Noises in the Night

In the first chapter of her autobiography Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali recounts some of the Somali folktales her grandmother taught her when she was a child. One was a story of a nomad, searching for a home for his wife and child, who mysteriously finds an oasis with a fine grass hut already built in the middle of the desert, and a smiling, friendly stranger who invites them to live there. Alas for the trusting nomad, the stranger was really "He Who Rubs Himself with a Stick," a monstrous werewolf-like being who stalks the desert in the shape of a hyena, and who returns that night while they lie sleeping and devours their infant son. Another example:

There were stories about an ugly old witch woman whose name was People Slayer or People Butcher, who had the power to transform herself, to adopt the face of someone you liked and respected, and who at the last minute lunged at you, laughing in your face, HAHAHAHAHA, before she slaughtered you with a long sharp knife that she had been hiding under the folds of her robe all along and then ate you up.

Every culture has stories like this, of course, stories of the monsters that lurk at the fringes of civilization and fall upon those who stray from the prescribed rules of conduct. There's almost always a moral lesson to be drawn from these bloody folktales: whether to be chaste, or pious, or suspicious of strangers, or obedient to one's parents, the main character almost always transgresses in some way that leads to disaster.

In all likelihood, these cautionary tales are as old as humanity itself. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in a world full of very real dangers, and it's no surprise that they gave some of them a supernatural gloss. Natural disasters like drought and flood became the handiwork of angry nature spirits. Members of other, possibly hostile, rival tribes became shape-changing demons, utterly other, utterly alien, ready to drop their guise and strike at any moment. And our fellow predators, those who hunted the night beyond the light of our huddled fires, became monsters of every description. Fanciful though they were, these imaginings served a real purpose - giving our predecessors a way to deal with their fear, by constructing elaborate rituals intended to ward off misfortune. Like all religions, they imparted a sense of security and control in a hostile and uncaring cosmos.

With the passage of time, as our societies became more complex and the borders of our knowledge advanced, our myths and our monsters became more abstract. Nevertheless, their basic purpose stayed very much the same. Take a more recent example from human cultural history, William Blake's poem "Auguries of Innocence":

He who shall teach the Child to Doubt
The rotting Grave shall ne'er get out.
He who respects the Infant's Faith
Triumphs over Hell and Death.

This clumsy, unsubtle threat delivers the same fundamental message as Ayaan Hirsi Ali's childhood folktales: stay within the bounds of your culture, believe your elders, or suffer a terrible fate. With the Somali folktales, it's more obvious where they originate - the childhood fears we felt on moonless nights, when we heard monsters roaring beyond the light of our fires. But both they and Blake's poem are descendants of that same ancient, superstitious terror. Both paint pictures of unseen evils waiting to strike down those who stray from the straight and narrow path.

Ironically, these primitive fears still guide our steps, even though we have long since acquired enough knowledge to tell that they are substanceless. Our ancestors cowered from noises in the night, but we no longer need to. We have a better option: just go and look. More than enough brave thinkers have gone before us to make it abundantly clear that there are no supernatural dangers lurking in the dark, no monsters hiding in the bushes. We do have dangers to confront, but we can respond to them more proportionately and effectively if we cease embellishing them with fanciful mythology.

July 21, 2008, 7:47 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink12 comments
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Think for Yourself

In one of his "My Answer" columns, Billy Graham replies to a correspondent who doesn't see the need for organized religion:

Don't make up your own ideas about God, but understand from the Bible who He really is, and commit your life to Christ.

"Don't make up your own ideas" - this is Billy Graham's advice to the seeker. Instead, presumably, we should read the Bible and believe exactly what it says, without bringing any of our own imagination or independent thought to the subject.

My friend Erich Vieth at Dangerous Intersection had a similar experience visiting an evangelical megachurch:

"A good way to get into heresy is to read books about religion other than the Bible. Don't do this! Any book beyond the Bible is false. Everything in the Bible is true."

The Roman Catholic church, of course, has been one of the most reliable users of this tactic - with the added wrinkle that the church authorities are the only ones competent to interpret the Bible and tell lay believers what it really means. A Catholic commenter on this site put the point quite explicitly:

The Magisterium is also necessary. It is needed as a living and infallible authority to determine the authentic meaning of both Scripture and Tradition. Such a living authority is necessary to settle disputes concerning both Scripture and Tradition. Tradition and Scripture alone would be insufficient to guarantee the unity of the faith and of the Church, for violent disagreements could arise over the content of Tradition as well as of Scripture. There can be no private judgment either of Scripture or of Tradition.

My essay "Thoughts in Captivity" lists many more examples of this type, including apologists who proclaim that their holy scriptures should be believed over all contrary evidence and that believers do not need to know what outsiders are saying about their faith to know that it is not true.

All these warnings given by religious leaders to their followers, like the ones quoted above, center around the danger of independent thought. Making up your own mind, they proclaim, is a recipe for disaster (and the Bible agrees, in Proverbs 14:12). Instead, believers are repeatedly told that the only way to safety is to believe what has been handed down exactly as it has been handed down, and trust the religious authorities and texts to keep them on the safe path of orthodoxy. They must shut their minds and their eyes to all contrary evidence, all outside viewpoints, and believe regardless of what the facts or their own reason may tell them. The authorities, by definition, are infallible, and if you disagree with them the problem is with you.

