On Dawkins, God, ET and the nature of reality

I just listened to a talk given by Richard Dawkins.

For those who do not know him, he is the most influential “new atheist” (anti-theist) whose deepest wish would be to rid the world of all religions. Besides that, he is a very gifted evolutionary biologist and writer.

Given his track record and his habit of constantly lumping together all Christians and Muslims and his failure to appreciate the historical and religious contexts in which the Bible and the Koran were written, I expected a highly biased presentation of the facts.
I was pleasantly surprised by his (relatively) moderate tone and even ended up enjoying his show.
The same cannot be said of his followers and the person who titled the video. As we shall see, Dawkins did not “debunk” deism and the “simulation hypothesis”.
At best, he only showed that some arguments for these views are flawed.
In what follows, I want to offer my thoughts about several things he said, albeit not necessarily in a chronological order.

The origin of life and intelligent design

origin-life
Dawkins recognises that at the moment, we don’t know how life originated. There are several theories out there but they all have their problems and no consensus has been reached.
Of course, our current ignorance cannot be used to argue that no natural phenomena could have been responsible for the appearance of the first self-replicating system.
Dawkins is ready to seriously consider the possibility that life has been seeded on earth by space aliens, which shows a certain mind-openness.
But he is adamant that such creatures could only have evolved through a slow process because the probability of their being formed spontaneously is extremely low.
This begs the question against people holding a religious world view who would say that the creator(s) of life are God(s) who always existed.
This also doesn’t fit in with his beliefs about the origin of the universe, as we will see later on.

Extraterrestrial intelligences and  Fermi’s paradox

Dawkins endorses the principle of mediocrity which stipulates that we shouldn’t suppose there is anything special about us.

Thus, since we know there is (advanced) life on earth, we should assume it is widespread across the whole universe.

While being still popular among mainstream scientists, the Principle Of Mediocrity (POM= has grown more controversial over the last years.
Philosopher of science John Norton wrote an article entitled “Cosmic Confusions: Not Supporting versus Supporting Not” where he shows the problems related to the POM.
Basically, the principle of mediocrity is justified through the principle of indifference (POI), according to which if we know nothing about a situation, we should attribute the same probability to each possibility.
I explained what I consider to be fatal objections to the POI here and here.
As Norton demonstrated, the principle of indifference conflates the difference between knowledge and ignorance and very often leads to arbitrary results (depending on the prior probability distribution one uses).
There is a fundamental distinction between
Situation A) We know that life on earth wasn’t the result of a fluke but that of non-random natural processes
and
Situation B) We know (almost) nothing about this.
Dawkins went into a paradox mentioned by nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi.
If advanced life is so common in the cosmos, why don’t we see any trace of it?
Several explanations (such as the near impossibility of interstellar travel, the short duration of technological civilisations or their reluctance to interact with such primitive beings as we) have been offered to solve the paradox.
To my mind, while these may be plausible reasons why ten or even hundred extraterrestrial races never approached the earth, they seem extremely far-fetched when applied to millions (let alone billions) of civilisations.
Therefore, I believe that Fermi’s paradox strongly calls in question the conviction that the universe is teeming with advanced life forms.

The fine-tuning argument and the multiverse

fine-tuning

Physicists have long since been puzzled by the fact that the constants of nature must lie in a very narrow domain in order to allow for advanced life to exist.

Many theistic philosophers reason like this

  1. All sets of parameter values must have the same probability of being true (applying the Principle Of Indifference mentioned above)
  2. Therefore, the probability of their belonging to a small region is extremely (if not infinitely) small.
  3. It is very unlikely that we are the products of purely natural processes not involving God.

While mainstream cosmologists agree with steps 1 and 2, they then go on to postulate the existence of a (nearly) infinite number of parallel universes covering all intervals of parameter values. A natural consequence of this is that the appearance of a universe such as ours is bound to happen even if no supernatural creator intervenes.

Dawkins considers this the most plausible explanation of the problem.

I have come to the realisation that the whole concept of a fine-tuning problem is misguided because of its reliance on the principle of difference.

The fallacy of doing so has been demonstrated by Norton.

Miracles in an infinite multiverse

According to Clarke’s law, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Dawkins believes there are probably creatures out there who are so superior to us that we could only regard them as gods if they were to visit us. But he insists that they would have been created through evolutionary processes and would not be supernatural beings.

But this means that in order for him to dismiss out of hand the testimonies of witnesses of paranormal events and miracles, he would have to either show that they violate the laws of physics or give us plausible reasons as to why such creatures would not visit us.

He also faces another problem stemming from his belief in an infinite number of parallel universes.

In an infinite space, any event which is physically possible is bound to happen somewhere.

This has led physicists to consider the possibility of so-called Boltzmann’s brains which would pop into existence because of random fluctuations.

Bolzmann-brain
Bolzmann’s brain

While physicists disagree about the frequency of their appearances in a vast multiverse, they all think they will at least exist somewhere.

Actually, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has been able to convincingly demonstrate they would be very rare.

Anti-theists like to mock Christians by comparing their belief in God to the belief in a flying spaghetti monster. flying-spaghetti-monster

But if we truly live in an infinite multiverse, flying spaghetti monsters too will necessarily exist somewhere.

What is more, physically very improbable events (such as the resurrection of a man from the dead) are also going to happen somewhere through random processes.

 

As a consequence, the atheist can no longer say “your belief in the miracles of the New Testament is silly because they violate the law of physics”.

The best he could say would be: “While such events really occur somewhere, their relative frequency is so low that it is unreasonable for you to believe they really took place.”

This is no doubt a weaker position which has its own problems.

 

The simulation argument

Actually, Dawkins discussed the so-called simulation argument elsewhere.

According to it, it is more likely we live in the simulation of a universe than in a real one.

Far from “debunking” this possibility, Dawkins recognises he cannot show it to be very unlikely in the same way he thinks he can reject the existence of God.

I think another interesting thesis can be formulated.

Consider the following proposition:

“We live in a simulation run by unknown beings who created everything five minutes ago and gave us false memories of the past.”

Brain in the vat: "I'm walking outside in the sun!"
Brain in a vat. My thought experiment here is far broader than that and includes the possibility of being part of a simulation of beings radically different from everything we can conceive of. Or being fooled by a deceitful demon about whose abilities and psychology we know almost nothing.

I don’t doubt that this idea sounds emotionally absurd to most of us.

But can you show it is very unlikely to be true WITHOUT smuggling in assumptions about the real world?

I have searched the philosophical literature but could not find any demonstration which does not beg the question.

I think that you can only reject it pragmatically through a leap of faith that does not rely on reason and evidence.

Consequently, I also think it is impossible to justify all our beliefs through evidence and logics.

We all walk by faith.

 

The atheist in front of God’s throne

Finally, I want to go into how Dawkins considers the possibility of being judged by a God he didn’t believe in.

Dawkins says he would react like the late British philosopher Bertrand Russel:

“Confronted with the Almighty, [Russell] would ask, ‘Sir, why did you not give me better evidence?’

This assumes that God would be mostly offended by Dawkins’ and Russel’s unbelief.

I have argued elsewhere against the notion (held by fundamentalist Christians) that atheism is immoral and that people dying as atheists will be punished because of their unbelief.

I think it is incompatible with the existence of a supreme being which would necessarily be more loving, just and gracious than any human.

But what if the dialogue between God and Dawkins went like that:

Dawkins: So, you really exist after all! I did not believe in you because I couldn’t see enough evidence.

God: Fair enough. The universe I created is ambiguous and it leaves people the choice to  develop a solid moral character or not. I won’t condemn you because you did not believe in me. Yet, we do have a score to settle.

Dawkins: What do you mean then?

God:I gave you a conscience and the knowledge of good and evil. You knew in your heart that you ought to treat your neighbour as you would like to be treated. But you often disregarded this principle. You and your followers have frequently bullied, mocked and ridiculed respectful opponents. You even loudly proclaimed this was the right thing to do.

Of course, this conversation is completely fictional. I don’t know the content of Dawkins’ heart and cannot rule out the possibility he will be in heaven.

Conclusion

I find that this video of Dawkins is really intellectually stimulating.

I did not feel challenged in my faith/hope there is a supreme being.

On the contrary, this strengthened my belief that atheists cannot confidently assert that “there are probably no gods and miracles.”

Of course, I must recognise there are many atheistic philosophers who are far more sophisticated than Dawkins out there.

But it is worth noting that Dawkins’ books (especially the God delusion) caused many people to lose their faith.

