Open Thread: Secret Religious Teachings

This great comment by Rollingforest in another thread got me thinking:

When they go door to door, Mormons like to present themselves as Christians with minor but important improvements on Christian doctrine. These missionaries make sure to forget to mention or to gloss over the huge changes in dogma that becoming a Mormon requires (multiple Gods, belief that polygamy was Godly in the past and could be again in the future, absolute submission to the decrees of the Prophet, baptism of the dead, three levels of heaven, the belief that the Native Americans are descended from Jews who turned their back on God, the ability of believers to become Gods of their own, etc). These beliefs are only taught to a person after they've been sucked in, gradually becoming more receptive to drastically changing their world view. This process is called "milk before meat" and it is the church's primary method of conversion. Here is an article by a Mormon defending this practice and complaining that Google allows people to find out truths about the Mormon Church that it isn't ready to tell them yet.

I was incredulous when I clicked on the link, but it's exactly as the comment described it: a Mormon editorialist who's frustrated and upset that non-Mormons can so easily find out about the more secret and esoteric teachings of Mormonism without converting - which is, according to the author, "an easy way to do yourself more harm than good".

What this really means is that Mormonism has some ideas so off-putting, so outlandish, so bizarre, that the church leadership deems them too dangerous to teach to seekers and newcomers. It's only after a person has already become a Mormon - after they've already invested time and effort into the religion, after they've integrated it into their identity and personal life, after the cost of walking away has become much higher - that the church believes they can safely learn these things.

But then it occurred to me that Mormonism isn't the only religion for which this is true. There are other religions which have teachings meant only for the elect, teachings which they'd be highly embarrassed to see disclosed and discussed in public.

So, since we're all fearless, icon-smashing atheists, let's blow the lid off of them and let in the daylight.

This is an open thread to discuss and highlight these secret religious teachings. My intent isn't to list embarrassing episodes of hypocrisy in a church's past, or verses from their holy books that aren't widely known, but actual doctrines that are a recognized, accepted part of its teachings but that are supposed to be known only to those within the church (or just a subset of those within the church). If there are teachings or historical facts that aren't exactly secret, but which a church would prefer not be generally known, those would also qualify. Of course, the fact that a religion even has secret doctrines may itself be a secret doctrine.

I can think of a few, but there must be more I don't know about. What can you come up with? If you have them, please try to include references and citations - since members of these religions are probably going to deny that they believe these things!

April 7, 2011, 9:23 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink36 comments

A Guide to God-Spotting

Some of my favorite atheist writers have been jousting over the issue of whether any imaginable evidence could convince them of the existence of God. Among those who answer in the negative, the consensus seems to be that God is such a nebulous and unfalsifiable hypothesis, it's impossible to test in any meaningful way.

This is a topic I've spent some time contemplating myself, and though I think differently than they do, I'm sympathetic to that objection. Despite millennia of cogitation, theologians have never produced a clear and consistent definition of God's nature and powers.

So, let's see if we can help them out.

In this essay, I'll list three different classes of hypothetical beings that could claim the term "god" and consider how each of them differ. I'll then discuss what we might do if we ever encountered a being that could plausibly claim to belong to one of these categories.

God Type I: The Sufficiently Advanced Alien

The first candidate, and the lowest on the scale of godhood, is the Sufficiently Advanced Alien. This could be an extraterrestrial from a civilization technologically advanced far beyond ours, but it doesn't have to be. It could be a human-created Singularity-type computer supermind, a time traveler from the far future, a Star Trek-esque energy being, whatever. Its exact nature isn't important. What matters is that it exists in this universe and is constrained by its physical laws, but can do anything or almost anything that's theoretically possible under those laws. I could imagine a sufficiently advanced alien that could use sophisticated nanotechnology to cure disease, read our thoughts by mapping patterns of brain activity, control the weather in a small region to strike blasphemers with lightning, and so on, thus acting for all intents and purposes like the gods of old.

I would also count pagan deities like the Greek gods under this category. They were superior to humans in some ways, such as possessing immortality, but they were creatures of this universe and were in some sense subject to its laws.

God Type II: The Chief Programmer

Moving up a step, we come to the Chief Programmer. The conceit here is that there's another universe, which arises and evolves according to its own set of natural laws (whatever they may be), ultimately giving rise to intelligent life. That life becomes technologically advanced and builds powerful computers, or the equivalent - so powerful that they can simulate, in arbitrarily fine detail, the workings of an entire cosmos - and we are that cosmos. The true nature of our existence is that we're programs running on a supercomputer operated by a far more advanced civilization, and the simulation is so realistic that we're unaware of this.

