Tag Archives: apologetics

Poor arguments against atheism, no. 928

Recent increases in the numbers of those who reject traditional theism have spawned a vast army of god-defenders, the quality of whose work, in my estimation, has varied widely.  It seems many of these new apologetic theists, being unused to the role, are not well-versed in the practice of crafting sound, coherent arguments.  Consequently, you often come across some humorous, even silly attempts to “debunk” atheism.  These are actually worthwhile to engage because untangling the intellectual morass can be an interesting challenge.  Besides that, you just might get lucky and get a comment so funny or bizarre, it’s worthy of submission to the Fundies Say the Darndest Things website.

But once in a while, you’ll get someone who is simply not interested in defending their arguments.  You’re response just goes down a black hole, or is rejected for inconsequential reasons.  The latter was the fate of a response to a post titled The Problem of Morality by one Carson Weitnauer, part of his “The Problems with Atheism Series” on his blog Simple Apologetics.  Carson didn’t like the “tone” of my response, though, as you’ll see, I believe it was appropriate for his arguments.  Besides, it was directly only at them, and not at Carson personally.  Because the problem of the disappearing rebuttal is hardly new, I keep a copy for posting on this blog (to his credit, Carson emailed me a copy of my reply as well).  Additionally, while I argue (and I think show) that Carson’s case is ludicrous at best, his bogus claims are not uncommon, and serve only to spread popular myths that deserve debunking wherever they appear.

I recommend you read Carson’s original article first to get the full context of my rebuttal.  Portions of his article that I specifically respond to are in italics.

Upon reading this post, it’s clear to me it contains a number of errors and misunderstandings which fatally undermine your case.  I’d like to spell out why in further detail and look forward to a response.

First, your theistic bias is clearly evident, particularly in the unstated premise that good and evil, as well as moral truths, can only exist if the theistic god exists.  Your arguments make sense only in light of this premise.

Second, the alleged problem you describe is not particularly an atheistic problem, but more properly identified as a problem for non-theists, because your arguments, at least in part, apply to deists and pantheists as well.  They too do not believe in a theistic god.

Third, the following assertions are false:

“atheism…denies that there exist any moral rules”

“atheism affirms that all that exists is matter, energy, and space-time”

“these elements are not enough to support the existence of morality”

Atheism – the lack of belief in god(s) – neither affirms nor denies anything about moral rules.  This is an irrelevant question to atheism.  Does it make sense to say a-unicornists deny the existence of any moral rules?  Absolutely not, unless you believe moral rules come only from unicorns.

In any case, individual atheists do believe in the existence of moral rules; clearly they do because they practice them each day.  What they deny, along with deists and pantheists, is the existence of divine commands.  They obtain these rules from reason, experience, and evolutionary programming.

You confuse atheism with the theory of materialism.  There are atheists, such as animists, who certainly do not think reality can be reduced to the material.

I got a good laugh at your caricature of how non-theists view morality.  Do you really believe we think of it as some kind of physical substance composed of matter, energy or space-time, as you suggested in your thought experiment?  What a ludicrous straw man!  Are you going to charge us with denying, say, philosophy because we also cannot arrange the molecules or “put the pieces together” to re-create it in a lab?

What you have to notice is that all of this “moral discourse” would just be in their heads! There is nothing really wrong with murder or really right about promise-keeping. Instead, it just happens to be the case that those behaviors are viewed as bad or good, respectively, by their humanoid society.

You just described the utilitarian, welfare-promoting aspects of keeping promises and not murdering, and then dismiss them as merely a view?  As if the consequences of those things were wholly absent or irrelevant?

Let’s imagine that, one day, bored in the laboratory, you set up the humanoid society so that murderers find themselves with an extra 10,000 laboratory dollars in their bank accounts. (Imagine a sick version of The Truman Show). This turns out to be enough money to pay for bodyguards, eliminate other genes from the population, and get their own genes passed down in a higher proportion to the next generation far in excess of other humanoids. On it goes for a few generations, and before long, you have a humanoid society that heartily approves of murder, and violently opposes anyone who tries to keep murderers from their deserved wealth and social status.

No, before long, you wouldn’t have a humanoid society that heartily approves of murder; you’d have no society at all.  Leaving aside the comical question why 10,000 “lab dollars” induces people to kill others, you’ve assumed that the murderers would not murder fellow murderers, or even their own bodyguards.  However, this assumption makes no sense in light of the condition that I emphasized above.  Your theoretical exercise is so illogical and incoherent, you should blush that you even suggested it could ever apply to the real world.

If you want to be a consistent atheist, then every time you go from “here are the facts” to “here is the proper moral rule for evaluating these facts” you should stop yourself. Then remind yourself: these rules are just a social illusion.

You’ve failed to demonstrate how moral rules are “just a social illusion”.  Your case, so far, is built on risible straw men that in no way approximate reality or the way morality is understood.

What this means is that there is no way to call evil “evil.”

Certainly there is, if you subscribe to certain moral tenets which dictate that it’s evil, say, to inflict involuntary suffering on others, with only limited exceptions.  Because someone else may hold to a contrary moral tenet in no way impinges on this ability.  It is irrelevant.

To summarize: under atheism, there are no such things or categories as good or evil. And second, any perception to the contrary is completely illusory and is merely a byproduct of non-moral, socio-biological forces.

Your claims are based on nothing more than caricatures which rely on theistic assumptions.  One could just as easily build a similar case why under theism there are no such things or categories as good or evil because it denies the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

16:9-20 & 666 – numbers that debunk the Bible

Dr. Richard Carrier recently published a comprehensive article on Mark 16:9-20.  If you’re not aware, these final verses in Mark are unquestionably a later interpolation, i.e., falsification or forgery.  This is a pretty devastating verdict on the Bible’s own claim of divine inspiration.

