All-Knowing, All-Powerful, All-Good: Pick Two, or, How Christian Theology Shoots Itself In the Foot

There’s a pattern I’ve noticed in atheist/ theist debates in the blogosphere.

And the pattern in this: Christian theology — specifically, the belief that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good — is making these debates a whole lot easier for atheists. The religious apologetics consistently founder on one of these rocks: God’s supposed complete knowledge, or total power, or perfect goodness. Or, as is more usual, some combination of the three.

You know the arguments; you’ve seen them a hundred times. If God is all these things, then why is there suffering, what’s the point of prayer, isn’t everything pre-ordained, why were we created with the propensity to evil, blah blah blah. I won’t get into them all here. And I’m not even talking about the logical conundrums, the “Could God create a burrito so big that he couldn’t eat it?” stuff. What I’ll say is this: Theists always have to either concede at least part of one of the Alls, some degree of God’s power or knowledge or goodness… or they have to cop out with some version of “mysterious ways” or “I know it in my heart.”

And if they weren’t so stuck on God being the All Everything, they’d have an easier time of it. I still think they’d be mistaken — I think the case against the supernatural is strong, even without the Omnimax Divine Theater — but the debates wouldn’t be quite so much like shooting the same slow fish in the same barrel, over and over and over again.

Or, as Eclectic has said in this blog: “All-knowing, all-powerful, all-good — pick two.”

Crowley tarot universe
Take my own now- abandoned religious beliefs. Back in my woo days, I believed in a World-Soul, a metaphysical substance that infused all conscious life forms with, well, consciousness; a being made up of all the souls of all the living things in the world, but that was more than just the sum of its parts, a being that had some sort of selfhood or identity.

It wasn’t a belief that was supported by any evidence. It wasn’t supported by anything, particularly. Except by my own personal vague feeling that consciousness couldn’t just be a function of the physical brain, because… well, because it couldn’t be. Because it just didn’t seem that way.

But at no point did I think that the World-Soul was all-powerful, all-knowing, or all-good. In fact, it was very clear to me that it wasn’t. I didn’t think it was any of these things, much less all of them. Actually, back in my woo days, I often said that the meaning of my life was to add to the learning and enlightenment of the World-Soul. I thought of the World-Soul as a powerful being, certainly wiser and more powerful and more knowledgeable than me… but I still saw it as limited, flawed, with room to learn and grow.

And this made my belief much easier to cling to… and much harder to let go of.

It wasn’t a tremendously defensible belief. But it was a lot more defensible than the belief in the completely perfect, completely powerful God who created, and regularly intervenes in, this profoundly flawed world full of cruelty and pain.

In a way, I appreciate the desire to have one’s God be perfect. The old polytheistic pantheons weren’t much to admire or aspire to. Selfish, small- minded, mean- spirited, dishonest, backstabbing, gossipy. They were a lot like my junior high, actually, except with more incest and murder and devouring of body parts. I can see why people wouldn’t want their creator of their universe to be like that. I can see why people would want their creator to be… well, perfect.

But in many ways, the old, flawed pantheon made a lot more sense. It was certainly more consistent with the world we live in: a flawed, complicated, messy world of mixed motivations and conflicting forces. I love this world, I feel more passionate about it and connected to it every day… but it sure as hell doesn’t look like a world created on purpose by a perfectly powerful, perfectly knowledgeable, perfectly good being.

And every time a theist tries to defend and explain and rationalize that being, I feel like they’ve handed me a gift.

Why I Don’t Believe in the Soul

Got soul
I spend a lot of my time in this blog arguing why I don’t believe in God. Today I want to do something a little different. I want to talk, not about why I don’t believe in God or gods, not about why some particular religion’s belief in God is mistaken or contradictory… but about why I don’t believe in the soul.

A lot of people who don’t believe in God per se still believe in some sort of soul, some sort of metaphysical substance or animating spirit that inhabits people and other living things. And I think this is mistaken. I think it’s every bit as mistaken an idea as God is.

And today, I want to talk about why. I want to talk about why everything that we think of as the soul — consciousness, identity, character, free will — is much more likely to be a product of our brains and our bodies and the physical world, than a metaphysical substance inhabiting our bodies but somehow separate and distinct from it.

Much, much, much more likely.

Brain question mark
Here’s the thing. I know that there are enormous unanswered questions about how the mind works, and indeed what it is. The questions of what consciousness is, how it’s created, how it works… these are questions that we don’t really have answers to yet. Ditto identity and selfhood. And we’re not sure that free will even exists, much less how it works. The science of neuropsychology, and the scientific understanding of consciousness, are very much in their infancy. In fact, I would argue that “What is consciousness?” is one of the great scientific questions of our time.

But infant science or not, there are a few things we know about consciousness, identity, character, the ability to make decisions, etc.

