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 

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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://i2.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.

On God’s hiddenness and the nature of faith

I was recently involved in an interesting debate about the nature of faith in God and the alleged moral guilt of disbelievers.

It revolved around the problem of divine hiddenness: if God really exists and is interested in people believing in Him, then why does He not unambiguously prove His existence?

God's hiddeness
God’s hiddenness: despite all the wonders delighting our eyes and filling our soul with awe, nature remains very ambiguous and conceals its ultimate reality.

The discussion took place in the comment section of a blog post written by progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser entitled “Is the Atheist my Neighbour?

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When I wrote Is the Atheist My Neighbor? I had a very short endorser wish-list. That list consisted of folks who were leaders in their professions and exemplars of the kind of irenic dialogue between atheist and Christian that was the book’s reason for being.

Neither Richard Dawkins nor Ray Comfort made the list.

One of the people who did make that list was J.L. Schellenberg, Professor of Philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University. Schellenberg is an atheist and one of the leading philosophers of religion in the world today. His most important work in philosophy of religion is a powerful argument for atheism from divine hiddenness, an argument that he has honed over more than twenty years. Professor Schellenberg has pushed the dialogue and debate forward with a thoughtful and powerful argument, and all without animus or rancor. Indeed, while I have never met him, I know several Christian philosophers who count him not only an esteemed and worthy opponent, but a personal friend as well. You can visit Professor Schellenberg online at his website here.

All this is to say that I was delighted to receive the following endorsement from Professor Schellenberg for Is the Atheist My Neighbor? Given my goals in writing this book, an endorsement like this is worth its weight in gold, and that would hold even if the endorsement were etched in granite. The first sentence alone provides one of the best introductions to a book endorsement that I’ve ever read:

“There are some whose way of following the first of the great commandments has, in the matter of nonbelief, meant violating the second. In this brief and lively but remarkably full and acute discussion, Rauser shows the way out of this problem. Impressively fair, and writing not perfunctorily but with feeling, he has found a way to express genuine neighborliness both to atheists like me and to Christians who struggle to reconcile love and loyalty.”

Randal-Rauser_Is-the-Atheist-my-Neighbor

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Andy Schüler, a German Atheist reacted to another commentator arguing that rejecting God’s existence is never an innocent action.

Among many other things, he wrote:

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Schellenberg´s argument requires that at least some people who are open to the possibility of God’s existence and do not resist this truth still live and die as unbelievers. If you interpret the Bible in such a way that the existence of such people is impossible – then your interpretation makes the Bible evidently wrong about this matter (in a way that makes any further discussions impossible, because it forces you to accuse people who claim that they indeed are sincerely open to the possibility of God’s existence, yet also sincerely do not believe that there is a God, of simply lying about this). 

…………………………….

You don´t teach your kid that he or she shouldn’t touch a hot stove by letting him touch it. Or rather – you would be a terrible parent if you did it). And the scripture you refer to depicts God in an even worse light, God is like a parent that is an extremely skilled mentalist and not only does nothing to stop his little kid from touching the hot stove, but rather uses his skills to convince him that he  should touch it!

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

My response follows. Please forgive me for the small pieces of German dialect scattered here and there 🙂

Hi Andy! 🙂
Long time, no see!
(Sit longi Zit hon ich nix meh von dir gehert!).

“Innocence or lack thereof has nothing to do with anything here. Schellenberg´s argument requires that at least some people are open to the possibility of God existing / not resisting the truth of this, yet still live and die as unbelievers.”

My own view is that people “dying as unbelievers” (or atheists for that matter) but sincerely and humbly striving for justice and love will inherit eternal life whereas people dying as egoistical self-righteous bigots will irremediably lose their existence and be no more.

In all his parables, Jesus never threatened anyone with hellfire for not believing in Him or engaging in sexual immorality but for
1) failing to feed the poor, weak, hungry or neglected
and
2) not repenting from one’s own unjust pride.