I think that their conversions to atheism are due to his rhetorical skills and not to the strength of his arguments.

 

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How to bear uniformed bigoted comments

I found an interesting post written by an American atheist reporting about her negative experiences with religiously conservative members of her family.

Atheism: a consoling delusion for people who can't handle the reality of God's existence.
The atheistic delusion? Is this a fair and intellectually responsible look at the situation?

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Musings on the Eve of a Family Reunion: Things not to say to your atheist relatives if you want them to continue to enjoy your company

This weekend, we’ll be traveling for my family reunion. Usually, it’s one of the highlights of my summer, but this year…feels different.

I don’t like conflict. It’s not enjoyable for me at all. It makes me feel shaky, to the point where sometimes, I will physically shake. My head will spin a bit. In bygone times, I sometimes backed down from it for just that reason–it felt insurmountable. Nowadays, I’m not so apt to back down, in part because I usually formulate my beliefs based on reasons that I can defend if I need to. That doesn’t mean that I want to, though.

Looking down the barrel of this weekend, I’m incredibly stressed at the prospect of interacting with my family as someone who’s “out and proud” as a nonbeliever. I am afraid of having to constantly defend myself–not because I can’t, but because I don’t want to. I want to be accepted with the same acceptance that I have for them. Unconditionally.

I work best when I can take these worries put them down somewhere outside of my own head, so here’s my list of things you should never say to your atheist relatives if you want them to enjoy your company and not dread having to interact with you. Enjoy.

1. This isn’t how you were raised.

2. You’re just going through a dark time.

3. You’re just rebelling.

4. You just want to be able to sin.

5. Can’t you see God all around you?

6. *any variation of “But Christians really believe this…” or “That person is not really a Christian…”*

7. What does your life mean?

8. What if you’re wrong?

9. How can there be morality without God?

10. Why do you hate something you don’t believe in?

11. You’re just mad at God.

12. You’ve just encountered bad Christians.

13. You really believe.

14. You do have faith. You have to have faith in (science/evolution/etc).

15. Don’t you want to believe? Just in case?

16. God doesn’t believe in atheists.

17. You can’t prove that there’s no god.

18. You’ll be back to God when you need him.

19. Why don’t you give your children a choice?

This is just a brief list, some of which is compiled from personal experience and some from wider stories and interactions online.

Basically, what I’d like to see in interactions with my family is the same lack of ulterior motives that was there before I left religion. I’d like to believe that all of our interactions are in good faith.

I have reason to believe that’s not the case–if there’s one thing our family does well, it’s gossip, and there’s definitely plenty of it circulating right now. I suppose my other wish would be, if I can’t have that lack of ulterior motives, to have brash, bald-faced honesty. I’d rather put it all out there, no half-truths or veiled questions.

If I can’t have no conflict at all, I’d rather just have it out and get it over with.

Instead, I’m stuck somewhere between the two, imagining conversations that might be, and hoping that they won’t be, and wishing that I didn’t have all of this knocking about in my brain. And fully realizing, of course, that it’s just as likely that I’ve blown all of this up in my head because I’m simply an anxious person.

No way to know at the outset. As the cliché goes, the only way out, is through, and so through I go.

Toodles. 🙂

****************

Here is my answer to her post where I draw on similar experiences.

Hello Kayla!

I’m an European progressive Christian and really love this post of yours:-)

“I want to be accepted with the same acceptance that I have for them. Unconditionally.”
I truly like that part. I can very well relate to this and hope that things will get better in your case.

As a Christian, I feel extremely disgusted by the anti-atheist bigotry which is commonplace among American fundamentalists.

I certainly think you should respectfully explain them the reasons why you’re an atheist and reassure them that you are still leading a moral life.

While I think that what you hear during such meetings is mostly offensive non-sense, I find that the following question is genuinely interesting:

“9. How can there be morality without God?”

It can be understood in two ways:

a) if you don’t believe in God, you’re gonna be very immoral
b) without God, objective moral values do not exist

The first interpretation is one more of these fundamentalist insults.

The second interpretation is a philosophical assertion which can lead to very legitimate questions, such as:

“Can objective moral values be meaningful in a completely material cosmos?

Many atheist philosophers would answer that no such thing is possible.

I also want to react to

“19. Why don’t you give your children a choice?”

I am all in favour of giving children a choice. I think that good enlightened Christian parents should always say something similar to that to their offspring:
“Look, we’re Christians, we think this is the best worldview and we believe that atheism is wrong and flawed. Yet, we do recognise there are reasonable and lovely people among other religious communities and atheists.
Therefore, we really encourage you, our beloved child, to make up your own mind.
If you sincerely conclude that atheism is true based, for example, on the problem of evil, then you should follow your conscience and Reason and give up your faith.
God will never punish a sincere person following his or her honestly acquired convictions.
Either way, stay always kind, loving and humble.”

Since your relatives would most likely never say that to their kids, they’re probably hypocrites ,

Now I wanna share my own experience.

I’m a Germanic Frenchman born in secular France and I often went through an ordeal similar to the one you’ve described.

In France, the reigning ideology is called Jacobinisme and it can be summarised as follows:
“French is the only language of the country. All dialects and other languages ought to disappear from the public sphere. Religion is a relic of the past which ought to disappear completely or at the very least become insignificant“.

I fell away from Jacobinisme by beginning to proudly speak and defend the declining German dialect of my region and becoming a Christian.

I then began to hear the following things from relatives and acquaintances:

1) You’re an old-fashioned fossil
2) You’re religious just because you’re “a weak animal”
3) (mocking my German accent)
4) You shouldn’t speak in dialect in the presence of French people
(after I had just whispered something to my father in our Germanic dialect)
5) What a religious brain-washing you underwent!
6) You speak German because you’re a Nazi!
(forgetting that my half-Jewish motherly grandfather could have perished in a Nazi death camp)

and so on and so forth.

As I documented elsewhere, anti-religious people can be as bullying and intolerant as their fundamentalist counterparts.

I usually also base my beliefs on reasons I can defend and a while ago I decided to react to these claims while trying to remain as kind and respectful as possible.
As a rule, I have no problem defeating their weak arguments and the discussions evolve in other directions 🙂

I wish you good luck with your relatives.

I hope we’ll have opportunities to interact with each other in the future.

Best wishes from Lorraine / Lothringen (my homeland).

fundies-anti-theists
Fundies and anti-theists fighting each others.

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Trying to reason with an anti-theist can be a real ordeal

I reacted to a rather recent blog post written by a former Christian fundamentalist turned into an anti-theist.

Anti-theism: religion is not an incredibly diverse phenomenon but an UNIFIED loathsome entity which ought to be obliterated as soon as possible.

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According to The Bible, God (Not Satan) Is Both Evil And a Moral Failure

By Harry H. McCall at 5/16/2015

Damn, these facts are in the Bible!

(Disclaimer: Let me say from the start, I’m an atheist . . . I consider the Bible a literary fraud and that the characters discussed below never existed.)

Based on a general reading of the Bible, especially the section labeled the Old Testament, the Hebrew god Yahweh (given the Christian title God from the LXX) is portraited as a debauched immoral character, often lacking any ethical conscious while theologically (not Biblically), the figure of Satan unjustly condemned.

To illustrate my point, I’ll breakdown the Bible’s own characterizations God and Satan so the reader can see for him or herself who is really morally debauched  (I have left out the Book of Revelation due to the fact that the narratives in this Biblical Book have not taken place, being projected to some apocalyptic future which is theological speculation). Below, is a short list, though any student of the Bible who has a concordance or Bible dictionary will be able to find many more.

