How so-called “leftists” react to heresies

Do you want to be bullied, ridiculed and dehumanised by a LIBERAL culture warrior?

 

Classical liberalism "I disapprove of what you say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it". "Progressivism" I disapprove of what you say, and I will publicly shame you, lobby to have you censored and demand you be fired from your job.
Pseudo-progressivism in action.

 

Say to him or her any of the following things.

 

1) Systematic racism against afro-americans is alive and well in America in 2016. This shouldn’t be tolerated. But there are also innocent white kids who get bullied and battered just because of their skin colour. This should be called racial hatred and equally combated.

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2) Nowadays, there is still an intolerable level of homophobia and misogyny in the Western World. We must not deny this but eagerly fight it. However,in 2016 the oppression of gays and females is MUCH worse in Muslim countries. They (and liberal Muslims who defend them) are much more in need of our support than Western females and homosexuals.

No Trade with Saudi, killers of gays
A true progressive protest

 

3) Arabs/Muslims in France (especially after the terrorist attacks in Paris) suffer from a very strong discrimination and exclusion. This is awful and despicable and must be combated by all means.
However, young Arabs in French suburbs beating innocent white children to avenge themselves are guilty of racial hatred and should be condemned accordingly.

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4) A man whose life has been destroyed by a false rape accusation is as much in need of our help and compassion as a woman whose life has been destroyed by a true rape.

Despaired man.
False rape accusation. Truly, pain, sadness and depression know no gender. And no: statistical numbers comparing men and women do not feel anything at all. Only individuals do.

5) While assessing the existence of real discriminations in the here and now in a given society (say America), you shouldn’t directly compare the whole groups of non-Hispanic whites, Hispanics, blacks and Asians  because these populations can be extremely different in terms of poverty, culture and many other factors.

Instead, while investigating academic success, unjustified police arrests, discriminations etc.,  you should compare homogeneous groups such as:

a) wealthy whites and wealthy blacks coming from wealthy neighbourhoods

b) poor whites and poor blacks coming from poor neighbourhoods

c) qualified men and qualified women applying for academic positions in philosophy or mechanical engineering.

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6) Anti-black racism isn’t only a Western phenomenon. There are awful cases of persecutions of black Africans in Arabic countries as well. This is something progressive Arabs clearly expose and fight. Curiously, this is something progressive Westerners choose to completely ignore because it destroys their most fundamental beliefs.

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7) Race-based affirmative action is unjust and inevitably upholds artificial divisions of humankind.
Instead, it should be replaced by a set of three measures

i) wealth-based affirmative action
ii) any enterprise must have the same amount of employees belonging to the ethnic minority as the amount of that ethnic minority among qualified candidates.
iii) public education in poor neighbourhoods must be extremely strengthened and improved through the intervention of the State. Much more money needs to be spent in these areas.

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8) Discriminating a person because he or she is obese, unattractive or behaves oddly due to a mental health condition isn’t any less immoral than discriminating him or her based on race, gender or sexual orientation.

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9) Stealing the wallet of a person swinging it around in the street is as immoral as stealing it from his or her closed pockets.
But given the bad mentality of a large number of people, it might not be wise to hold it in one’s hands while walking down certain streets.

 

Raping a sexily dressed and attractive woman is as wrong, egregious and wicked as raping a “modestly” dressed woman.
But given the bad mentality of a large number of men, it might not be wise to dress oneself provocatively under certain circumstances.

Slut walk: naked or clothed, respect is what I am owed.
The phenomenon of “slut-walks“: young women protesting for their right to dress attractively without getting harassed. I WHOLEHEARTEDLY agree with the slogan this girl is wearing. Respect OUGHT to remain the same. But living in a world full of wicked men, it might be extremely UNWISE to walk at night dressed like that. I just fail to see how pointing this out makes you an evil sexist.

 

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Liberalism, rationality and morality

 

I want to make it perfectly clear that what I wrote does NOT concern all liberals, but only the true “culture warriors” among them.

These people view themselves as the champions of truth, reason, decency and intelligence.
Actually, my numerous interactions with them have shown me they aren’t any different from nasty religious fundamentalists aggressively defending their cherished dogmas, without evidence and often even in the face of evidence.

I consider myself a progressive Christian because I believe that the Bible contains contradictions and errors and that we need to use our God-given conscience in order to figure out what is right and what is wrong in a complex world and to make moral progress.

I passionately oppose wild capitalism, the oppression of the poor, the exploitation of the third world, homophobia and anything I sincerely find unjust.

And this all too often leads me to think outside the box, as the content of this post proves.

Frankly, I am ready to give up any of the nine “heretical” beliefs I laid out if you give me compelling rational arguments against them.

Insulting and dehumanising me would be definitely most entertaining (to me) 🙂

Alas, it is unlikely to change my mind in the least.

It is particularly embarrassing that many of these self-righteous “leftists” are self-professed Christians.
By bullying their respectful opponents and treating them like the scum of the world, they are dishonouring Christ who taught us to even love our enemy.

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?

 

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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. 🙂

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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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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.

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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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 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.

