Rebutting Reasonable Faith: The Evangelical Conspiracy Theory

In "The Aura of Infallibility", I mentioned William Lane Craig's belief in something he calls the "self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit", which he considers to be the most persuasive, crowning argument for Christianity. Basically, all it boils down to is that Craig has a really strong feeling that Christianity is true, and he believes that that feeling should be privileged above any and all evidence.

As Craig himself puts it, in question #136:

For not only should I continue to have faith in God on the basis of the Spirit's witness even if all the arguments for His existence were refuted, but I should continue to have faith in God even in the face of objections which I cannot at that time answer...

What I'm claiming is that even in the face of evidence against God which we cannot refute, we ought to believe in God on the basis of His Spirit's witness.

In essence, Craig is claiming infallibility for himself. On the basis of some warm and fuzzy feelings he's had, he declares himself an inerrant judge presiding over all the cosmos, deciding the truth of every factual proposition his warm feelings tell him about and refusing to admit even the possibility of error. This is a laughable and ridiculously arrogant self-exaltation, although he's by no means alone among religious people in making it; he just does it more explicitly than most of them. (As another example, take this from the official statement of faith of Answers in Genesis: "No apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field... can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record").

But it doesn't stop there. Craig also insists on believing that everyone else has these feelings too, which leads him to draw a morally outrageous conclusion that insults all non-Christians:

When a person refuses to come to Christ it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God's Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God. (source)

In other words, Craig's position requires him to believe that everyone - everyone - in the world who's not an evangelical Christian - every atheist, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Baha'i, Sikh and Shintoist, every pagan past and present, every member of every indigenous tribe - is fully aware of the truth of evangelical Christianity and refuses to admit this out of a stubborn desire to sin. It forces him to believe in a worldwide conspiracy involving sustained, lifelong deception practiced on a daily basis by billions of people throughout history.

This contorted position arises from the four-part contradiction that all believers like Craig are forced to confront as a result of their theology:

(1) It's immoral to punish people for making an honest mistake.
(2) At least some non-members of my religion are honestly mistaken in what they believe.
(3) God will eternally punish all non-members of my religion.
(4) God never acts immorally.

Logically, all four of these statements can't be true; at least one has to be false. But believers like Craig refuse to surrender any of the theological points, and instead he jettisons the one empirical statement in the tetrad: that at least some nonbelievers are honestly mistaken. He thus ends up with a bizarre, massive conspiracy theory which holds that everyone in the world who doesn't believe as he does is being deliberately deceptive.

This is a paradigm example of how compensating for logical flaws in a belief system lead to immoral views of one's fellow humans. "God wouldn't damn people for making an honest mistake," the thought process goes, "and therefore, no one is making an honest mistake! Everyone who's not in my religion really knows I'm right and is just lying." Not only does this soothe the believer's troubled conscience, it gives them a convenient excuse to avoid having to deal with any nonbeliever's argument on the merits: all such arguments can be waved away because the believer "knows" that they're not being offered in good faith. Bizarre and ridiculous as it is, the evangelical conspiracy theory is one of the more effective means by which religious fundamentalists cocoon their minds away from the world.

Other posts in this series:

September 2, 2011, 5:39 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink29 comments

The Mormon Test

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked.  Adam is on vacation.

When in argument with Christians, it can be hard to find a good way to explain why you doubt their precepts.  John Loftus has a good idea with his Outsider's Test for Faith, but most Christians believe that their faith can pass the test; it's hard to show them how their faith looks if you haven't been steeped in it.

Sometimes I've tried comparing and contrasting with other, conflicting denominations and asking why I should find one compelling over the other, but it's easy for Christians to escape that maneuver by claiming that they do agree on the most important aspects of God's nature.  According to them, I should be convinced by what binds them together.  It's also easy to end up in an endless cycle of counter-citations and courtier's replies if you try to get technical with objections and apologetics.

I have a couple standard questions, but, after seeing The Book of Mormon on Broadway, I've got an idea for a different opening gambit.  As we heard during Romney's first campaign, Mormonism has a lot of mind-boggling propositions embedded in its theology.  According to data from the Pew Research Center, over a third of Americans do not believe Mormons are Christians, and that proportion is higher among white evangelicals.  In other words, most Christians have no emotional ties to Mormonism and are less likely to get defensive when talking about it.

So the question to pose is: what evidence should compel me to believe in your faith rather than Mormonism?  There are plenty of parallels to push on.  Apologist Lee Strobel makes much of the fact that early Christians were willing to be martyred for their faith and that, despite persecution, the Church grew and thrived.  The same is true of the Church of Latter Day Saints.  The Mormons were persecuted and threatened as them moved west.  According to standard Christian apologetic logic, we should give them more credence for persisting and creating new converts.