And one of the things we know is that physical changes to the brain can and do result in changes to the consciousness, the identity, the character, the ability to make decisions. Changes caused by injury, illness, drugs and medicines, sleep deprivation, food deprivation, oxygen deprivation, etc., can and do result in changes to everything we think of as the “soul.” Even some very small changes to the brain — small doses of medicine or drugs, injuries or interventions to just a small area of the brain — can result in some very drastic changes indeed.

In some cases, they can do so to the point of rendering a person’s personality completely unrecognizable. Physical changes to the brain can make people unable to care about their own families. They can make people unable to make decisions. They can make smart people stupid, anxious people calm, happy people irritable, crazy people less crazy. They can render everything we know about a person, everything that makes that person who they are, totally null and void. Read Oliver Sacks, read V. S. Ramachandran, read any modern neurologist or neuropsychologist, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s fucking freaky, actually, just how fragile are mind and self, consciousness and character.

And, of course, we have the rather drastic change to consciousness and character and coherent identity and the ability to make decisions, known as “death.”

Simply cut off oxygen or blood flow to the brain for a relatively short time, and a person’s consciousness and self and ability to take action in the world will not just change but vanish — completely, and permanently. (Attempts to find solid evidence supporting life after death have been utterly unsuccessful: reports of it abound, but when carefully examined using good scientific methodology, they fall apart like a house of cards.)


Think about any other phenomenon in the world. When Physical Action A results in Effect B, we think of that as a physical phenomenon. Apply heat to water, and get steam; apply force to an object, and get motion; apply electricity to metals in certain ways, and get magnetism; apply vinegar to baking soda, and get gobs of rapidly expanding foam. These are physical events, every one. Only the most hard-line religious believers insist that God’s hand is in every physical action that takes place everywhere in the universe. Most rational, reasonably- well- educated people understand that the physical world is governed by laws of physical cause and effect.


We have a phenomenon, or a set of phenomena: consciousness, selfhood and identity, character and personality, the ability to make decisions. There’s a lot we don’t know about these phenomena yet, but one of the few things we do know is that physical changes to a person’s brain will result in changes to the phenomena. Small changes or drastic ones, depending on the stimulus.

Doesn’t that look like a biological process?

Doesn’t that look like phenomena that are governed by physical cause and effect?

Even though we don’t fully understand them, don’t these phenomena have all the hallmarks of a physical event, or function, or relationship?

I mean, even when we didn’t know what gravity was (which, if I understand the science correctly, we still don’t fully grasp), once we got the idea of it we understood that it was a physical phenomenon. Once we got the idea and began studying and observing it, we didn’t try to explain it by invisible spirit- demons living inside objects and pulling towards each other. We could see that it was physical objects having an effect on other physical objects, and we understood that it was a physical force.

In other words, we don’t need to completely understand a phenomenon to recognize it as a physical event, governed by laws of physical cause and effect.

And when you start looking at the “soul,” you realize that that’s exactly what it looks like, too.

Everything that we call the “soul” is affected by physical events in our bodies, and those events alter it, shape it, and eventually destroy it. Apply opiates to the brain, and get euphoria; apply a stroke to the brain, and get impairment in the ability to understand language; apply vigorous physical exercise to the brain, and get stress reduction; apply repeated blows to the brain, and get loss of memory and intelligence. Apply anesthesia to the brain, and create the temporary obliteration of consciousness. Remove blood or oxygen to the brain, and create its permanent obliteration. It looks exactly like a physical, biological process: a poorly understood one as of yet, but a biological process nonetheless.

And there’s no reason to believe otherwise. The theory that the soul is some sort of metaphysical entity or substance has no solid evidence to back it up. Just as with life after death, attempts to find evidence for a spirit or soul have consistently withered and died when exposed to the searing light and heat of the scientific method. And there’s never been any good explanation of how, exactly, the metaphysical soul is supposed to influence and interact with the brain and the body.

Not to mention why it can be so drastically altered when the body alters.

Is there energy inhabiting our brain and our body? Yes, of course. There are electrical impulses running through our brains and up and down our nerves; there are chemical signals being transmitted through our muscles and guts; we consume food energy and radiate heat.

But is there some sort of non-physical energy inhabiting our brain and our body? Is there some sort of non-physical energy generating our consciousness, our personality, our coherent identity, our ability to make decisions?

There’s no reason to think so.

We have an enormous amount yet to learn about self and will, consciousness and character. But everything we know about them points to them being physical phenomena. And the more we learn about them, the more true that becomes.

Other posts in this series:

“A Relationship Between Physical Things”: Yet Another Rant On What Consciousness And Selfhood Might Be
A Lattice of Coincidence: Metaphysics, the Paranormal, and My Answer to Layne
How I Became an Atheist, Why I Became an Atheist: Part 3

Tedious Faith

Grandpa simpsonAnd now, as a moving and profound personal testimony of faith in troubled times, we bring you a meandering story that doesn’t make much sense and isn’t going anywhere.

In debates about religion, there’s a point that atheists frequently concede. Yes, they say, religion is mistaken. It’s harmful. It’s irrational, contradictory, unsupported by evidence or logic, poorly understood by the bulk of its followers, poorly defended even by its most informed ones. But you have to admit, they say, it’s powerful. The ideas, the imagery, the hope it offers… it’s stirring stuff, even if it doesn’t hold up.