Are fundamentalists denying hell?

Those familiar with my blog know I am no big fan of Biblical inerrancy and don’t think that the Biblical authors necessarily agree with each other on every topic (Kevin Miller I interviewed holds similar views).

Still,as far as the nature of hell is concerned, I think that the overwhelming image of ultimate punishment is “death”,  naturally meaning the cessation of existence.

I interviewed Chris Date in that respect.

I find it amusing (albeit consternating) to see how fundamentalists unwittingly mistake their own tradition-conditioned interpretation (or should I say “distortion) of a Biblical concept for the real thing.

For the large majority of Conservative Christians, hell signifies eternally existing in an incredibly painful state.

Recently, Tim Challies, a creationist book reviewer took to task the growing number of Evangelicals who are  switching to conditional immortality (according to which immortality is a gift received by only the saved) and universalism (according to which after a shorter or longer period of torment in hell, everyone is going to be saved).

Here is his post I replied to.

A hellbound man screams forever.
Being in hell forever: many people believe it is the consistent Biblical description of the lost.

What I Would Have To Deny To Deny Hell

It was just a few years ago that everyone was talking about hell. One disaffected Evangelical had decided to use his platform and popularity to question the very notion of hell, and, not surprisingly, he caused quite a stir. The crisis came and went, of course, and it had at least one happy outcome: Many Christians had to examine what they believe about hell and come to stronger and better conclusions.

I believe in hell. I do not believe in some version of hell that owes more to Dante and The Far Side than sacred writ, but the hell I see revealed in the Bible—a hell of eternal, conscious torment. I wish there was no such thing as hell, but I have deteremined to live by the Bible and I simply cannot deny what the Bible makes plain.

But what if I did? What would I have to deny in order to deny hell? If I am ever to come to the point of denying the existence of hell, what will be the doctrinal cost of getting there? Though I am sure there is much more that could be said, I can think of at least four major denials.

I Will Deny What Jesus Taught

Jesus believed in the literal existence of a literal hell. It is very difficult to read Luke 16 (the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus) and arrive at any other conclusion except that Jesus believed in hell and that he believed in a hell of conscious torment of body and mind.

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’

Jesus also believed in the permanence of hell: “[B]esides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” In Matthew’s gospel Jesus speaks of hell as the furnace of fire, the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. He calls it a place of everlasting fire. This would be strange language for a man to use if he believed that hell did not exist and that it was not a place of unspeakable torment.

If I am going to deny the existence of hell, I will need to outright deny what Jesus teaches and declare that he is wrong, or I will need to obscure what is so plain. I will need to make all of Jesus’ language symbolic and all of the meaning something other than what seems so clear. I will need to deny what Jesus says.

I Will Deny the Plain Sense of Scripture

Time would fail me here to provide an extensive look at the concept of hell in the Bible; time would fail me to look at each of the words associated with hell. But one does not need to be an expert on the Bible or on its original languages to see that it teaches clearly that there is life after death and that this life after death will involve either joy or torment, it will involve enjoying the loving presence of God or facing his wrathful presence. This is stated explicitly in Scripture and it is stated implicitly, it is present in the Old Testament and comes to full form in the New Testament. Those who wrote Scripture believed that hell existed and made it plain in what they wrote.

If I am going to deny the existence of hell, I will have to do a great deal of redefining, a great deal of reinterpreting. As with the teaching of Jesus, I will need to change what is plain to what is symbolic, I will need to take what is clear and make it obscure. There is no getting around the fact that a plain, honest reading of the Bible teaches the existence of hell.

I Will Deny the Testimony of the Church

If I am to deny the existence of hell, I will be denying what has been the near-unanimous testimony of the Christian church through the ages. From the church’s earliest days until today, hell has been understood as a place of conscious, eternal torment. The Westminster Larger Catechism offers an apt summary of what Christians have long believed: “The punishments of sin in the world to come, are everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God, and most grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hell fire forever.” Though this was formed in the days of Reformation, it depends upon the testimony of Christians who came before. And it informed generations that followed.

If I am to deny that hell is a real place, if I am to deny that hell is that kind of place, I will be turning my back on two thousand years of Christian history—on two thousand years of brothers and sisters in Christ who had great knowledge of Scripture and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. I’ll grant that there are times this is necessary; there are times that many Christians are wrong about many things. But such a decision must be made with great fear and trembling and only on the basis of overwhelming Scriptural evidence.

I Will Deny the Gospel

I cannot deny hell without utterly changing the gospel message. The message of Christ dying for the lost in order to save their souls will be meaningless. If there is no hell, there is really nothing to lose. And so heaven and hell must be brought to earth, they must be seen as present realities rather than future ones. The Baptist preacher J.L. Dagg said it well: “To appreciate justly and fully the gospel of eternal salvation we must believe the doctrine of eternal damnation.” If I am going to deny eternal damnation, I must radically rewrite the gospel. Gone is the gospel of sinners who have committed treason against God and who call upon themselves God’s just wrath. There are many gospels I can put in its place. But what is clear is that this gospel, this gospel of a substitutionary atonement must be a casualty. This gospel stands and falls upon the existence of both heaven and hell. Take away either one and you gut the gospel; it becomes meaningless and nonsensical.