The programmer in charge of the simulation, if it chose to interact with us, would be godlike. It could infallibly predict the future by rewinding time and then replaying it; resurrect the dead by loading their personality from a backup copy; run our universe in a debugger to read people's thoughts, influence their actions, or alter the course of events in subtle and undetectable ways. It could change the parameters of the program to selectively suspend our natural laws - creating a perpetual motion machine, making force equal something other than mass times acceleration, changing the value of Planck's constant, or removing the light-speed limit. Any form it could take in our universe would only be an avatar, and even if we disabled or destroyed that, the mind guiding it isn't part of our universe and wouldn't be affected.

This is the Chief Programmer: any being that's a natural entity in its own universe, but functionally omnipotent with respect to ours. The scientists in Stanislaw Lem's "Non Serviam" were Chief Programmers from the perspective of their artificial beings, as is the protagonist of this xkcd strip. But it doesn't have to be a computer programmer, per se. We could be figments of the imagination of some superbeing, dreaming a fantastically vast and intricate lucid dream, or characters in a novel being written by an unimaginable Author.

God Type III: The Empyrean

Finally, there's the category about which there's the most controversy, a god of the type usually pictured by monotheistic religions. Like the Chief Programmer, it's fundamentally omnipotent and omniscient from our perspective - able to alter reality at will, powerful enough to achieve anything that isn't a logical contradiction, and aware of everything that can be known. The difference is that, rather than being a natural being in its own universe, it isn't subject to any physical laws whatsoever, although it may exhibit regularities in its behavior. What it's made of, or whether it has any internal structure, are questions which theologians rarely consider.

As I said, there's much debate about whether this is even a logically coherent notion, or whether it's so poorly defined as to be a self-contradiction. The point is well-taken that gods like this are usually only defined in negative terms. Saying a being is "immaterial" or "ineffable" doesn't explain what it is, only what it isn't. Saying it transcends time and space doesn't explain in what manner it does exist, cogitate, and act. Saying it consists of "pure spirit" is a meaningless string of words when we have no other examples of this substance to examine. Most attempts to define a type III god, ultimately, consist of mysteries piled upon mysteries, all topped with a generous helping of contradiction and paradox.

So, yes, I can accept the point that the type III god is so ill-defined that we could never be sure whether we'd encountered one, or whether any plausible god-claimant was "only" an example of a type I or II.* But here's the important thing: as far as we're concerned, it doesn't make a difference. We could never threaten or oppose either a type II or III.** If it demanded worship, and your paramount desire was not being blasted into oblivion, you'd have no choice but to obey. Conversely, if you refused on principle to worship any being that hadn't proved itself morally worthy, it wouldn't matter what the source of its power was.

From a practical perspective, then, the type I, II and III beings would all be gods to us. If such a being manifested before us and directly communicated with us, logically our response should be the same in all cases. Of course, that would only be a concern for a plausible manifestation. The vague, subjective internal promptings claimed by most religions could never qualify, nor could the many-times-retold tall tales in scripture. It would need to be something clear, direct, and unmistakable, and if experience is any guide, that's a standard that no religion is likely ever to meet.

* There are differences between the various types. There are certain feats that a type II or III god could perform that a type I couldn't, for example changing a law of physics. But a type I god could probably craft an illusion realistic enough that we'd never be able to see through it.

** In theory, we could become powerful enough to overthrow a type I, but it's also possible that it would keep a sufficiently close watch on us to make this a practical impossibility. Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End is an example of this.

March 19, 2011, 10:57 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink27 comments

The Language of God: The Irony of Misunderstood Agnosticism

The Language of God, Chapter 7

By B.J. Marshall

The final part of this chapter on the godless takes aim at agnosticism. Collins first gives Huxley's coinage of the term, and then he proceeds to misunderstand agnosticism in a way that's rife with glaring contradictions.

Collins gives a lengthy quote of Huxley's from Wikipedia, which you won't find in the Wikipedia article he references! His citation doesn't even mention when he accessed that page. Time to rant here: I have a friend who is a media specialist with my local library system, and she - and many others in her field - rant about students citing directly from Wikipedia. Ideally, they say, one can use it to check out information, but one should always go to the source material - the references for the article - to determine the value of the material. After all, they say, one can't just assume that the source material referenced in any given Wikipedia article is a credible primary source. I find Collins' direct citation of Wikipedia as a primary source to be intellectually lazy.

I have no idea where he got his entire quote, but you can find a portion of it here. The gist of the quote is that Huxley noticed that people seemed to have attained a certain "gnosis" regarding the problem of God's existence, whereas Huxley had not attained such "gnosis."

"It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the "gnostic" of church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant" (p.167).