Some Christians, no doubt, will reject this verdict, so allow me to present an even more devastating proof.  If you tally up the number of verses in Mark, less the interpolation, what do you get? 666!  That number, of course, is the Mark of the Beast (no pun intended), aka, Satan!  Satan has provided an unmistakable sign of his influence on the New Testament!  Muslims were right all along; the Bible is corrupted, and not just be its authors, but by the Lord of the Underworld himself.

This second “proof” is made completely tongue-in-cheek, of course, but there are many Christians who take great stock in biblical numbers.  Christian end-times prophecy is particularly indebted to creative numerological exegesis, yet Mark’s verse count is certainly as clear-cut, if not more so, than anything they’ve come up with.  Will they thus renounce the Bible?  Don’t hold your breath.

Nonetheless, whether it’s damning evidence or evidence of damnation, many Christians will shrug their shoulders and ask, “So what?”  Inerrancy is of no great concern to them, and I gotta say, that confuses me a lot.  If the creator of the universe’s main way of getting you to know him was through a book – which by itself is fraught with problems – you’d think he’d take great care to ensure its integrity.  That he didn’t is a huge gimme point for Bible skepticism.  It opens the door to legitimate doubt about any Biblical claim.  Or, as one apologist website put it even more starkly:

The issue is not simply “Does the Bible have a mistake?” but “Can God make a mistake?” If the Bible contains factual errors, then God is not omniscient and is capable of making errors Himself. If the Bible contains misinformation, then God is not truthful but is instead a liar. If the Bible contains contradictions, then God is the author of confusion. In other words, if biblical inerrancy is not true, then God is not God.

Any Christian who denies inerrancy care to refute such logic? (Bonus question: What is your method for delineating between errant and inerrant scripture?)

Will the real god please stand up?

Blogging inspiration hasn’t struck me that often over the last few months, so I’ve been sticking to blog discussions here and there.  Lately, however, I’ve been coming across a theistic error so glaring, it cries for comment.  The curious thing about this error is that it’s being committed by some of the more prominent religious apologists, highly educated theologians you’d least expect to make such an elementary logical blunder – apologists like Oxford University professor John Lennox and Timothy Keller, author of the New York Times bestseller The Reason for God.

In a nutshell, the error these theists make is to take general philosophical god arguments (e.g., the cosmological argument or the argument from design) and cite them as grounds for the existence of their particular god.  Finely-tuned universe, ergo Jesus.  But whether through myopia or intentional smoke-and-mirrors sophistry, what these apologists fail to acknowledge is that the philosophical god arguments apply just as well to other gods that people both believe and don’t believe in.  Apologists for Islam make the same arguments for why you should believe in Allah.  So do Hindus.  As well as the believers of thousands of other religions.  What’s more, the arguments are wholly compatible not just with theism, but with deism and polytheism!  One god, for example, may have been responsible for creating the universe, while another for life on our little spec in it.

So, even if the arguments are persuasive, they don’t get you to Jesus, or Allah, or Yahweh, or Thor, or Brahman, or Mazda, or Zeus.  At best, they get you only to…something.  You may call it Aristotle’s “prime mover”, and it could be any one of the aforementioned gods, or none of them.  Until it (or they) actually shows up and demonstrates its existence conclusively and exclusively (meaning, there can be no mistaking it with the billion other imagined deities out there people have worshipped), these arguments are for all intents and purposes useless to the believer.  They need to succeed not just on the merits of the god arguments, which I don’t believe they do, but also prove those arguments apply only to their god(s), and no others, which is something they don’t even attempt.

Debating Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ

More than blogging, I enjoy a good online discussion, which I’ve continuously engaged in since the days when Usenet was pretty much the only game in town for that sort of thing.  In fact, I probably post more on other peoples’ blogs than I do my own, simply for the debate.

A couple months ago, I came across a Christian, Ron, who apparently found Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ so undeniably compelling, he decided to give it a fuller airing on his blog. Unusual for a Christian, however, Ron practically invited skeptical responses to his posts.

A little background: Lee Strobel is very popular among some Christians who are not entirely comfortable taking their religion’s claims wholly on faith.  His books, which have sold very well, provide a seemingly solid rational defense of Christianity.  Skeptics and freethinkers, acknowledging this popularity, have reviewed Strobel’s works and have come away…less than impressed.  Their main criticism is that, while Strobel strives to position himself as a skeptic by posing questions to experts a skeptic would allegedly ask, the fact of the matter is, Strobel is an unabashed advocate who’s presenting his case on its best possible terms.  This is crystal clear by the soft-ball questions he asks – and doesn’t ask – but also by the “experts” Strobel interviews, who almost without exception share the exact same beliefs he does.  An excellent recent demolishing of an example of the Strobel façade was recently concluded by Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism.

I don’t think Christians are aware of how poorly Strobel’s works are viewed by outsiders.  They’re often recommended to us by Christians who cannot see the works’ inherent fallacies and obvious bias.  Demonstrating this to Ron, it seemed to me, would be a worthwhile pursuit.

Although for various reasons it’s taken Ron a little longer to respond than he intended, he’s finally posted a lengthy, point-by-point rebuttal to my first set of brief objections to The Case for Christ. Because Ron has obviously put in a significant amount of time and effort into his rebuttal, I think it only proper I respond in kind.  My conclusion is that Ron doesn’t significantly refute or materially address my objections.  He’s also mistaken on more than a few matters, as I will show.

My first objection was to note that the omission of full disclosure about Strobel’s first expert, Dr. Blomberg.  I regarded this as important information in assessing Blomberg’s credibility.  For instance, say someone recommends you buy a new product.  Very well, lots of people – from friends to strangers – do this.  But then you discover this person is a paid salesman for the product’s manufacturer.  This information will naturally cause you to treat that person’s recommendation with heightened skepticism.  You know that person has special motives, in this case, a financial interest, in you following their advice.  Further, you highly suspect that person will give you only the most positive information about the product and not any negative.  This is why full disclosure is so important.

I noted to Ron that Dr. Blomberg is an evangelical Christian (as is Strobel), and this should have been mentioned.  Why?  Because evangelicals stress “conversionism” and “activism”, according to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals.  Essentially, they’re Christianity’s aggressive salesmen.

