Why I’m not a believer – what about prayers and personal experience?

This is the fourth in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer.

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time to the arguments I found in my reading.

I don’t know whether anyone’s been following this mini-series of posts (probably not, given how long it’s taken me to write it), but anyone who has read through the post series to date may well be wondering why there was even a question in my mind at this point about becoming a non-believer. So far, I’ve written three posts about different arguments for the existence of a god that I came across in my reading, and the overarching theme of all three seems to have been me looking blankly at the argument wondering why on earth this was meant to be even remotely convincing. Why did it take me so long to get to the point of officially declaring myself an atheist, or at least an agnostic?
Well, part of it was the difficulty of proving a negative; I couldn’t prove God didn’t exist, and hadn’t yet realised that that wasn’t in itself an automatic reason for having to take the possibility of his existence seriously without positive evidence for same. And a lot of it was an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ effect; so many people seemed so convinced that God existed that I didn’t feel able to dismiss the possibility just like that. Surely, if I kept reading and looking, I would find a more convincing argument one way or the other? Around the next corner? In the next book on the shelf on the religious section in one of the local libraries? But on top of that, there was still one category of evidence that… well, that still wasn’t conclusive, but that did seem to have more to it than the various ineffective arguments I was reading. This was the fact that so many people reported personal experiences of psychologically encountering God, often in compelling and life-changing ways.
As I said, I didn’t find this conclusive. There seemed to be other plausible explanations; after all, if someone really believed God was speaking to them or that God loved them, surely that could lead to the kinds of experiences of bliss and comfort and changed lives that I was reading about. Still, could this be enough to account for the experiences I was reading about? (This wasn’t a rhetorical question; I genuinely wanted to know the answer.)
I tried praying myself, since it seemed the obvious thing to try; if God did exist, this would give him the best chance to let me know directly. Not frenzied wordy prayers, just time in which I did my best to focus my mind on God and open myself to whatever He might be trying to tell me. And, when I did, I certainly noticed something – an inner sense of mental quiet, an awareness of my obligations. I figured that could indeed be God taking the first steps to commune with me. The trouble was, it also seemed the kind of effect that might plausibly be caused by me calming my mind and thinking I was communing with the divine. So which was it? And did the fact that I was even thinking that mean that I was overanalysing it and talking myself out of a genuine relationship with God like the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle? Or did it just mean that I was exercising appropriate caution? After all, surely there was a risk that if I was too ready to believe I might talk myself into believing I was communing with God when I wasn’t, in much the same way as I’d managed to convince myself at the age of twelve that our house was probably haunted because I thought I could feel a presence there when I thought about it.
I simply didn’t know. This was such an important subject; surely it was incumbent on me to work out what the answer was! But I only found myself getting more confused. One thing was for sure; it all seemed a lot less clear-cut than the authors I was reading on the subject seemed to think.

And so my teenage years went on…

Thoughts on the ‘Proselytising to Children’ Issue

I recently read a post by Hemant Mehta over at Patheos (which I initially took to be recent but which was actually posted a year ago; I guess there must have been some recent commentary on it moving it temporarily into the ‘now trending’ section) titled An Atheist Dad Left His Kids with a Relative… Who Used the Opportunity to Proselytize. What Should He Do? The title is fairly self-explanatory, although it turns out that what went on was above and beyond even proselytizing:

The Pastor and my sister in-law told my girls “They needed to accept Jesus as their master, and maybe if they prayed hard enough god would change their dad’s mind and he wouldn’t burn in hell.” Who would tell A 6 & 8 year old that shit??

Someone manipulative, emotionally abusive, and devoid of appropriate understanding of boundaries, that’s who. Happy to clear that up for anyone who was wondering. Have a nice day.