Collins misinterprets the quote: "An agnostic, then, is one who would say that the knowledge of God's existence simply cannot be achieved" (p.168). He then describes "strong agnostics" as stating that such knowledge could never be achieved and "weak agnostics" who say such knowledge is simply not available right now.

But wait a minute. Collins wouldn't be able to conclude from Huxley's quote above that an an agnostic would say that the knowledge of God's existence simply cannot be achieved. After all, the quote Collins lifted from Huxley references the people who profess to have such knowledge. Huxley's term would be more suited to simply negate that quote: agnostics are people who profess to have a lack of such knowledge. Just as a-theism is a lack of a belief in god(s), a-gnosticism would be the lack of knowledge of god(s). To conclude that agnostics say such knowledge is simply impossible requires additional steps in logic that Collins does not provide. In addition, Collins contradicts himself: at one point he says that an agnostic would say such knowledge "simply cannot be achieved" and then - in the very next sentence! - states that some (weak) agnostics just think we don't have the knowledge right now, which sounds a lot like "maybe we'll have that knowledge later."

Collins then proceeds to characterize agnostics with bald assertions: "Most agnostics simply take the position that it is not possible, at least for them at that time, to take a position for or against the existence of God," "many biologists would put themselves in this camp," and "It is a rare agnostic who has made the effort to [consider all the evidence for and against the existence of God]" (p.168). There are, of course, no references backing his conclusions. Collins paints agnostics with a broad brush that screams "agnosticism is a cop-out!"

There is a possible objection that would rule out Collins' strong v. weak dichotomy regarding agnosticism and show that agnosticism is far from a cop-out. If a strong agnostic claims that knowledge about god is impossible, then wouldn't this mean that the agnostic has certain knowledge about gods (that gods are pesky in their unknowability) and/or the nature of reality relative to those gods? If that's the case, and strong agnosticism is self-refuting, then weak agnosticism is the only form you have.

I have occasionally run into people who question whether I'm really an atheist or whether I'm an agnostic. Unfortunately, if these people were to read Collins' book, they would not be any closer to understanding why a/theism and a/gnosticism is not an either/or proposition.

Other posts in this series:

March 13, 2011, 7:14 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink23 comments

Little-Known Bible Verses: Let God Plead His Own Cause

It's indisputable that Christianity is the dominant religion in America, and there are those who'd like to keep it that way. Right-wing legal groups like the Liberty Counsel and the Thomas More Law Center exist solely to maintain Christian superiority, arguing in court that Christian believers should be afforded more rights and privileges than everyone else. But the Bible itself ridicules this effort as unnecessary, as we can see from a little-known Bible verse. (HT: Better than Esdras, a fascinating little blog that first made me aware of this passage.)

In the Old Testament book of Judges, the Israelites repeatedly go astray and wind up defeated and enslaved by their enemies, until they cry out to God and he raises up a hero to deliver them. Judges chapter 6 repeats this pattern with Gideon, of the tribe of Manasseh. Gideon is visited by an angel who instructs him to destroy his father's altar to the pagan Canaanite god Baal. He does it secretly, by night, but gets found out anyway:

When the men of the town rose early in the morning, behold, the altar of Baal was broken down... And after they had made search and inquired, they said, "Gideon the son of Joash has done this thing." Then the men of the town said to Joash, "Bring out your son, that he may die, for he has pulled down the altar of Baal and cut down the Asherah beside it." But Joash said to all who were arrayed against him, "Will you contend for Baal? Or will you defend his cause? Whoever contends for him shall be put to death by morning. If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because his altar has been pulled down." (6:28-31)

Rare for the Bible, this passage makes a persuasive and well-reasoned argument. If Baal is a god, especially the kind of actively involved god who's performing miracles and answering the prayers of his followers, he should be able to defend his own interests. He shouldn't need humans to serve as his agents, enforcing what they believe to be his will and punishing people who go against his decrees. And if Baal never intervenes directly and it's only his believers who are ever seen to act on his behalf, wouldn't we be justified in concluding that Baal probably doesn't exist?

As I said, a good argument. But doesn't it apply every bit as well to Yahweh? Why do right-wing Christians rise up in outrage when church-state defenders force Christian crosses or Ten Commandments monuments to be removed from public land, why do they react with fury when store greeters say "Happy Holidays" or museums display blasphemous artworks? If God is real, and if he cares about these things, surely he'll contend for himself.

Why does the religious right feel they need to act as God's agents in the world, forcing everyone to live by what they assume the divine law to be? It seemingly betrays more than a hint of insecurity. Atheists and other non-Christians routinely get threats of hellfire from Christian proselytizers, who promise that God will judge them as they deserve in the next life. But if they really believe that, why are they so concerned with reinforcing social penalties for religious dissent in this one?