Ron dismisses this objection on the following grounds (summarized):

1)      It’s irrelevant

2)      Everyone has an agenda

By raising this objection, Ron accuses me of committing the fallacy of “Circumstantial Ad Hominem”.

Referencing that last link will show why Ron’s rebuttal is invalid.  To be a true fallacy, I would have to dismiss Dr. Blomberg’s claims based on his background, but this is not something I ever did.  Instead, I merely noted that he’s not a neutral expert, but “one who’s trying to put the best possible spin on the  evidence, by both highlighting certain things, and also not disclosing other things.”  As the nikzor.org citation states:

There are times when it is prudent to suspicious of a person’s claims, such as when it is evident that the claims are being biased by the person’s interests.

And this is precisely the basis for why I object to the failure to disclose all of Dr. Blomberg’s background.  He has a personal commitment in getting you to believe what he believes, and therefore we should greet his claims with some suspicion.

Moving along, I charge that Strobel is either ignorant of New Testament (NT) gospel problems, or does not raise them because he’s an evangelical, primarily due to the failure to raise the synoptic problem.  To the second charge, Ron repeats the accusation that I’m committing the fallacy of circumstantial ad hominem. I already dealt with this accusation, showing that it misunderstands what the fallacy actually is.  As to the first charge, Ron dismisses it as “just a baseless personal attack”.

Why is the failure to address, let alone discuss, the synoptic problem significant?  Because Strobel and Blomberg attempt to bolster the credibility of the gospels by claiming they’re based on eyewitness testimony.  Yet, if eyewitnesses actually wrote the gospels, then why do the synoptic gospels “share a great number of parallel accounts and parables, arranged in mostly the same order, and told with many of the same words”? (emphasis mine)  This is extremely strange – inexplicable, in fact — if they’re truly independent, eyewitness accounts as Blomberg and Strobel would have us believe.

Curiously, Ron includes a lengthy, meandering discussion of the synoptic problem—not so much what it actually is, mind you, but over whether the synoptic problem is a problem in and of itself.  That Ron felt the need to discuss the topic in depth, of course, only demonstrates just how important the question is, thus supporting my point that to exclude it bespeaks an agenda, not scholarship.  Perhaps Ron didn’t read carefully all of what he posted, but the conclusion of his discussion practically proves this.  As he quotes from a Christian scholar:

The issue is not a matter of believing or not believing the Bible; it is a matter of believing, and then seeking to understand as best we can that which we believe (“faith seeking understanding”).

In other words, don’t follow the evidence to arrive at a belief, but believe first, and then find the evidence to support your belief.  This, I submit, is the real purpose of The Case for Christ: to provide that “understanding,” no matter how flimsy or biased, to bolster a pre-existing belief.

Next up, I noted a rare, critical concession by Blomberg.  As he admits, “strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous.”

Perhaps after his long discourse on the synoptic problem, it was getting late and Ron wasn’t thinking clearly, because he replies, “While it is true the gospels are strictly speaking anonymous, it does not logically follow we do not know who wrote them.”

Sorry, but not knowing who wrote something is the very definition of anonymous.  He cites another source explaining how we would know, say, the Gospel According to Matthew was in fact written by Matthew (Levi).  But if true, that would no longer make the gospel anonymous, would it?  Thus, Ron’s own authorities are in disagreement.

Continuing on the subject of authorship, I’m not impressed with Blomberg’s claim that there was “unanimous testimony” in the early church that the gospels were written by their putative authors.  The question of authorship didn’t arise until well into the second century (long after their real authors were dead), and when it did, just how the church fathers ascribed authorship shows how much it was based on guesswork and conjecture.  Perhaps Ron overlooked it, but on his own blog, in a reply to someone who challenged my objection, I linked to an article by Dr. Richard Carrier titled “Ignatian Vexation” showing how truly muddled the question of authorship and dating of the gospels actually is.  Blomberg actually weakens his argument by noting the uncertainty over the authorship of John, but falls back on the “unanimous testimony” defense.  What he doesn’t mention – and Strobel fails to follow-up on – is that this uncertainty is a result of historical critical scholarship of the NT conducted over the past couple centuries.  Clearly, then, the early church was more interested in attaching names to works than finding out just who its authors were.

To my point that, even if assuming the gospels were written by their putative authors, Mark and Luke are not eyewitnesses, and so their gospels would in truth be hearsay, Ron concedes.  But he says I imply by this that “second hand information or hearsay should not be admitted to the conversation or is not worthy of belief”.

Not really. My real point is to undercut the whole notion that the gospels are “eyewitness evidence,” which is the chapter heading in Strobel’s book.  Second, I mention it to attack their credibility, that we should treat their claims with greater suspicion.  After all, they were not at the scene of the events they described.  They relied on someone else’s recollections, which, in the case of the gospels, were finally written down many decades later (can you remember with any specificity a conversation you had last month, must less 40 years ago?).  This hardly makes for accurate history.  And then there are the problems with poor copying, redaction, embellishing and so forth, which we have indisputable proof occurred over many centuries. For a riveting elaboration of this subject, I highly recommend the Evans/Ehrman debate on whether the New Testament misquotes Jesus.

I realize Ron is simply repeating an old Christian chestnut when he references the ancient documents rule in support of gospel reliability.  This rule, which modern NT scholars, even Christian ones, no longer reference, holds that if a document is “at least twenty years old; in a condition that makes it free from suspicion concerning its authenticity; and found in a place where such a writing was likely to be kept,” it is deemed authentic.  Only the first condition applies to the gospels.  There is no single document of any of the gospels.  The earliest versions of the gospels are fragments.  These fragments are copies, of copies, of copies, etc., of the originals.  And finally, the originals don’t exist.  In other words, the ancient documents rule cannot possibly apply to the gospels.