This dictum occurs not just in religion, but also in dogmatic non-religious ideologies, such as can be found among communists or the devotees of Ayn Rand. However, its fullest flowering and most sophisticated defenders are unquestionably to be found among the ranks of religious believers.

As an atheist, I'm not surprised by this. This attitude, after all, is one of the surest signs of a false belief. The truth can endure limitless scrutiny; only false beliefs will crumble if looked at too closely. Thus, only the leaders of an incorrect belief system have reason to fear their followers investigating their beliefs and examining the alternatives. This is not to say that high-powered religious authorities know their faiths are false, but rather, there's a Darwinian competition among memes: false beliefs which encourage their holders to question and debate them are unlikely to survive. False beliefs which try to discourage critical scrutiny by any means possible are much more likely to endure.

As atheists, by contrast, our mission should be to get people to make up their own minds, not tell them what to think. We are not the ones who have to warn people about the dangers of making up their own minds and coming to their own conclusions. Instead, we have a far better message: you can and should think for yourself. We all live in the same universe, and sufficiently diligent investigation will lead to the realization of its true nature - and that, unlike religious myths and wishful thinking, is a conclusion we can all agree on.

May 28, 2008, 8:37 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink72 comments
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Update on the UC-Calvary Lawsuit

One of the first posts on Daylight Atheism, over two years ago, was "The Fallacy of Free Speech", about a private Christian high school which sued the University of California because the UC had refused to give college credit in biology for courses which taught young-earth creationism. Well, the wheels of justice grind exceedingly slow, but they do eventually turn. Last week, a federal judge issued a preliminary ruling which, while it does not completely prevent the case from going forward, makes it clear that Calvary Chapel Christian School's odds of winning are exceedingly low. (See also.)

Calvary Chapel filed two different challenges to the UC's admissions policy. One was a facial challenge, i.e., an assertion that the UC's admissions policy is intrinsically unconstitutional, no matter how it was applied. The other is an as-applied challenge, meaning that the policy itself may be constitutional but was applied unfairly or in a discriminatory way.

Both sides had asked for summary judgment on the facial challenge, a term that applies when the legal issues are unambiguous and the matter can be decided without any need for further examination. The judge denied Calvary Chapel's request for summary judgment and granted the UC's request for summary judgment, finding that the facial challenge is meritless as a matter of law; that challenge is now dead in the water. The UC did not ask for summary judgment on the as-applied challenge, saying that that issue is best settled at trial. So, unless Calvary Chapel withdraws its lawsuit, trial will be the next step. However, the judge's flat-out rejection of nearly all of Calvary Chapel's claims indicates that the odds are strongly against them. They'd be very unwise to proceed to a trial they're almost certain to lose, although so far their effort has shown all the mad tenacity of a group undeterred by reality. As Ed Brayton notes, most of their arguments "are so transparently ridiculous that you can almost hear the judge's frustration in having to address them over and over again".

Calvary Chapel's main argument is that any rejection of any of their courses occurred solely because the UC has a secret policy of discriminating against Christians. (Yes, they actually make this claim, and in very nearly those words.) This argument was annihilated by the judge, who pointed out that UC has "approved many high school courses that include religious material and viewpoints" (including other courses taught by Calvary Chapel), "reviewed and approved some Christian textbooks for use", and "provide[d] declarations from religious school administrators who have not perceived the discrimination about which Plaintiffs complain".

Most entertaining of all is the fact that Calvary Chapel brought in Michael Behe as an expert witness. Behe used to be a legitimate scientist, and even at the beginning of his entanglement with ID, stated that he accepted the facts of an old Earth and common descent (see my review of Darwin's Black Box). He's fallen far indeed if he's now reduced to peddling young-earth pseudoscience. Still, as the judge pointed out, his testimony actually supported the claims of the opposite side:

Plaintiffs' own biology expert, Professor Michael Behe testified that "it is personally abusive and pedagogically damaging to de facto require students to subscribe to an idea . . . . Requiring a student to, effectively, consent to an idea violates [her] personal integrity. Such a wrenching violation [may cause] a terrible educational outcome."

Yet, the two Christian biology texts at issue commit this "wrenching violation." For example, Biology for Christian Schools declares on the very first page that:

(1) "'Whatever the Bible says is so; whatever man says may or may not be so,' is the only [position] a Christian can take . . . ."

(2) "If [scientific] conclusions contradict the Word of God, the conclusions are wrong, no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them."

(3) "Christians must disregard [scientific hypotheses or theories] that contradict the Bible."

I know one ID advocate who's not going to be commanding nearly as high an expert-witness retainer fee next time.

As this excerpt shows, the courses and books used by Calvary Chapel contained a blatant attitude of religious supremacy and demanded subordination of reason, evidence and critical thinking to Christian dogma wherever the two are in conflict. UC was completely in the right to reject them - to do anything less would have been to surrender their academic integrity - and if Calvary Chapel had any common sense rather than mere delusions of persecution, they would not have pursued this case. If they take it to trial, they cannot expect any outcome other than resounding defeat.

April 3, 2008, 7:49 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink14 comments
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The Aura of Infallibility

Religious beliefs, as a general rule, aren't based on evidence.