  1. Murders men, women, children, babies and the unborn indiscriminately (The Flood of Noah: Genesis 7)   God:  Yes   Satan:   No
  2. Commands the Israelites to rape, slaughter, steal / pillage and enslave men, women and children.  (The attack on the Midianites in Numbers 31)  God:  Yes   Satan: No
  3. Demands sexual mutilation as a sign of an agreement (Exodus 4:24 – 26 = Genesis 17: 11 -14)
    God:  Yes   Satan: No
  4. Demands rape of female children and babies. (Numbers 31: 18  But all the young (טף) girls ( נשים) who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.” God:  Yes   Satan:  No
  5. Loves precious metals over the lives of humanity.  (Joshua 7: 15 & Joshua 7: 25) God:  Yes    Satan:  No
  6. Attacks and curses a talking snake for telling the truth then lies to Adam and Eve.  (Genesis 3)  God:  Yes      Satan: No
  7. Demands individual human sacrifice.  (The AkedahGenesis 22:1-2;  The murder (sacrifice ?) of Jesus;  See Gospels)  God:  Yes    Satan: No 
  8. Demands the burning of entire cities (שָׂרַף בָּאֵשׁ” or “to burn with fire”) so he can enjoy smelling the smoke of human flesh.  (Thus Joshua  6: 21 makes it a point to tell the Jewish reader of this epic that death was to be by “the edge of the sword” before the ritual  / sacrificial burning in Joshua 6: 24 could take place.)   God: Yes   Satan: No
  9. Is never presented in the Bible as a murderer. (Despite Jesus’ assertion in John 8: 44. In Job, (in Job 1: 6 ) tells  us that fire fell from God and destroyed Jobs animals. In verse 19, wind causes the house to fall  on Job’s young people and, just like the fire from Heaven, God controls all these acts of nature.  While Job clearly states in 42: 11 thatit was God who did all the harm to Job, his wealth and his family: “Then  came there to him all his brothers, and all his sisters, and all they that had been of his acquaintance  before, and did eat bread with him in his house: and they bemoaned him, and comforted him over all  the evil that the LORD had brought on him.”  This is again backed up by Job’s statement in 1: 21: Job  said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked I shall return there.The LORD gave and the  LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.”)  God: No   Satan: Yes
  10. Has a divine son who lies as bad as the father.  (See my post: The Biblical Lies of God and Jesus)  God:  Yes   Satan: No 
  11. Commands a following spirits (be they Angels or Demons) to carry out the mass murders in a nation. (The PassoverExodus 12:29)  God:  Yes   Satan: No
  12. Will torture people forever in the name of love.  (Mark 9: 44, 46, & 48)  God: Yes   Satan: No

    M. Lies to his own believers in order to kill  off anyone stupid enough to to trust him. (The longer ending of the Gospel of Mark 16: 9 – 20).  God:  Yes   Satan: No 

    N. Presented generally in the Bible as a known lair and murderer.  God:  Yes   Satan: No 

***************

I think that in order to show that a Biblical passage is immoral, you’ve got to engage in a thorough exegesis (interpretation) of the text revealing that all likely meanings are morally problematic.

It is worth noting that Harry did nothing of the sort: he rather assumed that his interpretations portraying God as deeply evil are the correct ones without explaining us how he got there.

I do not believe that the Bible is free of errors and agree that the texts I emphasised in green are indeed very morally problematic..

Deuteronomy 20: mighty Isrealite riders are ready for genocidal assaults.
Atrocities in Deuteronomy 20.

I find his other examples (which I left in black) much more questionable.

For instance, I don’t believe that male circumcision is necessarily harmful. There are many ways of interpreting Genesis 3 and I see no reason to believe that the silliest meaning (involving a speaking snake being cursed) is the correct one.

Depending on how one understands the nature of Jesus (i.e. the incarnation) and what his sacrifice means, the concerned passages are not necessarily immoral.

I believe that hell ultimately means ceasing to be rather than being eternally tortured.

__________

I did not, however, chose to go into an endless dispute over the meaning of the passages I do not view as immoral.

Instead, I decided to point out the main flaw in Harry’s logics, namely his fundamentalist assumption that the Bible must be judged as an inerrant self-consistent Scripture rather than as a set of religious books written under various historical, cultural and theological contexts.

As I explained elsewhere, this is something that anti-theists and religious fundies share in common.

*************

Lotharson (me)

Harry, is the “Biblical” portrait of God’s moral character internally consistent? Or do the Biblical authors speak with conflicting voices?

You seem to be convinced that the first option holds.

Given the results of historical-critical scholarship, this seems to be an extraordinary claim which requires extraordinary evidence .

Apparently you’re still rejecting them as a good fundamentalist.

Here’s a great book you should read: the human faceS of God

What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (And Why Inerrancy Tries To Hide It)
The human faces of God:
the Bible is a culturally conditioned book arguing with itself.

I really think you’re giving atheism a bad name.
Of course, ancient writers had much more wrong conceptions concerning science, morality and reasoning than we have now.

Yet, that’s hardly a reason to mock their writings or consider them as deeply wicked people.

If we were born under the same circumstances, we’d certainly have thought and behaved like them.

I did mock some beliefs of ancient Greeks as I was an immature teenager. But since then I’ve fortunately grown up.

***********************************

Harry

I find your response very odd.

First off, there is no proof that the Biblical history from Genesis to Solomon is pure fiction. William Propp’s commentaries on Exodus, along with the works of John Van Seters and TL Thompson on the Patriarchs with the fate of King David and Solomon sealed by the Tell Dan Inscription (reading it correctly using the supplied word dividers proves it does not mention “House of David”) has re-enforce the fact that (unlike an ancient Greek texts), the Hebrew alphabetic Semitic script is late; thus there is no trace of one Old Testament verse prior to 250 BCE.

Tom Stark is little more than a liberal Christian as both his writings and lectures reveal (after all, he still teaches at Emanuel School of Religion . . . ). If Stark comes down too hard on the Hebrew Bible, he’ll find that a secular job will be his only finical salvation. His Seminary clearly states: “Emmanuel Christian Seminary is affiliated with the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ. These churches are known for their continued commitment to biblical preaching and teaching.

Though Stark’s book was published in 2011, he fails (more likely, refuses) to cite Propp’s Anchor Bible Commentary on Exodus (final volume published, 2006) or any of TL Thompson’s or John Van Seter’s works from the 1970’s and 80’s. More importantly, while his book deals with human sacrifice in chapter 5, he seems to be totally unaware of Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s major 2002 Oxford dissertation: King Manasseh and Child Sacrifice: Biblical Distortions of Historical Realities, Walter de Grutyer, Berlin, 2004. I could go on, but I’ll let these books expose his real methodology . . . how to keep his God (with egg / evil on his face) looking good. Stark is a good P.R . man, but not good enough!

You stated, “I really think you’re giving atheism a bad name.” How would you know? From your comments on other blogs, and, like Thom Stark, you seem to be a liberal Christian. The last minister I talked to who was a member of Stark’s Churches of Christ was dogmatic in telling me that his church is the only true church founded by Jesus himself! Since Thom Stark links himself with this church on his book’s website ( http://humanfacesofgod.com/ ), he and Father Tom of the Greek Orthodox Church should fight it out for a cash first.

If you have a problem with my post, then, using the Biblical text, I would challenge you to point out where it’s wrong; after all, I simply based it on the Bible.

Finally, this blog is called Debunking Christianity for a reason. I rest my case.

********************

Lotharson (me)

Hey, thanks for your answer.

Sorry if I sounded rude.

My main problem with your writing is that you keep talking about THE God of the Bible which entails that the Biblical authors never contradict each other about the moral character of God.

For example, I consider it very far-fetched to pretend that vindictive psalms where the authors pray for the violent demise of the children of their foes are compatible with the command to love our enemies in the New Testament.

Jesus: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Jewish woman: certainly he doesn't mean the Romans? Jewish man: I hope not.
Jesus preaching love towards our enemies. Has there been any progress during the last two thousand years in that respect?

To the best of my knowledge, Christian fundamentalists and anti-theists are the only ones who make that claim.

Finally, I consider it very problematic to judge ancient people according to our modern criteria. As theologian Randal Rauser put it:

“I’m willing to concede that there are vestiges of tradition in the
ancient Hebrew scriptures that take an affirmative position toward human
sacrifice. Does it follow, as Loftus (a militant atheist leading the blog DebunkingChristianity) claims, that we can learn nothing from the cumulative Hebrew tradition as recorded in Scripture? Of course
not. Indeed, the claim is completely ridiculous.

To see why, switch your focus from the ancient Hebrews to the ancient
Greeks. Let’s take one Greek, the great Aristotle, as our example, and
let’s just consider a couple of his beliefs from science, politics and
ethics. To begin with, Aristotle believed that the human brain
functioned to cool the blood, venting heat like the radiator in a car.
Today we would consider this belief wildly false, even laughable. Second
example, Aristotle also defended the use of slaves, describing them in
his Politics as useful in the manner of domestic animals. This
is a shockingly crude and immoral position. Does it follow that we
should conclude we can learn nothing from Aristotle? Of course not. The
very notion is absurd. What we do, instead, is judiciously read
Aristotle, appropriating the wheat and sweeping away the chaff.

Sadly, it is common to find atheists like Loftus crudely dismissing
the Hebrew tradition, even as they selectively read and appropriate the
Hellenistic tradition. This is completely inconsistent and shows a deep
bias against the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

Do Aristotle’s wrong beliefs about slavery mean he didn’t have deep moral insights in other respects?

https://i0.wp.com/www.returnofkings.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/aristotle.jpg

I think not.