On the topic of dating, I fault Case for glossing over just how unsettled the subject is among scholars, and reference the site earlychristianwritings.com for a more balanced discussion.  Ron, unsurprisingly, doesn’t agree, but then launches into an attack on this website.  For example, he says that some documents are dated to 30 AD, which “can not possibly be correct” because 33 AD is the actual year of Jesus’ death.  Also, some of the documents are “not Christian at all” but heresy.

I mention these objections because they show critical gaps in Ron’s understanding of some basic history.  The reason for the 30 AD date is because NT scholars cannot precisely pin down the year of Jesus’ death, due to an irreconcilable dispute between the gospels of Matthew and Luke over just when Jesus was born.  This comes out in Case (pg. 42), where Blomberg says, “If Jesus was put to death in A.D. 30 or 33…”  Also, it’s indisputable that early Christians were utilizing a wide variety of gospels and other writings that didn’t make it into the canon.  Calling them “heresy” is an ad hoc charge from the perspective of the victorious Christian sect which had eliminated all its rivals after many centuries.  See Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities for more.

Ron doesn’t like that I called the mention of “hostile witnesses” in the discussion about gospels dating a red herring.  First, Ron says Blomberg actually stated “hostile eyewitnesses”.  True, he does, but “hostile witnesses” is the phrase that Ron used in his original post.  No biggy.  To the meat of my objection.  Inclusion of hostile eyewitnesses in the subject of gospels dating is irrelevant because there’s no evidence provided such eyewitnesses existed.  It’s also irrelevant because the presumed existence of hostile eyewitnesses is germane to the topic of gospels accuracy, not dating.  Blomberg and Strobel would likely answer there’s no record of hostile eyewitnesses because the gospels were accurate; thus, such witnesses would have nothing to write about, presumably having verified the accuracy of gospel “facts” ( then wouldn’t they have written that too?).  But I have a better explanation: history doesn’t record any hostile eyewitnesses because no one cared about such a tiny religious sect, among the thousands of others existing in that part of the world.

Ron replies that of course some cared: local Jewish authorities opposed Christianity from the beginning; within 30 years of Jesus’ death the Romans were persecuting it, putting to death Peter and Paul.

Putting aside the accuracy of these claims, Ron is sidestepping the issue.  Our discussion is about gospel accuracy.  When I say no one cared, I mean, no one cared about the veracity of a tiny religious sect’s theological claims.  Political and religious authorities of course would care if citizens went around spreading “heresy” or undermining the official religion—which was the basis for Christian persecution.

Someone else who didn’t seem to care much about gospels “facts” is, ironically enough, the Apostle Paul himself.  Nothing in his epistles references any of Jesus’ supposed sayings, miracles, travels, parables, key sermons, prophecies, exorcisms, his divine birth, or even the location of his crucifixion and resurrection!  Ron, argues that this objection is a fallacious argument from silence, since Paul’s silence is taken as evidence of his ignorance.  What Ron doesn’t realize, however, is that the argument from silence is valid when two conditions are met: “the writer[s] whose silence is invoked in proof of the non-reality of an alleged fact, would certainly have known about it had it been a fact; [and] knowing it, he would under the circumstances certainly have made mention of it. When these two conditions are fulfilled, the argument from silence proves its point with moral certainty.” (Gilbert Garraghan, A Guide to Historical Method, pg. 149).  To use one of Ron’s own examples to show the many instances in which these conditions were met, when the Thessalonians inquired of Paul as to the timing of Christ’s return, it was not for wont of Jesus’ own predictions on the question that Paul cited none of them (cf. Mark 13:24-31, Matthew 16:28, Luke 9:27).  How better to reassure the Thessalonians than to harken back to the words of the Son of Man himself?  Earl J. Doherty has compiled a list of 20 compelling silences which provide even further validity to this argument from silence.

A favorite Christian apologetic is to claim there wasn’t enough time for legendary development to occur from the time of Jesus’ death to the writing of the gospels, thus supporting their historical authenticity.  I objected that’s bunk, because history records other indisputable examples of legendary development which occurred even faster.  Ron chides me for providing no such examples, and true enough, I didn’t — at the time I wrote that.  But in a follow-up post on his own blog, before Ron crafted his lengthy reply, I did provide such examples:

Alexander the Great – Within 30 years after his death, “remarkable” legends appeared.

Sabbatai Sevi – A “dizzying whirl” of legends appeared in the very first year of his seventeenth century messianic movement.

The Angel of Mons – WWI legend developed over a period of just months.

These are a few examples of mythical growth from the book Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened Inside the Black Box?

I’m not at all clear about Ron’s point in his mention of verses from the Pauline epistles 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, and Colossians.  It’s not my contention that Christianity emerged from a completely blank slate, nor is it my view that theology requires legendary development.  Yes, some things mentioned in the gospels are also mentioned in the epistles.  So what?

Ron seems not to appreciate my point about how much the NT authors relied on the Old Testament (OT), for he merely replies that they cited it insofar as to show how Jesus fulfilled prophecy.  No, no, no.  It goes much deeper than that.  There is so much of Jesus’ “life” that has an  OT parallel or reference that some scholars, such as Robert M. Price, wonder whether any of it is authentic at all (see esp. his book The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man).

I thank Ron for taking such effort to advance the debate and answer criticisms.  I’ll continue to post objections to Case on his blog and defend my views here.

Reasonable or foolishness?

During a conversation with a Christian, I was reminded of a most excellent verse from the Bible:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18).

In other words, the Christian gospel is purposely designed by its god to appear delusional to non-believers.  When Christians wonder why everyone else scoffs at their beliefs, they need only recall this verse.  The confusion is intentional.

I got to admit, this is a brilliant rejoinder to those who dismiss your message as crazy.  “You don’t understand what we’re saying?  That’s the way it should be!” For a long time, the looniness was touted as a point in the faith’s favor.  As early Christian apologist Tertullian put it, “I believe because it’s absurd.  It’s certain because it’s impossible.”