Well, sometimes that’s true.

But sometimes, it’s really, really not.

PesuasionsSure, as an atheist I’ve felt the occasional twitch of, “This is kind of beautiful, I almost wish I believed it.” Mostly with religious music. When listening to shape- note or gospel or Mozart’s Requiem, I’ve sometimes had a twinge of Black Gospel Choir Makes Man Wish He Believed In All That God Bullshit.

But at other times, I really don’t. When debating with a believer whose ideas are an incoherent mess, for instance. When being preached at with bland, unoriginal platitudes. When watching an ad for sugary “inspirational” Christian music on late- night TV.

And when watching a “testimonial” video that would do Grandpa Simpson proud. A testament of faith so pointless, so unfocused, so self-involved, so completely devoid of content, it’s actually hilarious.

Like this one.

Video below the fold, since putting it above the fold mucks up my archives.

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Serendipity, Synchronicity, and Signs from the Universe: “Everything happens for a reason,” Part 2

Since I’ve become an atheist and a skeptic, I’ve been having new thoughts about pseudo- patterns, and coincidences that just seem too perfect to be really coincidental, and apparent signs and omens from God or the world- soul or the universe.

Ingrid and I were going to the fancy organic ice cream place the other night. (Yes, this is a story about atheism and skepticism — stay with me). As we drove up, we could see that the line was out the door and down the block. We were trying to decide if the ice cream would be worth the wait, when we saw — wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles — a perfect, rock-star parking spot, right in front of the store.

And one of the first thoughts that flashed through my head was, “It’s a sign. The universe wants us to get fancy organic ice cream.”

Now, for reasons that I’ve gone into at length elsewhere in this blog, I no longer believe that the universe wants anything. I no longer believe in any God, any World-Soul, any sort of large consciousness that has a path marked out for me and is putting signs in my way to get me to follow it.

But I did recognize this as a sign.

Ice cream sign
No, the parking place wasn’t a sign from the universe that we should get ice cream. The universe does not have the capacity for consciousness. And even if it did, it would almost certainly be supremely indifferent to the question of whether Ingrid and I did or did not get fancy organic ice cream on Friday night.

The parking place wasn’t a sign from the universe.

But my reaction to the parking place was a sign from myself.

The fact that my first reaction to seeing a parking place in front of the ice cream store was “The universe wants us to get ice cream” was a sign from my own psyche. I knew it was absurd to wait in line for 20 minutes for ice cream, no matter how good it was. At the same time, I really, really wanted to. This is exceptionally good ice cream we’re talking about, and we were hosting a family gathering the next day where we knew it would be a big hit. So I wanted a justification for doing this ridiculous thing… and “The universe wants you to do it” was a perfect one.

This is what I’m beginning to understand about my sign- and- omen seeing back in my woo, World-Soul days. When I ran into a drug- dealing friend on a Friday night and took it as a sign that I should trip on acid that weekend, it wasn’t the Universe sending the message. When I did a series of Tarot readings in which The Hermit came up repeatedly, and took it to mean that I shouldn’t get into another relationship right away, it wasn’t the Spirit of the Tarot doing the talking. It was me.

The signs didn’t always tell me what I wanted to hear. At times, quite the opposite. (I was very cranky about the “no relationships right away” message.) It wasn’t always about rationalizing what I wanted to do anyway. Sometimes it was, of course. But sometimes — often, even — it was about some part of me that wanted to talk and wasn’t being heard.

And you know what? All of this is still true. Even as an atheist and a materialist and a skeptic, it’s still true. The fact that I’m aware of pseudo-patterns and confirmation bias and the fact that our brains are hard-wired to see pattern and intention where none exists… it doesn’t mean I’m not prone to seeing signs and going “Oo!” at apparent synchronicities. It just means that I can catch myself at it when I do.

Arrow sign.svg
And it means I can read the signs better. After all, I know what they are now: not clues to the will of some universal spirit that doesn’t exist and wouldn’t give a damn about me if it did, but clues to myself, to my own mind and heart. If I’m seeing patterns and intentions, prophecies and omens, in the chance events of my life, then that clues me in, not to what God or the Universe or the World-Soul wants, but to what I want.

These ideas were developed in a comment thread on Friendly Atheist.

Other posts in this series:

“Everything happens for a reason”: Atheism and Learning from Mistakes
Atheism, Bad Luck, and the Comfort of Reason

Not Everything Means Something: Virginia Tech

“Evangelical” Atheism, Or, Is It Okay to Try to Change People’s Minds?

Is it okay for atheists to try to change people’s minds? To try to convince people that their religion is mistaken, and that they should de-convert and become atheists instead?

And is there any difference between that and religious evangelicalism? Between that, and religious evangelicals/ missionaries trying to convince people that their religion (or lack thereof) is mistaken, and that they should convert and join their own religion instead?

