Tag Archives: faith

Theism renders existence unintelligable

I’ve heard many theists say that it takes a god to make sense out of existence.  To me, however, a god renders existence unintelligible, unpredictable, and chaotic.  Although my reasons I think trump those of the theist’s, they do not in and of themselves serve as basis for rejecting god-belief.  After all, a life of confusion may have been the intention of a god all along, as a test of our faith or a sign that our belief is justified (a possibility which I explored in a previous post).

The recent fifth-year anniversary of the tsunami that destroyed over 200,000 lives in Asia (a disproportionate number of whom were children), besides raising anew the problem of evil for theists, served as the catalyst for my thoughts.  In its wake, as is typical with any natural disaster, we heard from various believers of all stripes that their god had caused it as a form of punishment for…well, take your pick among a smorgasbord of reasons: failure to pray the required 5 times a day, abortion, immoral sexual practices of tourists, Swedish “hate crime laws” against the Gospel, etc.  Any one of those reasons could be true, or none of them, or all of them.  The point is, under theism, we would never know, because we’re dealing with a personality whose designs, goals, and plans are almost completely, if not wholly, hidden from us.  And it’s not just tsunamis or other natural disasters this pertains to, but to any event or occurrence.  Was it the will of the god that my mother got cancer?  That the plane crashed, but only two survived?  That I lost my job?  That the Lakers won?  “God is in control” is what the theists tell us.  Ok then, but to what extent?  Down to every last motion of every single atom?  The occasional miracle or smiting?  And what of the role other supernatural entities, like demons or djinns, play?  Theists cannot answer these questions with any sort of confidence.  Anything and everything could have a hidden hand behind it, for reasons we can only grasp at, like straws.  Such is the existential blindness theism inevitably leads.  No wonder believers are admonished to simply “Trust in the Lord.”  They have no choice.  Theism reduces us to puppets whose strings are invisible to us, in a show whose script we can only dimly perceive, if at all.

It wasn’t so long ago that the world was governed by the belief in divine fatalism; things were they way they were because that’s the way they were ordained.  Needless to say, the reasonable position to take in light of such a belief—nah, the duty— was obliging acceptance.  After all, who were you, puny mortal, to oppose your god’s will?  (More cunning individuals justified their actions as carrying out their god’s will).  Little wonder, then, that human progress advanced at a snail’s pace.  But when a few brave individuals began to propose completely natural explanations for life’s routines—essentially curtailing the hand of a god—did humanity make huge strides in its welfare and understanding.  This new paradigm has proved enormously beneficial for our species, but it has been largely resisted by theists, who correctly identify it as a threat to god-belief.  If our lives are what we make it, if we can control, direct, remedy, explain, or predict aspects of our existence through our own means, then our need for and dependence on a deity is rendered practically moot.

My lack of belief in god(s) doesn’t originate from the view they make life incomprehensible to me, or that believing in them hinders us as a species; that would be fallacious (argument from personal incredulity and argument from outrage, respectively).  Rather, I’m explaining why to some people, a god-belief does not help understand existence, but detracts from that understanding.

Is theism compatible with the rule of law?

Skeptics are well-aware of the deleterious impact religion can sometimes have on the lives and well-being of humans, particularly on the vulnerable and innocent.  And sadly, justice for faith-based crimes has been the exception rather than the rule, which only compounds the problem.  An article in yesterday’s Washington Post that will surely boil your blood reminds us anew that we still have a long way to go to turn that around.  More broadly, it demonstrates why religion can have no place in law and governance.

The article follows-up on the court cases of Christian parents whose children died as a result of the withholding of medical treatment in favor of administering magical incantations (aka, “prayer”), specifically, what punishment these parents received for their gross neglect.  Its author, Professor Jonathan Turley, found that judges were exceptionally lenient in these cases.  A “faith defense” was factored in to sentencing decisions, resulting in jail times less than those received for misdemeanors.  Even more galling, the murderous parents were allowed to retain custody of the remaining children.  Professor Turley contrasted the treatment these parents received against sentences levied on parents in which belief played no part and found the latter were far more harsh.