Even Paul himself didn’t embrace the whole view often attributed to him in that he wrote

“God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”[a] 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11”

If you read Roman 2, it seems quite clear to me that Paul believed in the salvation of righteous heathens dying as such, his other ideas notwithstanding.

It is ironic that those arrogant and unloving fundamentalists who keep preaching about “salvation by faith” and eternal torment are those who are the most likely to miss everlasting life, according to Jesus.

Given that, I find that Schellenberg´s challenges are far less impressive (albeit not entirely unproblematic, of course).

God is under no moral obligation to give clear evidence of His existence to atheists if their unbelief while dying isn’t going to damn them.

You’re quite right that we cannot make a choice about what we deem to be reasonable
(obwohl die Engländer das Wort “decide” sowohl als “entscheiden” als auch als “bestimmen”, “herausfinden” verwenden 🙂 )

Yet, the same thing cannot necessarily be said about our hopes .

Obviously, someone convinced that theism is extremely implausible cannot entertain any hope in that direction.

But what if you’re completely ignorant about whether theism or atheism is true?

Or what if you (as I do) believe there are intriguing pieces of evidence for the existence of a non-material world which aren’t, however, compelling?

It appears quite reasonable to think one can, in that case, consciously choose to entertain and cultivate hope in either direction.

One example might make that concept a bit more palatable.

Consider the proposition: “Our world is actually some kind of simulation run by beings we know nothing about . It all started five minutes ago with the appearance of age.”

Brain in the vat:
Brain in a vat. My thought experiment here is far broader than that and include 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 nothing.

I’ve no doubt that most of us find that pretty absurd on an emotional level .
Yet, I do not think that anyone can show this to be widely implausible without begging the question and smuggling in assumptions about reality. And I spent quite a few hours exploring propositions aiming at rationally dismissing that possibility.
(You can try to prove me wrong if you so wish 🙂 ).

Therefore, I think that in order to ground our entire knowledge and existence, one has to take a leap of faith and make a pragmatic decision (Entscheidung) not based on whatever reasons.

Schene Grisse uss Nordenglond 🙂

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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).

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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 🙂

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Are all atheists wicked fools hurtling towards hell?

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?

Progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser wrote a very relevant post about some widespread harmful beliefs held by many Christians in America.

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Randal Rauser

A few days ago Jeff Lowder of “The Secular Outpost” started a new series on “stupid atheist memes”. His first installment was:

If you could reason with religious people, there would be no religious people.”

Four years ago I did my own series along similar lines titled “How to Confound Christians with Bad Arguments.” The first installment was: “Compare Santa to Jesus.” Needless to say, naming and shaming this kind of ignorance is an important way to maintain the health of a belief community.

While I think it is worthwhile to point out the problematic memes in another belief community, it is even better to commit some time to pointing out the problems in your own community. And that’s why I’m doubly appreciative for Jeff’s new series.

I have always aimed to do the same thing by extending at least as much criticism to elements within my own belief community as I direct outside it. As a case in point, in a few weeks my new book will be in the marketplace. In Is the Atheist My Neighbor? I launch a book-length critique of a particularly pernicious Christian meme, namely the idea that deep-down atheists really do believe in God and they are sinfully suppressing this belief so that they may live with impunity.  I believe this is a very harmful meme which has left much misunderstanding, pain, and suffering in its wake. (Incidentally, the book also features an interview with Jeff Lowder. Bonus!)

So how ought we to respond to harmful memes? Must we always speak out against them? The Book of Common Prayer includes the following confession: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” Note in this confession that there are two distinct sins. Yes, there is the sin of commission, namely those things we have done. But there are also the sins of omission, those things we ought to have done but failed to do. To propagate memes of ignorance, bigotry, and prejudice within your belief community constitutes a sin (or if you prefer, an “error” or “indiscretion”) of commission. But to fail to censure memes of ignorance, bigotry, and prejudice also constitutes a sin, namely a sin of omission.

In other words, there is no neutral place to stand with respect to this pernicious nonsense. Can you imagine the impact if every time one of these memes was posted or tweeted a chorus would rise up in indignation? Things would begin to change pretty quickly. To sum up, you’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.