Anyway, while I hope it’s obvious to everyone reading that that approach (which also included the guilty parties trying to tell the children to keep the meeting a secret – guys, when you’re using a line that makes you sound like a child molester, it might just be a sign that you need to totally rethink your attitude) is so far beyond the pale that they don’t have ‘pale’ in their colour range, this did get me thinking more generally about the issue. What would I do if someone wanted to invite my children to a church service/talk to them about Jesus? Obviously, if there were any alarm bells to make me think that the person was likely to pull this kind of manipulative crap, then not a chance, sunshine – but suppose I didn’t have any reason to fear that this was going to be the case?

The answer’s simple; I’d leave it up to my children. If they were invited to a church or Sunday school session, I’d pass on the invite and let them decide. If someone wanted to preach to them, I’d check with them whether they were OK with listening and respect their decision. If they did decide to attend the session/listen to the spiel, I’d want to stick around to check what they were hearing and chip in with my two cents on the matter, but I wouldn’t stop them from hearing it. (Unless, of course, it did veer into the kind of abusive territory described above. Not staying quiet for that, thank you.)

By the way, I guarantee you that at this point in time, neither of them would be interested. My son sees life as divided into things which involve electronics in some way, and the boring bits. He reluctantly accepts that life intermittently forces him to endure the latter for periods of time between playing/talking about/watching YouTube videos about computer/console games, but he doesn’t have to like it and he doesn’t like it. Anyone trying to convert him would probably find themselves sitting through one of his autistic-fervour monologue accounts of every detail of every level of whatever game he’s currently into. My daughter has a more normal range of interests, but actively dislikes Christianity and religion. That, I swear, wasn’t me, and I’m not sure how she even reached that conclusion; but, there you are, she wants nothing to do with anything of that ilk, and anyone wanting to talk to her about Jesus would likely get short shrift.

But if they change their minds in the future and do want to accept any offers of proselytising sessions, or even seek the information out themselves, that’s fine by me. I’ll let them know my views, but I won’t try to stop them looking for different ones.

The Wyndham Fallacy

Hi again! Sorry for my long absence! I had a pretty busy week followed by a week of being absolutely wiped out by a horrendous cold, so I haven’t had a lot of energy for posting.

I came across another Answers in Genesis post that I thought was worth a mention (via the same route as before; a post on Libby Anne’s Love, Joy, Feminism blog. So hat tip to her once again.) This one was written by someone called Avery Foley and is called Why Does God Allow Bad Things to Happen? The answer, in case you were wondering, is apparently because anyone who’s a Christian eventually gets to go to Heaven for all eternity. So, uh, that’s quite all right then and glad we cleared that up. Anyway, here’s the bit that I (like Libby Anne) wanted to comment on:

Evolution supposedly progresses by the death of the less fit and the reproduction of the most fit. So, if this the case, why should we help the old, sick, infirm, and disabled? Shouldn’t they be eliminated as less fit? After all, in the world of evolution the strong survive, and tough for you if you’re born weak or less fit. According to an evolutionist’s own worldview, how can death, disease, suffering, cancer, and disabilities really be “bad”? In nature, the weak and ill die off and the strong survive, passing on their good genes to the next generation—this is how evolution supposedly progresses. Death and weakness from disease and mutations is a must for “bad” genes to die out. So by what standard do evolutionists call these things bad? Certainly not by their own standard! To claim a standard for good and bad, they have to borrow from a different worldview—the biblical one—to define what good and bad even are.

Well, first off, I don’t have to borrow from the biblical or any other worldview to say that it’s bad for people to suffer pain or distress or loss of autonomy, and good to take steps to help or prevent situations in which those things happen. Sure, there’s room for plenty of complexities and grey areas and debate around those basics, but I’m still baffled as to why the ‘So how do you even define good or bad without a God, huh? Huh? Huh???‘ question is meant to be such a ‘gotcha’. But what I mostly wanted to comment on here is this bizarre claim that a belief in evolution as a scientific fact somehow requires us to also accept it as a moral imperative.