If I am going to give up hell, I am going to give up the gospel and replace it with a new one.

Let me close with some words from the great theologian Robert Dabney. What he says here I believe as well. “Sure I am, that if hell can be disproved in any way that is solid and true, and consistent with God’s honor and man’s good, there is not a trembling sinner in this land that would hail the demonstration with more joy than I would.” It’s not that I want hell to be true, but that the Scripture makes it clear that it is true. It is not for me to dismantle the doctrine or to deny it; I am simply to believe it and to live and act as if it is true.

***

Distorting the Biblical texts

Here was  my response:

“He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day,  just
as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the
same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange
flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of
eternal fire.”
Jude 1:7

” and if He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by
reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would
live ungodly lives thereafter;”

2 Peter 2:6

So, Sodom and Gomorrah are an example of what will happen to the ungodly.

Have these cities been eternally tortured ever since their destruction?

Was their conscious pain exhibited as an example during the first century A.C?

Does this very thought seem a bit laughable?

The wasted valleyes of Sodom and Gomorrah
Sodom and Gomorrah many centuries later. Is it an image of the painful eternal separation from God the lost has to endure?
Or is it a clear image of irreversible destruction?

As for Jesus, what about

“And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”

According to your view, one should read this verse as:

“And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the
soul: but rather fear him which is able to torment both soul and body in
hell.”

With all due respect, I cannot help but think that interpreting these texts as conscious torment is a ridiculous force-fit.

Concerning the rich man in Hades, I can only quote my interview with Chris Date
********
“the problems are twofold. First and most importantly, the parable isn’t even set in hell. It’s set in Hades, the underworld, the place of the dead. The rich man’s brothers are still alive, and he, dead in Hades, pleads that someone would go and tell his still-living brothers to repent. None of this would be possible in the eschaton. Besides, the text explicitly states he’s in Hades. And we know that one day mankind will be raised up out of Hades, given once again living bodies, at which point they will be finally judged. So there’s simply no good argument to be made for the traditional view from this parable. Secondly, there’s little reason to believe Jesus intends for the parable to be taken as a
realistic description of the afterlife in the first place. Scholars of ancient Jewish literature have found several very similar stories that are sort of life fairy tales, or folk tales, not intended to be taken literally, but communicating a moral point. And Jesus appears to take these and turn them on their head, sort of telling his hearers that they’ve got things all wrong when it comes to the rich and the poor.
Imagine, if you will, if Jesus were to come to us today and tell a story very similar to Humpty Dumpty, but whereas the king’s men in the original could not put Humpty back together again, in Jesus’ version the king himself puts Humpty back together again, as an illustration that God will one day raise his people from the dead. No one would think that Jesus was saying the afterlife would literally be like what happens in Humpty Dumpty. We’d all recognize that he was co-opting a common fairy tale of our day in order to communicate spiritual realities, like he does in all his parables. So I don’t see any reason to take the parable literally. But let me reiterate that that’s only secondary. Even if one is inclined to take Jesus’ parable as a generally realistic account of
the afterlife, the most it could lead one to do is embrace dualism and a conscious intermediate state awaiting resurrection. Again: The parable takes place in Hades, not hell.”
*****

What’s more, in the passage of Revelation you quoted, it is said that “Hades” will be thrown into the lake of fire.

What does that show us? Two things:

1) Hades cannot be a permanent state of miserable existence, it’s going to have an end
2) being in the lake of fire cannot mean being tormented, for “Hades” is an impersonal concept incapable of feeling anything.

Therefore, it is quite natural to conclude that landing in this lake of fire involves being destroyed irremediably.

The damned scream out loud in the fiery lanscapes of the lake of fire.
Will Hades “the Death” be eternally tormented in the lake of fire?
Or will it be no more?

Argument of silence against eternal conscious torment

I think that an excellent argument from silence can also be made against ECT.

You believe that eternal conscious torment is a doctrine of crucial importance.

It is the worst thing which can happen to someone therefore we should preach it everywhere.

If so, why did not God act accordingly?

Consider the overwhelming majority of the Old Testament (at the very least between the time of Abraham and that of the prophet Jeremiah) how often do you find someone ambiguously evoking an everlasting state of painful existence as a punishment for sin?

Never. The retribution of misdeeds is always associated with DEATH and it is incredibly far-fetched to imagine that the ancient Hebrew writers meant “spiritual death” while existing miserably.

Likewise, in the Acts of the Apostles, while judgment is mentioned at some places we can never find any mention of unending suffering.

If ETC were true , we would expect the writers to clearly and unambiguously announce and preach it.
But this is absolutely not what one finds.
I think that in this specific case, the absence of evidence is evidence of absence: these are failed predictions which are so significant that they largely suffice for showing that these Biblical writers did not view hell as never-ending torment.

If the Bible inerrantly taught the doctrine of conscious eternal torment, our Biblical texts would look very different from what they are.

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

My other blog on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)

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.

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

My other blog on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)

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.