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

My interaction with an atheist

Epicurus wrote an interesting comment:

I look forward to reading the book. I’ve always felt that Christians are trapped and must believe that non christians are suppressing belief because of Paul’s writings and attitudes on the matter.
It will be interesting to read Randal’s examination of the topic.

To which I answered:

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Lotharson

Not all Christians believe in Biblical inerrancy.

What’s more, Paul can be quite ambiguous on that very topic.

Saint Paul redacting one of his numerous letters.
The Apostle Paul writing one of his numerous letters.

“But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are
storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”[a] 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the GENTILE. 11 For God does not show favouritism.”

A straightforward interpretation of this passage would be that Paul did believe that HEATHENS were able to strive for good works, thereby inheriting immortality.

Consider further this parable of Jesus:

“31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For
I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you
gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the
least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I
was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you
did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after
me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

White-dressed Jesus, sheep, malovelent goats
Jesus, the sheep and the goats

Were the righteous ones people who put their faith in Jesus during this lifetime and were “saved by grace”?

I think it’s a terribly convoluted interpretation of this passage.

A likely interpretation is that Jesus (and possibly also Paul) believed in a kind of virtue ethics according to which salvation comes through the cultivation of a just and humble Christ-like personality while sincerely acknowledging one’s sins and need for salvation.

Therefore, I do think it is quite possible for a Christian to believe that many persons dying as atheists will inherit eternal life whereas self-righteous bigots of all kinds will be no more.

I certainly know quite a few atheists who are much closer to the spirit of Christ than many of his followers.

Cheers.

**************
Epicurus
“Therefore, I do think it is quite possible for a Christian to believe that many persons dying as atheists will inherit eternal life whereas self-righteous bigots of all kinds will be no more”.That all sounds fine, but what do you do with verses that suggest differently? Because you don’t believe in inerrancy you can ignore them and use the ones you like?
********
Lotharson

Hi.
My point was that, at the very least, Christians aren’t compelled to have such an attitude towards atheists.
While the Bible can often speak with conflicting voices, I do not think we can find anything telling us unambiguously that unbelievers are immoral but many things clearly asserting the contrary.

I grant your general point, however.
It would be terribly question-begging to base doctrines on verses we arbitrarily pick and choose, once we’ve already concluded that the Biblical Canon isn’t internally coherent.

Ultimately, I base my faith on God defined as the greatest Being which can exist.

In the end, I think this is a hope which cannot be proven through rational arguments. Neither can atheism or materialism.
(Many mainstream Christians in Europe consider “faith” as an existential decision to hope in God rather than as a set of knowledge claims).

I also think, however, that EVERY belief system must be grounded through unproven presuppositions.

Consider for example the possibility that we are living in a simulation which was created ten minutes ago.

Brain in a vat:
A brain in a vat: what if we’re all deluded?

I’ve no doubt that (almost) all of us find this completely absurd on an emotional level.

Yet I do not think that you can show this to be rationally implausible without begging the question in one way or the other.
(You can try to prove me wrong if you so wish).

Ooops, I might have gotten a bit too far from the original topic 🙂

******
Epicurus
I want to agree with you, but when I read things like Romans 1:18-32, or Psalm 14:1, etc, I can’t
***************

My interaction with a Conservative Evangelical

A little bit later, a Conservative Protestant criticised my views on salvation:
Rob

So you’re advocating Pelagianism? There’s no need to go that far.

Rom 2 is tricky. Thee point isn’t salvation by works. If you read the whole chapter, the gist is to jolt Jews out of complacency in thinking that they can sin and be saved, merely because they possess the Torah as a birthright, and that many gentiles are actually closer to heaven than they.

As to the sheep/goats parable, note the word “brethren”. This does not refer to generic acts of charity, but to good deeds done to Christians, so the doer would in some sense be considered Christian (ex. he who gives a cup of cold water, etc.)

None of this contradicts Rom 1, which seems to suggest that unbelievers hold (“suppress”) the knowledge of God’s existence, out of base motives.

******
Lotharson

Hi Rob.