Of course, the problem for Christians is that they find Mormon theology to be false prima facie.  If you're a little shaky on Mormon theology, take a listen to the ballad "I Believe" from the musical.  In the song, one of the missionary leads sings a song that encapsulates parts of Mormon dogma.  It starts off mainstream ("I believe that the Lord God created the Universe / I believe that he sent his only son to die for my sin") but it quickly gets stranger:

I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America...

I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob

I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well

And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri

Except, according to some Christian apologists, the implausibility of beliefs can be proof of the certainty of the believer.  After all, they say, no one would profess such a ridiculous seeming belief if they didn't have good reason to think it were true.   (Though the Mormons are certainly proof that widespread ridicule is insufficient to kill off a religion or halt its expansion).

Try turning the old defenses around and asking Christians how they account for the extremely rapid expansion of a church they regard as false.  They can't take the out they do when questioned about Islam; Mormonism didn't convert by conquest.  Framing the question more pleasantly ("I don't understand how...." rather than "Bet you can't explain...") could get you more a more considered response and a more charitable hearing once you try to pick their answer apart.

May 27, 2011, 4:50 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink23 comments

The Language of God: Truth Seekers

The Language of God, Chapter 11

By B.J. Marshall

Aside from summarizing the points he's made in previous chapters, Collins uses this final chapter as his last chance to be a Christian apologist, but he surprisingly leaves the door open for other options.

First, I feel compelled to highlight Collins' honesty. He states that, after twenty eight years as a believer, "the Moral Law still stands out for me as the strongest signpost to God" (p.218). I appreciate the candor because it's sometimes difficult for theists to articulate the single best reason they have to believe in God. But here, Collins is explicitly drawing a line in the sand: The Moral Law is the single and best reason why he believes in God. Now, I'm not saying that he'd have plenty of other claims to fall back on if someone were to refute his A-game. But I appreciate him laying out what his A-game is.

In a subsection of this chapter entitled "What Kind of Faith?", Collins give us this gem:

Most of the world's great faiths share many truths, and probably they would not have survived had that not been so. Yet there are also interesting and important differences, and each person needs to seek out his own particular path to the truth" (p.219).

I'm not exactly sure what he means by "share many truths," since "truth" and "idea" could be interchangeable here given the lack of validating those "truths." Maybe multiple religions share the same truth that it's OK to beat your slave if that slave doesn't die after a day or two (Exodus 21). That these great faiths would not have survived for so long had they not been touching the "truth" is a textbook case of an Argument from Antiquity or Tradition. This argument basically says that the fact that an idea has been around for a long time implies that the idea is true. I have heard this often from acupuncturists: "It's been around for thousands of years, so it must have something going for it." However, the longevity of an idea does not necessarily correlate to its, to use a Stephen Colbert term, truthiness.

Many times in this book we've noted cases where naturalistic phenomena are completely explained, and yet Collins feels compelled to invoke God. I found it interesting that Collins states that each person needs to seek out his/her own particular path to the truth without invoking the caveat that one had better choose Jesus unless one wants to burn in Hell forever. Would Collins be cool with someone choosing a "path to the truth" that involves a deistic god that doesn't intervene in the world? Given that Collins' truth "can be tested only by the spiritual logic of the heart, the mind, and the soul" (p.204), I suppose he'd have to. It reminds me of Shepherd Book's final words in Serenity: "I don't care what you believe in, just believe in it."

But, still, Jesus is where it's at. Collins says he spent considerable time discerning God's characteristics. God "must care about persons, or the argument about the Moral Law would not make much sense" (p.219). Collins seems here to have started as his conclusion - the Moral Law exists - and worked backwards from it to posit a premiss that he insists is true, that there is a God who cares about people. This is backwards logic: Affirming the Consequent. It may very well be the case that, if a God exists (p) then there would be a Moral Law (q). However, q could obtain through means other than p. So, by saying "q therefore p" is an inference that Collins makes to his, and his readers', detriment.

Anyway, now we have this God who cares about people. Well, God is way above us sinful humans, so Collins was having a really hard time bridging the gap to God. Enter Jesus. "As I read the actual account of His life for the first time in the four gospels, the eyewitness nature of the narratives and the enormity of Christ's claims and their consequences began to sink in" (p.221). I think I only have space to touch briefly three problems this sentence poses: the accounts aren't actual, they're not from eyewitnesses, and the enormity of the claims count for nothing given the lack of extra-Biblical references.