*************

Thanks for your reply.

For me, the difference between Aristotle and Jesus is that, Aristotle existed, while Jesus didn’t. See my post: We Know From Hard Evidence Dinosaurs Existed 66 Million Years Ago Yet We Have No Objective Evidence Jesus Existed Just 2 Thousands Years Ago

**

If you feel frustrated after having read our exchange, you’re not alone.

https://i1.wp.com/shoprto.com/wp-content/mediafiles/2013/02/frustrated.jpg

Good scholarly debates advancing our knowledge break down the cause of the disagreement into smaller problems which can then be specifically analysed.

Rhetoric and propaganda involve picking and choosing whatever serves your purpose while switching the topic whenever you no longer feel advantaged.

There are certainly respectful and kind atheistic philosophers out there who criticise religious beliefs in a scholarly manner. They should be considered very seriously.

Anti-theists engage in propaganda and emotional bullying with the hope of deconverting as many religious believers as they can. But if you manage to separate their real arguments from the hateful rhetoric enveloping them, they often prove to be incredibly weak.

Does “Religion” cause creationism and homophobia?

There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.
Dawkin’s godless bus campaign. One implicit message: one cannot enjoy life while being religious.

I’ve already exposed one fundamental flaw of the New Atheism (also-called Anti-Theism): their failure to appreciate the fact that the entity they call Religion (with a capital R) is an incredibly diverse phenomenon.

If you want to argue (as evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne vehemently does) that ALL RELIGIONS ought to disappear, you cannot just rely on mean values and point out that secular folks are better off on average.

NO, you should consider every specific denomination and compare its own performance and problems with respect to science,sexism, racism or homophobia.

It is silly to say to a liberal Methodist defending Gay marriage: “Get out of here hateful bigot!” just because he’s an American Christian, and American Christians have on average a low view of homosexuals.

No, for the SAKE OF JUSTICE we ought to judge persons and denominations individually.

I’m glad to see that former fundamentalist Jonny Scaramanga (whom I interviewed a while ago) went in that direction in one of his responses to Jerry Coyne.

Jonny Scaramanga
Former fundamentalist Jonny Scaramanga. He is doing a PhD in education.

(What follows is his post I quoted while emphasising certain sentences).

*******************

Jerry Coyne says I am wrong about creationism, misogyny and homophobia

Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True (both blog and book) didn’t like my recent posts about the link between creationism, sexism, and homophobia. In a recent post, he argues that I have made a logical fallacy and risk miring the battle against creationism in the ‘atheist wars’ over feminism.

Jerry introduced the post by saying some nice things about me, so I’ll return the compliment: I owe Jerry a great deal. Until I read his book, despite having not been to church in eight years I still thought it made sense to say “evolution is only a theory”. Although at that point I thought evolution was probably right, I had no idea how much evidence there is, nor why my understanding of the term ‘theory’ was wrong-headed. Thanks to him I entered the world of evolutionary science, and my life is the richer for it. And, as Jerry himself points out, he’s been a frequent supporter of my writing and I wouldn’t be as successful a blogger as I am without that patronage.Photo by Emma Rodewald. Creative commons.

I sort of appreciate the sentiment of Jerry’s opening sentence—”It’s never a pleasure to criticize the views of someone I admire”—but actually I see no reason why this should be an unpleasant enterprise. One of the best things about my post-church life is that I now feel free to disagree with people without automatically making them my enemies. It’s also possible that I am mistaken about this, in which case I should be glad he’s pointed it out.

The title of Jerry’s post is “Does creationism matter more because it’s connected with misogyny and homophobia?” When you phrase the question like that, I struggle to see how the answer can be anything other than “yes”. Misogyny and homophobia, Jerry and I agree, are unqualified ills. If you take something that’s already bad and add misogyny and homophobia, you make it even worse. I didn’t say (and I do not believe) that if creationism were not homophobic or misogynistic there would be insufficient reason to oppose it. I did argue that the homophobia and misogyny that creationism involves are more pressing matters, and it seems Jerry agrees on this point. Near the end of the post, he writes “In fact, oppression of women and of gays are matters of greater import than is the teaching of creationism, and if I could wave a magic wand I’d make the first two disappear before the third”, which might leave some readers wondering where exactly he and I differ.

Jerry says I’ve made a logical fallacy, which is always a handy shortcut making your opponent look bad. If I’ve made a logical fallacy, I am objectively wrong. This is no mere difference of opinion, or difference of values, which might take longer to sort out or even be irreconcilable. I have made a fallacy, and I am a phallus.

Except that I don’t think I have. Jerry says it’s the underlying cause of all three that we need to oppose, and that was exactly my point in “Why creationism matters“. Possibly I didn’t make this sufficiently clear, in which case I’m glad for the opportunity to do so. We must be tough on creationism and tough on the causes of creationism. Jerry is right. Sort of.

The underlying cause of creationism, homophobia, and misogyny, says Jerry, is religion, and it is religion we must oppose. And here, I suspect, it is Jerry whose logic is flawed. Clearly, not all religion is all of these things, although much (perhaps most) of it is. Some religious people are among the most vocal opponents of creationism, and for some their faith is an extra reason to oppose the subjugation of women and gay people. Some of those people are among this blog’s most vocal supporters. So we’re going to need a different reason to oppose all religion, because this one is not fit for purpose.

Biblical literalism, on the other hand, is a root cause of all three of the problems at hand. The problem is the way creationists read the Bible. It promotes not just creationism, patriarchy, and gay-bashing, but also the denial of history, the enthusiastic acceptance of immorality, and an irrational rejection of opposing evidence. It is an intellectual black hole. But not all religion is Biblical literalism. I am (if you’ll forgive the term) agnostic on the question of whether the world would be better off if there were no religion at all. My hunch is that it probably would, but there isn’t enough data to be sure. Anyone who claims with certainty that religion must be annihilated for the good of humanity is taking a faith position. Which is somewhat ironic.

In my follow up post, “Creationism is inherently homophobic and misogynistic“, I made a somewhat stronger claim, but I still don’t think I made a logical fallacy. The argument here was this: the Biblical creation myths themselves contain verses which are anti-women and anti-gay. Now I’m not going to say there’s only one possible interpretation of those verses, because only fundamentalists think that way. But I did argue that if you interpret those verses using the same hermeneutic that creationists use to interpret the surrounding text, then you reach nasty conclusions. And I backed this up by empirically showing that those are, indeed, the very conclusions that creationists often come to.

The most trenchant criticism of that post, funnily enough, came from a Christian. Regular reader and commenter Kevin Long pointed out that I was expecting logical consistency from a group of people who have black belts in holding internally contradictory beliefs.

You’re thinking too logically here. Religion is not particularly logical. People are not particularly logical or theoretical about these things. People don’t usually haul out their beliefs and inspect them item by item. Most people are handed a set of beliefs early on in life, and then they just run with them, accepting the whole thing, but adapting bits when they need to. Most of these beliefs are rather fuzzy. Your gay Creationist friend is an example of that, and that type of thinking is, and has always been, the majority. This is actually an encouraging thing: people who are adaptable always outweigh people who are strictly inflexible.

That’s hardly a defence of creationism or of religion, but it does mean I could be more optimistic about the possibility of equality-affirming creationists. Of course, the problem, which Kevin’s post hints at, is that creationist beliefs actually rest on church traditions and authority, despite the fundamentalist insistence that they come purely from a plain reading of the Bible. Those church traditions are usually patriarchal and exclusionary. Kevin also pointed out that there are creationists who are not literalists with regard to other aspects of the Bible; my argument obviously wouldn’t hold in those cases. Our thread on the subject is worth a read.

I think the most important reason Jerry Coyne didn’t like my posts is that they failed the SJW sniff-test. And yes, at this point I must reveal (if it was not already clear) that I am one of those pesky feminist atheists threatening to divide the ‘movement’ with concerns over misogyny. Because what happens in this life matters more to me than what people think is going to happen after we die, I care more about equality, access to education, and social justice than I do about the nonexistence of gods.

**************************

Here follows my response to this post.

Simply amazing, Jonny!
If I didn’t fear to offend you, I’d be tempted to call you a prophet (in the noblest sense of the word).
There are so many true things you expressed here in such a stark and beautiful manner.

You (and Kevin) are entirely right that there is no consistent fundamentalist living under the sun.

Indeed, the Bible speaks with conflicting voices on many topics so that inerrantists have necessarily to distort some verses in order to take others at face value.

