Tag Archives: skepticism

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.

Return God to the classroom!

Johann Hari tells us that Britain is now “the most irreligious country on earth…[having] shed superstition faster and more completely than anywhere else.”  He attributes religion’s – by which he means Christianity’s –  decline to “a free marketplace of ideas” that has debunked religion’s claims as rationally baseless.

Good stuff so far, but Hari strongly laments the remaining special privileges afforded Christianity in that country, such as the law requiring every school in Britain to make its pupils daily engage in “an act of collective worship of a wholly or mainly Christian nature” and the set-aside in the unelected House of Lords for 26 bishops.

So, let me get this straight.  Britain has struck on the most successful model to date for reducing religious national incidence and Hari is complaining?

To be fair, Hari is responding to British Christian cries of “Christophobia” and bullying.  How strange that is when Christianity retains such an elevated status, is Hari’s point.  I don’t mean to suggest it isn’t sound, because he’s spot on, just that, Hari may be missing the forest for the trees.  He’d no doubt say British Christianity has declined despite its privilege, but, perhaps with tongue in cheek, cannot one make a reasonable case for the opposite?  Namely, that the decline is because of the privilege?  After all, the same “free marketplace of ideas” reigns in the U.S., perhaps even more so, and yet it has not matched Britain’s secularizing experience.

I’m still a committed secularist, but Britain’s quixotic and ironic results remain intriguing…

The religious don’t have a monopoly on making unsubstantiated claims

Dr. Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution Is True (a fine addition to my library) and proprietor of a blog of the same name, sometimes strays from his usual posts about evolution and atheism into the realm of politics.  These, unfortunately, are almost always disasters, exhibiting the kind of awful reasoning one typically finds among religious apologists.

Today Dr. Coyne was upset about comments made by Rand Paul, who won the Republican nomination for the Senate in Kentucky on Tuesday, on private business’s right to discriminate, which Dr. Paul believes falls under the general right to freedom of speech and association.  This, charges Dr. Coyne, makes him a bigot and a racist.

Were any actual comments by Dr. Paul stating an opinion on the alleged superiority of one race over another–you know, the kind of sentiment usually expressed by bigots and racists–ever cited? No.

Were any actual deeds by Dr. Paul demonstrating bigoted or racist behavior ever cited?  Again no.

It seems there’s quite a paucity of evidence for the claim that Dr. Paul is a bigot and racist.  And the reasoning used to brand him as such is quite…malleable.  It seems if you don’t support laws outlawing [insert behavior you don’t like here], that makes you a proponent!  By that “logic,” if because Dr. Coyne doesn’t support laws outlawing, say, Christianity, then that makes him in reality a supporter of Christianity.

I pointed out in a post on his blog that chastising others for making claims based on flimsy or unsubstantiated evidence while doing the same yourself is hypocritical.  As of now, the post has not yet seen the light of day.  For as long as Dr. Coyne  continues to maintain that Dr. Paul is a bigot and racist without providing any evidence to support his claim, he’s a hypocrite in my book.

If people like Dr. Coyne are truly rational skeptics as they claim, measuring their beliefs according to the evidence, then they should apply that stance consistently.   Religion, it seems, is not the only phenomenon that causes one to abandon rational thinking.

So science confirms your holy book, eh?

You often hear believers claim that scientific discoveries are completely compatible with their religion’s scriptures, if not indeed wholly anticipated by them.  This is alleged to be proof of these scriptures’ supernatural influence.  A few examples:

clarifyingchristianity.com – The Bible is not a science book, yet it is scientifically accurate. We are not aware of any scientific evidence that contradicts the Bible.,,Many [scientific facts] were listed in the Bible hundreds or even thousands of years before being recorded elsewhere.

islam.about.com – In Islam, there is no conflict between faith in God and modern scientific knowledge.  Indeed, for many centuries during the Middle Ages, Muslims led the world in scientific inquiry and exploration.  The Qur’an itself, revealed 14 centuries ago, is filled with scientific facts and imagery that are supported by modern findings.

the-book-of-mormon.com – The truly amazing thing about most of these refutations to the critics is that the majority of these facts were not known to scientists, much less to Joseph Smith, in 1829 when the Book of Mormon was translated. Thus, many of the criticisms become, in light of recent scientific discoveries, proofs!