I have little doubt that my fellow nonbelievers will agree without reservation, and equally little doubt that religious believers will call me arrogant and uninformed for so sweepingly dismissing the basis of their beliefs. But that's not what I'm trying to say. By this statement, I'm not referring to the question of whether solid evidence underlies the tenets of religion (although I trust I've made my views on that issue known). I'm referring to something different: the question of how people become theists in the first place.

It may be that there are people who became believers after dispassionately examining a variety of world religions, deciding which one was best supported by the evidence, and choosing to join that one. It may be that there are such people; I've never met them. Instead, the vast majority of believers of my acquaintance had their beliefs chosen for them at a very early age, and were taught to follow those beliefs without skepticism or doubt. (My college friend John, whom I wrote about in 2006 in "A Seriously Warped Moral Compass", told me with pride that he became a Christian at the age of five.) A relatively smaller number converted later in life, but again, I find that in the overwhelming majority of cases that decision was made for reasons other than a critical comparison of the options.

I bring this up because I recently came across an astonishing debate, one that clearly outlines what I think are the two major strands of thought competing in modern theism. This debate took place on a now-defunct evangelical Christian blog, Evangelutionist, in a thread titled "The YEC-Christianity Conflation" [link fixed --Ebonmuse]. "YEC" is an acronym for "young-earth creationism", and the debate was over the issue of whether belief in a literal six-day creation and a 6,000-year-old cosmos is theologically necessary to be a Christian. The author, Touchstone, took the negative, but mattpowell, a commenter holding an opposite view, soon showed up.

I really recommend reading the whole comment thread, but to get a flavor of it, here are some highlights:

I don't hold YEC doctrine in high esteem at all. I was raised in a YEC home, taught in a YEC church, and pushed to the limits of my faith when I finally reached the real world and discovered how misleading and dishonest the PR campaign for young earth creationism is.

It's not YEC per se that's being conflated with orthodox Christianity. It is obedience to Scripture that is.

...when you take theories of the age of things, interpretations of physical data that you have never seen, and use that to interpret Genesis 1, now you're letting the ideas of men interpret Scripture instead of letting Scripture interpret Scripture. There isn't a shred of evidence anywhere in Scripture that Genesis 1 ought to be regarded as anything other than a straightforward historical account, and rather a lot to the contrary.

Exegetically, I understand Genesis 1 to be a theological treatise, the written account of an oral tradition, an inspired co-opting of ancient cosmological myths. God is asserting his sovereignty over all of creation as the Creator, and relating the moral history of man as a context for His relationship with mankind. The length of a solar day versus billions of years has *zero* bearing on the message — the moral of the story, the theology attached to the history.

Most of what we know we accept on authority, like the phases of Venus and the rings of Saturn. I accept those things on authority. None of these things affect my worldview at all. None of these things contradict anything in Scripture.

...Genesis 1 is something entirely different. Genesis 1 is presented as a historical account, an account of how God created the universe. It's not intended to answer every detail, but it is presented as historical truth, how God actually did it.

...If it is not historical truth, what else can safely be dispensed with? Adam and Eve? Modern science denies them. The flood? Modern science says it's impossible. Tower of Babel? The exodus? ...Where does it stop?

...None of you have direct knowledge at all of the origins, age, or nature of the universe. What you have, on the one hand, are the speculations of people who hate God and His Son. Is it surprising that their arguments seem very compelling? Jesus said they would be, doing signs and wonders that would deceive, if possible, even the elect. And on the other hand, you have the testimony of the One who made the heavens and the earth. It's by faith that you know that God made all things (Hebrews 11). And it's also by faith (belief in authority) that you accept the speculations of modern scientists. Presented that way, I think it should be obvious which faith is superior. Let God be true, and every man a liar. I will stick to the plain teaching of Scripture.

And finally, the money quote. Here's Matt's closing argument:

If someone came to me with actual evidence, went back in a time machine and videotaped the disciples stealing the body, gave me DNA evidence from a crucified man in a tomb outside Jerusalem with the inscription, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, and matched that DNA evidence to the ossuary of James proving it was his brother, I would still believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I'll tell you why- because when I read the book of John, when I read the book of James, when I read the book of Philippians or Matthew or Revelation, I hear the voice of my savior, my God. It is spiritually discerned (1 Cor 2). No evidence of man can ever change that. I hear, and I believe. I would reject the testimony of every man on earth, including my own understanding, rather than reject the testimony of God. I believe it because Scripture says it, and Scripture is the word of God.

This is a jaw-dropping quote, but there's a crucial point buried in there. Did you catch it?

Matt Powell proclaims that he believes in the absolute inerrancy of the Bible, including a 6,000-year-old universe, because to do anything less is to submit the Bible to tests of verification by non-Christian scientists, who are fallen and sinful, who hate God and are motivated by Satan. To allow this, he says, would be the first step in a process that would steadily chip away at the doctrines of Christianity until its central doctrine, the resurrection of Jesus, went up in smoke. To prevent this, we must trust in God and believe that every word of the Bible, from start to finish, is literally true. Only this firm stand can give rise to a solid rock of faith, rather than one that will steadily be eroded by every new wave of secular thought until it's eroded away altogether.