Their picking and choosing is (as you pointed out) strongly influenced by religious traditions and economical and social factors.

It is an interesting (albeit utterly consternating and depressing) fact that American fundies are completely focused on homosexuality while in the Bible it only occupies a truly negligible volume in comparison to social justice.

Now onto Jerry Coyne’s assertion.

In the context of the American culture war, it is all too easy to use words in a fuzzy way without clearly laying out their meaning in order to make ideological points.
Over and over again, one can find people shouting: “Atheism has killed millions of people in the former Eastern block! Atheism is responsible for the Gulags!” and other loudly saying that “Religion is killing millions of people in the Middle East!”

For the sake of the argument, I will assume that atheism means the denial of God’s existence and religion any community based on supernatural beliefs (bypassing the difficulty of defining “natural” and “supernatural”).

If that’s the case, it is completely fallacious to say that atheism caused all the atrocities committed by these regimes in the past.
There’s absolutely no logical connection between denying God’s existence and thinking that such kinds of mass murders are morally warranted.
Countless atheists find these utterly abhorrent.

Prisoners working in an
Russian Gulag where innumerable persons died under an atrocious pain.
Yes, the leaders were atheists. But does that reveal us the “true face” of atheism?

Likewise, it is completely fallacious to say that Religion causes misogyny and homophobia.
There’s absolutely no logical connection between asserting “there is a supernatural realm” and “Gay people and women ought to be discriminated”.
Countless religious folks find this utterly appalling.

While Jerry Coyne might be an incredibly brilliant scientist, he makes very blatant fallacies while wearing his armour of reckless culture warrior.

I appreciate your great modesty and the fact you care more about decency and love than about winning an argument.

I also think you’re entirely right to point out that the harmful moral beliefs of fundamentalists are worse than their teaching creation science.

Now I want to comment on the thought that the world would be better off without Religion .

I think it is a binary way to consider things.

As I wrote about Coyne’s initial defence of this idea:

“Basically his (implicit) reasoning was as follows:

1) It would be good to live in a world where creationism (and other anti-scientific beliefs) have wholly disappeared.

2) If ALL religions were to fade away, creationism would be no more.

3) Hence it is morally good to use our best techniques of psychological warfare to utterly destroy ALL religions.

Interestingly enough, French racists use exactly the same kind of reasoning:

1′) It would be good to live in a France where anti-white hatred no longer exists.

2′) If ALL blacks and Arabs were driven out of the land, anti-white hatred would be no more.

3′) Hence it is morally good to expel ALL blacks and Arabs from France.

Let us grant that both 1) and 1′) are true.

2) and 2′) are certainly technically true in both cases.

If ALL religions were to go away, there would be no longer any form of creationism, and if ALL blacks and Arabs no longer lived in France, anti-white hatred would be no more.

But it should be clear that a vital fact has been entirely left out of the picture in the second racist reasoning. There are countless blacks and Arabs (indeed the majority of them) who do not hate white folks and are completely respectful of French laws and customs.

It would be egregiously wrong to expel them as well for this would be a gruesome form of collective punishment.

Exactly the same thing can be said about Coyne’s reasoning.

There are countless moderate, progressive and even conservative religious believers who are not opposed to science and reason and who do not cause any harm to the society in which they live.

Advocating to systematically bully them out of their faith is equally egregious.
(I can modify the example if you don’t deem it appropriate here. I do think it’s a good analogy which nicely illustrates the dangers of this type of reasoning).

I am convinced that the world would be better off if all fundamentalists who jettison their reason and moral intuitions for the sake of dogmas would give up their belief systems (and there are also many “secular” fundamentalists satisfying this definition).

But I see no reason to think that a thoroughly godless world would be better off than a world with religious people who are all driven by genuine love.

Let me end this long comment by saying one positive thing about Jerry: he has an adorable kitten he takes care of 🙂

Thematic list of ALL posts on this blog (regularly updated)

My other blog on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)

 Photo by Emma Rodewald. Creative commons.

On anti-theists and extreme overgeneralizations

I recently stumbled across a post written by a former Conservative Evangelical minister (who has turned into an anti-theist) where she exposes the alleged ways in which Religion (with a capital R) hijacks our inevitable human experience of pain.

"Of course I want religion to go away". I don't deny you your right to believe whatever you'd like, but I have the right to point out it's ignorant and dangerous for as long as your baseless superstitions keep killing people. Anti-theism: the conscientious objection to religion.
Anti-theism: religion is not an incredibly diverse phenomenon but an UNIFIED loathsome entity which ought to be obliterated as soon as possible.

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A Sure Knowledge of Suffering.

She had just learned of the death of her one true love. Pirates, she was told. Specifically, the Dread Pirate Roberts–who, as we all know, does not ever take prisoners. Upon hearing the news, she retreated to her bedroom in shock for quite some time, and her parents gave her plenty of space in which to process her staggering grief. When she finally emerged from her room, her parents were worried–but also astonished at the changes in their daughter:

In point of fact, [Buttercup] had never looked as well. She had entered her room as just an impossibly lovely girl. The woman who emerged was a trifle thinner, a great deal wiser, an ocean sadder. This one understood the nature of pain, and beneath the glory of her features there was character, and a sure knowledge of suffering.

She was eighteen. She was the most beautiful woman in a hundred years. She didn’t seem to care.

Cover of "The Princess Bride (20th Annive...

Cover via Amazon

Buttercup’s journey to her #1 position as Most Beautiful Woman in the Whole World happens at the same time her budding romance with the Farm Boy, Westley, blossoms into love (this is from the book version of the story, which goes into way more detail about the protagonists–and I had better not be spoiling any of this for you). When the lovebirds declare their feelings for each other, William Goldman writes in The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, she is “barely in the top twenty” of the most beautiful women in the world. After Westley leaves the farm to make his fortune, she starts to take better care of herself and leaps to fifteenth, and when a long letter from him arrives as he’s making his way to America, that letter alone sends her straight to eighth place from sheer joy. But that’s where she lingered until learning that he’d died.

A number of stories involve grief and loss as the forces that catapult an innocent, naive character into sudden adulthood. In The Princess Bride, when Buttercup faces suffering for the first time, she leaves her innocent youth behind and enters the full flower of adulthood–as well as a vast fraternity for which there is only one name:

Humanity.

Suffering is surely of the most uniquely human conditions there is. Our capacity for reflection and anticipation, our ability to both recognize the passage of time and to gaze ahead to the future, marks us as bound for pain. Merely to extend our affection to another being–be it a pet or a person–or to extend a great hope toward some goal means turning our ships down a fork in the river that leads to only one destination: the pain of loss.

Someone who has not suffered some great and staggering loss is somehow not complete quite yet. Those of us who are already members of the vast fraternity can admire that person’s youthful naivete–especially if there’s some glorious declaration of intent involved, which seems to come up often for some reason–but we know what’s coming and somehow wish we could both shield that person and make their passage through the frathouse doors a little easier. Until they are sitting in that house with an illicit beer in hand, we really don’t know exactly what to do with that person. We just know it’s coming, is all, even if we don’t know where from.

Suffering sometimes comes from our own misguided efforts or from deliberate unkindness on the part of others–or from the sheer inevitability of time–but often it seems like it’s just bad luck.

It is no surprise to me, therefore, that it seems like every religion tries to put human suffering into some kind of cosmic context (often, as those two links demonstrate, in total opposition to the explanations offered by other religions)–to explain what suffering is and what causes it, to tell people that there’s some purpose to it all, and to tell us how to stop it from coming to our door quite so often.

Religions do this because grief and loss are so universal and so constant in humans’ lives that we want some kind of control over it all. Explaining something implies understanding of it; understanding implies control. There’s a reason why bargaining is one of the significant stages in the processing of grief, after all. What religions are doing is simply trying to do the bargaining at a remove for us, and often before the grief event has even taken place.

But what are we to do when a Buddhist tells us that suffering happens because people get too stressed out by change and that there is no real self at all, and a Christian tells us that suffering happens because oh why yes we totally have selves and those selves are sinful little beasts without the cleansing of “Jesus”? They can’t both be right; those explanations (and many more besides) are diametrically opposed. They could, however, all be wrong.

When we mistakenly believe that our suffering has some supernatural purpose and cause, we start thinking we can influence the events that lead to our suffering.