Other posts in this series:

January 24, 2011, 6:48 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink39 comments

The Language of God: A Biologist in His Element (Sort Of)

The Language of God, Chapter 4

By B.J. Marshall

This chapter is entitled "Life on Earth: Of Microbes and Man." Right from the beginning, you should probably know that there's a lot in this chapter that Collins gets right. It's like how William Lane Craig is totally in his element when he talks about cosmology, because he's an astrophysi ... wait, that's right, he's not. (I couldn't help but slam "The Case for a Creator" my parents got me for my first birthday post-deconversion. Nothing says "Happy Birthday" like "we think you're wrong and we don't want you to burn in Hell.") OK, so it's completely unlike that; Collins totally knows his stuff when it comes to the items in this chapter: DNA and evolution. In fact, Collins at one point asserts that "[t]he study of genomes leads inexorably to the conclusion that we humans share a common ancestor with other living things" (pp.133-134).

That said, there are some things that he mentions in this chapter that should be addressed.

In his introduction to this chapter, he talks about how science has turned beliefs on their heads, giving the example of replacing the geocentric model of the solar system with a heliocentric model. He talks about how the theory of evolution has really done it in for creationists. "Science," Collins says, "should not be denied by the believer; it should be embraced." He continues to say how the elegance of life on Earth is reason for awe and for belief in God. To that, I answer as Douglas Adams did: "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"

After speaking to paradigm shifts, Collins addresses the mainstay of many theists: Paley's Watchmaker argument. I have to give credit to Collins for adeptly dismantling this, though it is pretty low-hanging fruit. You know the one: You find a watch in a heath, and you know it's complex (the watch, not the heath). Watches have creators. Well, life is pretty darned complex; therefore life has a creator. Collins dismantles it this way:

  1. Electric current in my house consists of a flow of electrons.
  2. Electric current comes from the power company.
  3. Lightning consists of a flow of electrons.
  4. Therefore, lightning comes from the power company (pp.87-88).

Collins spends a little bit of time refuting arguments that evolution would violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In so many words, he tells the reader that order can increase in parts of a system while the total amount of disorder in the system never decreases. He warns the reader about falling into a god-of-the-gaps problem, where the reader might say something like, "Hey, science can't explain life's origins, so couldn't we say that God stepped in to intervene?" I found it interesting how Collins plays to his readership: In that hypothetical question, Collins posits that God's intention was to create a universe which would lead to creatures with whom God might have fellowship, "namely human beings." Neanderthals may have had some form of spirituality, so why be so specific about human beings? Furthermore, if Collins holds evolution to be true, couldn't God be desiring fellowship with species that come after us? And do people really think God would set things in motion with the Big Bang and then chill for 13.7 billion years until we came along for his fellowship?

After he's done helping his readers avoid god-of-the-gaps arguments, he then says "there are good reasons to believe in God, including the existence of mathematical principles and order in creation. They are positive reasons, based on knowledge, rather than default assumptions based on (a temporary) lack of knowledge" (p.93). Math and order - really? George H. Smith discusses order in Atheism: A Case Against God as this: "order is simply the manifestation of causality, and causality is a derivative, a logical corollary, of the Law of Identity" (p.150). The nature of an entity determines what that entity can and cannot do. To help explain this, Smith refers to H.W.B. Joseph's "An Introduction to Logic":

... to say that the same thing acting on the same thing under the same conditions may yet produce a different effect, is to say that a thing need not be what it is. But this is in flat conflict with the Law of Identity. A thing, to be at all, must be something, and can only be what it is. To assert a causal connection between 'a' and V implies 'a' acts as it does because it is what it is; because, in fact, it is 'a.' So long therefore as it is 'a,' it must act thus; and to assert that it may act otherwise on a subsequent occasion is to assert that what is 'a' is something else than the 'a' which it is declared to be.

Order and design are not the same, which is something the theist may wish to assert given that God designed the universe. Design alludes to a designer, but order does not necessarily need an orderer. Smith asserts that order is "simply entailed by the nature of existence itself." It makes sense, given order, that mathematics would work. If I have one orange, and I add another orange to it, I get two oranges. That is, unless there is no order and the Law of Identity fails to hold, in which case I may get a pimped-up Mini Cooper and Alyson Hannigan. Sadly, after an hour of holding my very hopeful citrus, I got neither of those. Seems to me that, if order is a derivative of the Law of Identity, then mathematics is a derivative of order. And neither necessarily point to a god.

Now, to be charitable to the theist, I could see where one might say something like the following: If order is simply entailed by the nature of existence, and if God caused the universe to exist, then God caused order via his creation. To that, I would respond that we have a completely naturalistic explanation of order, even if we currently lack a scientifically proven explanation for why there is something rather than nothing. We certainly have naturalistic explanations for why there is something rather than nothing (the universe has zero total energy), but I'm not aware those ideas have been proven out. Furthermore, once again, just because a natural explanation is not yet proven to be true does not mean one can go claiming "God did it."