Matt isn't the only one who holds this viewpoint. Some very prominent Christian intellectuals say exactly the same; some of them are quoted in my essay "Thoughts in Captivity". Among them is one of the most prolific and highly-regarded apologists for modern Christianity, William Lane Craig - who, if this account is true, asserted that he, too, would continue to believe in Christianity even in the time machine scenario discussed above. Craig has stated that he knows Christianity to be true via the "self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit".

So what is the crucial point in Matt's argument? What is the flaw in the foundation upon which his entire theology rests? It's this:

...when I read the book of John, when I read the book of James, when I read the book of Philippians or Matthew or Revelation, I hear the voice of my savior, my God. It is spiritually discerned (1 Cor 2). No evidence of man can ever change that. I hear, and I believe.

I hear - the key pronoun being "I". Matt says that he believes the Bible is infallible, but in fact, what he really believes is that he himself is infallible. He has decided that his interpretations, his opinions, his beliefs are the ones that are perfect and immune to error. The same can be said of William Lane Craig and of every other theist who uses this argument.

Let's say for the sake of argument that the Bible was the infallible word of God. Even if that were the case, how could we recognize it as such? There is no way to answer this question that does not also assume the speaker's own infallibility. Even if we believe a book to be infallible, rationally we must always recognize the possibility that we are not infallible, and that we could be mistaken about that belief. You may believe a text is infallible and be mistaken; you may believe you hear the word of God and be wrong. We are inextricably enmeshed in the fact of our own fallibility, and we cannot rise above that. We have no way to view the world that is immune to making mistakes.

That is why all knowledge is, and must be, provisional. That isn't to say that we can never know anything, or that we cannot have a great deal of confidence in our beliefs. But we must always grant the possibility, no matter how small it is, that we might be mistaken about what we believe. Theists who refuse to grant this assume that the strength of their conviction is a completely reliable guide to the true nature of objective reality. This is a self-pleasing delusion - it always has been and always will be. What's more, it's monstrously arrogant. Who are you, a human being, to claim that your feelings define reality? Who are you to claim you understand the true nature of the universe so completely that you will not countenance even the possibility of error?

Touchstone's original post quotes a believer who worries, once we start questioning, where the slippery slope will end:

Yet, how can one know anything for sure about Jesus if the Bible that reveals him is wrong often or even from time to time. Is the Virgin Birth wrong? Is Jesus both God and man, or is that wrong? What about the Trinity? All such doctrines are attacked by secularists and non-believers as much as the Young Earth doctrine, why not jettison those as well? And if not, why not? How can you know what is right and what is wrong in the Bible?

Doubtless that is a serious problem for Christians. But deciding to abandon those doubts and trust in inerrancy is not a solution to the problem: it is a refusal to face the problem. Proclaiming yourself and your beliefs to be perfectly free of error is a doomed and desperate rear-guard action against a pattern of critical inquiry that has toppled one ancient superstition after another. The theologians of past ages, too, sought to proclaim themselves infallible, as Carl Sagan reminds us in The Demon-Haunted World:

"The giving up of witchcraft," said John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, "is in effect the giving up of the Bible." (p.119)

But Wesley's pretensions of infallibility did not stop the world from marching on and revealing his beliefs, with the passage of time, to be ridiculous and pernicious superstition. We have no reason to believe that our own future has any kinder a fate in store for those who follow the latest iteration of this strategy.

February 20, 2008, 6:49 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink54 comments
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Wolves in the Fold

In February of 1906, Pope Pius X issued an encyclical titled "Vehementer Nos", which denounced France for its passage of a revolutionary law establishing the separation of church and state. This document contained a blunt insight into the Catholic view of the relationship between religion and government:

That the State must be separated from the Church is a thesis absolutely false, a most pernicious error.

Happily, France ignored this musty blast from a figure who - then, as now - serves as the most prominent representative of superstitious medievalism. Today, as Catholicism continues to decline in Europe, the French state can proudly point to its strong constitutional guarantee, as well as widespread popular support, for the principle of laicite, or secularism.

However, I want to focus on a different part of this encyclical. In another section, there's a revealing passage which lays out the Catholic, and arguably the Christian, view of what a just society would look like.

The Scripture teaches us, and the tradition of the Fathers confirms the teaching, that the Church is the mystical body of Christ, ruled by the Pastors and Doctors — a society of men containing within its own fold chiefs who have full and perfect powers for ruling, teaching and judging. It follows that the Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful. So distinct are these categories that with the pastoral body only rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the end of the society and directing all its members towards that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.

This section puts plainly into words something that atheists have long pointed out: one of the primary purposes of religion is to accustom people to unquestioningly follow an autocratic elite. In many systems, such as Roman Catholicism, the members of this hierarchy choose their own successors, thereby ensuring that lay members have no voice whatsoever in how the organization is run - the perfect antithesis of democracy. Pius' words drive home that, in his belief system, he and his trusted lieutenants are to make every decision, while the ordinary believers are expected to conform and obey "like a docile flock" - in other words, without dissent, without questioning, and indeed, without independent thought.

Pius was not the only one to envision the ideal society as a rigid hierarchy of obedience. On the Protestant side, C.S. Lewis likewise endorsed this view when he wrote that obedience is "intrinsically good" - regardless of what the specific command is. Like Pius, he stated that when we obey others, we fulfill the role we were always meant to play.