As one example, let’s look at one of the most pernicious “bargains” Christianity offers. If we don’t tithe, we will suffer hugely, Christian leaders hint to us, and if we do then we’ll have so much fortune that our storehouses won’t be able to hold it all. Years out of Christianity, this kind of promise sounds to me like that nursery rhyme, “step on a crack, break your mother’s back,” especially after meeting all sorts of people who do and don’t tithe and noticing that there doesn’t seem to remarkable fortune happening to those who do, or misfortune happening to those who don’t. But I’ve noticed that Christians who stop tithing often feel really frightened at the thought that now they’re inviting suffering to their doors by their disobedience. They’ve been taught for years that they can control misfortune by tithing. They might know at some level that tithing has absolutely nothing to do with avoiding or inviting misfortune, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that they’re daring a god to strike them down by disobeying all these pastors’ directives about tithing.

That’s only one deal Christians get offered, though. I was taught a great number of ways to control the whole universe. Many of those ways centered around conforming to my onetime religion’s teachings about how women should act, dress, and speak. Stepping outside those bounds would invite all sorts of disasters. I’d meet terrible men; I’d be at much greater risk for abuse and assault; I’d ruin my entire life. If I conformed, by contrast, I’d meet “godly” men who’d treat me well and I’d be protected by angels from assault. And I dared not even consider non-Christian men as husbands–dear me, no! They’d drag down my faith and who even knows what disasters would hit my life for such glaring disobedience?

Christian rituals were also sold to me as ways to control fortune. I’m betting most ex-Christians have been through this scenario:

I slide behind the wheel of my ancient Cutlass, buckle in, and start the car. I’m down the driveway when I realize I forgot to pray! I panic–and I pause the car at the first opportunity so I can recite the magic spell: Jesus, please let me get to my destination safely and unharmed. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen. Soothed and feeling much safer, I continue on my way.

Even after leaving Christianity, I ended up in spiritual traditions that tried similarly to control suffering and misfortune. That was a really hard mindset to break. It was really hard to let go of the idea that our lives were orchestrated by some big planner and that everything that happened to us did so for a reason. I know that the intent of some of these religions and philosophies is to help reconcile adherents to suffering, but the implicit promise they made was that there were rules to the universe–and if I could only figure out what those rules were, I could get a free pass that other people didn’t get.

There’s another, more sinister reason why prosperity gospel is so popular in the United States–and seemingly only more popular during this period of financial crisis. It’s the same reason why Christians cling so hard to promises around tithing and “modesty.” Someone who is suffering gets seen in Christian culture as someone being spanked by “God” for some indiscretion or misdeed, while someone who is clearly healthy, wealthy, and flourishing gets seen as someone “blessed” by that same deity–with the implication that this “blessing” comes from obedience to the arcane rituals and demands of the religion. Some preachers even make that connection explicitly. It’s not hard at all for me–having come out of a religion that stresses this link between prosperity and one’s choices to obey or disobey religious demands–to see exactly why Christians nowadays tend to belong to the political party that is quickly becoming famous for hatred for and demonization of poor people. Obviously if someone isn’t “blessed” then it’s all that person’s fault. Somehow.

If someone suffers and there’s no reason at all for it–and even worse, nothing that person did or could have done to avoid it, or worst of all if that person was set up to fail by obviously non-supernatural forces–then the entire paradigm gets up-ended. Some people really need to see the world as ultimately fair and just. If one person faces suffering that couldn’t be avoided, then nothing stops anybody else from facing similar suffering.

I’d have saved myself a lot of time and trouble and energy if I’d known that some of our suffering can be understood and controlled, yes, but some of it simply cannot be. Some of it’s really random, and some isn’t stuff I can actually influence. And I think I kind of knew that to some extent. After all, in addition to praying whenever I got behind a steering wheel, I also made sure to drive responsibly and to keep my car maintenance up-to-date. But later I’d meet friends in other religions who used rituals instead of doing those things–and they wondered why they kept getting into accidents and having car breakdowns. Sometimes people didn’t have the money to maintain their vehicles and rituals were the only thing they could afford to do. Sometimes people were deluding themselves into thinking that rituals could take the place of careful driving. And in the case of misfortune that really couldn’t be controlled–or even predicted–these rituals were quite literally all that held out even the vague promise of help.

When I saw those friends making these mistakes in other religions, I couldn’t help but remember all the similar rituals I’d done as a Christian believing that they’d afford me protection from life’s bumps and dips: the tithing meant to invite financial prosperity and stave off economic disaster; the “modesty” dress meant to attract a “godly” husband and keep me safe; the house exorcisms meant to keep demons from entering my family home to cause strife; all the weird little rote prayers I recited to prevent car accidents and the like. One might say to some of these rituals, What’s the harm? But in most cases, these rituals took the place of more constructive efforts–and often cost a great deal of money or time that I could have used elsewhere. Indeed, the only folks who really profit from those rituals are the ones receiving the money and attention from all the frightened sheep falling for those scams, even after their peddlers have been debunked six ways from Sunday.

It’s a scary thing to imagine, though, isn’t it? That there isn’t some great plan nor a great planner in control of it all. That sometimes stuff just happens and we can’t understand why or stop it, and neither can anybody else. That sometimes it’s not some flaw in someone that caused a great misfortune, and nothing that person did to merit that suffering.

Suffering is part of being human. Every single one of us, if we extend ourselves at all, is going to suffer at some point. We’re going to lose a loved one, or face a natural disaster, or get really sick or injured, or become the victim of a random crime, or get caught up in some huge financial catastrophe. Part of our journey, as human beings, is figuring out how much of that we can influence and how much we can’t, and figuring out how to lessen the impact of as much of the random, unstoppable suffering as we can.

We’re not going to do any of that by repeating canned prayers or performing magic rituals, though. Those rituals might soothe us in the short term, but ultimately will not actually help us in a material way–unless we start selling books about it to trick the unwary into buying into false promises of safety, health, wealth, and fulfillment, anyway! As long as we believe that we have some magical way of propitiating whoever we (mistakenly) think is orchestrating the universe, we won’t be just wasting our time and money; we’ll be trying to remain children. I’m not saying we should adore feeling grief or pain (that’d be kind of weird), but rather that we should recognize that that suffering is part of the cycle of humanity, and ignoring the reality of suffering cuts us off from the full range of the human experience. Children think that someone bigger than them controls everything and can fix it all; adults know that even after preparation and planning, shit happens.

That is what Buttercup discovers, alone in her room with her grief: sometimes even the best plans go hideously, totally wrong and there really isn’t any way to understand it, predict it, or control it. Sometimes all you can do is accept the misfortune and move forward–and when you do, you find yourself entering that fraternity at last, and then you find yourself surrounded by a lot of other people who are also trying to move forward from their own suffering. You start thinking it was kind of silly to think you had this magic way of avoiding the suffering everybody else has to face, and you start thinking a lot more seriously about the very real ways that people can avoid trouble and repair the damage of inevitable misfortune. And then we can make the choice to extend ourselves anyway–to take the risk, to love, to try–having done everything we can to prepare and knowing that even so, the risk is worth the taking even if it ends disastrously.

If it does, too, then we won’t blame our lack of adherence to rituals but rather honestly examine if we made or missed some material mistake, and try to do better next time. But we can’t really learn until we can look honestly at just how the misfortune happened; we’ll only blame ourselves for having done something wrong and seek ever-grander rituals and shows of compliance with which to propitiate whoever we think is in charge.

That’s why you need to beware of anyone who tries to tell you that suffering can be avoided through the purchase of snake oil. These rituals and prayers and demands for compliance are just theological snake oil that is peddled to those who don’t know any better and will reach for any straw in desperation. As Westley later tells Buttercup, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

Indeed.

I’m very glad to be out of a religion that tried to keep me a child endlessly trying to curry favor with a  being who didn’t even exist in order to protect myself from inevitable misfortune and suffering–protection I never got even at my most obedient and compliant. I’ve discovered the sure knowledge of suffering, and while that discovery didn’t make me more beautiful, it did at least make me an adult and a full participant in the human experience, which I’d rather have anyway.

We’re going to talk this week about some more facets of suffering and protection, control and understanding, and you’re most certainly invited to be here for it. See y’all Wednesday!

****

Is right-wing Conservative Evangelicalism the whole Christendom?

