Tag Archives: God

Keep religious morals private

While theists on the political right have been regular contenders in battles over public policy, those on the political left have recently flexed their muscles.  First, there was the letter from progressive Catholics chastising fellow Catholic and Congressman John Boehner for pushing a budget that would cut some social welfare programs. And later, some liberal Christians decried fellow Christian and Congressman Paul Ryan for drawing inspiration from atheist pro-capitalist Ayn Rand.  These Christians on the left argued that Boehner and Ryan were abandoning Jesus’s teachings on protecting the poor and the weak.  The infighting has recalled to the fore a question that had been floating around in my head for a while now: how do theists decide which of their alleged objective moral duties and commands to make public policy, i.e., to impose on everyone?

On one level, it’s strange there’s even a question about this in the first place.   Shouldn’t every alleged divine dictate, no matter how trivial, automatically be a civil or criminal law?  They are, after all, supposed to be objective rules, adherence to which is not limited merely to believers, but mandatory for everyone.  Instead, theists pick and choose, seemingly at random: 

Gay marriage?  No way!  Divorce?  No problem. 

Abortion? Life is sacrosanct!  Adultery? Live and let live. 

Theft? God’s Word prohibits it!  Keeping the Sabbath? God’s Word..! Uhhh..oh, nevermind…

Source: Wikipedia

To make matters even more confusing, theists consistently revise what commands they think should be codified in law.  What was once vigorously outlawed by theists as an unforgiveable affront to God’s Holy Word, punishable by such tortuous means as tongue impalement with a hot iron, is today not only legal but routinely engaged in by theists to boot.  

The historical contingency of what’s supposed to be timeless morality is slightly less bizarre than the unresolved disagreement over just what that timeless morality is in the first place.  Can you use contraception?  Some say yes, some say no.  Drink alcohol?  Some say yes, some say no.  Have multiple wives? Again, some say yes, some say no.  Never in the entire history of theism has there been agreement on what is moral and what is not.  And what agreement there is has often been achieved through overwhelming force rather than voluntary acquiescence.

With all this persistent moral divisiveness and befuddlement, you’d think the reasonable thing for theists to do is keep their morality out of the public sphere altogether, or at least with only deep reluctance turn to scriptures when promoting it in public policy.  But “reason” and “theism” are like oil and water – ne’er the twain shall meet – so instead many shamelessly continue to insist on the primacy of whatever divine command they’ve happened to pull out of the scriptural hat.

I once had a conversation with a Christian who saw no problem with this practice.  Christians, he said, oppose murder and theft based on biblical dictates, and no one has a problem with that. So why should anyone have a problem when they oppose, say, gay marriage on the same grounds?  Objections to promoting one’s religious convictions in the public sphere are really a red herring; religion isn’t really the issue.
As I explained to this Christian (in a post which he deleted), things like theft and murder are violations of liberty, which is independent of religion.  Because one’s religious views happen to align with the preservation of liberty in this or that case does not make them synonymous, nor does it mean one’s religion is the font of rights and responsibilities applicable to all.  Such positions subvert liberty, and that’s what’s being objected to.

The ironic thing is, this is the same defense most theists employ against the imposition of other theists’ supposed divine dictates.  But such opposition is hypocritical.  If you grant yourself the right to impose your religion on others, in a democracy, you’ve granted it to all – and abdicated any grounds to object.

My advice to theists is to keep your religious morality to yourself.  Your efforts at imposing them are wildly inconsistent, which undermines both their authority and alleged objectivity.  If that isn’t sufficient reason, then remember: the sword you wield to force others to follow your morality can just as easily be wielded by someone else to force you to follow theirs.

When the natural law condemns the lawgiver

Professor Matt McCormick provides an excellent exposition on the dilemma facing theists regarding the morality of God’s actions – and inactions.  He asks, “If a human did what God is allegedly doing right now, would we consider that a morally good action?”  He briefly touches on one implication of his argument for the “natural law” – an implication I would like to delve into further.

The “natural law”, in case you’re not aware, is the term used by some theists to describe an alleged objective moral standard instilled in our hearts by God.  We all appeal to this standard, they say, when judging the goodness of others’ actions or our own.  But a problem arises when God’s own behavior violates the natural law.  Genocide – whether committed or ignored by God – is perhaps the example that comes most readily to mind.

What are we to make of these divine violations that transgress our moral sense?  Believers rationalize them away by claiming there must be a higher moral good behind them, but what this higher moral good is, they cannot say, for God never provides or demonstrates one.  Prima facie, they are moral violations, and should be considered such until we’re given compelling reasons to believe otherwise.  When someone commits murder, we don’t let them go scot free when their lawyer proclaims, “There was a higher moral purpose behind my client’s actions, and you’ll just have to trust him on that.”  Even those who say God told them to murder are still locked up (one way or another).

Even if we grant the proposition that God is a morally perfect being who can never commit a moral transgression, it still leaves us with what to make of the sense of moral violation.  Why do we still have it?  The natural law is seemingly producing false positives.  Essentially, theists tell us to ignore our sense of moral outrage whenever divine action seems to violate the law, but what about divine inactions, which can just as strongly trigger moral outrage?  Are we to ignore those too?  But that would entail ignoring our moral sense altogether, since we never know – absent being provided a compelling rationale – whether any moral transgression served some higher moral good.