These religious leaders view their followers as a flock of sheep, placid and obedient. That being the case, there's only one role left over for atheists to play: the wolves. Fiercely independent and solitary, we lurk just outside the fold, serving as figures of terror and dismay to those who huddle within its safe boundaries. (Given the chance, I'd much rather be a wolf than a sheep...)

Of course, in an important respect this analogy is reversed: in this case it's the shepherds whose intent is malicious, exploiting and - where necessary - sacrificing the sheep for the sake of their own power and prestige. They fear us lone-wolf atheists not because we'd do their followers harm, but because we could wake them up to how they're being taken advantage of.

It's no surprise, then, that religious authorities throughout history have sought to depict atheists as unnatural, terrifying figures whose ways the faithful would be best off not inquiring into. But when those shadows of ignorance are dispelled, we emerge into the light as human beings just like everyone else. The religious elite whose own power is sustained by keeping their followers in the bonds of sheeplike obedience may have reason to fear us, for our rise means the downfall of their pretensions and the loss of all their ill-gotten gains. But the lay believers who stand to gain a better life, free from the confines of blind and senseless obedience, have every good reason to welcome us.

January 28, 2008, 8:14 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink43 comments
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Flickers of Conscience

One year ago this month, I posted an essay titled "A Seriously Warped Moral Compass". In it, I highlighted the disturbing tendency of religious beliefs to twist and distort a person's conscience to the point where they accept terrible evils as just acts, and, conversely, elevate harmless actions to the height of wickedness and sin.

But I do wonder sometimes if even the most thorough and relentless religious brainwashing can ever completely succeed. Are human beings infinitely malleable, so that with sufficient indoctrination we can be made to sincerely believe anything at all? Or do we have an irreducible core of conscience, that can be repressed or overruled but never completely silenced?

It heartens me to observe that in many cases - especially when it comes to that most wicked of all religious dogmas, the dogma of Hell - the answer is the latter. As opposed to some past believers, who eagerly anticipated witnessing the torments of the damned, many modern theists hasten to assure us that they're not happy about Hell's existence, that they don't want anyone to be sent there. I believe that these protests represent flickers of human conscience, damped down by the religious impulse but not wholly suppressed.

One believer I've seen express these flickers of conscience is C.S. Lewis. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis writes about Hell that "There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power" (p.119) and that "I too detest it from the bottom of my heart" (p.120).

This is an astonishing admission, considering Lewis' main argument for Christianity hinges on his claim that humans have an innate moral sense which tells them the difference between good and evil. If that is true, then hasn't Lewis essentially admitted that the moral sense condemns Hell as an evil thing? Isn't this a concession that the moral sense, which he claims leads inevitably to Christianity, actually pushes back against one of that religion's central ideas?

A theist blogger, the Internet Monk, writes in "Wretched Urgency" about his former affiliation with a fundamentalist church that believed much the same things:

Feeling badly about things was a key part of the Christian life in my church. We called it being "burdened for the lost." The ideal Christian lived in hours of weeping daily prayer, interceding and travailing for the lost. (Weeping was very important.)

Evidently, although the members of this church were expected to spend their every spare minute bewailing the fate of the damned, they assumed they would instantly lose all this concern once they themselves reached Heaven.

Or take this comment left by a Christian visitor in the discussion thread for "The Power of Christ Compels You":

Imagine how it must feel for me when I walk outside and I see hundreds of people, most who either do not believe in God or do not have a relationship with him, and I know that in my beliefs they will be going to Hell to suffer for eternity. It is awful. I think of all the children that haven't even heard of God before, and I realize that kids will be going to Hell to be tortured and punished forever because they have not accepted Jesus as their savior.

It can't be denied that this is a correct description of traditional Christianity's end-times plan. Jesus himself says in the gospels that most people are going to Hell (Matthew 7:13). But it's interesting that a Christian called this state of affairs "awful". Why does he think it's awful?

Isn't this the outcome of God's wonderful and perfect plan? And since God is omniscient, he must have foreseen and intended this from the beginning of time. Shouldn't it be praised and glorified just as Christians praise and glorify all of God's decisions? This commenter appears to be expressing the the, dare I say, heretical thought that an all-wise, all-loving God's grand plan might actually have a deplorable or even evil outcome...

A feedback e-mail I once received used similar language, but put it even more bluntly:

In fact after I first became a Christian I threw up for six weeks straight, not because I was arguing with God but because I realised that he exists and that being true, then the awful fact that people are indeed going to hell made me physically sick.

The terrible suffering that these believers put themselves through suggests that, at some level, they recognize the immorality of their own beliefs. Their sorrow, their weeping, their physical sickness is external evidence of an internal battle, a rebellion of conscience against the cruel dogma of eternal damnation. They frame this turmoil as compassion for the lost, but don't seem to realize that this amounts to a condemnation of the very belief system that consigns outsiders to the status of "lost" in the first place!