For all the progress Collins makes toward getting his readership to stop clicking Answers In Genesis and actually understand why evolution is true, he makes a few key blunders about why anyone should believe in a god. The funniest thing is that my father read The Language of God before handing it to me. He said he understands how evolution may have happened, but he's still hung up on micro- vs. macro-evolution, which is like being hung up on walking 200 yards vs. walking two miles. So, in the end, I really wonder how much progress Collins is actually making.

Other posts in this series:

November 8, 2010, 7:38 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink12 comments

The Language of God: Cosmology and the God Hypothesis

The Language of God, Chapter 3

By B.J. Marshall

Collins concludes this chapter by tying his overview of cosmology to the god hypothesis. He states that "[c]learly, the scientific view is not entirely sufficient to answer all of the interesting questions about the origin of the universe, and there is nothing inherently in conflict between the idea of a creator God and what science has revealed" (pp.80-1). We've already addressed this god-of-the-gaps mentality before; just because one hypothesis (scientific explanation of the origins of the universe) might fail, that does not by itself validate any competing hypotheis (god did it). Likewise, we have seen conflict between what god has "revealed" and what science tells us - just read Genesis. But the point of Collins introducing the final section of this chapter is to have his readers build upon the foundation they've constructed thus far. Too bad that foundation is crap.

Collins presents an argument for how the theist can seek a god who created the universe but also cares about us personally (I numbered the premisses for later reference):

(1) If God exists, then He is supernatural
(2) If He is supernatural, then He is not limited by natural laws
(3) If He is not limited by natural laws, there is no reason He should be limited by time
(4) If He is not limited by time, then He is in the past, the present, and the future.

Collins draws a number of conclusions from this. First, God can exist prior to and after the universe. Second, God has perfect knowledge of everything, including the formation of planets, biogenesis, and our thoughts and actions. I'd like to explore his argument in more detail before discussing his conclusions.

Collins' argument begins like a tautology, based on his definition of God. Let's leave alone the first two premisses and grant them as true based on the definitions of "god" and "supernatural." Premiss (3) is problematic, and it's here that I think Collins' argument loses soundness. I don't think it follows that not being limited by natural laws means there's no reason one should be limited by time. I think my problem is in ambiguous language. I think I understand what it would mean to not be limited by natural laws: you don't need to be under gravity's thumb; you don't need to abide by the Law of Conservation of Energy; you can shirk conservation of angular momentum whenever you wanted to. Now, I see those examples as immensely flawed, but at least I understand them. I'm not sure what it means to not be limited by time.

The concept of being outside time (or timeless) is problematic. Drange (1998) considered timelessness as just one of many incompatible properties traditionally ascribed to God. It goes along with the pair of attributes of god being immutable (unchangable) and creating the universe. It boils down to this: In order to create, one must have the intention of creating, then perform the act of creating, then no longer have the intention of creating. For example, I want to bake brownies. I bake the brownies. I no longer want to bake brownies because I'm too busy stuffing my face with the brownies I just made. Smith (1996) also pointed out how the concept of a timeless god is problematic given temporal causation: with time not existing, how can any temporal causation occur?

Premiss 4 also confuses me. I first considered the concept "not being limited by time" as being outside of time or timeless. William Lane Craig usually uses "timeless" as a property of God, as well as spaceless, immensely powerful, and personal. But now I read Collins' concept "not being limited by time" as meaning "able to flow anywhere in time." I think Collins is equivocating different notions of time. To me, this poses a big problem, as I think it means God can know opposing propositions in the same context. Let's say God goes to the past, before I was born. To God, the past is now his "present" and he knows the proposition "BJ Marshall does not exist." Well, God then decided to zip forward in time to a new "present" and he knows the proposition "BJ Marshall exists." I say "in the same context" because both knowledge statements are in God's "present," which is to say the time in which God currently exists.

Despite the confusing argument, Collins draws conclusions about God's omnipotence leading up to God knowing every thought and action we perform. I think this also means that God knows well before we're born whether he's going to roast us for eternity (trillions of years?) for transgressions we made against an arbitrary set of moral laws over a span of 80 years or so.

Collins has more to say about marrying science and religion, and he speaks very briefly about the wrongheadedness of Young Earth Creationists. He ends by quoting Saint Augustine:

"In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it" (p.83).