Regarding actual accounts, I find the statement relating to four actual accounts as specious given that Matthew and Luke take 93% of their material verbatim from Mark, according to a presentation (Which Jesus?) by Jeremy Beahan of the Reasonable Doubts podcast.

Regarding eyewitnesses, Burton L. Mack, in "Who Wrote the New Testament: The Making of the Christian Myth" provides a timeline of the gospel authors based on the earliest manuscripts we have:

The testimony of eyewitnesses is on incredibly shaky ground. You've probably all seen this video of kids - some in white t-shirts and some in black t-shirts, passing basketballs to one another. You're told to count how many times some team bounces the ball. Meanwhile, a person in a gorilla suit walks in the middle, thumps its chest, and walks off. I attended an IT conference last year where this was done. The audience was then asked how many people saw a gorilla. Seriously, out of 1,500 well-educated IT professionals, a full third of them did NOT see the gorilla! Eyewitnesses can be amazingly fallible; "eyewitnesses" recounting their stories decades after the fact is just asking for fallibility.

Regarding the enormity of the claims, Collins also gives a quick reference to Josephus as among the "non-Christian historians of the first century" who bear witness to this Jesus guy. He doesn't say who the other non-Christian historians are, but Josephus' hat tip to Jesus is generally recognized as a Christian interpolation; a section in the Testimonium Flavianum reads like a Holy Bullet List of Christology: He was crucified, died, rose from the dead, appeared to them on the third day, "as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him". The lack of good, sound extra-biblical evidence for the enormity of the claims leaves me with the Bible to prove itself, which is illustrated nicely in this comic.

Collins references one scholar who said "The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar" (p.224). Interesting, then, that a ton more information is written about Julius Caesar than Jesus (apart from the Bible, that is), and yet Caesar was considered a god after his death; sadly, I don't see anyone worshipping Caesar anymore. It is possible to separate the actual history of whether a person existed from claims that the person was, in fact, a god.

Collins concludes this chapter, and this book, with a final word. I will save this for my next, and last, post in this series.

Other posts in this series:

April 30, 2011, 10:41 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink6 comments

Defending Genocide, Redux

A while back, I wrote a post about professional Christian apologists who defend genocide as a moral and holy act. As revolting as this is, it's unsurprising on one level: these people have devoted their careers to defending Christianity, and as such, their living depends on not admitting any flaws whatsoever in Christian doctrine. If the Bible commands an act as evil as genocide, they have no choice but to defend it, even if it means doing violence to all rational notions of morality.

But as I found out recently, it's not just professional apologists who believe this. Their genocide-excusing logic has filtered down even to lay believers, whose only stake in these doctrines is personal and emotional rather than financial, with the result that ordinary people now are defending the Bible's war crimes as just and good. I've already written one slightly incredulous post about this, but it deserves a more thorough analysis.

Here's how one commenter put it:

...according to Christianity, death isn't the end of the story. What if, instead of "God ordered the Hebrews to kill the Canaanites", we read it as "God ordered the Hebrews to teleport the Canaanites from the desert to a land of eternal happiness where everyone gets a pony"? Does that change the verdict? Granted, the particular mechanism of teleportation in this case is downright unpleasant, but compared to eternity, it amounts to stubbing your toe while you step onto the transport pad.

This is the same logic that was used by inquisitors throughout the medieval ages. In their theocracies, everyone was required by law to profess the same beliefs, and if there were any dissenters, they would be imprisoned and tortured until they recanted their error. And why not? After all, if it saved their souls, it had to be justified. Subjecting someone to the rack, thumbscrews, strappado, waterboarding, the iron maiden, etc., might be unpleasant, but in the scheme of eternity, it would be like stubbing your toe while you step onto the teleportation pad.

This same commenter went on to explain:

...yes, I believe that God, as the author and owner of life, has the right to order the murder of a child.

If you're still reading, I do not believe he will order any such thing. If Jesus appeared next to me and ordered me to go murder a child, I would first seek psychiatric help and, assuming the wiring checks out, seek spiritual help. I firmly believe that God will not order such a thing, not because a child's death is incongruous with God's nature, but because it is incongruous with the plan of salvation as revealed to the Catholic church.

As I pointed out in a comment (and as he agreed, to my horror), this isn't saying that genocide or child-murder in the name of God is morally wrong, just that it's not expedient at the present moment. There's a vast difference between these claims.