It is of course outrageous that innocent children should die due to the criminal negligence of their parents.  Even more outrageous is that countless others will die until the justice system stops sentencing these parents with a relative slap on the wrist and punishes them commiserate with what their act truly is: murder.

Unfortunately, this may prove far more difficult than many appreciate.  For in a worldview steeped in god-belief, what rational grounds exist to reject the practices of these Christian parents?  Most religions, including the various Christianities, tell us the will and plan of their god is inscrutable, mysterious, unknowable.  Moreover, their holy books and deities promise supernatural healing miracles by uttering a few fervent words.  Consequently, how can a theist gainsay the defense put forward by these parents?

“I do not regret trusting truly in the Lord for my daughter’s health.”

“I am guilty of trusting my Lord’s wisdom completely. . . . Guilty of asking for heavenly intervention. Guilty of following Jesus Christ when the whole world does not understand. Guilty of obeying my God.”

One of the judges, a theist, “reminded” one of the parents during sentencing, “God probably works through other people, some of them doctors.”  But how could this judge possibly know what the Christian god “probably” does?  The more reasonable assumption, based on a biblical worldview, is that Yahweh probably wanted the children dead, otherwise it would have supernaturally cured the children of their illnesses as a result of their parents’ supplications.  And if that’s what probably Yahweh wanted, who is any human to judge or condemn the parents?  Could that be what’s really underlying the travesty of these laughable sentences?

And ask yourself this.  What’s to prevent neglectful parents from utilizing the theist defense any time a child is injured or dies?  “But Your Honor, I had prepared the proper offering to Hestia to care and feed my 2 year old while I was gone on vacation.  If I’m guilty of his death, I’m guilty of asking for heavenly intervention.  Guilty of following the gods atop Mt. Olympus when the whole world does not understand.  Guilty of obeying Zeus.”  Where does it end?

Religious belief is an acid on the rule of law.  If judges and legislators cannot separate such belief from their official duties, they’re simply unqualified.

P.S. I realize it’s been a few months since my last blog entry. I’ve been reading (slowly imbibing is probably more accurate) David Eller’s powerful book, Atheism Advanced.  More than any other recent book, this one has strikingly changed my perspective and understanding of religion.  I believe it’s a must-read for every atheist.  More to come on this wonderful book.

Is it worthwhile to debate someone of faith?

When it comes to reasoned discussion with the religious, skeptics veer between two opposing positions.  On the one side, many see it as an exercise in futility, preferring to mock believers and dismiss their claims outright.  Freethinkers such as Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers, and the irrepressible Pat Condell are representative of this camp.

On the other side, we have the “evangelical” atheists and agnostics, often former faithful themselves, who seek to engage with logic, reason, and evidence the beliefs of the pious, convinced that their former associates can be converted to freethought in the same manner they were.  Such individuals include  Hector Avalos and John W. Loftus.

Both sides have fairly solid arguments.  Those who hold to a hardline position wonder, how can you have a reasoned discussion with someone whose beliefs are fundamentally not based on reason?  You can crush the religious with a metric ton of evidence, but in the end, they’ll retreat to faith, “inner witness,” or changed lives to justify the truth of their beliefs (while hypocritically rejecting such things as evidence for the truth claims of other religions).   A small degree of doubt in one’s own beliefs is typically presumed among opponents in a debate, but if one side lacks it, then what’s the use?  You might as well be talking to a brick wall.

There’s also their argument that puncturing the aura of respectability surrounding faith is one of the most effective means for diminishing it.  Ridicule, mockery, and dismissal are the favored tools here.  Implicitly recognizing their effectiveness, many believers stridently protest such tactics, and seek to return their faith-based dogmas back beyond the pale of criticism, either judicially or violently.  Such censorious responses only play into the hands of the skeptics, both by forcing religious moderates to stand up and reject them, and by demonstrating the moral bankruptcy of a “truth” that requires Gestapo-like methods to uphold.

