Monthly Archives: November 2008

Is God punishing California?

When disaster strikes a people, believers of all stripes noisily proclaim it a sign of divine retribution for whatever sins those people were believed to commit. Take Hurricane Katrina. Depending on your religious persuasion, it was either a) a warning against rampant homosexuality, b) justice for America’s support for the removal of Jewish settlers on disputed lands in the Middle East, or c) retribution against America for its “war on Islam.”

That all of these are merely examples of the post hoc fallacy doesn’t phase the believer one bit. So let’s play their game and ask what God is punishing California for.

If you haven’t been following the news, the state recently experienced another found of devastating wildfires. Included in the destruction was a Christian liberal arts college in Santa Barbara. The fires have been followed by drenching rains, which threaten even more destruction and hardship.

California, you recall, just a few weeks ago passed Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage. Clearly, this was an act displeasing to God, who has “poured out His wrath” against the people there, including Christians, in the form of fires and flooding. Or so the logic of the believer leads us to conclude. Curiously, however, you’ll search in vain for any believer pointing this out.

Let’s recap the belief of the faithful:

When the will of God is flagrantly violated, calamity occurs. Whatever actions preceded the calamity, we should repent of and correct.

Since calamity in California occurred following passage of Proposition 8, to be consistent with their own belief, the religious must conclude they defied the will of God. They should therefore repent of their transgression in supporting the proposition and work to immediately repeal it.

Obviously this isn’t going to happen. It’s doubtful the connection was even made in any of their minds. When they fail time and again to consistently apply their own beliefs, why is it any wonder to them they’re the objects of constant derision?

Surreal

There’s a feeling that frequently overcomes me as I read religious scripture.  It’s difficult to express, but if there’s one word that sums the feeling up, it’s “surreal.”

Its source is knowing that there are millions and millions of fellow humans who fervently believe that what I’m reading is some divine truth, as factual as their jobs or families, while to me it’s just as plain that it’s pure fantasy.  I wonder, how is it possible that our perceptions of the same stories and words can be so fundamentally opposed.  As irreconcilable as oil and water.  It’s like I watched The Lord of the Rings and everyone came out of the theater saying what a great documentary it was.  Something. is. not. quite. right.  What prevents me from understanding their scriptures as reality in the same way these other millions do?

The designers of religion have recognized this conundrum, and have crafted ingenious rationales why their “truth” appears like a bunch of hokum to outsiders.  Consider the words of Christianity’s Apostle Paul:

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. (1 Cor. 2:14-15)

Or Islam’s Prophet Muhammad:

This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah. (Sura 2:2)

Even Scientology has its “endgrams” – residual mental image pictures – of which we must rid ourselves in order understand our true nature.

In each case, there is some element, or lack of it, that obscures the underlying true reality, that biases our understanding.  And until we adopt the particular religion’s paradigm, we cannot fully understand and appreciate the alleged truth that it says is essential to our happiness, immortality, or what have you.  If this seems circular, that’s because it is.  The truth will be revealed to you only once you accept what they say as truth.

Many believers recognize the question-begging nature of their faiths, and a few honest ones realize other religions do the very same thing.  So that’s why they offer up other standards.  For example, a Christian might say that fulfilled prophecy demonstrates the truth of their religion.  Muslims claim the Qu’ran contains scientific knowledge of things unheard of at the time it was written, which proves a divine influence.  Mormons assert that the Holy Ghost witnesses to the truth of the Book of Mormon via a “burning bosom“.  All claimed reformed lives as evidence, too.  Why we should accept the superiority of one standard over any other is never quite explained.  They’re quick to point out the motes in each others’ religions (or even rival sects), but are blind to the beams in their own.

Sorry, if your religion requires me to swallow its tenets before I can comprehend its “truth,” then it is not for me.  Threats of eternal torture repel me even further.  Can any religion pass a basic smell test?