If only the Discovery Institute and the Institute for Creation Research heeded this advice. It sounds a lot like Augustine is proposing using reason and evidence to back up positions of faith. Of course, one problem I have is trying to figure out how positions of faith can be backed up, given there's no way to verify or test those positions. It reminded me of George Smith in "Atheism: The Case Against God": "There can be no knowledge of what is good for man[kind] apart from the knowledge of reality and human nature - and there is no manner in which this knowledge can be acquired except through reason" (p.4).

Earlier, Collins had asserted that religions were rusty containers and that perhaps the water held within the containers comprised the articles of faith that form the core beliefs of corruptible religions. I wonder at what point scientific discoveries will throw away enough buckets of bathwater until people eventually toss out the baby of faith altogether.

Other posts in this series:

October 17, 2010, 2:37 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink22 comments

Crafting a Rational Theology

As atheists, we're well acquainted with the irrationalities of the world's religions. We've seen it all before: the absurdities in holy books, the convoluted twists of logic used by professional apologists, the self-contradictions and incoherent definitions that the faithful swallow without a qualm. All that can safely be taken for granted. Now let's see if we can do theology better.

I'm not speaking of ways that the world could be made better; we covered that ground in "Improving on God's Handiwork". It's no fair saying you'd have created a perfect, immortal paradise from the beginning, even though we all know an omnipotent deity would be capable of that. The point of this exercise is different: you must accept the world as it currently is, and craft a theology that explains it in a reasonably satisfying manner, without any fallacies of logic or divine mysteries that must simply be taken on faith, and without replicating a currently existing religion.

To start the discussion, I have an idea to propose. It's a form of pantheism that might be called "universal transmigration", and it solves a puzzle of personal identity that philosophers have long struggled with: Why am I in this body, this life, and not someone else's body and someone else's life? Why is my "camera of consciousness" in this head and nowhere else?

This theology proposes that there is a soul, but only one soul - call it the World-Soul if you like, or God if you feel more comfortable with that. This single, immortal soul lives billions of different lives, using human beings as its vessels. Each time one body dies, it transmigrates to a new body - a new person - and starts over again. These transmigrations can move it both backwards and forwards in time, even contemporaneously with other incarnations of itself: so that ultimately God, or the World-Soul, lives many lives simultaneously, like a time traveler going into the past and meeting himself. Like a shuttle weaving at a loom, turning a single thread into a complex tapestry, this process results in God becoming, in turn, every human being who ever has lived or ever will live.

This explains why there is suffering and evil, as well as great happiness and joy. God, the only real consciousness in the universe, wants to explore life in all its diversity, and living an endless string of blissful, contented lives wouldn't teach anything new. Living through short lives of pain and toil, in addition to long lives of happiness and love, is the only way to truly experience all the possibilities that existence has to offer.

This theology also has profound personal and moral implications: namely, you are God at this moment, and so is everyone else you know, everyone else you meet. Everyone from the President in the White House to a panhandler on the subway is a different incarnation of God, and thus worthy of respect and devotion. And if you do violence to any other person, you're not only doing violence to God, but to a person whom you yourself will be someday. Such a theology could provide the basis for a very deeply felt ethic of compassion, non-violence, and concern for the future.

So, that's what I'm offering to start with. Who else has a theology to propose?

March 24, 2010, 6:01 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink59 comments

Whence Comes God's Nature?

According to the vast majority of religious believers (though perhaps not to the tiny minority of elite theologians), God is basically in nature like a larger and more powerful human being. He has plans and desires which he takes actions to fulfill; he likes some people and things and dislikes others; he experiences emotions like anger, jealousy, love, and forgiveness; he can be persuaded to act on another's behalf; and so on.

The most peculiar aspect of this anthropomorphic theology is its claim that God has preferences: he likes and desires certain states of affairs, while he dislikes others and desires that they not come to pass. For example, in the Old Testament, we are told that God desires animal sacrifice; the text repeatedly says that the smell of burning animal flesh is a "sweet savor" to him. Conversely, the worship of idols or gods other than himself is something he strongly dislikes, to the extent of visiting dreadful punishments on people who do it.

Christianity, too, says that God desires to forgive humanity for its sins, but also desires a blood sacrifice before he will consent to do so, thus necessitating the death of Jesus. The Christian god strongly dislikes the vice of pride, and harshly punishes those who seek to attain equality with him. In Islam, God desires that human beings worship him alone, rejecting belief in any partners; and in the nastier strains of Islam, we're told that God desires glorious martyrdom in battle and will reward anyone who does so with eternal glory.

The belief that God wants and desires certain things is a common thread in monotheism. But when you think about it, this is a profoundly strange belief. Most theists don't recognize this, but that's because the analogy between God and human beings masks the strangeness of it.