I could as well say that Roman 1 is “tricky” and use Roman 2 to interpret it as meaning the collective sin of the culture rather than that of all individuals belonging to it.

Suppose that both Jesus and Paul believed that the deepest truth of the universe is that you have to believe in Christ on this side of the grave in order to be saved.

I think they would have said something like that:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For you did put your faith in me before entering the grave

Roman 2:
“But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgement will be revealed. 6 IF He “will repay each person according to what they have done.”, WE WILL ALL BE DAMNED. 7 To those who CONSCIOUSLY BELIEVED IN HIS SON DURING THEIR LIFETIME, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who DID NOT BELIEVE IN HIM, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who DID NOT BELIEVE IN HIM: first for the Jew, then
for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good THROUGH BELIEVING IN HIM: first for the Jew, then for the gentile. 11 For God does not show favouritism.”

The fact that Jesus and Paul used very different words and phrases is a terrible fit to the classical Protestant view of salvation.

At the very least, I think that what I described earlier is a not unlikely view of salvation in the New Testament, regardless of whether or not you call it “Pelagianism“.

**********
I might add that Rob’s answers are pretty far-fetched in other respects as well.
While Paul’s main point in Roman 2 was certainly to criticise a belief in Jewish supremacy, the way he expressed himself makes it pretty likely he believed that humble heathens striving for a righteous life will inherit immortality and glory.
So, Rob’s remark concerning Paul’s main intention while writing this fails to engage with my reasoning.
As for Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, Rob’s argumentation sounds really bizarre to my subjective ears. It appears to go like this
1) The word “Brethren” in the parable refers to “Christians in need”
2) Thus, those who inherit salvation are those who helped Christians in need
3) A person helps a Christian in need if and only if she is herself a Christian
4) Therefore, all Christians will go to heaven whereas all unbelievers will go to hell.
 That’s the only way I can make sense of it.
While I cannot judge Rob as a person, I think that this particular argument wasn’t particularly convincing.
1′) As Jesus taught this, there wasn’t yet any Christian around and it seems quite clear that “Brethren” referred to his fellow Jews trying to do the will of this Father while he was preaching  in Israel. And whenever “doing the will of the Father” is mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew, it means good works towards God and one’s neighbour and not faith in Him as the only possible “fire insurance”.
3′) involves that, whenever confronted with a Christian in need, all Christians will help the person in question whereas all non-Christians will selfishly refuse to do so. This is truly an extraordinary claim which can be all too easily refuted by reading testimonies of Christians in areas of armed conflict.
Saying that these passages teach “salvation by faith only” nonetheless means that Paul and Jesus were quite sloppy in their choice of words and examples. Given their extreme ambiguity, it would have been then quite legitimate for the Church before (and after) Luther to interpret this in good conscience and perfectly legitimately as supporting the “false teaching” of salvation by works.
This comes over as a desperate attempt at salvaging one’s dogmas no matter what.
 
I believe that honestly leaving every Biblical text speak for itself instead of imposing a predefined pattern on it leads to two important conclusions:
A) The Bible is not inerrant: it can clearly speak with conflicting voices
B) The large majority of texts go against major doctrines held by Conservative Protestants. Indeed,
they’re at odds with the doctrine of hell understood as eternal conscious torment
they fail to teach that God cursed us all with a sinful nature because our first parents ate the wrong fruit.
– they’re at odds with the doctrine of salvation by faith alone and grace alone (as seen in this post)
they’re at odds with the belief that homosexuality is a far more serious sin than failing to help the poor.
and I could add many others.

Conclusion

So, this was doubtlessly a terribly chaotic post 🙂
During these two interactions, I obviously touched on a lot of topics. I hope that my readers have found some of this interesting, regardless of whether they’re Christians, atheists or belong to an entirely different species altogether.

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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.

Can all our beliefs be based on evidence?

Jonny Scaramanga (a former British fundamentalist I interviewed here) wrote an interesting article about the way children may become persuaded of the truth of far fetched beliefs.