I’ve been thinking about what I do here on this blog. (When I’m not talking about porn or politics or cute animals, that is.) And a big part of what I’m doing is trying to contribute, in my small way, to the eventual disappearance of religion from the human mindset. I’m trying to convince any believers who might be reading this blog that their beliefs are mistaken… or at least, plant the seeds of doubt in their minds. And I’m trying to help arm other atheists (as I have been armed by so many other atheist writers) with good arguments to use in their own debates with believers.

And I’ve been wondering: Given my strong negative feelings about religious evangelicalism, is what I do here ethical?

(Or, maybe more to the point: Given what I do here, are my strong negative feelings about religious evangelicalism consistent?)

My usual response (you know, to my own voice that I argue with in my head) is to say, “I’m writing a blog. People are free to visit it or not as they like. I’m not knocking on people’s doors, or moving into their villages, or shouting at them through bullhorns on the streets. I’m not invading people’s lives or their privacy. Presumably nobody visits this blog — or stays in it for very long — if they don’t want to read arguments against religion. And outside the public sphere, I rarely offer my opinions on religion unless I’m asked.”

But I’m not sure that that, just by itself, is enough of a difference. After all, many atheists I admire do much more pro-active, in- your- face things — going on TV and radio, for instance, or writing in newspapers and magazines — to spread the good word about God’s non-existence. And I’d be doing all that too, given the opportunity. Of course, you can switch channels on the TV or turn the page of the newspaper, just like you can surf to another blog. But still. If the only difference between atheist writers and religious evangelicals/ missionaries is that we don’t knock on doors and shout at people on the street, then I’m not sure that’s enough of a difference to maintain my sense of moral outrage at evangelicalism.

So I’ve been thinking about this.

And I’ve realized that my problem with religious evangelicalism isn’t that they’re trying to change people’s minds. Trying to change people’s minds is a grand tradition. The marketplace of ideas, and all that. If you really think you’re right about something important, of course you should try to share it. That’s how good ideas get out into the world. And being exposed to lots of different ideas is good for you. It exercises the brain. It’s how good ideas get strengthened and clarified, and bad ideas get winnowed out. As Ursula Le Guin said in The Dispossessed, “The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.”

Which leads me, not coincidentally, to what my real problem is with religious evangelicalism… and what I see as the real difference between it and my small efforts towards atheist de-conversion.

My efforts towards atheist de-conversion are based in — here comes the broken record — reason and evidence. I offer arguments and reasons for why atheism makes more sense, is more consistent, is more likely to be accurate, than religion. And that’s true of most other atheist writers I know. (Most of the time, anyway.)

Religious evangelicalism does nothing of the kind. It bases its persuasion on fear: the normal fear of death, and the trumped-up fear of hell and eternal torture. It bases its persuasion on false hope: a hope for immortality that the persuaders have no good reason to believe is true. It bases its persuasion on falsehoods: flat-out inaccuracies about the realities of history and science.

And it bases its persuasion on the suppression of other ideas.

The suppression of other religious ideas is one of the most widespread elements of religion. It’s not universal, but it’s depressingly common. It’s codified in the texts and tenets of religions: the concepts of the heathen and the heretic, rules against interfaith marriage, the very concept of religious orthodoxy, etc. It’s often codified in law: not just in blatant theocracies, but for decades and centuries in supposedly more enlightened societies. (Example: It took until 1961 for atheists to be guaranteed the right to serve on juries, testify in court, or hold public office in every state in the United States.)

Double_Visored_Sallet_by_Wendelin_BoeheimAnd it’s codified in dozens of forms of social pressure. The idea that it’s rude to question or criticize people’s religion. The idea that religious faith by itself makes you a good person. The social deference given to ministers and rabbis and other religious leaders. The idea that being tolerant of religion requires that you not criticize it. Religion has built up an impressive array of armor: not intellectual weapons to defend its ideas, but armor to protect it against the very notion that its ideas require defending.

So yes to the marketplace of ideas. But in the marketplace of ideas, religion gets a free ride. In the marketplace of ideas, religion gets a free round- trip ride in a luxury limousine, with a police escort and a climate- controlled armored truck to transport its merchandise. All at public expense. And religious evangelicalism relies on that.

And that, I think, is the difference. The problem with religious evangelicalism isn’t that it tries to persuade other people that it’s right. The problem is that it tries to persuade using fear, and false hope, and falsehood. And it tries to persuade by shutting up any other ideas that might contradict it. It tries to win, not by playing fair, but by rewriting the rules of the game.

But I’m curious as to what you all think. Regular readers of this blog: Do you think there’s a difference between religious evangelicalism and what I do in this blog? If so, what do you think that difference is? If not, why not? And I especially want to hear from other atheist bloggers. How do you parse this question? Do you see what you do do as different from what religious evangelicals and missionaries do? (Apart from the issue of you being right and them being wrong, of course.) And if so — why? This is actually a complicated question for me, and I really want to get some different perspectives on it.