After all, we all understand how, and why, human beings come to hold certain desires. We have instinctual physiological drives, installed in us by evolution, for basic things like food, sex and companionship. We have more complex desires as a result of culture, upbringing and past experience for things that we think will add to our happiness or help fulfill the more basic desires. Every one of us has gone through a long, complex and contingent process of development that shaped our likes and dislikes.

But God, so we're told, is eternal and unchanging. He is pure reason, pure mind, pure spirit - no physical needs to fulfill, no past history, none of the contingent events that make human nature what it is. So how is it that he has, just like us, a complex nature with specific likes and dislikes? He did not undergo the process by which human beings acquire their preferences, so where does he get them from? Why does he prefer things one way and not another?

Some believers may find this question difficult to comprehend, so as an imagination-stretching exercise, allow me to propose a variety of different preference sets which it seems, a priori, that God could have had. I invite theists to consider these possibilities, and to ask themselves: why is it that God is this way and not one of those ways?

Self-Sufficient God. This deity knows himself to possess all perfections and sees no reason to create any inferior sentient beings. Therefore, he sits alone in the void for all eternity, contemplating his own perfection, and never creates a world separate from himself.

Sadistic God. His greatest desire is to see maximal human pain and suffering. He desires no worship, offers no opportunity for salvation, and answers no prayer, but deliberately creates a world as hellish as possible and peoples it with sentient beings just so that he can watch them suffer for all eternity.

Moral Relativist God. He creates a world and peoples it with sentient beings, but has no motivation to care about what they do to each other, any more than a person who owns an ant farm would care about the morality of the ants. He gives no commandments and sets no rules, but watches us for his own entertainment, regarding both great acts of good and terrible acts of evil with the same bemused detachment.

Recluse God. His greatest desire is to be left alone. Prayers, acts of devotion and other worship just annoy him, and he has an afterlife of punishment set aside for those devout people who constantly bother him. The people whom he'll reward are the atheists, because at least they let him get some peace and quiet.

Prankster God. His greatest desire is to do the opposite of what we expect (he finds it hilarious). Whenever people pray for something, he does the opposite. When people seek him, he hides from them; when people ignore him, he reveals himself to them. The people who are most certain they're saved, he'll doom to an afterlife of punishment, and people who don't believe in an afterlife will be admitted to a blissful heavenly realm. He's constantly leaving misleading clues and sending incompatible revelations to the world, just to keep us further confused.

Granted, some of these hypothetical gods sound bizarre. But how are they any more bizarre than a god who prefers one particular race of people above all others, or a god who demands the shedding of innocent blood to forgive sins, or a god who demands five prayers at specific times each day, or a god who desires that we ritually consume his flesh and blood each week? It's only familiarity that makes these seem natural while the ones I've proposed seem strange.

There's an interesting parallel here with the "fine-tuning" argument sometimes used by religious apologists. They ask how likely it is that a universe with physical laws conducive to life could just happen to exist with no prior explanation. But atheists can ask an analogous question in return: Out of all the billions of possible gods, each one with a different highly specific and arbitrary set of desires and preferences, how likely is it that there just happens to be one who's benevolent and kindly disposed toward humans? What prior cause can explain that favorable coincidence?

December 23, 2009, 6:39 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink44 comments

On Expertise

One of the most common complaints leveled against Richard Dawkins (and other atheist writers) is that his understanding of religion isn't sufficiently sophisticated - that he dismisses religion without delving into all its intricacies of doctrine. For instance, Terry Eagleton:

What, one wonders, are Dawkins's views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them?

What any of this has to do with the basic question of whether God exists is left unexplained. So common is this attack that P.Z. Myers gave it its own, very appropriate name - The Courtier's Reply - a reference to the famous fable of the Emperor's New Clothes. The analogy behind the Courtier's Reply is that no one has the right to claim the Emperor is naked unless they've first engaged in a detailed study of all the latest fashions in imaginary fabrics.

The use of this argument shows how religious apologists set the bar at a different height for atheists than they do for their own fellow believers. Why is it that that atheists are expected to be fluent in every last detail and nuance of theology, while no similar qualifications are needed to be a churchgoer?

Millions of theists pray, worship and attend church each week despite possessing pathetically shallow levels of knowledge and familiarity with their own religion. If atheists criticized Christianity despite possessing such shoddy knowledge of its teachings, they'd be lambasted - and rightly so. But no one seems to be demanding that the ill-informed faithful clear out of the pews until they've brought their theological knowledge up to code.

In fact, some of the world's major religions have commitment ceremonies where children as young as 12 or 13 are expected to pledge their lifelong devotion. Clearly, these faiths believe that even a child can understand their teachings well enough to make a meaningful vow of allegiance to them. How, then, can those same faiths turn around and say that atheists need to have a postgraduate education in theology to even think about objecting? This is just an attempt to create a double standard where detailed understanding is required to deny, but not to assent.

