedging your bets” version of beliefs and ethics… and the ethical strength of the grown-up version.

“Someone’s looking out for me”: God and the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

Catholic_church_minneapolisFrom USA Today, August 2 2007:

“Jim Koralesky, 63, who also attended the Mass [a prayer service held Thursday in honor of the bridge collapse victims], took the Interstate 35W bridge six times Wednesday before it collapsed. He was about to take it again a few minutes before 6 p.m. to go to Home Depot. But he said he ran into a friend in his parking lot and got involved in a conversation. After 15 minutes of chatting, he scuttled plans for his errand.

“‘It would have put me on that bridge around that time,’ he said. ‘Someone’s looking out for me.'”

Minneapolis_bridge_collapseYou hear this a lot in the aftermath of disasters. People who “should have” been on the plane that crashed; people who “should have” been on the freeway that collapsed… they say it a lot. Survivors of the Columbine shooting said it: people who were at the school that day but didn’t get shot. It’s a strikingly common reaction to a near-miss of a huge disaster:

Guardian_angel“Someone up there was looking out for me.”

“I guess my guardian angel was with me that day.”

And my reaction is always the same:


Trembling, teeth-grinding, physically- sick- to- my- stomach rage.

I think this is one of the most insulting, insensitive things a person could possibly say in the aftermath of a deadly disaster.

And it’s one of the things that makes me most angry about religion.

Eric_harris_dylan_kleboldThink about it. So what are the people who actually did die — chopped liver? Where was their guardian angel? The people who did die on the collapsed bridge, the people who did get shot at Columbine — God thought they deserved it? Or maybe God just didn’t care enough about them to save them? Was their guardian angel on a coffee break — or did their angel decide, “Eh, never mind, you can be on the bridge when it collapses”?

Blake_god_1Obviously, not all religious people are insensitive enough to actually say this stuff out loud. (Especially at a service in honor of the people who did die, for fuck’s sake.) But I think it’s inherently implied; not in all religion, but in any religion that believes in an interventionist god or spirit that has the power to either cause or prevent the earthquake, the school shooting, the bridge collapse.

God_bless_our_homeWhen you say that your life is blessed by God — that you have your good job, your nice home, your happy family, your health and prosperity generally, all by the grace of God — the logical implication is that people who don’t have those things are cursed by God. The children born into starvation and war; the people whose homes are destroyed by tsunamis; the people who get slaughtered by crazy mass murderers; the children with birth defects or genetic diseases; the people who plunge to their death when a bridge collapses… either God doesn’t like them, or God doesn’t care about them.

Tornado_2It’s the problem of suffering all over again. Except instead of the problem being, “Why does God cause/ allow suffering?” the problem now becomes, “Why do people think that God is personally protecting them from suffering when he seems perfectly happy to throw millions of others to the wolves?”

RandomnessI get it that it’s hard to believe in dumb luck. It’s hard to believe that your life could be radically changed — or ended — by tiny incidents of pure random chance. It can make you feel very small, and make your life feel very much out of control. (And feeling that your life could be changed or ended by government mismanagement and a reflexive, unthinking, “low taxes always good” approach to fiscal policy… that can really make you feel small and out of control.)

Sistine_godBut if the alternative is a belief in a God who kept you chatting with your friend so you wouldn’t be on the bridge when it collapsed — but didn’t do the same for several other perfectly wonderful people — then I’ll take dumb luck any day. When terrible things happen for completely random reasons, there’s something comforting about not believing that there’s someone out to get you.

LotteryAnd I get that people who have been fortunate in life — either in a general “health and prosperity” way or in a more specific “I could easily have been on that bridge when it collapsed” way — often feel a sense of humility and gratitude, and want to express that somehow. While I do think the “Somebody up there likes me” trope is arrogant and insulting, I think most people who use it don’t mean it that way. Not consciously, anyway. As a friend recently told me, one of the hardest parts of letting go of a belief in a conscious guiding spirit is letting go of the impulse to say “Thank you” for the good things in your life. And it’s an impulse I both understand and respect.

Ngel_de_la_guardaBut there has to be a better way to express that feeling than with the insulting, self-centered assertion that “Someone’s looking out for me.” Especially when you’re at the memorial service of the people nobody was looking out for.

(Via Ingrid, who saw the USA Today article at her hotel.)

The Shrinking Deity and the Empty Coloring Book: Ebon Musings

God“Throughout history, God has been shrinking.”

Can a piece of writing get stuck in your head the way a song can? This one has. It’s from Ebon Musings, the sibling site to Daylight Atheism, and the two of them are my new favorite atheist blog, with a well-written, well-reasoned, impressively large body of atheist writing. This piece has been on my mind ever since I read it, and I wanted to point y’all to it and talk about it a little.