Hypocrisy and the “Modern Theology” Argument

Is it fair for atheists to criticize religion when they haven’t studied theology?

One of the most common counter-critiques against critics of religion is that we’re going after the easy targets. We go after dogmatic, unsophisticated, literalist versions of religion… while ignoring the more serious, subtle, well- thought- out theologies. (“The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins gets hit with this one a lot.)

I like to call this the “You’re Not Critiquing My Particular Version Of Faith, Therefore Your Critique Is Invalid” fallacy. (I really need a shorter name for it…)

The usual argument against this — and it is a good one — is that the simpler versions of religion are the most common. The overwhelming majority of believers haven’t spent years studying advanced theology, either. Atheists don’t care all that much about religion as it’s taught in divinity schools; we care about religion as it’s practiced in the real world.

But in a recent Daylight Atheism thread, OMGF (of the charmingly- named Why I Hate Jesus blog) made this point … and I’m smacking myself on the head for not having thought of it myself.

They have no problem with rejecting or us rejecting all other religions. Apparently, they and we can reject all those out of hand, but theirs must be given serious consideration, and we are not to stop considering it until we accept it.

To which my own darling Nurse Ingrid replied:

Exactly, OMGF. It’s not like they studied a lot of Greek mythology before deciding they didn’t believe in Zeus.

Which brings me to the hypocrisy part.

There are hundreds of religions in the world. Thousands if you count all the different sects separately. And when you get into dead religions — the Greek gods, the Norse gods, etc. — those numbers go way, way up.

Have these sophisticated theology scholars carefully studied every single one of these religions before rejecting them?

Good theologians do study lots of different religions. But have they studied every single one? And have they studied them in depth, in their most carefully- thought- out, sophisticated forms? Have they spent years studying the advanced theological theories of astrology, of Wicca, of Santeria, of Rastafarianism, of Crowleyan occultism, of that religion that worships the blue peacock?

And if not, then how are they any different from us?

It’s true, most atheists are comfortable rejecting religion with only a decent working knowledge of its more common tenets and practices. But that’s true for the Sophistimicated Theology crowd as well. They reject hundreds, thousands of religions without any more than a cursory knowledge of them, and in many cases without any knowledge at all.

Plus there’s an infinite recursion quality to the “sophisticated theology” argument. Even if you have read serious theology, you haven’t read all of it — so how can you reject it? Okay, you’ve read Aquinas… but have you read C.S. Lewis? Okay, you’ve read Lewis… but have you read Teilhard de Chardin? As OMGF put it, we are not to stop considering it until we have accepted it.
And yet, as OMGF also pointed out, this only applies to their religion. Other religions, it’s okay to reject out of hand, or with only a cursory knowledge. But theirs — theirs is special, and it’s unfair for atheists to reject it without spending years studying every aspect of it in detail.

It reminds me of that Richard Dawkins quote: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

Which brings me to a point that gets made a lot in the atheist debates.

It is not up to atheists to prove that religion is wrong.

It is up to theists to prove that religion is right.

They’re the ones making the claim, proposing the hypothesis about the world and why it is the way it is. It’s up to them to support their claim. We’re just saying, “You haven’t made your case. None of the arguments you’ve made in the past have held water, and until you make your case we’re going to stick with our null hypothesis.”

And from what I’ve read of advanced theology (I haven’t read tons, but I have read some), it doesn’t make the case. It doesn’t provide arguments or evidence for why God exists and what his precise effect is on the world. It mostly just uses clever logic and wordplay to explain why it shouldn’t have to; arguing that faith in something you can’t prove is noble and beautiful, or redefining God so far out of the realm of the real world that he might as well not exist.

I do think atheists should have a basic working knowledge of the religions they’re critiquing before they critique them. (And in my experience, most of us do. The atheists I’ve known and read often know more about religious beliefs, are often more familiar with the basic religious texts, then the religious believers they’re debating.)

But unless the sophisticated theology crowd is prepared to drop everything they do and devote the rest of their lives to a careful study of every single religion that has ever existed in the history of humanity — including the most advanced, arcane apologetics for every one — before they reject all other religions and embrace their own, then they are in no position to criticize atheists for forgoing a years-long study of theology before taking that final step, and rejecting that one last god.

The Messed-Up Teachings of Jesus

There’s a common trope among many progressive Christians (and among many progressives who aren’t Christian but who want to be ecumenical).It goes something like this:

“I’m not a fundamentalist. I don’t believe in every word of the Bible. But I do believe in the teachings of Jesus. They’re so full of love and peace and tolerance. That’s where I get my divine inspiration from.”

I’ll grant that the philosophy of the Jesus character in the New Testament is, in many ways, an improvement over the Old Testament. It’s a lot lighter on the genocidal brutality and violence, for one thing. And some of the ideas in the Gospels are pretty decent ones.

But it’s a very mixed bag indeed. And while a mixed bag is okay if you’re just talking about human ideas — every one of the thinkers I admire have some ideas I think are coo-coo or messed up or just plain wrong — it’s a lot more problematic when you believe that the ideas in question come straight from the mouth of a perfect God.