If anything, this is a bar that's not just uneven, it's perpetually moving. A lifetime of study would not be enough to learn every last detail about even a single religion. No one, atheist or theologian, could possibly know everything about the history and culture of a large faith. And again, while this is not viewed as a liability in believers, it serves as a convenient cudgel for apologists to use against us. When challenged, they can always demand that the atheist go away and study another long-dead theologian before questioning the existence of God.

But as Eagleton's excerpt shows, this is just a smokescreen. It rarely if ever has any bearing on the key question of whether theism is true. If God does not exist, of what possible relevance is the epistemological difference between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? We seek to respond to religious beliefs as they are actually held and practiced by a vast majority of the faithful, not to the rarefied views held by a tiny minority of theologians. We have no interest in debating how many angels can dance on a pinhead; we want to know whether there's any reason to believe in angels in the first place.

And, it should be noted, this argument is almost never applied in the reverse direction. That is to say, most of the believers who reject atheism know little, if anything, about it, and I'd bet that only a vanishing minority have ever read anything written by us in our own words. Greta Christina, as always, shines a clear light on the double standard being applied here. If we're expected to possess expertise on theism, why aren't theists expected to read up on atheism before rejecting it? Why aren't they expected to be experts on all the other faiths which they don't belong to?

September 29, 2008, 8:39 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink166 comments

Ten Questions to Ask Your Pastor

The New York Times recently ran a depressing article about the obstacles faced by public school science teachers. I don't envy teachers their job, as important as it is: between surly and unruly students, cash-strapped school districts, incompetent administrators, and the regimented, monotonous teaching needed to drill classes for standardized testing, they have more than enough to deal with. But this outrage may surpass all the others: religious students who have been programmed by their parents and churches to reject evolution and any other branch of science that infringes on their sacred superstitions.

The last question on the test Mr. Campbell passed out a week later asked students to explain two forms of evidence supporting evolutionary change and natural selection.

"I refuse to answer," Bryce wrote. "I don't believe in this."

The article mentions "Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Evolution", a tract written by the Moonie creationist Jonathan Wells, as one that some religious students are bringing to class. The National Center for Science Education has done a superb job answering these questions and unpacking the deceitful assumptions built into them (and the Talk.Origins Archive has a more in-depth response), so I won't spend my time on that. I have a different idea.

If the creationist churches are prepping teenagers with arguments against science, I think it's only fair that they get a taste of their own medicine. I think there should be a list of questions for Sunday-school students to ask their pastor - questions that cast light on the unsavory parts of Christian theology and raise the difficult, uncomfortable issues that most religious leaders prefer to avoid. Here are my suggestions for a list. I've done my best to raise issues that aren't often addressed by apologists, or to phrase questions in ways that aren't as susceptible to stock answers. If anyone has alternatives or additions, feel free to suggest them.

1. Why is God called loving or merciful when, in the Old Testament's stories of the Israelite conquest, he specifically orders his chosen people to massacre their enemies, showing no mercy to men, women, even children and animals?

2. Does it make sense to claim, as the Bible does, that wrongdoing can be forgiven by magically transferring the blame from a guilty person to an innocent one, then punishing the innocent person?

3. Why does the Bible routinely depict God as manifesting himself in dramatic, unmistakable ways and performing obvious miracles even before the eyes of nonbelievers, when no such thing happens in the world today?

4. Why do vast numbers of Christians still believe in the imminent end of the world when the New Testament states clearly that the apocalypse was supposed to happen 2,000 years ago, during the lifetime of Jesus' contemporaries?

5. Why do Christians believe in the soul when neurology has found clear evidence that the sense of identity and personality can be altered by physical changes to the brain?

6. If it was always God's plan to provide salvation through Jesus, why didn't he send Jesus from the very beginning, instead of confusing and misleading generations of people by setting up a religion called Judaism which he knew in advance would prove to be inadequate?

7. Since the Bible states that God does not desire that anyone perish, but also states that the majority of humankind is going to hell, doesn't this show that God's plan of salvation is a failure even by his own standard? If this outcome is a success, what would count as a failure?

8. Why didn't God create human beings such that they freely desire to do good, thus removing the need to create a Hell at all? (If you believe this is impossible, isn't this the state that will exist in Heaven?)

9. Is it fair or rational for God to hide himself so that he can only be known by faith, then insist that every single human being find him by picking the right one out of thousands of conflicting and incompatible religions?

10. If you had the power to help all people who are suffering or in need, at no cost or effort to yourself, would you do it? If so, why hasn't God done this already?

September 6, 2008, 10:56 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink240 comments

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