Jonny Scaramanga teaching a class
Jonny Scaramanga, former fundamentalist, activist and PhD student at the Institute of Education, University of London, studying student experiences of Accelerated Christian Education.

********

Children are not that gullible, which makes indoctrination even more odious

I recently submitted an article on indoctrination for publication in an academic journal. I was attempting to explain what indoctrination looks like in practice in an educational environment, and along the way I made an assertion that I think most people would accept: “Young children … in most cases will believe whatever they are told”.

This is a widely assumed to be true, so I am grateful to my anonymous peer reviewer for pointing out that I was mistaken. The reviewer recommended I read a paper by Dan Sperber et al, “Epistemic vigilance”, which, happily, is freely available online. The section on children begins on page 371. The evidence suggests that children from very young ages use sophisticated techniques to work out who to trust.

Even at a very early age, children do not treat all communicated information as equally reliable. At 16 months, they notice when a familiar word is inappropriately used (Koenig and Echols, 2003). By the age of two, they often attempt to contradict and correct assertions that they believe to be false (e.g. Pea, 1982). These studies challenge the widespread assumption that young children are simply gullible.

Do young children have the cognitive resources to allocate trust on the basis of relevant evidence about an informant’s trustworthiness? Given the choice, three-year-olds seem to prefer informants who are both benevolent (Mascaro and Sperber, 2009) and competent (e.g. Clement ´ et al., 2004). In preferring benevolent informants, they take into account not only their own observations but also what they have been told about the informant’s moral character (Mascaro and Sperber, 2009), and in preferring competent informants, they take past accuracy into account (e.g. Clement ´ et al., 2004; Birch et al., 2008; Scofield and Behrend, 2008). By the age of four, they not only have appropriate preferences for reliable informants, but also show some grasp of what this reliability involves. For instance, they can predict that a dishonest informant will provide false information (Couillard and Woodward, 1999), or that an incompetent informant will be less reliable (Call and Tomasello, 1999; Lampinen and Smith, 1995; Clément et al., 2004). Moreover, they make such predictions despite the fact that unreliable informants typically present themselves as benevolent and competent.

The paper goes on to explain that four- and five-year-olds develop methods of spotting deception and also hypocrisy. Further, they are good at interpreting signals about what other people think about information (and the informers), and they use this to assist their own judgements about who is a trustworthy informant and what information is reliable. They’re also pretty good at spotting when someone intends to deceive them, and they know to ignore that information. From the age of four, children are particularly careful about who to trust.

All of which is not to say that children can’t be fooled, of course, but adults can be fooled too. It turns out children are not the trusting dopes they are sometimes depicted as.

But I know, and you know too, that if you stick a class of children in a room with a teacher who tells them that God made the Earth in six days six thousand years ago, most of them are going to believe it (and this was my point when I said that children generally believe what they are told). So what’s going on?

The answer, of course, is that children have excellent reasons to trust their teachers and their parents. Even in the most extreme cults, the vast majority of the verifiable information we learn from our parents in our formative years turns out to be true. Stoves are indeed hot and plug sockets are dangerous. Waiting for the green man does make it safer to cross the road. The food they recommend is generally good tasting and non-poisonous, and the things they recommend for entertainment are usually enjoyable. Up to the age of four, most of what we know about the world comes from parents, and most of it is right.

Then our parents hand us over to the care of teachers, which implicitly tells us that they are to be trusted. Our parents may also explicitly tell us to trust our teachers, with phrases like “You should listen to what your teacher says”. We trust our parents because they haven’t steered us wrong so far, and sure enough the teacher does seem to be reliable as well. She teaches us to read, which is very useful, and when we read signs using the methods she taught us, we arrive in the right places. She shows us that when we connect wires to metal contacts, the bulb lights up, and when we connect them to plastic, nothing happens.

Our parents and teachers tell us stories, and from quite early on they distinguish between true stories and those which are ‘only stories’. So when they tell us about Noah’s Ark, the exodus from Egypt, and the walls of Jericho, we trust them. We have every reason to do so—they have demonstrated their reliability. We would, as Sperber’s paper argues, be pretty good at telling if they were trying to deceive us, but of course they aren’t.