But then came the Age of Reason, and suddenly, being absurd wasn’t so great.  Ever since, Christianity has been forced to justify itself on rational and empiricist grounds.  Tract after apologetic tract has strived to demonstrate that the Christian faith is grounded in reason, science, and actual history.  As one of the more notable latest products of that endless stream, William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith, states “…it will be apologetics which, by making the gospel a credible option for seeking people, gives them, as it were, the intellectual permission to believe.”

Unfortunately, “intellectual permission to believe” is precisely not what the Christian gospel is supposed to offer.  According to the apostle Paul, the message is unintellectual, unreasonable, irrational, i.e., foolishness.  That is its virtue, a sign to the growing believer that the “power of God” is at play.

But Christians can’t have it both ways.  Either their message is absurd, or it’s reasonable (unsurprisingly, Craig never mentions 1 Cor. 1:18 in his book).  If it’s reasonable, then Paul is wrong.  If Paul is wrong on this, what else is Paul wrong about?  Christians can’t argue their gospel is reasonable without fatally wounding their theology.  But if they argue it’s absurd, then welcome to the club of bizarre beliefs, of which this world is littered.  Christianity becomes no better than Scientology.  Such is Christianity’s conundrum, but it’s a bed of it’s own making.

When Christians fail at debate

I’m finding it increasingly common to have my posts at Christian blogs removed.  It seems proprietors are simply unable to respond.  This is not to say my arguments are particularly good (though they may be); rather, I think many Christians lack critical thinking skills, preferring diatribe over debate.  They’ve been told what to think, and now they’re going to tell you what to think.  Like their faithfully held beliefs, they entertain no possibility they could be wrong, and must work assiduously to maintain that appearance.

The latest example comes from the Possessing the Treasure blog.  It’s proprietor, Mike Ratliff, recently fulminated against the growing acceptance of homosexuality in Christianity and society, a practice, he reminds us, is a “sin,” “abomination,” and “sexual perversion”.

Now, it gives me a lot of satisfaction to see Christians working themselves up over issues like this, primarily because they’re quite literally shooting themselves in the foot and contributing to their faith’s demise among the next generation.  Many wonder, as I do, what is the Christian’s prurient fascination with homosexuality, when Biblical morality covers so much more.  This is the question I put to Mike.  In his response, Mike dodged the question, but not before alluding to my lack of god-logic for failing to understand.  So here’s what I wrote back, which Mike refused to publish:

Mike: I do not expect you to understand what I am going to tell you since you are an atheist. You are not regenerate. You do not have the Holy Spirit.

Me: Yes, I lack the required special gnosis which supersedes normal reason and logic, apparently.

Mike: To answer your “thought” about why we are focusing on homosexuality like this is that it is clearly an issue of morality. It is sin and not the same thing as race or whatever. It is a sexual perversion whose advocates insist it is not. It demands protection and acceptance in our society. It is immoral as I said and, therefore, should not be given that sort of recognition.

Unfortunately, your “reply” doesn’t answer my objection. How is homosexuality any worse than, say, adultery?  Or blasphemy?  Or working on the sabbath?  Aren’t these “issues of morality” just as serious?  Christians aren’t clamoring to place restrictions on them, or reverse their acceptance.  Why?

It matters little to me, as a non-Christian (and heterosexual, by the way), what Christians accept or don’t accept within their own religion.  What bothers me is your attempt to force Biblical morality on the rest of society.  As you may not be aware, the Bible is not a part of the U.S. legal code.  When it is, then by all means outlaw homosexuality (and adultery, and worshipping other gods, and working on the Sabbath), but for now, you would do well to keep your morality to yourselves.

Mike: As far as your poor logic concerning God’s Law, the moral parts of the Law are still very much in affect and are contained in our faith. On the other hand, those dietary and ceremonial parts of the Law were fulfilled and done away with at Christ’s crucifixion.

Me: Good news to slave-owning Christians who wish to increase their holdings from pagan nations! (Lev. 25:44)

Further down in the comments, a person named Jackie wrote, “[G]ays are actually helping to fulfill this same worldwide “sign” (and making the Bible even more believable!) and thus hurrying up the return of the Judge! They are accomplishing what many preachers haven’t accomplished!… Thanks, gays, for figuring out how to bring back our resurrected Saviour even quicker!”

Jackie’s reasoning is sound (and something I’ve previously blogged about), but of course it wholly undermines Mike the Christian’s rationale to keep “sexual perversion” at an absolute minimum.  Unsurprisingly, a reply pointing this out did not make an appearance either.

Amateur Christian theologians like Mike aren’t the only ones running away.  Over at the Debunking Christianity blog, John W. Loftus (whose book, Why I Became an Atheist, I’m currently enjoying) has issued a debate challenge to his former mentor, William Lane Craig.  The latter has so far demurred, saying he refuses to debate former students.  That’s odd.  In his book, Reasonable Faith (p. 21), Craig wrote, “Again and again I find that while most of [anti-Christian college professors] are pretty good at beating up intellectually on an eighteen-year-old in one of their classes, they can’t even hold their own when it comes to going toe-to-toe with one of their peers.”  Is it Craig who’s afraid he can’t hold his own against one of his peers?

How do Christians explain their higher incidences of sin?

The news that conservative states tend to be the biggest consumers of online porn (with heavily Mormon Utah occupying the top spot) is but the latest in a string of moral embarrassments that have left Christians red-faced.  Earlier research showed that the highest incidences of teenage pregnancy are there too, in spite of popular chastity movements like “True Love Waits” intended to reduce teenage sexual activity.  And that’s not all.  In the so-called Bible Belt, rates of murder, divorce, and domestic violence tend to be among the highest in America, as well.

Christian apologists rationalize these facts by explaining that “we are all sinners, Christians included”, but this misses the point.  The issue is not that Christians do bad things in the first place, but why they do many of them more frequently than their non-religious counterparts.  This is an anomaly; a deviation from the expected state of affairs, where Christians “ruled by God” should be “convicted of their sin” and do less of it than those governed by more secular (read: inferior) ethics.  So, why the worse behavior?  While Christians scramble for an answer, allow me to venture a few of my own.