Another atheist commenter on Unequally Yoked, Patrick, put it well:

I think a surprising number of Christians are willing to posit that they WOULD be horrific murderers of children, and that this would be perfectly ok, except for a few lucky happenstances of history that meant that all the horrific murdering of children that needed to happen got done before they were born. And I think that these Christians are happy to posit this because its all just a big fantasy to them, a sort of suspension of disbelief surrounding ancient tales that happened long ago to other people who don't really count anymore... So they pretend to believe that they'd swing an axe into the neck of a child if God asked them to, and that it would be Righteous.

In a follow-up thread, a different theist commenter offered a different justification:

God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge. We don't. Not only does he have over several billion years past experience, He also knows the future. If there is something that appears evil now, but does a tremendous good in the future, was it really evil?... How can you say with any authority that the destruction of those societies did not benefit humanity?

Not only would you have to ask why God, who is omnipotent, couldn't have accomplished his ends through a different and less evil method, there's also the problem that this theodicy explains too much. It could be used just as easily to excuse any evil, however horrendous, on the grounds that God intends to use it to justify some future good. And after some prodding, this commenter eventually agreed:

I was saying, the Amalekite [genocide] was done for a purpose, and the Holocaust was allowed for a purpose. Without knowing what that purpose is, no human is in a position to impose a moral judgement for either.

And then there's this amateur apologist, whose post came up in the discussion. He has not one but two genocide-excusing explanations:

In working with the early Israelites, God was dealing with a blunt instrument. He wasn't working with a people who had already been broken of their tribal mentality and who were used to distinguishing those who were personally guilty from those who were fellow-members of the guilty party's tribe.

This may shed light on why God allowed a total tribe-on-tribe warfare situation to result, because this was what the people of the day understood. The development and purification of their ideas about collective versus individual guilt and innocence had not yet taken place.

This apologetic is based on the bizarre assumption that God's methods of justice were constrained by what people believed to be moral. If the ancient Israelites believed in corporate guilt and found it proper to eradicate an entire culture, then God had no choice but to act accordingly, even if that wasn't actually the right thing to do. Akin never even tries to explain why this should be so.

Probably recognizing that this is a non-starter, he moves on to a backup explanation:

Suppose that there was a Canaanite child who was four years old--young enough to still be an innocent, but old enough to experience the horror of watching her civilization killed around her before being killed herself.

From a purely human perspective, that is HORRENDOUS. My heart is SICKENED at the thought of what such a child would go through.

But is God--who is infinitely powerful--INCAPABLE of making it up to this child?

No, he is not incapable of making up to her the sufferings that she experienced on earth, however horrible they were.

This apologetic rests on a different, but no less bizarre, theory: that it's perfectly OK to commit a terrible evil against someone if you intend to make it up to them afterwards. By this logic, a billionaire should be allowed to molest children, just as long as he recompenses them afterwards by buying them all the toys and presents they could ever want. (You can judge for yourself how plausible religious people find this defense when it's an actual wealthy person who stands accused.)

Now, I don't think any of these people are actually in favor of genocide, whatever they say. I think they think of this as a harmless intellectual game they're playing, a thought experiment they engage in to justify other beliefs they value more. But what they fail to recognize is how dangerous this is, because the same reasoning can be used - is used - by violent fundamentalists to justify inquisitions, suicide bombings, terrorist attacks, torture, and all the other evils of religion we're so familiar with. By supporting this cold and amoral theology themselves, they give aid and comfort to those who don't stop at making it a thought experiment, but go ahead and put it into practice. And what happens if some day, the Pope or some other allegedly moderate religious figure does command believers to start waging war for the glory of God? Can they be so sure they'd still object, when they're already used to subordinating their consciences to faith?

April 11, 2011, 12:49 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink102 comments

New on Ebon Musings: The Apologist's Handbook

Earlier this year, I called on readers to help me compile the "apologist's handbook", a list of responses given by lay and professional Christians to common atheist objections, in order to point out how some of those answers directly contradict each other. There were dozens of suggestions, some of them very good indeed.

Well, I've now compiled the best of those responses into a new essay on Ebon Musings. Go check it out!

April 8, 2011, 10:48 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink18 comments

The Language of God: Collins vs. Dawkins

The Language of God, Chapter 7

By B.J. Marshall

The next part of Francis Collins' discussion of atheism is largely an attack on Richard Dawkins. Given that The Language of God is about biology, I suppose it would seem natural to attack an evolutionary biologist like Dawkins.