Burning_bush250x200The piece, One More Burning Bush, is a compellingly detailed argument for why it makes no sense for God to keep himself hidden from sight. But the part that’s really stuck in my head is the opening section, “The Incredible Shrinking Deity,” in which he points out that the claims made for God’s miraculous deeds have, over the centuries and millennia, been gradually but inexorably shrinking. To quote:

Blake_god_1“Where the Bible tells us God once shaped worlds out of the void and parted great seas with the power of his word, today his most impressive acts seem to be shaping sticky buns into the likenesses of saints and conferring vaguely-defined warm feelings on his believers’ hearts when they attend church.”

And again:

Far_side_god_1“There is a distinct pattern here, and it can best be summed up as this: Throughout history, God has been shrinking. The time when the world was small and God was in control is always in the far distant, half-remembered past. The closer we approach to the present, the less common miracles are and the less accessible he becomes, until the present day when divine activity has dwindled until it is indistinguishable from the nonexistent.”

And one more time:

Religious_symbols“This pattern is not limited to the Judeo-Christian religions, either. Almost every belief system around the world tells a similar story: a past golden age where the gods were apparent and miracles were abundant, followed by a steady decline of such occurrences until arriving at a thoroughly ordinary, natural present. The kind of events that the Bible and other holy books describe simply do not happen in the world today; the frequency of miracle claims seems to decline almost in direct proportion to our ability to test them. (Emphasis added.)

ApolloThe reason this jumped out at me so strongly and has been stuck in my head so relentlessly is that it gets at, from a completely different angle, what I was getting at in my piece The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely (one of my better pieces, if I do say so myself, and one of the central foundations of my own atheist thought). The gist of that piece is that, when you look at the history of the world, you see a startlingly consistent pattern: supernatural explanations of phenomena have been effectively replaced by natural ones by the thousands, while natural explanations of phenomena have been effectively replaced by supernatural ones exactly never. (And therefore, with any given phenomenon that’s currently unexplained, the chances that the explanation will eventually turn out to be a natural one are several orders of magnitude more likely than it turning out to be supernatural or divine.)

Earth_axisAnd while I hadn’t thought about it this way before now, Ebon Musings is exactly right. As our understanding of the natural, physical world has increased — and our ability to test theories and claims has improved — the domain of God’s miracles (or other supernatural/metaphysical explanations) has consistently shifted, away from the phenomena that are now understood as physical cause and effect, and onto the increasingly shrinking area of phenomena that we still don’t understand.

Consciousness_explainedWhich is a pretty compelling pattern. “Okay, we don’t need God to explain floods, but we still need him to explain sickness and health.” “Okay, we don’t need God to explain sickness and health, but we still need him to explain consciousness.” Whatever it is that we don’t understand at the moment, that’s what gets called God or the supernatural.

Crayola_24pack_2005And given the consistency of this pattern, that just doesn’t make sense to me. Yes, there’s a lot about the world we don’t understand. But I don’t see why we need to fill in the empty parts of the coloring book with a blue crayon and call it God, or the soul, or metaphysical energy. Throughout history, we consistently and overwhelmingly have had to replace the blue crayon of the supernatural or divine with other, more accurate colors — and as the current evolution debates are demonstrating, scraping the blue crayon out of people’s minds is a stubbornly difficult task that wastes time and energy better spent elsewhere. The blue crayon is worn down to a nub, and it’s never proven to be the right color, and I don’t see why we keep reaching for it every time we see an empty space in the coloring book. I don’t see why we can’t leave the empty parts of the coloring book empty, until we know how to fill them in.

Invisible Punishment: Hell as Social Control

FireHell has been on my mind. I recently dug up a list of all the places in the Gospels where Jesus talks about hell (there are quite a few), so hell is all up in my face right now. It’s one of the religious beliefs that I find most disturbing and most profoundly fucked-up — and I want to talk about why.

Part of it, of course, is that there’s no evidence for it. But that’s true for a lot of religious beliefs — arguably all of them — and not all religious beliefs anger me nearly as much as hell does. (The evidence problem is, however, a problem I’ll be coming back to.)

JusticePart of it is that it’s missing the entire point of punishment and justice. For me, the point of punishment is either to change people’s behavior — to show them that bad actions have bad consequences, and thus to teach them not to do it again — or to provide an example, to demonstrate to others than bad actions have bad consequences, and thus to teach them not to do it.

Hell completely fails on both counts. The permanence and eternity of it means that it utterly fails as a teaching tool. It’s not like you’re going to learn from your mistakes — the whole idea of hell is that, if you haven’t learned your lesson by the day of your death or Judgment Day, you don’t get any more chances. It’s like punishing a child by sending them to sit in the corner… for the rest of their life.