Of course, if there is one supreme omniscient being, then all of these claims can’t be true at the same time since the holy books indisputably contradict each other—a plain fact that each religious tradition is well-aware of.  Thus, each spends as much time, if not more, debunking the others’ claims as it does defending its own.  For instance, some of the best work demonstrating the utter fallibility of the Book of Mormon comes not from skeptical sources but from Christian ones.  The one thing every religious tradition has in common, however, is a failure to acknowledge the completely ad hoc nature of its claims.   The pattern is as predictable as it is regular.  First comes the scientific discovery, followed by obstinate rejection, then grudging acknowledgement, and finally, once the evidence is overwhelming, its reception as affirming what scripture had been saying all along.  (Needless to say, some don’t even get beyond the first step).

Naturally, skeptics such as myself say it’s all bunk, and to prove it, I’m going to issue a challenge. Believer, since you say that science merely confirms what your holy book has long already said, the inevitable corollary is that it also contains scientific knowledge which has not yet been discovered.  Therefore, believer, your task is easy: rather than claim scientific validation after the fact, tell us something new that science has not yet spoken on, and which can subsequently be validated by science. 

This has never happened, and I predict it will never happen, because in reality the believer’s method is to scour scripture for any possible reference to a scientific truth after its established, and then say – Orwell-like – it was foretold by scripture all along, while quietly shuffling disconfirming scriptures or past beliefs under the rug.  It’s a foolproof method!  For example, if the universe was found to have fixed boundaries rather than continually expanding, Christians, at least, would undoubtedly have pointed to the Bible and said “I told you so!

Believers, I accept your gratitude in advance for coming up with a way for you to demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt the divine origin of your theology not only to fools..er, atheists like myself, but to the misguided believers of every other religion. 🙂

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.

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.

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?

Fascinating new research on Jesus studies

Well, besides this 🙂

Anyone interested in the latest scholarly research on Jesus should run – don’t walk! – over to Richard Carrier’s blog and read his take on the recently concluded Amherst conference which the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER) conducted in order to evaluate the evidence for a historical Jesus.  Scholars are making some extremely interesting advances which may upend traditional theories that have dominated the field of Jesus studies up to now.  Like the Jesus Project before it, what the attendees had to say will not sit will with Christians, but even more so.  For example, Gerd Lüdemann, professor of New Testament Studies at Georg-August-University, Göttingen, concludes that Paul’s epistles evince no knowledge of a historical Jesus – a conclusion that to him was unexpected.

Of main interest I think to professional and lay students of religion is the fading of the Q hypothesis.  If you recall, the hypothesis has been popular in explaining the Synoptic Problem, positing the existence of a lost and unknown source document which the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke used in conjuction with the Gospel of Mark to write their works.  Instead, another document, the Dominical Logia, may have been the source of all three gospels.  Such is the view of Dennis McDonald, professor at Claremont School of Theology and author of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark.

Carrier relates the observation that the more scholars study Jesus, the less certainty there is surrounding him.  Both historicists and mythicists will find this discomforting, but it should sit well with those who take an agnostic view on the question of a historical Jesus.  Christianity, again, is a major loser here, for controversy over the words and deeds of its founder can only split the faith further, as well as undermine its claim as the true religion of a creator-deity.  Expect attacks on the work of the CSER from the usual conservative Christian suspects, but liberal Christians will find their faith just a bit more untenable.

Christian, read your Bible!

Strange, isn’t it?

Why am I, an atheist, encouraging Christians to read their holy book?  Shouldn’t I be telling them to toss it aside instead?