Collins' first attack is that Dawkins, in The God Delusion, argues that evolution fully accounts for biological complexity so there is no more need for God. "While this argument rightly relieves God of the responsibility ... it certainly does not disprove the idea that God worked out His creative plan by means of evolution" (p.163). Because Collins holds a different view of God, he sees Dawkins' argument as irrelevant to the god that he worships. Collins calls Dawkins' "repeated mischaracterizations of faith" as betraying a vitriolic personal agenda.

Nothing could disprove Collins' idea of God using evolution, but that doesn't mean Collins' idea is a good one, any more than positing that gravity works does not disprove that maybe God is sitting outside of space-time, pulling on the fabric of the cosmos to create the gravity wells that massive bodies appear to create. His argument is just as absurd as Intelligent Falling is for gravity and flies defiantly in the face of Ockham's Razor, and yet Collins is the one calling out Dawkins on building straw men? With 38,000 brands of Christianity, how could Dawkins - assuming he was even talking to Collins face to face - have any idea which characterization of God Collins maintains? I'll grant that Dawkins doesn't pull punches, and he sometimes chooses words that bite intentionally; however, Dawkins shows (to me, anyway) remarkable patience dealing with Creationists, and he has often said and written that his goal is consciousness-raising.

Collins' second attack is another Dawkinsian straw man: Religion is antirational. Dawkins describes faith as "blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence" (The Selfish Gene, p.198). Collins states that certainly doesn't describe his view of faith, nor the view of most of his acquaintances. Collins then argues that serious thinkers throughout the ages "have demonstrated that a belief in God is intensely plausible" (p.164).

I'm not quite sure how much of a straw man this is, especially if you're talking about the sects which think the Bible is inerrant and believe in stories about God stopping the sun so Joshua can kill more Amorites or loads of zombies walking into Jerusalem. That seems awfully irrational to me. Rational is given by the Oxford English Dictionary as "Having the faculty of reasoning; endowed with reason." George H. Smith talks about reason at length (Section IV - Reason Versus Faith), and it seems that he and Dawkins are of one mind on this one: "Faith is belief without, or in spite of, reason" (Atheism: A Case Against God, p. 59).

Dawkins' attack most certainly does address the type of faith Collins possesses. Collins holds a belief that there's a god who uses evolution as his amazingly slow, horribly inefficient, and almost infinitely error-riddled process of seemingly blind trial and error to create life; he holds this belief without a shred of anything we would call evidence. Sorry, but mapping the history of cosmology since the Big Bang to the creation myth doesn't cut it for me. Finally, I wouldn't say that a belief in God is intensely plausible, but I understand apologists attempts to persuade people that the existence of God is possible. Sorry again, but I want probable - not just possible.

Collins' third attack is Dawkins' objection that great harm has been done in the name of religion. Collins doesn't deny this, but he asserts that evil acts committed in the name of religion don't impugn the "truth of the faith" (p.164); those acts instead indict the humans practicing the faith.

We've discussed the whole "rusty container" thing before. But I can't stop myself from commenting on "truth of the faith." On what basis, or against what criteria, can Collins base the truth of his faith? I have a hard time getting around the circle: The Bible says there's a God and this stuff is true, and God says the Bible is true. This Holy Circle of Logic makes for a nice t-shirt, really.

Collins' last attack on Dawkins is that Dawkins' claim that science demands atheism goes beyond the evidence. "If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove His existence" (p.165). Atheism itself must be a form of blind faith.

First, I don't recall Dawkins ever actually saying that science demands atheism; Dawkins usually goes only so far as to say that the existence is God is highly improbable. I won't try to defend Dawkins' thesis in The God Delusion further because, as far as philosophical treatises go, it falls short. Aside from that, science goes just as far as it can with the evidence; that is to say, it has found none, and not for lack of trying. This is certainly farther than Collins, who simply asserts with no evidence that God is outside of nature.

Collins ends this section on atheism with the following:

So those who choose to be atheists must find some other basis for taking that position. Evolution won't do (p.167).

Fortunately, there are plenty of them.

Other posts in this series:

March 4, 2011, 11:52 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink20 comments

Compiling the Apologist's Handbook

Last summer, I had a long e-mail conversation, spanning several months and thousands of words, with a thoughtful, intelligent, but strongly committed conservative Christian named Daniel who came across my site. There was one exchange we had that I found illuminating and that stuck in my mind, and I want to talk about it today.

I wrote that when atheists commit a misdeed, we can't just ask God for forgiveness; we have to seek out the people we've harmed and try to make things right. Daniel contended that this was the Christian view as well:

That's the way God originally set it up. You treat people the way you want to be treated. When you mess up, you tell them, ask them to forgive you, and then make reparations as a sign of true humility and repentance. Admittedly, to our shame, this is not how Christians portray forgiveness.