In short, when children are taught creationism by their parents and teachers, they accept it because this is the rational thing to do. Even the most committed skeptic cannot check everything out first hand. We all gain much of our knowledge from reliable others, and for most of us parents and teachers are the most reliable others we will ever know. It would be insane to trust them on everything except religion when religion is presented as true in the same way as all other knowledge taught at home or school. Of course the children believe you. That’s what you’re for. When you use that fact to make children believe things for which there is insufficient evidence, you are abusing your power and abusing their trust.

Presenting religious ideas as though we can believe them with the same confidence we can believe that clouds make rain or electricity flows through metal better than plastic is just immoral. I find it difficult to overstate how wrong this is. There are not many things I would call sacred, but the duty of care to children must be one of them. Ironically, I find myself wanting to use religious language to emphasise the gravity of this point. From the point of view of the Christian teacher, God has put these children in your care. It is despicable to use this position to present scientific and religious information as though they are both equally knowledge. Your job is to educate children, and you’re lying to them. It is the educational equivalent of a doctor poisoning patients.

*******

I think this raised quite important questions about the nature of faith and what our convictions should be grounded on.

Here was my response.

Hi Jonny.

I certainly agree it may be pretty harmful to teach far-fetched beliefs to children.

I don’t think, however, that one can generally say that fundies are being immoral for doing so.

Most I talked with are sincerely convinced that there are good arguments for a young earth or an exodus out of Egypt and that if it doesn’t belong to public knowledge, it is only because “godless” scientists “suppress the truth”.

Young earth creationism: poor dinosaurs are seeing the ark departing while the raging water is about to flood them.
Young earth creationism in all its glory.

So they teach what they are honesty convinced of and I think that very few of them teach things they know very well to be false.

Of course, I believe they are either utterly irrational or terribly uninformed. But that changes nothing to their sincerity.

Otherwise, I doubt it is possible to only believe in things we’ve evidence for.

Consider the proposition:

“We do not live in a simulation ran by beings we know nothing about.”

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 include 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 nothing.

Almost all human beings accept this.
Yet, I strongly doubt it is possible to bring up evidence for this without already making assumptions about reality, i.e. without begging the question.

As far as I can tell, nobody has ever come up with a satisfactory answer to the Muenchhausen dilemna,
****

All justifications in pursuit of ‘certain’ knowledge have also to justify the means of their justification and doing so they have to justify anew the means of their justification. Therefore, there can be no end. We are faced with the hopeless situation of ‘infinite regression’.
One can justify with a circular argument, but this sacrifices its validity.

The brain is the most important organ you have. According to the brain.
Circular reasoning.

One can stop at self-evidence or common sense or fundamental principles or speaking ex cathedra or at any other evidence, but in doing so, the intention to install ‘certain’ justification is abandoned.

An English translation of a quote from the original German text by Albert is as follows:[8]

Here, one has a mere choice between:

An infinite regression, which appears because of the necessity to go ever further back, but is not practically feasible and does not, therefore, provide a certain foundation.
A logical circle in the deduction, which is caused by the fact that one, in the need to found, falls back on statements which had already appeared before as requiring a foundation, and which circle does not lead to any certain foundation either.
A break of searching at a certain point, which indeed appears principally feasible, but would mean a random suspension of the principle of sufficient reason.
******

Consequently, I think there are some very basic beliefs we hold which cannot be justified.
This leads me to reject claims of knowing how things really are and to adopt a pragmatic view of our beliefs.
I view “faith” as hope in something highly desirable even if evidence is unavailable or insufficient.

According to that definition, it is my contention that everyone walks by faith.
I don’t have children but I think I would try to explain this to them as soon as they are old enough to grasp that (without hopefully making them too dizzy).
To my mind, these considerations lead to a humble pluralism rather than to a confident materialism.

I don’t, however, hold anything I said dogmatically and would be glad to see your objections, if you have some.

I certainly sympathize with the children of fundamentalists who go through terrible ordeals as you did.

Cheers.

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