I think the main reason is that Christianity discourages the development of a strong sense of moral intuition.  Adherents are taught moral commands, but are rarely given substantive, practical, or rational reasons for their basis.  In other words, they know what they shouldn’t do, they just don’t understand why very well, other than “because God said it”.  Unfortunately, a pragmatic approach to moral issues is out of the question for Christians, because it would open the door to questioning a broad range of moral commandments, and thus undermine the entire basis of moral absolutism.  The downside of such a system is seen most dramatically when the adherent believes that they have divine sanction for their behavior, which removes that sole, divine constraint.  In contrast, humanist ethical systems place more emphasis on the practical consequences of a breach.  Avoid gluttony not because God says it’s a sin, but because the health consequences are diabetes, higher medical costs, and lower life expectancy.  These ethical systems are also adaptable, able to respond to new information, experience, technology, and realities.

Another possible reason for the higher incidences is that since many commands lack a negative or immediate consequence for disobedience (which is odd given God’s alleged omnipotence and omnipresence), disrespect for all commands is fostered.  By way of example, think of a country like Mexico where laws and regulations are many, but enforcement is lax or non-existent.  Such a situation tends to breed increased lawlessness overall, particularly when prohibitions are viewed as improper, irrelevant, or counter-productive.  Many militant Christians understand this problem, which is why they’re often so eager to establish a link between sin and calamity, however tenuous. (But have you noticed that such calamity is rarely, if ever, blamed on the infidelity of their own communities? Hmm…)

A final possible reason is that Christians are actually morally confused, mostly due to the moral schizophrenia of the Bible and the behavior of their prominent leaders.  If you’re a Christian, mixed messages abound.  For example, the Bible proscribes killing (Exodus 20:13), except when it prescribes it (Exodus 22:18 and 31:15).  Slavery, polygamy, and violence can all be justified there, or they can be condemned.  Among popes, pastors, and preachers can be found the most truly reprobate behaviors.  What’s a little porn compared to gay hookers and meth?

I know Christianity helps some people behave better, but at least in some ways, it makes them act worse.  Mr. Apologist, why is that?

Dr. David Aikman defends his views, and my reply

It seems I have a knack for provoking a response from major Christian apologists who’ve promulgated the idea that atheism and the atrocities committed by the 20th centuries’ totalitarian regimes are indelibly linked.  Dinesh D’Souza has previously responded, though in a perfunctory and inadequate manner, and now Dr. David Aikman does too, but not much better.  In his email to me, which can be read in full as the first reply to this post, Dr. Aikman claims he doesn’t have time to craft a full rebuttal to my comments right now, though that doesn’t stop him from searching my blog (I had included a link to the blog version in my email to him) to try to find out who I am, chide me for some comments I made about myself, bizarrely imply that I’m a sexual predator, and cry foul over the tone of my missive.

A couple words on that last charge, which is the only one worth dignifying with an answer.  This blog has several regular Christian readers, at least one of whom has commented on its relatively acrid-free atmosphere.  Nonetheless, there are times when I take a more belittling approach, as I did with Dr. Aikman.  The reason for it in his case is that I feel he is being purposely deceitful, at least in the work of his I read, which I strongly object to and believe is unprofessional.  It is one thing to have a difference of opinion on matters, but quite another to deliberately skew, make materially false claims, and ignore evidence in order to make one’s case.  I cannot be polite to individuals who do this. 

With that said, here are my comments on the substantive points he raises in reply.

Aikman: I can only say that if you hadn’t heard of any reputable scholar supporting the notion that Communist tyranny was directly related to atheist thought, you certainly didn’t spend much time in the library or worse, your professors were uniformly unwilling to reveal that quite a lot of scholars — yes, including Jesuits — have made the connection.  Ever read any Dostoyevsky, Robert?… I don’t know what your definition of “objective” is in your phrase “objective scholars,” but if you looked up my Ph.D. dissertation you’d find quite a lot of objective scholars who have connected the threads between atheist thought and terror.  Ever heard of Nechayev?  Or don’t they like to mention him in your version of Russian history 101?

Despite all these scholars Aikman claims supports him, he gives only one name: Dostoevsky – a 19th century novelist and Russian Orthodox sectarian, who was not just anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic, holding a special hatred of Jesuits in particular, but a radical slavophile. Does Aikman endorse these views too?  Dostoevsky was assuredly a brilliant writer, but when he claims without intentional hyperbole that “The demons are ideas,” (that came to Russian from the West), “that legion of isms: idealism, rationalism, empiricism, materialism, utilitarianism, positivism, socialism, anarchism, nihilism, and, underlying them all, atheism”, one can safely doubt his objectivity.  Though Dostoevsky is clearly one of Aikman’s key intellectual influences, cannot he reach outside the echo chamber of militant theists to support his views?  (Nechayev, one of many of the 19th century’s radical communist revolutionaries, was a sort of proto-Stalin, i.e., an individual who believed that the ends justified the means when birthing the new communist existence).

When I say objective scholars, I mean those individuals who have no horse in the race, whose professional careers depend on their ability and renown to make the most sense out of history in the most non-prejudicial manner as possible.  Scholars like Hannah Arendt, Richard Pipes, Moshe Lewin, Stephen Cohen, Robert Conquest — historians who’ve examined the evidence with a bird’s eye view and come to different conclusions than his.  In a sentiment echoed by atheist Sam Harris, Conquest writes in his classic Harvest of Sorrow (pg. 6-7):

For the events we recount here were the result not simply of an urge to power, an insistence on suppressing all autonomous forces in the country, but also of a set of doctrines about the social and economic results achievable by terror and falsehood…it is at least clear that, at more than one level, the sort of rationality sometimes allowed even by critics opposed to the programme was not really much in evidence, or only at a shallow level inappropriate to the complexities of reality.