For instance, returning to the example of genocide, how do we know the Holocaust wasn’t a critical piece in God’s overall plan?  Wouldn’t moral condemnation of the Holocaust be at best premature and at worse mistaken?  Given the theistic supposition that God chooses to intervene or not intervene in human affairs – invisibly, unpredictably, inscrutably – there is literally no event in which God’s involvement positively can be ruled in or out, and thus no moral outrage we can be confident of.  The natural law thus becomes neutered as a moral guide.

Some theists might argue that “sin” affects our ability to discern the natural law.  Since we’re said to all be living under it, the question becomes, to what extent does “sin” impact discernment?  They never say.  And if “sin” is muddying the waters, so to speak, how can we really even trust our moral sense as an intuitive guide?  An objective law capable of divergent interpretations is little different than no law at all.

When it comes down to it, the choices are pretty stark for the theist: abandon divine moral goodness, or abandon the natural law.  Both cannot existence concurrently, unless the latter doesn’t derive from the former, in which case theism itself must be abandoned.

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.

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.

An evil sacrifice

The Bible relates a story of an innocent person, punished for someone else’s transgressions, and ultimately put to death for them.  Christians would identify this person, especially today, “Good Friday,” as Christ Jesus, and extol his sacrifice as a supreme demonstration of God’s love for us.  But this is not the person about whom I speak.  Instead, I refer to another:

After Nathan had gone home, the LORD struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and he became ill. David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them. On the seventh day the child died. David’s servants were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they thought, “While the child was still living, we spoke to David but he would not listen to us. How can we tell him the child is dead? He may do something desperate.”  (2 Samuel 12:15-18)

Most people would be morally repelled by the notion of destroying a child for any naughtiness it may have committed.  And excepting the insane or the lobotomized, practically everyone would be aghast and outraged that a child would be tortured and destroyed for someone else’s misdeeds.  “Barbaric injustice” is probably the phrase that captures the collective sentiment best.

So when this is done to Jesus, “the perfect innocent and son of God,” Christians celebrate it?  They tell the world it’s a cause for rejoicing?  They use it as part of their sales pitch to join them?  Sorry, I cannot subscribe to a moral code that calls this good.  Punishing innocent beings for the faults of others is evil in my book.  Even if I grant the Christian god exists, he would be no god I could worship out of love.

The Hand of God?

I’m a listener of NPR, primarily because its commentators most rarely mouth the silliest things among those who inhabit MSM-land.   Nonetheless, facepalm moments do occur, and since this is a blog that promotes skepticism, I’m going to pick on a commentary made today by Scott Simon in his “Haiti and the Hand of God.”

By now you’ve probably heard Christian televangelist Pat Robertson’s claim that the Haitian earthquake is a consequence of that country’s “pact with the devil” some two hundred years ago.  This is standard fare for Robertson, so you’d think that most people by now would simply dismiss his blatherings as more incoherent rants of a loon rather than the outrage with which they were typically greeted.  To his credit, Simon is with the former camp, but attempts to cut Robertson deeper with the view that “[I]t’s hard to detect the hand of God, much less His loving touch, in [Robertson’s] remarks.”

Now it’s symbolic of theism’s incoherency that the irony of this statement is completely lost on believers like Simon, for where is the “loving touch” of the “hand of God” detectable anywhere in all this? If Simon–or any other believer sees it–by all means please produce it.  Because, right now, all the rest of us see is a lot of suffering.  Needless. Gratuitous. Devastating.  On a people already ground down by poverty, corruption, and horrible government.

If Simon were to delve a little deeper into his own theology, he’d realize he really has no basis to object to Robertson’s comments, because the latter could very well be right.  As Isaiah 45:7 (NIV) reads: “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things” (emphasis mine).   Makes you kinda wonder whether the loving touch of God’s hand is what produced the Haitian calamity.

In what image?

Yesterday was the bicentennial anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth.  Darwin, as you know, was the author of a satanic religion intended to lead people astray from God.  Or at least that’s what many believers claim.  *snicker*

Though I think they’re bat-shit crazy, I actually sympathize with these folks.  Darwin’s theory of evolution completely upends (fatally, in my opinion) many of their core beliefs.  Easier, by far, to simply deny evolution than to go through the mental gymnastics necessary to reconcile the theory and their theology.

Fortunately for the human race, there are a number of believers who have made the leap.  It’s fascinating to me to read how they do it.  A recent article which explores just that was published by The New Republic titled, Seeing and Believing: The Never-Ending Attempt to Reconcile Science and Religion, and Why It Is Doomed to Fail.  It examines a couple books by theistic evolutionists that seek to bridge the divide between evolution and traditional religious doctrines.  The author of the article is a scientist who happens to be an atheist too, Jeffrey Coyne.

Dr. Coyne does a great job of undercutting the arguments of the theistic evolutionists (at least one of whom has responded).  But one thing I’ve never seen a theistic evolutionist address is an observation I read some time ago by conservative writer and columnist John Derbyshire.  He wondered, if evolution is true and we’re made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), then what image would that be?  Humans have not always looked like we do today.  At one point, we had a lot more hair, among other things.  Nor is our present image likely to be the same one thousands or even millions of years hence.

I suppose for the theistic evolutionists who’ve allegorized pretty much all of Genesis, allegorizing “image” too shouldn’t be a problem.  “Image” could be beauty, truth, knowledge, love, etc. Though why “image” couldn’t just as well mean hatred, ignorance, prejudice, jealously, etc., too should probably be explained.  I’d imagine, however, for the lay believer that an amorphous, formless God is not the kind of god they’d worship, much less accept.  We prefer our deities like we prefer our neighbors – pretty much like us.

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?

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?

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?