Clearly, in the Christian system, God does not concern himself about these people. If he did, he could have saved them and not left them to such a fate. These believers' actions show that they're more ethical and moral than their own religion. They recognize this evil doctrine for what it is, even if they can't consciously bring themselves to reject it. And this is a hopeful sign, for it means that all the religious teaching and indoctrination has not managed to erase their inner conscience. Perhaps, in due time, some of the people even now agonizing over this will grow into atheists who throw the whole sorry system of false dogma overboard.

November 7, 2007, 8:52 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink43 comments
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The Exploitation of Antony Flew

Have you heard the shocking news? The world's most notorious atheist has converted!

No, it's not Richard Dawkins.

Or Sam Harris.

Or Christopher Hitchens.

Or Dan Barker.

Or Michael Newdow.

Or Julia Sweeney.

No, this world-famous, notorious atheist convert is the philosopher Antony Flew.

If you're wondering, "Who?", you're probably not alone. Antony Flew is a British philosopher, now retired and of advanced age. Though fairly well-known in philosophical circles in his day, I doubt he was ever "the world's most notorious atheist" by any stretch. Yet now that he's converted - if in fact he has converted, which I'll get to in a minute - he's inevitably acquired this title thanks to Christian apologists who can't seem to accomplish a single goal without elevating it to the status of the most monumental victory over atheism ever. A recent New York Times article, "The Turning of an Atheist", gives the whole sordid story.

Flew came to prominence in the 1950s when he presented a famous paper titled "Theology and Falsification", in which he argued that claims about God have so many exceptions and qualifications that they are impossible to prove and should be disregarded. In subsequent years, he stood by this position with writings such as God and Philosophy (1966) and The Presumption of Atheism (1984). Flew is also the coiner of the term "No True Scotsman Fallacy", in his 1975 book Thinking About Thinking.

Flew retired in 1983 and today is 84 years old. After his retirement he shunned the spotlight for two decades, but in the early 2000s, the first rumblings of rumor were heard. In 2001, he quashed those speculations by writing an article for the Secular Web, "Sorry to Disappoint, But I'm Still an Atheist!"

But rumors of his conversion persisted. Starting in 2005, he apparently confirmed those rumors by stating a preference for Aristotelian deism, and seemed to endorse pseudoscientific speculations such as those of Gerald Schroeder. In response, Richard Carrier of the Secular Web wrote Flew a letter asking him if the rumors were true and pointing out the dubious scientific basis of these apologetics. Flew replied, expressed dismay that he'd been taken in by these charlatans, and promised to be more vigilant in the future, though he held to deism.

This brings up to the present and the subject of the Times article: a book has just been published, purportedly by Flew along with Christian apologist Roy Varghese, titled There Is a God. This book repeats many of the standard arguments for intelligent design creationism, and apparently once again endorses the claims of Gerald Schroeder.

Mark Oppenheimer of the Times went to Reading to interview Flew. Oppenheimer found that he was polite and agreeable, but suffering from serious memory gaps. Flew could not define terms like "abiogenesis" and was unfamiliar with the arguments advanced in the book. He freely admitted, and Varghese confirmed, that Varghese wrote all the original content of the book. Flew was simply persuaded to sign his name to it after it had been written for him.

The only conclusion I can draw is that these apologists are taking advantage of a confused, elderly man in a state of cognitive decline. There's little evidence that Flew even understands the controversy he's at the center of, much less that he changed his position as the result of any new arguments. These apologists insinuated themselves into his life, won his confidence, and then pushed him to agree to their claims when he no longer knew what he was agreeing to, and are now using him as a prop to promote their antiquated, irrational superstitions. (Although even by the most Christian-friendly interpretation of these events, Flew is now a deist, not a Christian - which one would think, in their eyes, leaves him just as damned as if he'd been an atheist.)

Just to be clear, I don't expect this to have the slightest impact on the atheist community. We are not atheists because we follow Antony Flew (or Richard Dawkins, or Sam Harris). We follow these people because we are atheists and find their positions in agreement with our own. Even if Antony Flew had converted in his prime, that would have no persuasive effect on me unless he could show the facts and evidence that led to this decision. The Times article mentions "what others have at stake", but in fact there is nothing at stake other than the sad story of a worthy philosopher's legacy being coopted late in life by confidence tricksters.

On the other hand, the Christian evangelists who are trumpeting this as a great victory are truly reprehensible. These people congratulate themselves for every soul "saved" - regardless of whether that conversion took place through coercion, indoctrination or trickery - as if people's lives were goals in a game and the only objective was to score the most points. Like predators who hunt the sick and the weak, they target the people who are least able to resist them - those who are bereaved and emotionally vulnerable, who are suffering from dementia or cognitive decline, or even those who are dead and unable to defend themselves, as with the invented deathbed conversion stories of Charles Darwin and Thomas Paine. Against an informed atheist in possession of his own mind, their flimsy and irrational assertions easily splinter, so it's small surprise they pick on the stragglers instead.

I want to make it clear right now that, if I should ever sink into such a state, I want all religious evangelists kept far away from me. I will not be made into a pawn for their manipulative and dishonest games, and if my mind is gone, I will not let them gain possession of my shell so that they can display it as if it were a repudiation of the principles I've spent my life defending.