There are some seriously screwed-up ideas in the Gospels. And they’re ideas that run counter to some of the most treasured principles of most modern progressives… including progressive Christians.

I want to list them here.

A few quick ground rules:

I’m talking here about my own opinion about what is or is not a screwed-up idea. But I am going to focus on ideas that most modern progressives agree are screwed-up (or would, if the ideas hadn’t come from Jesus).

I’m not going to cite references to hell and damnation. I do think that’s one of the most profoundly messed-up ideas in the Gospels, and it’s one of the most prevalent; but I’ve already catalogued it previously.

And I’m not going to cite the self-aggrandizing “I am God” stuff, as it seems like a rhetorical dead-end. After all, the whole question of whether Jesus was or was not God is exactly the point on which Christians and I disagree, so pointing to it as an example of a problematic philosophy is a bit too circular for my taste. Instead, I’m going to focus on ideas in the Gospels that most progressives would find troubling… completely apart from the question of Jesus’s divinity (or, indeed, his existence).

I will, however, talk about both the hell stuff and the “I am God” stuff when it points to some other troubling aspect of the Jesus philosophy… such as the oft-repeated “Believing that I am God and following my teachings is the only right way to practice religion” trope.

I’m also not going to bother with factual errors (like “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom”), or internal contradictions (such as the whole “Should you do your good Christian works openly or secretly?” question), or instances of Jesus just being a jerk (like blighting the fig tree, and the whole “dissing his mother and brothers” thing). And I’m not going to nitpick every little idea in the Gospels that sort of bugs me.. I’m just going to talk about seriously troubling ethical and political ideas.

When a verse is repeated almost word for word from one book to another, I won’t repeat it in this list, unless for some reason it seems to bear repeating. (Which is why there’s a lot more from Matthew than any of the other four books.) And I’m quoting from the Revised Standard Version.

Here we go!

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“All This For Us?” The Arrogance of Human- Centered Faith

“You atheists are so arrogant.”

This is one of the most common criticisms leveled against atheists. Many believers see the atheist assertion that there almost certainly is no God as unspeakably arrogant.

The usual comeback is to point out the arrogance of faith: the arrogance, among other things, of thinking that “I really don’t think there’s any evidence for this” is trumped by “My heart tells me this is so.” But, today, I want to talk about a different kind of religious arrogance.

I’m talking about the arrogance of the human-centered universe.

I’m talking about the arrogance of believing that the universe was created by a loving god for the purpose of creating human beings with souls who could love him, obey him, and go to his heaven.

And I’m not even just talking about creationism, either. I’m talking about reasonably science-friendly religion that still sees humankind as the centerpiece of God’s plan.

Solar system
As many writers before me have pointed out, the history of science is the history of humankind receding from the spotlight and into the wings. Copernicus and Galileo showed us that the earth was not the center of the universe: we revolve around the sun, not the other way around. We then learned that our sun wasn’t the center of the universe, either: it was only one of many billions of stars in our galaxy. And in this century, we found out that not even our galaxy was the center of the universe: it was only one of billions and billions of galaxies, in a universe so enormous it staggers the imagination and the ability of writers to express it.

Tree of life
Even here on Earth — here on this puny, puny rock whizzing around one of billions of stars in one of billions of galaxies — we’re not center stage. The twin demons of paleontology and evolution have disabused us of that notion. The theory of evolution has kicked humankind off the lofty Pinnacle of Creation platform, and put us in our rightful place as just one twig on the very bushy bush of life. Yes, we’re a twig with a startling ability to shape our environment — but even that doesn’t make us unique. Coral, earthworms, all those plants spewing out oxygen into the atmosphere… all have dramatic impacts on the physical world around them.

And when it comes to human hubris, paleontology just laughs in our face. “You think you’re special?” it scoffs. “You genus- come- lately, with your pathetic two and a half million year pedigree? Come back when you’ve survived for as long as the coelacanth or the cockroach, and we’ll talk.” In the history of life on this planet, the human species is a blip on the radar. We might survive as long as ferns and fir trees, alligators and algae… but we might also go the way of the triceratops and the Irish elk. If the history of life on Earth were the history of all music, the history of human life would be “Who Let The Dogs Out?”

Okay. Let’s sum up for a moment. The universe, post- Big Bang, is roughly 14 billion years old. It consists of billions and billions of galaxies, separated by vast expanses of empty space. Each of those galaxies consists of billions and billions of stars, also separated by vast expanses of empty space. Some of those stars have big hunks of rock orbiting them. And about four and a half billion years ago, in one of those galaxies, around one of those stars, one of those big hunks of rock happened to have a chemical process take place on it that resulted in structures that were able to replicate themselves. Over the eons, the self-replicating structures proliferated into an uncountable variety of different forms. And a mere two and a half million years ago, one of those millions of forms emerged in something resembling its present state… and in pretty much its present state a ridiculously paltry 200,000 years ago.