When I scoff at the Christian apologists’ attempts to lay communist and Nazi atrocity at atheism’s door, I’m merely echoing the implied or stated views of these historians and experts.  One such expert, Dr. Rudolph Rummel, who has extensively examined the sources of mass political murder, which he calls “democide,” has specifically repudiated the link:

Q: Is atheism the principal factor in democide, such as that committed by the “Big Three,” Stalin, Mao, and Hitler?

A: No. I find that religion or its lack – atheism – have hardly anything to do in general with wide-scale democide. The most important factor is totalitarian power. Whether a church, atheists, or agnostics have that power is incidental – it is having the power that is a condition of democide. Incidentally, some ideologies, such as communism, function psychologically and sociologically as though a religion. The only distinction is whether the subject is a god or a man, such as Marx, Lenin, Hirohito, Hitler, Mohammed, Kim Ill sung, Mao, etc.

Not only must Dr. Aikman explain the absence of support among his contemporaries for his claims, he must rebut their own arguments.  An authentic scholarly treatment of a question typically does this, but his failure to reflects the fact that he’s writing propaganda for the Christian masses, where objectivity and a balanced consideration of the evidence are studiously avoided.

Aikman: It is absurd to complain that I don’t go into the private property issue. If I’d been writing a comprehensive account of Communist tyranny, I would obviously have discussed it. I wasn’t; I was dealing with the dangerous consequences of the coerced suppression of religion.

When your need is to establish that the Marxist-Leninist program consisted primarily of the forced eradication of religion, of course it’s “absurd” to go into the issue of private property.  But what those of us without theological blinders know abundantly well, the religious question was but a sideshow to this program.  As Lenin wrote in Socialism and Religion,

It would be bourgeois narrow-mindedness to forget that the yoke of religion that weighs upon mankind is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society. No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat, if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism.

Daniel Peris explains why religion wasn’t really a huge concern until late in the game:

Revolutionaries inspired by Marxism were not supposed to have to contend with religion after a proletarian revolution. Bolshevik policy makers were operating within an ideological framework theorized for an industrialized nation with an already secularized working class.  The Revolution, however, took place in the still largely rural, agrarian, and Holy Russia.  While political aspects of Marxism had been modified (if not fully reversed) by Lenin to justify a takeover in Russia, the revisionary process had not extended to cultural transformation, and certainly not to the dissemination of atheism.  Direct antireligious propaganda, however framed, amounted to ideological voluntarism, and Bolshevik leaders repeatedly stated that the ultimate “liquidation of religion” would require the completed construction of socialism (Storming the Heavens: The Soviet League of the Militant Godless, pg. 24).

So Dr. Aikman is simply being disingenuous.  He’s alleged in his work that the basis of 20th century tyranny is atheism.  But as I pointed out to him, the disregard for private property as a key basis for tyranny is a notion that’s been recognized for centuries, even by his fellow Christians.  In other words, there’s long existed a rival hypothesis to his, which he simply ignores in order to bolster his own.  I suggest there’s another reason for this: communist antipathy toward private property has a direct lineage to the Bible.  For Dr. Aikman to acknowledge this would open up a Pandora’s Box of difficult questions that would fatally undermine his claims.

Aikman: If you knew anything about Lenin’s furious tirades against Bolsheviks who were interested in religious ideas, you’d have known that his antipathy for both Christian belief and the Orthodox Church far predated the Russian civil war.  You seem to think that Lenin smacked the back of his wrist on his forehead and said, “Gosh, those Orthodox priests, that’s why they’re so horrible.  They’re supporting the Whites!”  Oh, and speaking of canards, it’s quite silly to say that Lenin was an atheist because Orthodox priests were so corrupt and — as you do rightly say — had supported the worst of tsarist autocracy.  People can make quite a variety of different choices when they encounter corrupt priests.  They can become Protestants, for example.  Luther did.

 “Furious tirades” like this one?

Religion must be declared a private affair. In these words socialists usually express their attitude towards religion. But the meaning of these words should be accurately defined to prevent any misunderstanding. We demand that religion be held a private affair so far as the state is concerned. But by no means can we consider religion a private affair so far as our Party is concerned. Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, i.e., to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule. Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable. Even the bare mention of a citizen’s religion in official documents should unquestionably be eliminated. No subsidies should be granted to the established church nor state allowances made to ecclesiastical and religious societies. These should become absolutely free associations of like-minded citizens, associations independent of the state. Only the complete fulfillment of these demands can put an end to the shameful and accursed past when the church lived in feudal dependence on the state, and Russian citizens lived in feudal dependence on the established church, when medieval, inquisitorial laws (to this day remaining in our criminal codes and on our statute-books) were in existence and were applied, persecuting men for their belief or disbelief, violating men’s consciences, and linking cozy government (Socialism and Religion, 1905)

I never claimed that Lenin was an atheist because of corrupt Orthodox priests.  Rather, I objected strongly to Dr. Aikman’s failure to note the Russian Orthodox Church’s corrupting influence and reactionary role in Russian history, instead giving the impression it was some innocent persecuted bystander.  Lenin’s attitude toward religion and Christianity was informed not just by Marx, and not just by Orthodoxy, but also by the mundane observation they were destructive for much of their existence.  But as we know, Lenin, like many communists, believed religion would ultimately fade away on its own accord, so he could afford to be ambivalent, as the above quote demonstrates.  When it proved far more reactionary, dangerous, and persistent than his ideology allowed, Lenin turned antagonistic (for a time).  It’s simply false that “religious opposition in no way posed any kind of threat to [Lenin’s] regime,” and Aikman knows it.

It’s curious that Aikman cites Luther as an example of an alternative path that could be followed.  Is he suggesting that it’s appropriate to become a raving anti-Semite as well?

Aikman: Yes, Robespierre was a deist, but he hated Christianity and the Terror was a continuation of the de-Christianization period of the French Revolution.  Hitler wasn’t an atheist, but he hated Christianity was well.  Jefferson liked to call himself a Christian, though he clearly wasn’t a believer and he despised every Christian he knew except John Adams.