November 6, 2007, 8:21 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink40 comments
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The Pretense of Superiority

Religion has always been used to sanctify inequality here on Earth, in the present no less than in the past. By teaching their followers that they are God's chosen rulers, religious authorities can accustom the flock to obedience and ascend to positions of power without the consent of the majority. The fundamentally oligarchic and anti-democratic nature of most established religions, in which the church leaders choose their own successors, testifies to this.

These anti-democratic beliefs are all too readily exploited to justify the most horrendous abuses of power. One of the most obnoxious and sickening tendencies of fundamentalist religion is the way in which its leaders use their supposedly God-given status to claim the pretense of moral superiority over their followers, even when they are the ones in the wrong. Two recent criminal cases bear witness to this phenomenon.

First, take Warren Jeffs, the fugitive Mormon cult leader who was captured last year and whose trial has now begun. Jeffs was the patriarch of a polygamist Mormon enclave in the deserts of Utah, and from all accounts ruled with an iron fist. Women in this community live like prisoners, indoctrinated into absolute obedience from a very early age, and are usually "given" in marriage to far older men who already have many wives before they are old enough to give consent. It is this practice that has led Jeffs to be charged as an accomplice to rape. A witness for the prosecution, a former member of Jeffs' cult who, at the age of 14, was married to an older male cousin without her consent and then raped, gave horrifying testimony of the ordeal she endured:

"I can't do this, please don't," she said she told her husband. "I was sobbing. My whole entire body was shaking I was so scared. He didn't stop. He just laid me onto the bed and had sex."

Afterward, the woman said she felt dirty and took two bottles of painkillers. "I just wanted to die. I didn't want to deal with (my husband) anymore. I didn't want to deal with Warren, or the prophet, or my mother... I was so hurt by them," she said.

When she sought out Jeffs, the only authority she knew, and pleaded for help, he harshly rebuked her and sent her back to her abusive marriage:

"I told him (Jeffs) I was sorry I had failed so severely... He told me that I needed to repent, that I was not living up to my vows, I was not being obedient, I was not being submissive and that was what my problem was," she recounted.

Jeffs told her to go home "and give myself mind, body, and soul" to her husband.

Thankfully, this woman later escaped Jeffs' cult, but there are doubtless many young women who still suffer in its clutches. Criminal considerations aside, Jeffs' awful reaction to this woman's cry for help - telling her to go back and submit to her rapist husband, and blaming her for not being submissive to his wishes, rather than giving her shelter and seeking legal help as a good person would have done - shows clearly that he totally lacks empathy and human feeling. Religious authorities, who see human beings as pawns to be moved around at whim, too often take such a stance.

On another note, there are further developments in the story of Thomas Weeks, the megachurch leader accused of savagely beating his estranged wife in a parking lot. In his first statement since his arrest, Weeks asked his fellow believers not to pass judgment and then, in an act of supreme arrogance, announced that he forgave his wife. For what? He should be begging her forgiveness, not acting as if she did something wrong and he was graciously choosing to pardon her!

Fortunately, we live in a society that has separation of church and state, and a civil justice system that does not recognize any accused person's delusions about being the anointed servant of God's will. Still, even when facing lengthy prison terms, it's incredible that these religious leaders continue to act as if their alleged victims, not they, are the ones who have done something wrong. As both these stories show, women especially suffer the results of this, since they are most often on the receiving end of theological justifications for inequality.

LATE-BREAKING UPDATE (9/25): Warren Jeffs has been convicted and faces up to life in prison.

September 18, 2007, 7:40 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink81 comments
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Aspiring to Slavery

Last month, I wrote about slavery and the Bible's embarrassing (though historically understandable, if we assume there was no divine revelation behind it) endorsement of that vile practice. Today, slavery is widely recognized as the evil it is, and though it still exists in some forms, it lingers only in the shadows, not in the light of mainstream acceptance. Today religious people of all stripes reject slavery, and do their best to gloss over or explain away the unchanged scripture that still supports it.

However, that opposition to slavery is not universal. What baffles me is that, despite abundant historical evidence that slavery is a great crime and a demeaning and degrading state which no human should have to suffer, there are still some theists whose highest aspiration in life is to be property - to be enslaved.

The religious desire to be enslaved cuts across denominations. In Roman Catholicism, there are monastic orders such as the self-proclaimed "Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary". Some Christian merchandise sites advertise t-shirts that proclaim their wearer "Property of Jesus". Christians congregate in online groups with titles like "Owned by Jesus". Jehovah's Witnesses, meanwhile, hope to become one of the only 144,000 "faithful and discreet slaves" who will be admitted to Heaven (the rest will enjoy eternal life on a recreated Earth, which is apparently sort of an overflow box for Heaven). The Christian magazine Brio has an extended article titled Bought, Branded, Bonded in which the author compares herself to a slave on the auction block, one who is so grateful to be purchased and owned that she would refuse to be set free even if given the opportunity:

I don't own my life any more. I willingly accept His purchase. He's the Master. I'm merely the slave. But I love Him so much, I'm saying YES to being branded and bonded to Him forever.

This cringing, self-negating submission has its roots in the Bible itself. Paul in Romans 1:1 refers to himself as the "bond-slave" (Greek doulos, which the KJV translates as "servant") of Jesus Christ. This same word is used repeatedly by the authors of the New Testament epistles to describe themselves.

