Monthly Archives: October 2010

Do you have a religious litmus test?

Unless you recently awoke from hibernation, if you’re American, you’re probably aware there’s an election coming up pretty soon.  As a result, you’ve likely given at least some thought to whom you’ll vote for and why.  As for myself, I live in a part of the country where the election of a particular candidate is pretty much already a foregone conclusion, but that hasn’t prevented me from indulging the voter impulse and contemplating how I would vote too.

One of the considerations I struggle with is to what extent do I consider a candidate’s religious views – or lack thereof.  As an atheist, I’m inclined to look upon atheist politicians more favorably than those who seemingly wear religion on their sleeves.  Yet, suppose the former holds positions I for the most part disagree with, while the latter expresses policy preferences broadly in alignment with my own?  Whom do I choose?

I, like probably most atheists, would hold my nose while voting for the religious candidate.  The reason is that, on balance, I see the atheist candidate with the disagreeable positions as more likely harmful to my own well-being and that of the country’s.  God-belief isn’t much concerned with pressing issues like the economy, health care, debt, and Social Security, so the candidates’ religious views just don’t rise all that high on the scale of importance.

Where I see the candidates as nearly equal with respect to my own political views, I’m more likely to seriously consider a candidate’s religious views, but it would be among a host of other influences.  For example, I view single party control of the executive and legislative branches as generally something to be avoided, so the candidate of the “party in power” is less likely to get my vote.

In sum, a candidate’s broader economic and political viewpoint trumps religious belief in my book.  I say this as a committed atheist.  What about my opposite, the True Believer?  Would they agree?

The likelihood is that they wouldn’t, according to a 2007 Gallup poll.  A slim majority – but a majority nonetheless – would not vote for a generally well-qualified atheist for president, even if it was their own party’s nominee.  The picture changes when you break it down by political outlook, with only about a third of conservatives voting for an atheist, compared to two-thirds for liberals and about half for moderates.  The figures should be taken with a grain of salt, however.  For instance, 80% of conservatives ended up voting for the candidate who was 72 years of age in the 2008 presidential election (McCain), though only 63% of them reported they would in the poll.

As I noted above, none of this cogitating will produce any practical action since I don’t have the choices in this election others have.  But what about you?  Are religious views important in your decision to vote for a particular candidate?

The Holy Spirit is worse than useless

Something that completely vexes the Christian believer is why non-Christians are not at all convinced by their testimony of the witness of the Holy Spirit, the aspect of God which is said to confirm the truth (1 John 5:6, John 14:17).  The short answer is that this alleged being appears everywhere, “confirming” indisputably contradictory theology.  It visits Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses – as well as Catholics, Orthodox, Quakers, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Seventh Day Adventists.  And now, it’s making an appearance among preachers of the prosperity gospel too!  Consider the following testimony from a congregant of Bishop Eddie Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, yes that Eddie Long, the homophobe who was recently accused of sexual dalliances with several young men, and, perhaps less well-known, one of six Christian preachers whose finances were investigated by Congress a few years back.

“I’ve been going [to New Birth] for 10 years, and I’ve never felt God’s presence the way I feel it here,” says Ms. Katrina Maben. “My life has changed since I came here.”

What I’d like to do here is examine the implications of Ms. Maben’s sentiment, and why hers and similar tales fail to impress the skeptic.  Further, the problem I uncover should lead believers to always doubt their own “inner witness”.

Ms. Maben’s claim, assuming she’s sincere, presents us with three scenarios:

1)      Her feeling is authentic and the Christian god really is confirming the truth of the message she’s hearing.

2)      Her feeling derives from some other agency that seeks to fraudulently mislead her.

3)      Her feeling is a self-created delusion.

While most people, including Christians themselves, would probably agree with number 3 (or even perhaps 2), we’re compelled to consider the first scenario.  If it’s objectively true, the implications are pretty devastating for all other Christians, for it means their “inner witness” feeling for the gospel they believe in is either fraudulent or delusional.  But how would these Christians know?

What if scenarios 2 and 3 are objectively true?  Well, as above, how would Ms. Maben know it is she who is being misled or deluded?  She feels what she understands as the Holy Spirit and understandably concludes God endorses the message (not to mention the messenger…).  Some may think they can reason Ms. Maben out of her error by pointing out this or that scripture, but ironically Christian apologists have given her the ammunition to defeat such entreaties:

“the testimony of the Holy Spirit trumps all other evidence.”

“the witness, or testimony, of the Holy Spirit is its own proof; it is unmistakable; it does not need other proofs to back it up; it is self-evident and attests to its own truth.”

In other words, no argument or evidence is superior to what the believer regards as a confirmation by the Holy Spirit; the feeling alone is sufficient to establish the truth.  Absent begging the question, on what grounds can Christians deny the authenticity of Ms. Maben’s witness, or prove their own?  As far as I can see, none whatsoever. 

The central conundrum, inherent in our three scenarios above, is that the feeling of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit – as a completely subjective experience, but one held to be authoritative – offers no means for authentication. It is indistinguishable from that of a fraudulent or delusional feeling.  Consequently, even if there is a single Truth, it will constantly be obscured by error, which will compound itself as error begets error begets error ad nauseum.  This partly explains the permanent mutation of the Christian religion (or any religion for that matter which propounds such feelings as evidence of its truth).  Therefore, the method the Christian god is alleged to impart truth among his followers is not simply ineffective but detrimental. 

Further, in the face of sincerely held claims of an inner witness by others with beliefs contradictory to his own, the Christian believer must always have some doubt as to whether her own witness isn’t counterfeit.  In fact, given the thousands of Christian sects in existence, the Christian must regard it very possible, if not probable, such witness is counterfeit.

For the skeptical outsider, it’s all quite simple.  The believer makes the claim that the truth value of their religion is validated by a unique personal feeling (e.g., “inner witness”, “burning bosom”, etc.).  We see, however, that this personal feeling is common among believers who maintain contradictory doctrines.  Therefore, since the claim leads to arbitrary results, the skeptic is within her epistemological rights to reject it.

What the Christian god, if he exists, needs to do is provide the equivalent of a scientific method with which truth can become manifest and all error-filled doctrines become disproved.  An omniscient being who desires unity would have created a superior means to authenticate truth.  The fact that this omnipotent being’s signal is impossible to distinguish from the noise is justifiably regarded as evidence against his existence.