No, for a very simple reason with which fellow skeptics would wholeheartedly agree: the Bible debunks itself.  It is this I believe which lies at the bottom of the highly shallow knowledge Christians exhibit about a work they, on the surface at least, maintain is either “inspired” or “authored” (depending on their sectarian persuasion) by the creator of the universe.  Modern ethics have evolved so far beyond many of those laid down in the Bible – even those held by most Christians – that pastors and Bible instructors understandably pass over the large swathes of scripture which run contrary to them.  It is not easy, for example, to reconcile the popular narrative of a god who loves children with one who murders them (e.g., Exodus 12:29; 1 Samuel 15:2-3, etc.).  The apologetic disassembling required to harmonize such examples of God’s schizophrenic personality is truly herculean.

There is another, more self-serving reason for Christians’ growing Biblical amnesia.  If you lead a flock of believers for whom the Bible is the literal Word of God, a position as its sole authoritative interpreter affords tremendous power.  The Catholic Church recognized this truth long ago by severely restricting the teaching of Latin, which the Bible was written in for most of its existence, and banning its private possession and mass production.  Today’s Christian clergy and leaders need not resort to such drastic measures; soft-censorship and the repetitive harping on a few chosen themes accomplishes much of the same.  Every Christian knows God surely detests homosexuality, but to learn He just as surely condemns shrimp and cotton-polyester blends rather deflates belief.

This is not to say that Bible-reading automatically converts one into skepticism, but that it can lead one down such a road.  The idea is to create enough cognitive dissonance that the believer is forced to relieve it by conducting a fuller investigation of the Bible, which, thanks to the ubiquity of information on the internet, is more easily accomplished than ever before.  It’s true, only a handful will end up rejecting their religion, while another handful will end up more faithful than ever before, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the former is far likelier to happen than the latter.  Still, those who become hardcore, fire-and-brimstone literalists indirectly help the skeptic’s cause as Christianity subsequently becomes increasingly associated with intolerance and hypocrisy.

A third possible outcome is just as important.  Having been exposed to the vast diversity of scholarly views on the Bible, both from within Christianity and outside it, the believer becomes less confident of its claims, increasingly interpreting them as metaphors rather than dogmatic truth.  From there, it’s not a great leap to rejecting them altogether, though the process proceeds piecemeal.  Europe may very well be a harbinger of such a trend, where polls show an increasing divergence in beliefs between clergy and laity.  Many fundamentalist Christians recognize this slippery slope towards skepticism, consequently insisting on literal interpretations and upholding inerrancy at a time when such positions are wholly untenable.

How unorthodox it must be to the lay Christian mind to be told by a non-believer to study their Bible.  The suggestion alone is a powerful message, disarming in its invitation to simply examine the basis of their religion.  “What do they know that I don’t?”  While there are some efforts by believers to improve Bible knowledge, I think those skeptics who were former theologians and apologists can and should join in by ensuring that a complete picture is presented.  But even those who are less proficient in Bible studies can assist, by 1) reading the Bible themselves (a good place to start is at The Scripture Project) and 2) improving one’s knowledge about the Bible, both from critical and Christian liberal scholars (who often debunk themselves).  When skeptics demonstrate superior knoweldge of the Bible to believers, not just about scripture but how and why it was created, the effect can only be disconcerting.

The Bible consistently remains the number one best-selling book.  Christian, time to brush the dust off yours and start reading it today, so the next time your pastor or bishop tells you things like “God defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” you can firmly correct his nonsense, citing God’s long support of polygamy.  Won’t that be fun?

Was atheism the cause of 20th century atrocities?

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It is a frequent rejoinder and polemic hurled about by religious apologists.  Yes, certain murderous excesses like crusades, inquisitions, and witch hunts may have been committed by the religious, but they pale in comparison to those done in the cause of atheism.  Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot-strident atheists all whose famines, wars, genocides, and purges created magnitudes more dead.  Consider, for example, these words from militant Christian cheerleader, Dinesh D’Souza:

These figures are tragic, and of course population levels were much lower at the time. But even so, they are minuscule compared with the death tolls produced by the atheist despotisms of the 20th century. In the name of creating their version of a religion-free utopia, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong produced the kind of mass slaughter that no Inquisitor could possibly match. Collectively these atheist tyrants murdered more than 100 million people.

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