And as far as hell being an example for others… well, here’s where we come back to the fact that there’s no evidence for it. It’s not like the souls being burned and tortured in hell for eternity are on display for the rest of us to see, so we can go, “Oh. Got it. That’s what happens when you steal from your neighbor and cheat on your wife. Important safety tip. Thanks.” All we have is the word of some ancient texts, Jerry Falwell, and the guy screaming at us from the Powell Street cable car turnaround.

So it’s a truly lousy form of punishment. It takes all the good stuff out of the concept of justice, and turns it into pure revenge, simply for revenge’s sake. Simply because it makes people feel good to believe that bad people are being punished.

WaterboardingAnd then there’s the problem of how wildly disproportionate hell is; how it’s what Ebon Musings calls “infinite punishment for finite sins.” There is no math in the world that makes infinite torture a proportionate response to anything that any human might do on Earth. To punish even crimes like mass murder with burning and torture for infinitely longer than a billion years… it’s like punishing a parking violation with waterboarding.

But none of that is my biggest problem with hell.

My biggest problem with the idea of hell is that it’s such a powerful, insidious form of social control.

Here’s what the concept of hell does. It tells people, “If you behave in bad ways, if you disobey (God in theory, religious texts and teachers in practice), the consequences will be bad — extraordinarily bad, much more bad than anything you’ve seen or can even imagine. No, we can’t give you any evidence that this terrible bad consequence will happen — but take our word for it, you don’t want it to happen. In fact, even questioning its existence and asking for evidence of it is one of the most disobedient bad things you can do, and will get you sent there for sure.”

StoveNow. Think about how learning, and the idea of consequences, works in an ordinary non-hell-based context. In everyday life, if you’re reasonably sane and don’t have a personality disorder, you learn about what to do and what not to do by experiencing consequences or seeing them happen to others. Touching a hot stove burns you; hitting people gets them mad at you; drinking too much makes you hungover; saying cruel things to people you love makes you feel sick and sad; etc.

We also learn from one another, of course — our parents or friends say, “Don’t drink milk past the expiration date,” or, “For the love of God, do not see ‘Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo,'” and much of the time we’ll just take their word for it. But at least we have the option of verifying their statements. We can see for ourselves that when our parents and teachers told us marijuana would lead straight to heroin, they were talking out of their asses, and we can see for ourselves what the consequences of smoking pot are and make a decision about whether it’s okay.

Hell doesn’t work that way. Because hell is invisible, people have no way of deciding for themselves whether it’s real… and because hell is such a grotesquely appalling consequence, people will do anything to avoid it.

Therefore. If you can convince people that hell is real and that you are an authority on its existence and what they have to do to avoid it… you can make them do ANYTHING.

Anything at all.

Joan_of_arc_burning_at_stakeYou can get them to give you money. You can get them to go out and convert more followers for you. You can get them to suck your cock. You can get them to turn against their children. You can get them to vote for your friends. You can get them to go to war against your enemies. You can get them to torture, to kill, to tie people to stakes and set them on fire, to blow themselves up in crowded places, to commit mass murder, to commit mass suicide. And of course, you can get them to never ask questions about you, or whether what you’re saying and doing is right, or whether this hell place even exists.

Anything. The combination of hell’s invisibility and the extremity of its horror makes it a singularly effective form of manipulation and social control. It’s a terrifying consequence that people will avoid at all costs… and they have no way to look at the world around them and ask, “Hey, is that really true?” Then when you add the “doubting hell’s existence will get you sent there” meme, it makes it even more powerful by making it self-perpetuating. And all of this is especially powerful, and especially troubling, when it’s directed at children… whose brains are, as Richard Dawkins points out, built, for very good evolutionary reasons, to believe what adults tell them.

Part of me gets it. It is awful to think of wicked people thriving, living their lives out in comfort and never suffering the consequences of their badness. I hate that Ken Lay died of a heart attack before he could rot in prison. Part of me wishes I believed in hell, so I could believe he was there.

BiblefireBut the idea of hell is an evil, hateful idea, and it’s not one I want in my world. It exists for one reason and one reason only: to scare people into doing what you tell them, to squelch questioning and dissent. It takes people’s innate fears — and maybe worse, their ability to trust and learn from one another — and manipulates them to create obedience. It is an idea that has nothing but contempt for people’s autonomy. It is an idea that has nothing but contempt for people, period. It is social control, pure and simple. It is completely at odds with the idea of a compassionate, loving God. And any religion that has it as a central theme has a tremendous amount to answer for.