I followed up on this by asking what would happen to a person who repented on his deathbed and died without any opportunity to make restitution. Daniel answered as follows:

Would I say he is going to heaven? I wouldn't say at all. I would say that God will deal with him justly, and whatever God decides is what is right. As Paul says in Romans, it is not based on works, but on God who shows mercy.

These answers are, of course, completely inconsistent with each other. Either you believe that God requires people to make restitution, or you believe that you don't know God's criteria for judgment, but you can't believe both.

What this exchange highlighted for me is this: Apologists through the ages have put enormous amounts of thought into resolving some of the moral and philosophical difficulties that arise from belief in Christianity. By now, their answers have been distilled into bumper-sticker-length talking points that most lay Christians can automatically quote in response to common challenges. But what's more debatable is whether all those individual responses cohere with each other, as opposed to just serving the apologetic needs of the moment. As in the example with Daniel, I've observed that you can ask a question and get the usual well-rehearsed answer, then ask another question and get a different stock answer that contradicts the first one. In other cases, there are two equally common answers to the same question that contradict each other.

If Christianity was a coherent belief system that flowed from a consistent set of starting principles, this wouldn't happen. On the other hand, if it's the religious belief that comes first and then reasons justifying the belief are invented later, you'd expect that these inconsistencies would arise. I think that in the majority of cases, it's the latter: even intelligent, well-read Christians are mainly coming up with ways to rationalize a belief they adopted for non-rational reasons.

To that end, I want to catalogue other contradictions like this. I want to highlight the inconsistencies in the apologist's handbook of replies to common objections. I've already thought of a few others, like these:

"God is good and always wants the best for us."
"God's ways are not our ways and he is infinitely beyond our ability to judge." (Then how do you know he's good?)

"God doesn't want to give us convincing evidence of his existence because it would take away our free will to believe."
"God's existence is clearly seen and those who disbelieve are without excuse." (So we don't have free will, then?)

"The Bible is God's word and is infallible."
"The Bible is infallible only in its original manuscripts, which no longer exist." (Then the Bible we have, the one that Christians rely on as a source of guidance, is not infallible.)

But I bet there are others that I haven't thought of. What can you suggest? I'm not looking for Bible verses that contradict each other - we have plenty of those - but for commonly heard apologetic arguments, whether found in the Bible or not, that are mutually exclusive.

February 9, 2011, 6:51 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink58 comments

Doubting the Bible on a Christian Forum

A helpful Daylight Atheism reader (thanks, Rowan!) pointed me to this thread on Christian Forums, about a believer who's losing his faith after reading the Bible. From past experience, these threads tend to have the same lifespan as posts on Chinese web forums criticizing the government (and for the same reason), so I advise checking it out while you can. I've also saved a snapshot in case the site's administrators flush it down the memory hole.

The user who started the thread claimed to be a lifelong Christian, but when he sat down and actually read the Bible for himself, he came across some passages that he'd never heard of and that shocked him badly:

like where god hardened the heart of the pharoah, there by obstructing his free will. so that god could show everyone how powerfull he was by killing the first born sons. now i dont understand why god didnt just lighten his heart so that he wouldnt have had to murder children. now i know they had them in slavery, but why would god mess with his free will then still punish him by murdering children , who had no part in the conflict, for a decision god made him make.

now the other issue in there that surpasses everything else is the one of slavery. there was one passage in exodus that completely disgusted me , on how to sell your own daughter as what is basicaly a sex slave... these slaves could be bought and sold as chattel... they could be beaten so badly, that so long as they didnt die within 2 days everything was fine... the other thing i have heard said is that this wasnt gods will but he had to put up with it as its how society was back then. but in many other instances god doesnt put up with things he doesnt like. not even remotely. why was slavery different since slavery is so obviously evil? i cant make myself see how it is right to own another person as property to do with as you will in any age. yes it might have been common back then but that didnt make it right did it?

As you'd expect on a Christian forum, many other commenters jumped in to respond with the usual tortured apologetics about how it was okay for God to harden Pharaoh's heart because that's what Pharaoh wanted (sidestepping the original poster's question about how it could be just to kill all the Egyptian children for a decision they had no part in), or how the laws about slavery were "an expression of thinking in a sinful world" (again, sidestepping the OP's question about why God would choose to tolerate and even encourage it when he clearly outlawed other common practices of the time).