This is a fallacy that shows up now and again in creationist writings, and it is exactly as logical as saying that, having discovered that gravity causes people to hit the ground when they fall over, we are now morally obligated to push them down. I have for some time thought of this as the Wyndham Fallacy, because it’s rather nicely summed up by a line author John Wyndham wrote in his novel ‘The Kraken Wakes’; the main character tells his wife ‘Darling, if I happen to mention that, as a process, autumn follows summer, it does not follow that I am all for getting a ladder and pulling the leaves off the trees.’

‘The Kraken Wakes’, by the way, is unrelated to evolution and uses that line in a different context. In general, though, it’s in creationist writings about evolution that this fallacy typically shows up. After all, the story creationists believe about how the world got started is one that’s heavily tied in to their morality and their worldview in general; not only does this make it virtually impossible for a creationist to question that version of events (because they so strongly believe it’s morally wrong to believe anything else), but it actually makes it difficult for many creationists to get their head round the fact that beliefs about origin don’t, in fact, automatically have to tie into our moral beliefs, and that the two can be independent.

Or maybe they just push that line as a way of making non-fundamentalists look bad. Why go for accuracy when you can have propaganda?

But either way; no. Yes, in nature the less fit are more likely to die. No, that doesn’t put us under any sort of moral obligation to kill them off. If you think otherwise, I look forward to seeing you at the end of summer with that ladder.

Is it just me, or is this kind of ironic?

The Come Reason apologetics site has a ‘Posts You May Have Missed’ feature where they tweet past posts; hence, a few days ago, I found a post of theirs entitled Beware The Thought Police Against Religion!

This post was written a couple of years ago in response to the decision of Pasadena Health Department to rescind the offer of the job of head of the Public Health Department to Eric Walsh, after finding some rather concerning sermons that Walsh had preached, recorded, and posted on YouTube. Apparently the beliefs Walsh expressed in these sermons included, among others, that Catholicism, gay acceptance, evolution and rap music were all tools of the devil; that single parents were ruining their children; and that condom distribution was only going to increase AIDS rates. (I found that information, by the way, in this article; the Come Reason post on the subject glosses over the content of the sermons somewhat.) It seems that the Pasadena Health Department, on finding these sermons, seriously questioned Walsh’s ability to provide an effective health service. Can’t think why.

Lenny Esposito (the author of the Come Reason post) lamented what he sees as an attack on free speech, rhetorically demanding ‘When did the First Amendment require an asterisk?’ He doesn’t quite seem to have understood the First Amendment; I looked it up (I’m British, so what I knew about it was ‘something something free speech something something something’) and it turns out that what it actually said was that Congress can’t make laws against freedom of speech or religion, not that nobody is allowed to do anything in response to someone’s speech that might have adverse consequences for that person. So, if the First Amendment did have an asterisk, I guess it would have to be something like this:

Congress shall make no law* respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

*Look, we said that Congress shall make no law. Not that nobody is allowed to take any action whatsoever regarding what a person has said. So read the flippin’ thing properly already, and stop making stuff up that isn’t in there.

I may have to fine-tune the legalese a bit on that one.

(Edited to add: For a much more sensible and well-informed comment on the issues, see Kengi’s comment on this post, just below.)

Anyway, that actually wasn’t the main thing I wanted to say about this post. What struck me was this:

Esposito is lamenting the fact that Walsh, and other people in examples he quotes, are suffering adverse consequences for expressing their beliefs. He sees this as an immoral attack on their rights. But this is a Christian apologetics blog. In other words, Esposito is a vocal member of a religion that believes that God will send you to a torturous hell forever for holding the wrong beliefs. And he believes that this is completely good and moral of God.

I have no doubt that Esposito would have some kind of explanation for this inconsistency. (Because God made the universe and gets to do what he wants with it? Because God isn’t really sending people to hell for their beliefs as such, but just set up a system in which the default is ending up in hell and the only way out happens to be to believe particular things, so that’s quite all right then, isn’t it? Because… oh, I don’t know, you think of one.) But it did strike me as pretty ironic.

In the meantime, good for the Pasadena Health Department. I’d also be pretty darned concerned about the kind of unbiased, compassionate, evidence-based health care that someone with those views was capable of providing.