This should not be too surprising. Religion, after all, was invented in large part to justify inequalities such as these, to pacify slaves by telling them that their unhappy state was God's will to which they should gladly submit. (The Bible states clearly that any liberation it offers is for the next life only, and for now slaves should continue to obey their masters.) It is so effective at this that even when the original inequality is ended, the religious justification for it persists, leading modern believers to actually wish for a return to the brutal conditions of the past. The modern Christians who are pining for slavery, if transported back a few hundred years, would almost certainly find kindred spirits in the Christians who told the real slaves of those eras to be grateful and accept their lot.

My flesh crawls every time I read quotes like the above. It takes a seriously warped set of values to seek to exchange freedom and independence for obedience and servility. That entire arrangement is a relic of a past, savage era; it has always served as an apologetic for evil and tyranny, and we should be glad to see it swept away. Human beings cannot be owned, and we are not possessions to be bought or sold or traded around.

But as much as I would not want to be a slave, even less would I want to be anyone's master, not even a kind and benevolent master. Rather than have people cower and cringe on their knees, I would help them to stand on their own two feet. And in place of the degrading, demeaning worldview that encourages people to think of themselves as property, bought and branded like cattle, I would offer them this advice: You are a human being, a free creature of inherent dignity and worth. You have the ability to choose for yourself and make your own way through life. Your shackles are of your own making, and you can discard them at any time. Trust in yourself, and you will find a life that is far more liberating and wonderful.

June 5, 2007, 6:34 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink55 comments
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A Failure of Imagination

In the comment thread to my recent post "A World in Shadow IV", theist commenter Jarrod expressed the following objection to the atheist argument from evil:

I have nothing to say against the point that there is much horrible suffering going on; take that and run with it, if you want. But I don't think we can start making claims about possible worlds with more or less pain. We have one world with a lot of pain. No need to talk about other worlds God should've created.

Interestingly, at the time I saw this comment, I was reading the book Piety and Politics by the Rev. Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Lynn made an observation that I think quite accurately describes Jarrod's comment:

"It's as if to the Religious Right, any attempt to even imagine an alternative world or other realities is an offense against God." (p.216)

The context of Lynn's remark was a discussion of the frequent attempts by religious conservatives to ban or censor books whose message they disagree with, especially science fiction or fantasy books depicting worlds whose basic rules are not in accord with the human-centric, God-dominated model of Christian cosmology. As Lynn says, "I've had Religious Right activists tell me that any book that features aliens from space should not be read by children because it could give them the impression that God did not uniquely create life on earth!"

Eric von Laudermann, author of the deconversion story "The Joys of Christianity" hosted on Ebon Musings, describes how he held very much the same viewpoint in his fundamentalist days:

My ability to draw is not God's gift to me. It took years of my own effort to gain that ability, and it's still not always there when I want it. My art is therefore sinful. After all, I specialize in fantasy artwork: things that God did not create. How dare I enjoy something that God did not create! How dare I create! That's God's job! I'm trying to be like God! I'm going to Hell!

So, why is it that religious fundamentalists are often leery of sci-fi and fantasy? One possible answer is that they feel all creative work should pay proper homage to God, which most genre fiction does not. But then again, there are sound narrative reasons for this: it's almost impossible to write a compelling, suspenseful story when God is a character. The certain knowledge that he will miraculously intervene whenever the heroes are in danger robs the narrative of dramatic tension. (Witness the Left Behind apocalyptic fiction books, which mostly feature their bland, white-bread main characters driving around and making phone calls while they passively watch each item in the end-times prophecy checklist unfold before them.)

However, I think this answer doesn't go deep enough. A better one is suggested by Lynn's comment: in the circumscribed imaginations of fundamentalists, even imagining a world where God is not actively in control is dangerous. It is a recurring theme in the speech and actions of religious conservatives that the best way to ensure ideological purity is to cut off people's access to all sources of information that convey a message different from the one those religious conservatives seek to convey. (See also: abstinence-only sex education.)

Objecting to sci-fi and fantasy is a logical extension of that practice. In contrast to rationalists and friends of free speech who trust that the truth will emerge from open debate, fundamentalists evidently fear that their dogmas are fragile, and must be protected from collision with inconvenient facts - or even alternative possibilities. Merely imagining a world that does not begin with their faith-based tenets, in their view, is a dangerous step toward doubt and questioning. The self-appointed gatekeepers of dogma do not trust people to make up their own minds, and would rather bias the process of belief formation by only teaching those people about the viewpoints they want them to reach.

In essence, what they fear is a competing narrative. (This was discussed in my last summer's review of The Da Vinci Code.) The stories of organized religion are adapted to resonate with people on an emotional level, and a story that taps the same feelings and inspires the same emotional reactions can all too easily dislodge the religious memes. To the degree that lay believers use their imaginations at all, fundamentalists and church authorities want those people only to imagine their symbols, to possess a mental world as ideologically sterile as the creeds that inspired it. Permitting other ideas and symbols to flourish in the mind alongside the symbols of one's chosen religion could very likely lead the believer to think of their religion as just one more story among many - which it is - and that is an outcome that defenders of dogma seek to avoid at all costs. In the marketplace of ideas, they do not want fair competition, but victory guaranteed by the possession of a monopoly.

May 1, 2007, 7:10 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink32 comments
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