When Christians don’t know their own Bible

The American Humanist Association’s ad campaign in Washington, DC, which asks, “Why believe in God?  Just be good for goodness’ sake”, has provoked a number of sharp responses from Christians.  The American Family Association’s president, Tim Wildmon, said, for example:

It’s a stupid ad. How do we define ‘good’ if we don’t believe in God? God in his word, the Bible, tells us what’s good and bad and right and wrong. If we are each ourselves defining what’s good, it’s going to be a crazy world.

Around the blogosphere, Christians have echoed the same argument, which has got me chuckling, for it’s debunked in of all places the Bible itself.  As Paul wrote in Romans 2:14-15 (NASV):

For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them,

Paul did not originate this idea of a divinely engraved law; it’s found throughout the Bible.  Psalms 19:1-4 (NASV):

The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth, and their utterances to the end of the world in them He has placed a tent for the sun,

And it’s not like no one has ever noticed these scriptures.  The existence of a “moral law” has been a constant refrain from Christians throughout the centuries, with Christian apologist C. S. Lewis being a recent popularizer (see, e.g., Mere Christianity).

The Christian response to the AHA’s ad reflects a baffling ignorance of their own doctrine.  They can’t simultaneously argue one can’t be good without a belief in God, on the one hand, and then maintain that God’s law is written on the heart of every human, on the other.  Does atheism somehow rescind a divine act?

Well, He did say “creature”…

Stunning exegetical breakthrough?  Or merely the latest in a string of misinterpretations that have resulted in dubious achievements such as the 2,000 year unbroken record of failed predictions of the Christ’s return? You be the judge…

In a discussion generally expressing confidence that their pets will be raptured along with them, one contributor to the Christian Rapture Ready message board (motto: Where hope springs eternal!) observed:

well I always found it weird that Jesus said in Mark 16:15 “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” (emphasis in the original)

Folks, have Christians been grossly remiss in their evangelical calling?  The implications are staggering.  Billions and billions of animalian souls possibly lost due to the singular failure to preach them the Gospel as Jesus commanded.  It’s an oversight our dear contributor has fortunately not been a party to.  She continues:

Always hit me as odd…and maybe it’s even odder that I tell my cat about Jesus =)

That is one blessed cat!  It is not given to us to know whether it repented of its sins and accepted Jesus into its heart, but we can trust that it will almost certainly not die an atheist, which cannot be said for every other creature that has ever existed, including those dear pets the Rapturians hope to share heaven with.

Ok, seriously.  What would we atheists do without sites like Rapture Ready?  For one, it’s highly doubtful we’d get our recommended daily allowance of laughter.  I mean, even the master himself couldn’t make up material this good.

And who’s not a little awestruck by the willful delusion that results in this sort of reasoning?  I figure that if I can one day understand it, solving world hunger should be a piece of cake (no pun intended).

My favorite George Carlin quote

Fellow comedians paid tribute to the late George Carlin recently, and Time Magazine followed-up with its Top 10 George Carlin Quotes.  So, in the spirit of Carlin remembrance, here is my favorite quote:

Religion has actually convinced people, there’s an invisible man! Living in the sky! Who watches everything you do, every minute of every day.  And the invisible man has a special list of Ten Thing He Does Not Want You To Do.  And if you do any of these Ten Things, he has a special place full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he’ll send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever until the end of time!

But he loves you!

The whole routine this was taken from is a riot and represents Carlin at his best.

The silver lining to Proposition 8’s passage

Like many in the non-religious community, I was outraged by the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which banned gay marriage there.  It was nothing less than the denial of a basic civil right by enshrining a specifically religious viewpoint into law – a stark reminder of the potent power of faith to cause hardship and derail progress even today.

Still, I see reasons for guarded optimism.  At the least, we should recall that states are clearly divided on the issue, which should dampen pressure for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, a prospect seriously raised not too long ago.