I understand that the author has gravely suffered from Christian fundamentalism. I can certainly empathize.
I am dumbstruck, however, by the huge number of over-generalizations one can find in her text (quoted in italics).
“But what are we to do when a Buddhist tells us that suffering happens because people get too stressed out by change and that there is no real self at all, and a Christian tells us that suffering happens because oh why yes we totally have selves and those selves are sinful little beasts without the cleansing of “Jesus”?”
I can’t speak for Buddhists, but I know countless Christians who categorically reject this concept.
(See, for instance, my own take on the problem of pain and this post which argues that the concept of sinful nature can’t be found in the very text of Genesis).
“As one example, let’s look at one of the most pernicious “bargains” Christianity offers. If we don’t tithe, we will suffer hugely, Christian leaders hint to us, and if we do then we’ll have so much fortune that our storehouses won’t be able to hold it all.”
I personally don’t know any Christians I’ve met in the real world who teach such a thing.
“Someone who is suffering gets seen in Christian culture as someone being spanked by “God” for some indiscretion or misdeed, while someone who is clearly healthy, wealthy, and flourishing gets seen as someone “blessed” by that same deity–with the implication that this “blessing” comes from obedience to the arcane rituals and demands of the religion.”
You aren’t going to experience that among left-wing Christians. At least not in that universe, as far as I know.
“It’s not hard at all for me–having come out of a religion that stresses this link between prosperity and one’s choices to obey or disobey religious demands–to see exactly why Christians nowadays tend to belong to the political party that is quickly becoming famous for hatred for and demonization of poor people.”
Conservative Evangelical healthcare: "Please pray for my health insurance coverage too, father!"
Conservative Evangelical Healthcare.
As far as American Conservative Evangelicals are concerned, that’s certainly true.
There’s a HIDEOUS logical connection between their specific religious beliefs and the screwing of the poor.
Nevertheless, it can be easily demonstrated that many other Christian traditions (especially in Europe) are horrified by this state of affairs.
To conclude, I’d say it’s perfectly fair for atheists to criticize religions (in the same way it is fair for religious people to criticize atheism) but it is vital to realize that both Atheism and Religion (along many other ideologies and worldviews) are incredibly DIVERSE.
Care should be taken to verify that one’s criticism applies to all members of the species.
Otherwise, one can all too easily end up preaching to the choir.
As a progressive believer, I don’t feel challenged at all by such kinds of posts. This just makes me laugh.

Divine genocides and Biblical inerrancy

The moral problem of Genocide within the Bible

The presence of apparently genocidal texts within the Bible (where God allegedly ordered soldiers not to spare children) is arguably one of the strongest challenges faced by Conservative Evangelicals who believe that the writers of the Bible never made any mistake with respect to everything they wanted to convey.

Difficult moral issues: the genocide of the Canaanites.  On the picture, shouting bearded men are fighting and swinging their swords.
Moral problem for Biblical inerrantists: the genocide of the Canaanites.

I already went into the problem while responding to an email from an atheist.

Peter Enns besides his book: the Bible tells me so: why defending Scripture has made us unable to read it.
Progressive Evangelical theologian Peter Enns.

Recently, progressive Evangelical theologian Peter Enns started out critically examining a new Conservative Evangelical book (“Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God” by Paul Copan and Matt Flannagan) aiming at alleviating the moral tensions caused by the problematic texts.

Book available on Amazon: Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God
Copan and Flannagan:
Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God.

Here is my response to his post which is really worth reading.

Conservative Evangelical apologetics defending Biblical inerrancy

I once interviewed Matt Flannagan himself about his views on the conquest of Canaan.

Matt Flannagan with a neutral facial expression.
Evangelical apologist Matt Flannagan.

I must say I largely prefer his approach to that of William Lane Craig who defends the killing of babies by untrained soldiers as perfectly moral (while he is passionately opposed to such an act if it is committed against a yet unborn child by a trained physician).
To his credit, Craig does recognize it is an option for Christians disagreeing with him on that to reject Biblical inerrancy. This is a point almost no Conservative Evangelical grants.
Here, I can only mention Randal Rauser’s excellent criticism of his arguments.

In a sense, this is a real pity. Craig is an extremely brilliant man. While I don’t think he’s ultimately successful in proving Christianity, I think he is by no means inferior to sophisticated defenders of atheism out there.

He’s also a kind person and tend to be a very agreeable and respectful conversation partner.

William Lane Craig with a nice suit and a charming smile.
William Lane Craig, leading Evangelical apologist.

So it is truly disappointing he holds such indefensible views owing to his belief in Biblical inerrancy.
He gives anti-theists powerful rhetorical ammunitions for refusing to take seriously anything he has to say.

When the Bible is at odds with facts from the external world, Conservative apologetics fall into two categories:
– fundamentalism: denying the facts and clinging to the literal interpretation of Scripture (as typically Young Earth Creationists do)
– concordism: accepting the reliability of the external facts and trying to find an interpretation of the Bible matching them (as typically progressive creationists do).

With respect to this specific question, Craig has chosen a fundamentalist approach.
The apologetic strategy of Copan and Flanaggan is more in line with our basic moral intuitions and as such they can be regarded as concordists.

I generally think that concordists are successful for SOME moral difficulties found within Scripture whereby they offer a plausible alternative interpretation no longer strongly offensive to our fundamental ethical intuitions.

Atrocities in the text and some very implausible assumptions

But there are countless other “Biblical difficulties” and oftentimes I cannot help but think that their interpretation of the text is far-fetched and certainly not in accordance with what the original authors meant.

While reading Deuteronomy 20 explicating the difference between war inside and outside Canaan:

“When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labour. If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you. Thus you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not towns of the nations here.
(first part).

“But as for the towns of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the LORD your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD your God.”
(Second part)

Deuteronomy 20: mighty Isrealite riders are ready for genocidal assaults.
Atrocities in Deuteronomy 20?

it seems extremely likely that the Biblical author wanted to convey the idea of literal killings in both cases

Or consider the war against the Midianate:

“Moses said to them, “Have you allowed all the women to live? These women here, on Balaam’s advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the LORD in the affair of Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the LORD. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves.”

Women are being seized by men against their will.
(Virgin) women as war booty.

It is very plausible (if not almost certain) that Mose (according to the authors of the book of Numbers) wanted his men to kill male infants, married women and widows while taking virgin girls as war booty .

It seems extraordinarily hard to avoid the conclusion that the Biblical authors attributed barbaric commands to God.

Conservative Evangelicals having troubles

Coupled with all examples of scientific and historical inaccuracies in the Bible, it appears that the Chicago Statement of inerrancy (the Biblical writers never erred in what they wanted to convey) can only be salvaged by resorting to a flurry of extremely unlikely ad-hoc hypotheses and distortions of the text.

This is why I think that the Conservative Evangelical faith has an incredibly shaky foundation which can be all too easily shattered once one begins to honestly read and examine the Biblical texts.

Among all these seeds of doubt, the description of God as an immoral being seems to be the main factor leading young Evangelicals to give up Christianity altogether, as an email to which I responded illustrates.

Antitheism as a legitimate child of religious fundamentalism

As a consequence, we get plenty of angry anti-theists who view the Bible as an entirely wicked book which should be burnt.

They have kept a fundamentalist mindset in so far as they think that:

1) the Bible should be judged in every respect according to modern criteria (thereby disregarding the strong influence of history and culture on moral beliefs)
2) the Bible is always entirely consistent in relation to its moral message.
Thus, if we can show that in one book soldiers are ordered to slaughter children, we must conclude that the WHOLE Bible endorses and advocates infanticides.

Over 90% of those who identify themselves as "Christian" admit they have never read the entire Bible...which ironically is the way you become an atheist.
How fundamentalism produces antitheism.

Far from protecting the Church, Conservative Evangelicalism is causing a mass desertion which could be avoided.

Progressive Christianity means embracing uncertainty.

On a personal level, the results of historical-critical scholarship have led me to give up the concept of a divine Canon set apart and more inspired than other books outside of it.

Frankly speaking, there is no meaningful way in which we could say that the imprecatory psalms (where a man prays for the atrocious death of the children of his enemy) is more inspired that sermons of Martin Luther King or books of C.S. Lewis (who by the way recognized the existence of errors within the Bible).

If one reads the Bible as a collection of book reporting the experiences and thoughts of people concerning God (i.e. in the same way one reads other Christians and Jewish books including apocryphal books in the Bible), many moral problems disappear completely.

I can even find moral beauty in many texts which fall short of perfection.

Of course, Evangelicals find my approach terribly unsettling because they’ve been raised to think that a Bible free of mistakes is the only way we have for knowing how God truly is .

There is no easy answer I can give them. I think that by definition, God has to be morally perfect and therefore higher than the most noble person who has ever lived under the sun.
For me, being a Christian means hoping in a God who revealed his ultimate face through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

I find Hans Küng’s book “Christianity”  (which I originally read in German) excellent and think that he did a very good job showing that ultimate worldview commitments (including the contrast between hope and despair, nihilism and meaning, atheism and theism, Christianity and non-Christian religions) involve choices which go far beyond what is warranted by the evidence and rational considerations.