Proponents of engagement counter with personal examples and numerous de-conversion stories, which demonstrate that someone can be reasoned out of faith, under the right circumstances.   Not every believer’s views are immovably fixed.  And even while they may consciously profess absolute conviction, sub-consciously, it may be a different story, resulting in an epiphany of sorts when suppressed doubt bursts to the surface.  You never know what fertile ground the seed you’ve cast may find.

The skeptical evangelists also know that in our internet-driven information age, discussion is no longer local or confined, but instant, global and permanent.  The individual with whom you’re conversing may be immune to persuasion, but the same may not be true of whatever audience happens by, now or in the future.  Little-by-little, skeptics are building a tremendous library of freethought, accessible at the speed-of-Google.  Even my insignificant corner of the blogosphere gets a number of visitors as a result of searches which leave little doubt they are of Christian origin.

Finally, opponents of the dismissive approach to religion wonder whether it repels more believers than it draws.  Poisoning their well doesn’t inspire confidence that your own is good to drink from.  The simple fact is that the vast majority of the planet’s inhabitants profess belief in supernatural beings.  This is a tide whose ebbing will not be facilitated by removing ourselves from it.  Besides, freethought grants the possibility, however remote, that there may in fact be some supernatural being(s).  We cannot shut completely our eyes and ears to belief in the supernatural, lest we become like the very type of individual we oppose.

Where do I side on this question?  I tend toward engagement.  I’ve been particularly impressed by de-conversion stories like DagoodS’, in which online investigation and discussions with skeptics, among other things, ultimately led him to abandon Christianity.  Former believers are among the most powerful forces against faith, in my view.  Not only is their apostasy extremely difficult for believers to deal with (many religions have typically put such individuals to death), but they can speak to believers far more effectively than life-long outsiders.  “Winning” one over is a huge plus for freethought.

Yet, I also see the utility in forthright ridicule.   While some religious views retain a degree of plausibility, others are just plain nuts, if not dangerous to our collective well-being.  Significant expectation of the “imminent” return of some long-dead god or prophet, for example, has spawned reflexive rejection of the danger posed by possible man-made global warming.  Mocking and outrage at such beliefs will rob them of respectability far faster than reasoned explanation why they’re erroneous.  Ridicule also quickly stretches the boundaries within which religious dogmas may be discussed among more sober-minded individuals.  And let’s face it.  The media thrive on conflict, which is why someone like Hitchens or Dawkins is far likelier to get in front of the cameras than someone who takes an engaged approach.

In sum, rejection and engagement are both proper responses to believers.  The path to freethought has many avenues, and it’s impossible to predict what influence will spur the believer to take that first step along one of them.  I sometimes see (heated) debate about which approach is best.  Can’t we have a combination?  It seems to me, they reinforce and strengthen the other.

Another heart-breaking casualty of faith

Amora Bain Carson.  13 months old.  Killed by her parents with a hammer trying to beat “the demons” out of her.  She was also bitten more than 20 times.  Rest in peace, baby Amora.

I sometimes think the “new atheism” is actually a welcome distraction to Christians.  Instead of squabbling among themselves, which must be exhausting after 2,000 years with nothing to show for it except for more points of view to squabble with, they have a common cause to unite around.  Children accused of “witchcraft” in Nigeria, tortured and killed?  *yawn*  Some atheists place a few ads in Washington questioning any link between God and goodness?  The horror!

It’s not hard to understand why.  Tragedies like Amora’s raise too many uncomfortable and challenging questions for faith.  Christians cannot deny the existence of demons; casting them out every five minutes was Jesus’ favorite pasttime.  It’s therefore possible she was possessed.  And how can they can gainsay the method of “exorcism” when God allegedly made a baby sick for a week before killing it, merely to punish its father (2 Samuel 12:15-18)?  Perhaps Amora’s parents received a “personal witness from the Holy Spirit”–you know, the kind Christians say confirms their faith–granting them permission to act the way they did.  Outrageous?  Why? 

“No one can know the mind of God.” 

“His ways are not our ways.”

And my personal favorite,

“It’s a mystery.”

Fortunately, most Christians have not succumbed to the moral nilihism their theology leads to and will rightly recognize the abject evil that took place here.  The question is, what will they do about it, this real problem that causes the most innocent to suffer and perish?