More important, opposition has progressively waned as time has gone on, with polls showing highest support among the future electorate.  This augurs well for the gay marriage down the road, though it’s cold comfort for gays understandably indignant at present-day discrimination.

To the extent that Christians were heavily involved in passing Prop 8, I think their image will suffer further damage.  Already, protests are being waged against churches in California whose involvement was influential in the proposition’s success.  Mormons and Catholics, two denominations in particular that poured many resources into the pro campaign are currently experiencing difficulties retaining members, and can only be further damaged by a negative backlash.  Polls show Christianity is increasingly seen in a negative light, with even many younger Christians bothered by its overt anti-gay agenda.  A decline in Christian numbers and influence, accelerated by the passage of Prop 8, can only mean good news for gays in the long term.

Enough with the fallacious appeals to authority

In answering in the affirmative during a debate on the question whether God exists, Professor John Lennox quotes the Apostle Paul, from Romans 1:18-20,

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.

It never ceases to amaze me that Christian theists recite this scripture – and it’s one of their favorites – because it’s in fact a fallacious appeal to authority:

This sort of reasoning is fallacious when the person in question is not an expert. In such cases the reasoning is flawed because the fact that an unqualified person makes a claim does not provide any justification for the claim. The claim could be true, but the fact that an unqualified person made the claim does not provide any rational reason to accept the claim as true.

What makes Paul an expert on the existence of God that we should accept his claim God’s attributes are clearly seen in creation?  The answer: nothing.  Paul is merely expressing an unsupported opinion.  One could replace the word “God” with “Thor” and it would remain just as “true”.  (And, as an aside, if the attributes of creation include pointless suffering…)

But Paul saw God (Acts 9)?  He received revelation?  Didn’t Mohammad?  And Joseph Smith?  If you’re going to believe Paul, why not those other two?

This fallacy is manifestly obvious, but is emblematic of theistic myopia that they would advance it in support of their contention that God exists.

The natural basis of religion

Those of us who reject the claim that supernatural deities are behind the establishment of any religion must necessarily believe in a natural basis for religious belief.  Fortunately, fueled by a cross-disciplinary approach, scientific inquiry into this question has significantly advanced over the last decade, and is now producing some very plausible hypotheses.  A recent article in the journal Nature, Religion: Bound to believe, explores the latest understanding into the cognitive-evolutionary basis of religion.  Its author, Pascal Boyer, concludes
Continue reading The natural basis of religion

“Oh yeah, a few more things.”

Besides Jesus himself, there is no more central character to the Christian faith than the Apostle Paul.  Considered “the great interpretor of Jesus’ mission,” his writings significantly defined Christianity, and, in view of his proselytizing mission to the gentiles, instrumental in the religion’s ultimate success.  But there’s something that’s always bothered me about Paul.  His role seems to suggest that Jesus didn’t get things properly across the first time.

It’s not quite clear, if Christianity is true, why Jesus needed to return decades after his death and resurrection to appoint a new apostle.  Were the original disciples simply not up to the task of carrying on the faith?  True, the gospels depict them as dunces, but Jesus personally chose them, with the keen eye of someone who knows exactly what he’s looking for.  Jesus even called one of them, Peter, the rock upon which the church would be built (Matthew 16:18).  If they failed, is there anyone to blame but Jesus?

Even more puzzling, Paul’s epistles make clear there were major theological disputes between him on the one side, and Peter and James (Jesus’s brother) on the other.  Was Jesus insufficiently clear on certain matters, and used Paul to “set the record straight”?  But wouldn’t that undermine the authority of the original disciples, who had actually, you know, been personally instructed by none other than the master himself?  God is not the author of confusion, we are told (1 Cor. 14:33), but with some of his chosen spokesmen saying this, and others saying that, how could one not be confused?

Perhaps I’m missing something here, but the fact that Paul turned out to be Jesus’ “great interpretor” and font of much of Christian theology doesn’t speak well of Jesus’ teaching or tutelage.