God Creates Adam Sistine Chapel
Many examples of which have come up with the ridiculously arrogant proposition that they are at the center of it all, the reason for all of it to happen.

To be fair, the human-centered view of the universe wasn’t always ridiculous. It wasn’t ridiculous, say, 5,000 years ago, before Galileo and Darwin and Hubble. It wasn’t ridiculous when — as far as we knew — humans had always been around, and the sun and moon and stars all revolved around us. We didn’t have any reason to think otherwise.

But now we do.

And now we have to let go.

If you’re not a hard-line creationist, if you accept the sciences of astronomy and paleontology and evolution, then you have to accept this simple fact: we are not the center of the universe. We are not the center of anything, except our own lives and history. We are a dust speck on an eyelash on a flea in the vastness of space; we are an eyeblink on that flea in the vastness of time. To think that all of the mind-boggling hugeness of space and time was created just so that flea could blink its eye… that’s one of the most arrogant beliefs I can imagine.

Humanist Symposium #21: Old Enough to Drink

Hi, and welcome to the 21st edition of the Humanist Symposium! Yesterday was the Summer Solstice, and I was originally planning to do a whole pagan woo theme in honor of it. But I decided that wouldn’t be in keeping with the non-snarky, “atheism as a positive, fulfilling worldview” mission statement of the Symposium. So instead, I’m doing a “21st edition/ reaching the age of maturity” theme… and am illustrating this edition’s contributions with pictures of cocktails.

Much more classy, don’t you think?

So pull up a barstool on this fine Sunday morning, and let’s begin the Symposium!

Brian Lardner at Primordial Blog, on The Art of Living Selfishly. How giving up self-denial made the author both a happier and a better person. “Living in self-denial actually made me more judgemental and less helpful than I am now. Now that I no longer have a hidden agenda I find that I am actually more generous and giving than I used to be.”

Cocktail with shaker
Efrique at Ecstathy, on The Consolations of Probability. How understanding the random, non–purposeful, “everything doesn’t happen for a reason” aspects of life can help us live it. “I’m not just talking about the fact that there’s a lot of random stuff that happens that we aren’t responsible for, or that we’re incredibly lucky to be here… Probability and statistics, or at least an understanding of them, are incredibly useful things to have.”

Greg Perkins at NoodleFood, on Why the New Atheists Can’t Even Beat D’Souza: Morality and Life. Thoughts on how the “new atheist” movement should present the question of godless morality. “Just like any other matter of fact, we can approach morality rationally and scientifically, working to discover, validate, and teach each other about the relevant fundamental principles.”

Blue cocktailDr. David Elkind at Sharp Brains, on Can We Play? Cognitive and Emotional Development Through Play. Why play is an essential part of human life and development — for children and adults — and why we need to build a more playful culture. “For too long, we have treated play as a luxury that kids, as well as adults, could do without. But the time has come for us to recognize why play is worth defending: It is essential to leading a happy and healthy life.”

Phil at Phil for Humanity, on A Plan to Destroy All Weapons of Mass Destruction. Phil takes us through his thought process, from believing that countries that aren’t free and democratic shouldn’t have nuclear weapons… to believing that no country should have any weapons of mass destruction. “Even in the most democratic and financially sound countries, government leaders are not guaranteed to be psychologically stable or even capable of making moral decisions for the benefit of their own people, let alone for people of other countries.”

Cocktails on beach
Chris Hallquist at The Uncredible Hallq, on Living With Uncertainty. Why accepting the reality of uncertainty helps us make better decisions… and makes us better people. “I’m convinced that it’s a mark of emotional maturity to be able to live with uncertainty.”

Cocktail with fruit
Greg at Jyunri Kankei, on A Pet Peeve, or, Searching for a Deeper Meaning in Anime. Why it’s important to partake in the actual culture of other cultures, instead of just the sterilized American version. “Exposure to cultures other than our own takes us down a proverbial peg, which in turn promotes a level of tolerance for a greater subset of humanity and a wider understanding of human experience.”

Caipirinhas with Laptop
C.L. Hanson at Letters from a broad, on Humanist blogging a la Voltaire! Optimistic thoughts on blogging and a new enlightenment. “We’re bringing back not only written communication but also a two-way flow of ideas… Are we ushering in a new “enlightenment” in the tradition of Voltaire et al? Perhaps.”

Jeffrey Stingerstein at Disillusioned Words, asking Would Creating Human-Animal Hybrids Be Immoral And Unethical? Edward doesn’t answer the question, actually — he just wants it to be asked, not reflexively rejected without thinking. “‘Keep humans human. Shouldn’t be even a debatable concept.’ Case closed. No reason to debate it. We shouldn’t even be allowed to talk about it. I think anyone who even thinks about it should be locked up and stowed in the cupboard next to the glow-in-the-dark Jesus.”

vjack at Atheist Revolution, exclaims Help! There’s an Atheist in My Garden! Why visibility and coming out are among the most important things atheists can do, for themselves and for other atheists. “Helping Christians overcome their fear and hatred of us begins by providing them more experience with atheists.”