I’m heartened to see that Dr. Aikman is not completely blind to the patently obvious.  Despite his chapter header, “The Problem of Wicked Atheists: Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot,” he now acknowledges that “Hitler wasn’t an atheist.”  He also acknowledges the primary role deists played in the Reign of Terror.  The hole in his argument should thus be blazingly obvious.  If atheism is not a necessary component of totalitarian terror in general or of religious persecution in particular, then, logically, it’s quite possibly not a component at all.  Is the real problem “de-Christianization,” as he seems to suggest?  If so, then the hole in his argument is now large enough to fly a 747 through, because it’s a policy that even his fellow theists have pursued.  The truth of the matter is that anyone can be irreligious, or simply anti-Christian, for reasons wholly unrelated to atheism.  Since that is so, his argument collapses.  The problem is not atheism, but of state-directed illiberalism and the centralization of power.  I invite Dr. Aikman to read the works of Lord Acton, whose observations, while meant for a different set of tyrannical dictators (namely, the Popes in Rome), remain relevant.

I found it odd that Aikman spared not a single comment or a defense of his claim that, “The Soviet experience thoroughly demonstrates that if God is eliminated from public life, a much worse deity inevitably is erected in his [sic] place”, since it’s so central to his case.  And yet, how could he? When sociologists have found that such irreligious societies as Sweden and Denmark to be “moral, stable, humane, and deeply good,” it is simply an untenable position.

Aikman: You seem to have a profound rage against Christianity  Are you recovering from unpleasant childhood experiences of religion?  It always amazes me that secular humanists, who claim either that there is no god or that it doesn’t really matter whether there is one or not, get so angry when people suggest — terribile dictu — that God might exist and might have something to say about our world.

Goodness, not this canard again.  I suspect Christians love to believe it because it helps relieve the massive cognitive dissonance they must deal with on a daily basis.  Fortunately, I’ve already addressed it.

Reasonable, indeed…

Perhaps it was merely a matter of time, but Christian evangelical apologist and author of Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig, is finally quoted on Fundies Say the Darndest Things!  And I have to say, the quote is fully justified for inclusion.  Here is Craig as part of long apologetic screed explaining why Yahweh’s command to commit genocide against the Canaanites wasn’t such a bad thing after all, except for the Israeli soldiers!

So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites?  Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement.  Not the children, for they inherit eternal life.  So who is wronged?  Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves.  Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children?  The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.

You can almost just hear Craig crying, “Won’t someone please think of the Israeli soldiers?!”

What’s confounds me is the idea that Yahweh could have extinguished the Canaanite’s existence himself–and thus saved the soldiers from their “brutalizing” ordeal–completely escapes the intelligent Dr. Craig.  What is Yahweh’s purpose in making the soldiers “suffer” so?  Craig does not say.

 As perverse as Craig’s logic sounds to non-believers–and perhaps to a few Christians as well–it seems fully supported by Christian theology, which devalues earthly life and exalts an alleged heavenly existence above all things.  Craig’s rationalization of child murder is especially revealing–and troubling.  It suggests that Christian opposition to things like abortion is not born so much out of sorrow over the loss of (potential) life, but only that death is occuring absent divine sanction.  After all, the children are inheriting eternal life no matter who kills them.  So what are Christians objecting to abortion for if not that it’s we–and not God–who’s doing the killing?  This is what makes theists like Christians so frightening at times.  If they’re convinced they’ve got a licence to kill from their god, there’s no restraint to stop them.  And when they do kill for this very reason, how can another Christian object?  Ironically, it’s only by humanist values that Christians are able to thrive in a society, not by their own.

The fact of existence for which theists have no good answer

The introductory scene from the movie Contact frames the point I wish to make better than any words I can come up with

The universe is vast.  Literally, unimaginably so.  We occupy the minutest spec of it, a planet near a star among billions of other stars in a single galaxy among billions of galaxies.

When our true place in the heavens began to dawn on astronomers, their picture was rejected as heresy by the pious.  Indeed so, for it made a mess of what they had understood and taught for centuries.  One can only imagine their reaction if our present knowledge of the scope and origins of the universe was revealed to them.

Explaining this tremendous expanse has been exceedingly difficult for theists who believe in a god that specially created us and the environment we live in.  What is the purpose of the 99.99999999999999999999999% of the universe we don’t occupy, most of it extremely hostile to life?  They grope for an answer.  Arguments on the existence of God naturally focus on issues that directly revolve around us (e.g., the problem of evil, morality, etc.), but in my opinion, the brute fact of the universe’s scope poses as daunting, if not lethal, problem for the existence of the theist’s involved god.  Far from being some beloved (if benighted) creation, the true picture shows us to be the heirs of an extremely unlikely set of circumstances.  And before the theist replies that the faint odds actually prove an interventionist deity, allow me to point out that even with trillion to one odds, someone will win.

One attempted explanation I read proposed that God made the universe like it is in order to impress upon us his grandeur and majesty.  If so, that isn’t reflected in his scripture (whichever one it is).  Its creation barely warrants a mention in the Bible, for example; the trillions of stars are seemingly an afterthought (“[God] also made the stars.” – Genesis 1:17).  The heavens’ unimportance was reflected in centuries of theology, which viewed celestial bodies created to help us mark time and navigate.  It’s hard to imagine anything more beside the theological point than our boundless universe.

I think theologies like Christianity and Islam will undergo a seismic shift if life is ever discovered outside our solar system, which seems ever more likely given what we are discovering about the abundance of its building blocks in space.  We might not find intelligent life any time soon, but more hard questions will need to be answered by religion if it ever is.  It wouldn’t surprise me if such discoveries actually spawned new religions, or revived older, currently disfavored ones.

Skeptics don’t raise this argument all that much, I’ve noticed, though it’s probably among the late Carl Sagan’s writings.  Perhaps I should take the hint? 🙂  What I do find interesting, however, is how often some picture of the sky or space will sit atop atheist blogs, so perhaps I’m on to something.  Thoughts?