A few apologist responses were especially notable - like this one, which castigates the OP for not shutting his mind off and believing without asking any annoying questions:

So you said that you trust your own intelligence (Tree of Knowledge) more than God (Word of God), as prophecied? So be it.

God hardened your heart sometimes which God allows you (your free will) to decide to walk in the darness, He won't choose to wake you up when you made up your mind to betray Him.

Then there were these chillingly evil remarks about how God is above our puny moral standards (the classic excuse of career criminals and supervillains everywhere).

Basically, first you can't subject God to rules of morality as God is the source of all morality and you are not the judge of God (sorry).

Maybe we can't understand how the killing of the first born sons was compassionate but having learned from the example of Christ we can trust that in actuality it was even if we don't see how this is so.

And finally, there's this brilliant piece of apologist reasoning:

I do believe God ordained slavery. After all, if slavery did not exist, how could we understand being slaves to sin, and now being slaves to righteousness?

See? All those sons and daughters who were sold into bondage, all those foreign prisoners who were enslaved for lives of hard labor, all those slaves who were beaten to death as the Bible allows - that was all so God could make a theological point to people who would live several thousand years later. Now don't you feel silly, atheists, for ever having doubted the inspiration of those words?

The non-replies of all these Christian commentors show that, even after all this time, the apologists really have no satisfying explanation for the cruelties of the Bible - that is, besides the obvious one that the book was the creation of cruel and fallible men without godly involvement. Impugning the sincerity of those who ask or insisting that God isn't bound by standards of morality is really all they have, regardless of how blunt or how flowery the language. Small wonder that so many believers who read the Bible for themselves are shocked into questioning their faith.

January 29, 2011, 10:35 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink34 comments

The Bottomless Hole of Prayer Requests

Lately, I've been spending some time reading Unequally Yoked - a blog about a Catholic/atheist interfaith relationship from the atheist perspective, which is a great concept, and tends to attract interesting commenters from both sides of the theological aisle. There was one recent post, Reading and Praying... One of those I can do, which I left a comment on that I'd like to expand into a post.

The author, Leah, wrote a post about trying prayer at her boyfriend's suggestion, which didn't sway her. A multitude of religious readers suggested she try again in slightly different ways, like the following:

But all of this uneasiness is one great reason the Catholic and Orthodox Churches emphasize the saints and prayer to them as intercessors for us. It is naturally easier to identify their human experiences and individual stories, and perhaps easier to talk with them so that they can talk to God on your behalf.

I grew up strictly recitating prayers, which I find comforting in the sense that those prayers were given to us in the Bible. Then I found the Fr. Hardon prayer book in my house, which is this little red book packed full of more (written down!) prayers:

Twice a week, every week, for several months - it's up to you to decide how long, but I would not give up before six months have passed - visit a local Adoration Chapel. Just bring yourself - no books, no Rosary, no cell phone, nothing - and pass the half hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament. You don't have to pray - though you can, if you feel so moved. You don't have to pay attention - though you can, if you feel so inclined. You don't have to do anything except stay put for one half hour. If you spend the half hour there and find the whole arrangement laughably absurd, so be it. But please stay there for the half hour. Then come again next week.

There's something I realized early on in my journey to atheism, and these comments show it: the biggest problem with requests to try prayer is that they're a bottomless hole. No matter what you do - say the sinner's prayer, pray the Rosary a hundred times, go to Mass every week for a year, pray to a particular saint, spend half an hour per day sitting silently in front of a box of wafers, or even perform an exorcism on yourself - if it doesn't convert you, there will always be theists who'll tell you, in the most polite way and with the best of intentions, that you're doing it wrong, and that you should try something else if you really want to experience God.

When does this stop? When are you entitled to give up and conclude that the reason you didn't get an answer is because there's no god to give one? Obviously, if you listen to religious apologists, the answer is "never". There'll always be something else to try, some other ceremony to perform, some different wording to choose - and if you truly exhausted every possibility, there would still be the all-purpose excuses, like "hardness of the heart".

To all the religious evangelists who urge atheists to pray, I ask in all sincerity - when will we have done enough? If we had limitless patience, free time, and energy to carry out your requests, would there ever come a time when you'd agree that we'd tried everything reasonable to communicate with God and counsel us that it was OK to stop? I very much doubt that any theist would say so, although anyone who disagrees is welcome to prove me wrong.