Hans Küng. Christianity: essence, history and future.
Hans Küng: Apologist for progressive Christianity.

So I view faith as existential hope in the face of uncertainty and think that religious fundamentalists and Conservatives should come to terms with the fact that our ambiguous world hasn’t anything better to offer.

Persecuted anti-theists?

I recently came across a well-argued post calling out American Christians to stop viewing atheists as immoral fools.

****

Why Christians Should Stand Up for Atheists

Freedom3I have just spent several hours talking with atheists on one of the blogs here at Patheos. This wasn’t my first time talking with atheists, but this conversation was particularly illuminating and, for the most part, respectful. Several members of this community welcomed me, despite the fact that they disagree profoundly with me. I am grateful for this. This community shared experiences and raised some very thought-provoking questions.

I came away from this conversation challenged that I need to do more to stand up for the rights of atheists (and those of other religions) here in the United States. Not because I agree with them on God and theology, but because they are human beings who deserve respect. Because when we stand up for someone else’s rights, we are appropriately loving our neighbor and treating them as we would want to be treated.

One thing that atheists (and those of other religions) rightly criticize in America is that there is a profound Christian religious privilege that is present here. If you are a Christian, this might not seem like a problem. Or you may be so steeped in religious privilege that you think the predominant mood of America toward Christians is one of persecution. You may even view attempts to level the playing field as being such persecution.

I don’t mind that there are a lot of Christians here in America. If they act like Christians, I think it’s great! In fact, I wish everybody was a Christian. But what I do object to is the wielding of power and dominance over others. I object to the confusion of the two kingdoms–the kingdoms of God’s left and right hand. I object to the idea that we can force everybody out there to conform to our beliefs.

I have argued previously that the Christian worldview as taught by the New Testament is not built on power, but on servanthood. While Christians are free to seek political power in order to serve their neighbor, they are not to seek it to benefit and serve themselves. Not only are attempts to wield power and dominance over others fundamentally unlike the Christ we serve, but they are also a terrible stumbling block to those who are not Christians. Do we want to witness to the saving power of Christ who is strong in our weakness? Then why have we bought into a model that claims earthly power a la James and John (Mark 10)? Why have we begun to believe the lie that our struggle is against flesh and blood, after all (see Ephesians 6)?

And why do we make atheists and those of other religions actually afraid for their lives when they ask for the same freedoms we want for ourselves and our families? I am told that the joke in the atheist community when they challenge our bastions of Christian political power and privilege is, “Cue the death threats.” Now, I understand that most Christians would not make death threats against atheists, but do we enable those who do by failing to call them out? Do we contribute to a hostile, snide, unloving atmosphere of discourse in our country when we tell them their issues with us are merely their perception of Christians rather than acknowledging that we have some serious problems in our community? Do we value those loud, obnoxious voices who are more interested in “sticking it to” somebody they disagree with than treating them with love and respect (I’m looking at you, Matt Walsh, Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter)? Are we willing to listen and learn?

I feel blessed to have met these atheists. I don’t agree with them on faith, but I agree with them on the need to treat each other with respect. I agree with them that we need to make room for people who believe differently. Those differences in belief are crucial and important. I’m not about to give up my wish (and even prayer) that everybody come to faith in Jesus. But I am totally willing to give up my “right” to force everybody to be or act like a Christian.

So, how can we stand up for our atheist friends?

We can defend the child who is serious enough about his beliefs that he won’t “fake it” and stand up for the part of the Pledge of Allegiance that says “one nation under God.” We can stand against any instance when the government tries to establish some form of state religion. We can decry death threats against those who are speaking their beliefs, loving them enough to defend them even if we disagree profoundly with them. We can do this by considering that certain governmental expressions of religious faith may not be the greatest idea.

For example, why is it necessary that children in a secular school pledge allegiance to “one nation, under God”? Why is it necessary that schoolchildren have a time of prayer led by the teacher? If we would be willing to listen to the concerns of non-theists and those of other religions about such matters, perhaps we would find that such practices are not necessary after all and that they hinder freedom of religion for everyone–ourselves included. Perhaps we would have to acknowledge that atheists are actually persecuted in this country.

And perhaps we would discover that Christian witness is not best served by a dead, forced recitation, but by allowing freedom to flourish. Perhaps we would discover that authentic Christianity thrives when its focus is not on dominance but on service to neighbor. Maybe, every once in a while, someone who believes differently than we do would actually stop to listen to our perspective because we were willing to listen to theirs.

But even if they don’t, I ask you, which model better serves our humble Lord who emptied Himself for us (Philippians 2): political dominance or service? And isn’t faithfulness to Him more important than “results” or seeing our “agenda” achieved?

American Christianity is at a crossroads these days. We can either continue with our pursuit of power at all cost, or we can release the idolatry of control, surrender ourselves into the hands of God, and humbly serve our neighbor. Doing so will certainly mean that we share our faith with our neighbor (yes, even in words!), but it will not mean that we force them into submission. Such tactics are as far from New Testament Christianity as East is from West.

EDIT on 11/8/14: Several commenters have brought up the point that it sounded like I was describing atheism as a “religion.” I addressed this a few times in the comments, but I understand not everyone has time to wade through the comments. I think a better term would be “belief system,” although I do understand that the basic belief is non-belief in the sense of “I do not believe there is evidence for the existence of God.” The intent of my statement was not to call atheism a religion, but to recognize that Christians in general sometimes have a hard time recognizing the rights of other belief or non-belief groups.

Hopefully, that is helpful.

****

Here is my response.

Dear Rebecca Florence, thank you so much for this marvelous post.

As a Continental European, it’s really hard for me to imagine how it must feel for someone to live along the Christian Right.
I’m really glad that most Christians and atheists discussing with each other on the Old Continent tend to be pretty respectful and can develop a friendly relationship despite some fundamental differences in their most basic beliefs.

I do believe one always ought to be respectful towards a respectful opponent ,no matter how repugnant one might find his or her ideas.

I think that we must constantly remain wary of deeply entrenched psychological mechanisms which lead all too easily to tribalism, an “us against them”-mentality and dehumanizing our adversaries.

I think that my main problem with your article consists of the fact you unwittingly tend to present “atheists” as a homogeneous group.

Of course, it’s really not the case. There are many different types of Christians, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, pantheists, deists and atheist out there.
A SMALL subpart of atheists are anti-theists, i.e. people who believe that all religions ought to disappear.

Having spent countless hours interacting with these folks and their writings, I can truly say they’re no better than nasty religious fundamentalists. (Interestingly enough, in an American context anti-theists often tend to be former fundies ).
They see the Bible in a perfectly binary manner like fundamentalists, and for some of them the presence of atrocities in one text justifies burning the whole book , i.e. also the writings of many completely unrelated authors.

The New Atheists (I use this phrase interchangeably with anti-theists) explicitely advocate the use of emotional bullying, ridicule and mockery against religious persons.

http://alwaysquestionauthority.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/1477717_562936830449947_173279735_n.png

They sometimes even have a cult-like thinking and keep falling prey to binary thinking.

A great number of people present on their forums and blogs are driven by the same kind of hatred which motivates European far right people.

Let me be clear about this. I do believe there are great and respectful atheists out there. ( Here is a good example).

I hate hearing Conservative Christians asserting that atheists (in general) are immoral fools and I if I have the opportunity, I step in against this kind of vicious and groundless attacks .

I do affirm that many atheists are good people, and I believe that many of them dying as unbelievers will accept God’s invitation on the other side of the grave.
I am yearning for a society full of compassionate and humble persons who manage to remain courteous and polite while not denying their convictions.
I congratulate you for being an excellent rule model in that respect.

But we cannot say,in general, that Christians in America are the oppressors whereas atheist are the victims.
No, this country of yours is going through a terrible culture war where one can find assholes and individuals of good will in the different camps.

I see a vicious circle of hatred going on which is very similar to racial tensions in modern France .
It’s vital for everyone to recognize that all atheists and theists are not the same, and that our just anger should be reserved for self-righteous bigots who are the powder keeping alive the fire of the culture war.

I do speak up for the right of anyone to loudly proclaim their metaphysical convictions without having to fear any kind of discrimination.
But I will never encourage groups of people who are driven by hatred and the self-righteous desire to feel superior to all the rest of us.

Lovely greetings in Christ.

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