Cocktails in window
The Chaplain, at An Apostate’s Chapel, speaks Of Life and Death. Meditations on a friend’s funeral, another friend’s illness, and facing death without an afterlife. “The corollary to my acceptance of death as the cessation of the one life I will be privileged to live is a greatly enhanced appreciation for life.”

Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism, on Quintessence of Dust. Why the reductionist, materialist view of life doesn’t diminish its meaning or our experience of it. “If we are made of molecules, then Shakespeare’s plays were written by a human being made of molecules, Verdi’s Requiem was composed by a human being made of molecules, Macchu Picchu and the Pyramids and the Buddhas of Bamiyan were built by human beings made of molecules. Would that make any of them less beautiful or less inspiring?”

And your host, Greta Christina, with For No Good Reason: Atheist Transcendence at the Black and White Tour. Why doing silly things for no good reason — such as Morris dancing — can be some of the most beautiful and meaningful parts of our lives. “It isn’t constructive, it isn’t important, it doesn’t produce anything. All it produces is joy. Which, if you’re an atheist, is kind of what life is like.”

Which brings us to the end of this Humanist Symposium. The next one will be held in three weeks on Sunday, July 13, at faith in honest doubt. If you want to get in on the action, please submit your humanist blog posts here. Thanks!

Magical Essence of Pope, or, The Creepy Side of Religion, Episode 7,464,221

Popes cologne
As Molly Ivins used to say: Sometimes it's hard to know whether to laugh, cry, or throw up.

Today's story centers on The Pope's Cologne — stop laughing, I am not making this up — a product purportedly based on the private cologne formula of Pope Pius IX (1792-1878), and being shamelessly hawked to credulous suckers tastefully offered for sale to the devoted ranks of the faithful. PZ Myers of Pharyngula fame came across this charming story about it on the Christian News Wire:

What I experienced later will be a sight I will never forget!!! The widow used the cologne to "anoint" her husband EVERY 20 minutes. She would sprinkle it on his hands, his head, his forehead, and his neck. You could see in her eyes she had found a way of redemption through the cologne. Everyone was asking about the cologne and its origin. Everyone that came in to give her their condolences could not stop asking about the pleasant aroma they were experiencing. Everyone was quiet and in awe for hours. She also kept on rubbing the bottle as if it was some sort of amulet or charm.

Lots of commenters on Pharyngula, and indeed PZ himself, are going with the humorous side of the story. And I can't say that I blame them. There's definitely a ghoulishly funny aspect to it, like something you'd see in a Gahan Wilson cartoon when he was in a particularly sick mood.

But personally… well, maybe it's because it's been a long day and I'm tired and cranky. But I'm having a hard time seeing this as hilariously wacky. I'm mostly seeing it as sick and sad and awful.

Be forewarned: Today I have my cranky pants on. And my snarky underwear. I am not going to be nice. I am not even going to try to be nice.

Cranky Thought Number One:

Let me see if I have this story straight.

A grieving widow is obsessively smearing cologne on the corpse of her dead husband, and rubbing the bottle it came in as if it were a magical object.

And her fellow mourners are

a) touched and awestruck by the gesture, and

b) struck by the nice smell.

They're not — oh, say, just for instance — simultaneously pitying and grossed out beyond belief? They're not wondering, "What on Earth is she doing? What does she think she's going to accomplish by this?" They're not wondering if they should gently encourage Grandma to see a therapist?

What the zarking fardwarks is impressive and awe-inspiring about this spectacle? Other than, "Man, people do some strange stuff when they're grieving"?

Cranky Thought Number Two (closely related to CT #1):

I do not ever — ever — want to hear another progressive theologian say that modern religious thought doesn't involve magical thinking.

God delusion
Anyone who's hung around the atheosphere for more than twenty minutes has almost certainly run across this argument. It gets leveled at Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion a lot. "You're battling a straw man," the argument goes. "You're arguing against archaic religious beliefs that nobody takes seriously anymore. Nobody still believes in the personal interventionist God who answers prayers, and hands out rewards and punishments for good and bad behavior, and responds to sacred potions and objects. That's just silly."

Well, maybe nobody still believes it in theology schools. Maybe in theology schools, they mostly believe in the impersonal, non- interventionist, largely abstract God: the God who is, in any practical or meaningful sense, entirely indistinguishable from no God at all.

But if you think nobody believes it in the rather larger world outside of theology schools, you need to visit Lourdes. Or attend a prayer meeting being organized by the parents of a terminally sick child. Or visit a website where prayer accessories are being sold by the thousands. Or talk to any one of the roughly 50% of Americans who believe human beings were created by God in more or less their current form about 10,000 years ago.

Or else, just go to a funeral where the grieving widow is anointing her dead husband with Magical Oil of Pope.

In fact, a not very nice part of me wants to buy a bottle of this Eau de Pontiff crap.

So the next time I hear someone make the "you just don't understand modern theology" argument, I can throw it in their face.

Mask photo by Marsyas.