You could spend your whole life, and a thousand lifetimes more if you had them, trying every last ritual and every last prayer that every member of every religion claims will open a channel between you and God. You could spend six months in silent contemplation at a Zen monastery, take ritual baths at every sacred well in India, ingest peyote or ayahuasca with Native American shamans, handle poisonous snakes at an Appalachian backwoods church, make a pilgrimage to Mecca and bow before the Ka'aba... the list goes on and on and on, with new items being added all the time, as human beings in the realm of religion exercise their limitless creativity untrammeled by fact. It's impossible for any one human being to try everything that every theist has ever conceived of.

With that in mind, I ask this question of every religious evangelist who wants me to try his ritual: Why should I believe that this will work? What evidence can you present to convince me that this particular exercise is more worthwhile than any of the other rituals invented by any of the other thousands of faiths on this planet? I'm willing to try anything reasonable suggested by anyone who has a good answer to this question - but so far, it's a question that no one has been able to satisfactorily answer.

January 19, 2011, 7:01 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink80 comments

Answering More Questions for Atheists

Michael Egnor, a creationist working for the Discovery Institute, has posted a list of questions for atheists (HT: Sandwalk). Ironically, the post which contains the questions has comments disabled, so it's impossible to answer Egnor directly. This is probably another piece of evidence for whether whether creationists actually want answers to the questions they ask.

Be that as it may, I've decided to write answers to Egnor's questions. He does say "I want to learn more about what New Atheists really believe", and I see no harm in taking him at his word, at least for now. The original questions are in bold, followed by my answers.

Why is there anything?

Although this sentence is syntactically valid, I'm not convinced it expresses a meaningful proposition.

What caused the Universe?

The universe as we presently observe it began with the Big Bang. The cause or causes of that event are a subject of active, ongoing scientific research; there are several hypotheses which are consistent with what we already know about cosmology, but we don't currently have enough evidence to conclusively accept or reject any of them. I advise checking back in a few years.

Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?

The existence of law-like regularities in nature is a prerequisite for the existence of intelligent entities such as ourselves. If the universe were completely chaotic, we would not be here, and hence we would not notice that fact.

Granted, the point of the question may be what caused these regularities to exist in the first place, not merely why it is that we observe them. In that case, I'd have to repeat my first answer: this is an ill-formed question. Any principle I could possibly invoke to explain the existence of law-like regularities at all would itself be another of those law-like regularities. I dislike the philosopher's term "necessary existence", which is usually just a linguistic placeholder for our ignorance, but this may be a case where it's unavoidable.

Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist?

All four of Aristotle's causes are "real", though not necessarily all in the same sense of that word. Physical substances exist (material cause) and have distinct compositions and arrangements (formal causes). These substances interact in patterns of cause and effect (efficient cause). Final, i.e., purposive or teleological, causes exist, but only with reference to the actions of intelligent beings whose minds consciously represent them. In an analogous sense, final causes exist with reference to the products of evolution: evolution is an unintelligent and non-foresightful algorithm, so it does not genuinely have purpose, but acts "as if" it had purpose by shaping adaptations that make species better suited to their environment.

Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?

We have subjective experience because we are capable of introspection, i.e., our minds possess sufficient complexity to recursively observe their own functioning. (We can examine ourselves examining ourselves examining ourselves... and so on.) I tend to think that qualia or something like them are a necessary outcome of this process.

Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something?

Mind is an evolutionary adaptation whose purpose is, as Daniel Dennett says, to "produce future", i.e., to allow an organism to represent and thereby predict events in the external world faster and more efficiently than blind trial and error. In that sense, all minds are intentional by definition. Mental states are "about" external objects in the sense that they create a simulation or representation of those objects, such that perturbations of the simulation accurately track the behavior of the external object.

Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)

I don't know what it means for a moral law to "exist in itself". I believe that morality is objective, in the sense that questions about morality are ultimately empirical questions that have right and wrong answers. However, I don't believe that moral law has some kind of separate or independent existence in its own right. Morality is an abstract concept, like mathematics, language, or music, and like those other abstract concepts, it exists in virtue of the fact that human beings instantiate it in our minds.

Why is there evil?

Evil in nature (disease, tidal waves, earthquakes, etc.) exists because natural laws are not constructed with reference to human needs and desires. This explanation is also true of human beings, at some level - since our brains are also physical objects operating in obedience to natural law, and could have been engineered to be morally better than they are now - but it's more informative to say that human beings do evil to each other because they're ignorant of the moral truths that should lead them to treat each other with more concern. One of the major culprits in this regard is religion, which teaches people to value belief in the unknown and the unprovable more highly than the well-being and happiness of their fellow human beings.

October 27, 2010, 5:49 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink47 comments

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