Monday, December 14, 2009

Ex-Christians and William Lane Craig

Earlier today, Demian Farnworth, author of the blog Fallen and Flawed, sent me a link to this podcast from Christian apologist Dr. William Lane Craig.

Tonight, I will be live-blogging my reactions to Dr. Craig's commentary, having never heard this podcast before. Let's see how this goes.

Question: It seems like more and more Christian apologists are leaving the faith and actively promoting atheism on the Internet. What do you think? Further, is it really possible to leave the faith for intellectual rather than emotional reasons?

Dr. Craig: You could say that the increasing number of people leaving the faith who have studied apologetics is simply a function of the increasing number of people who are studying apologetics.

Other Host: I think we have to look at in on a case-by-case basis. Could someone leave the faith for any intellectual reasons, or is it emotional?

Dr. Craig: I think it's for moral reasons, frankly...I say that not on the basis of case studies or investigations, but on the basis of what Scripture says.

Me: Whoa, I was with you up until then. You haven't done any case studies, you haven't done any investigations - you don't have any stories or rumors. Just Scripture...not very convincing.

Dr. Craig: Scripture says that if you inculcate godliness into your character, you will not fail [emphasis mine].

Me: 'The Scripture says'. I've read entirely too many deconversion accounts where people have specifically related that losing their faith was the last thing they ever wanted to do, that they wanted to serve their God but just could no longer believe. 'The Scripture says' isn't doing it for me, because unlike Dr. Craig, I actually have read up on "case studies".

Dr. Craig: This is why Christian apologists must make sure that we're keeping our lives clean and pure and holy before God.

Me: Fine. But you honestly think every other person who ever deconverted didn't try that? That's the great thing about defending Christianity: it's so difficult that no one can reasonably be expected to live it, so easy that you can get a child to do it.

Dr. Craig: I think, ultimately, that no one either fails to come to faith or falls away from faith due to intellectual difficulties alone. Ultimately, it's a spiritual matter about the orientation of that person's heart, and whether that person truly wants God and is open to God, or whether that person is closing God out of his heart and mind.

The Other Host and Dr. Craig: Some other stuff about Paul.

Dr. Craig: Some of these Christian apologists who have fallen away will often be very open about the moral difficulties which have led to their falling away: immorality, pornography, adultery"

Other Host: It's pretty easy to get burned the last thing we want to do is to start taking a hardened stance towards people.

Me: That sounds like fairly good advice to me for any profession.

Dr. Craig: Another danger is becoming too cerebral...Alvin Plantinga, his book talks about how because of sin we love ourselves instead of God...the Holy Spirit helps repair that and help us respond emotionally to God and love Him. And if we ignore that side of our personality, then we can become dry and burned out.

Other Host: Sometimes people need just a human touch.

Me: Again, that sounds like good advice.

Dr. Craig: I think when you look at the some of the narratives of those who have left the faith, you will find a bitterness and a disappointment with those in the Christian Church because people did not come along side of them and help them when they were going through their time of struggle.

Me: And that's pretty much the end of the discussion on that subject.

Dr. Craig is clearly sincere about his beliefs. When presented with the potential problem of people who shared the same beliefs as Dr. Craig and no longer believe what he believes - it's only natural that Dr. Craig should find a way to reconcile his opinion that he has correct beliefs with evidence that contradicts his beliefs. By dismissing those accounts, which very obviously contradict his beliefs if he grants that some of the people who've deconverted may have done so for intellectual reasons, he's reaffirmed his beliefs from doubt. Once one begins the path of 'there may be intellectual reasons against my belief', one's priority is going to be critical thinking, and one is going to end up questioning one's beliefs.

Of course, there are plenty of religious people who are good critical thinkers. But the beliefs of Dr. Craig clearly have the most important place in his life, subordinating all other interests and motivations. Intellectual reasons for deconversion? No way. It can't be. Get out of here. There must be some other reason for this incident - they must have sinned or something, or maybe they were never Christians in the first place? It's easy to rationalize, and in the end, that's what I think this process is.

When sincere religious believers such as Dr. Craig become aware that other people around them no longer share their beliefs, there's some tension that has to be resolved. If the belief is correct, then logically people wouldn't leave the faith for intellectual reasons. If people may have left for intellectual reasons, then the faith may not be all it's cracked up to be, and that's clearly an unacceptable option for Dr. Craig and for many others who present similar arguments about the true nature of ex-Christians.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Occupational Hazard: Eternal Damnation

I read a wide variety of commentary on religious topics so I can understand and empathize with those who have different beliefs than I do.

One of the Christian blogs I read frequently is Demian Farnworth's excellently written Fallen and Flawed.

He has recently returned from a one-month blogging sabbatical, and in his return he certainly has not failed to provoke much introspection and discussion, especially in his latest post From Believer to Unbeliever: The Lie We All Fall For.

Demian also has many thoughtful commenters, several of whom have even at times inspired me to rethink opinions that I have held about certain elements of Christianity.

Al is one of the commenters who has earned my respect. He never fails to express himself clearly, fervently, and above all respectfully in accordance with his beliefs.

For this entry, I'd like to post part of Al's response to my comment on Demian's latest article and share my reactions to it with all of you. Please forgive me, Al, for posting so much of your speech on my blog, but I hope you won't mind exposure to an audience of mostly non-believers?

Now, I’m not going to restate what Demian has said so wonderfully above, so I’ll close with this thought: If you don’t “get it,” it’s because you haven’t properly sought it!

By "it", I believe that Al is referring to an understanding of "genuine faith" in Christianity. Now, I know that 'understanding' is far too weak of a word for this context. A more appropriate word would encompass not only comprehension, but also a certain degree of attitude and receptivity. I believe that word may be 'attuned'.

That may be because you don’t want it, and that’s understandable– after all, the free gift of life will ultimately cost you everything if you receive it– If Jesus bought you with His precious blood, that means He must get what He paid for: You and everything that pertains to you: your independence, possessions, opinions, reputation, associations– everything!

Al, if you're right about this, I don't wish to be wrong. Now, what I am about to say in no way do I intend as insult or mockery, but as a sincere and fully non-judgmental observation, perhaps even a compliment: I can tell that you and Demian have given "your independence...opinions, reputation" over to your beliefs. They are secondary to your committment to Jesus. There is nothing I can say that can change that. I know - and that's not why I reply to Demian's articles.

We are in some sense stuck. You believe that I am blind to the spiritual Truth. I believe that there are people just as committed as you and Demian who have given their "independence...opinions, reputation" to Islam, to Judaism, that there is no discernible difference between you and the people who have "lost their faith". I don't list Ken Daniels or Charles Templeton because I believe they earned divine favor through the strength of their alleged works...I listed Daniels and Templeton because I see no difference between their early faith and yours presently. Lots of people have given their "independence...opinions, reputation" to Christianity only to no longer have the capacity to believe it. I know it seems unlikely to you, but it's where I am, and that boils down to why I am engaging you now: I'm not here to talk to you because I'm an agnostic atheist and you're a Christian - I'm here to listen to you and converse with you because I'm a human being who happens to be an agnostic atheist and wishes that people could understand where I've come from.

Or it may be that you DO want it, but just don’t realize it yet or don’t know how to ask for it. Your desire must be wholehearted– holding nothing back. No half-baked idea that you’ll try it out & see if you like it, then decide. Ask, beg, plead– persist; don’t take ‘no’ for an answer!

I do admire and highly respect your attitude: holding nothing back, not taking no for an answer. It's my approach, too. I refuse to hold back any doubts of my former religious beliefs, not taking any answers that are contradictory or fallacious.

As an agnostic atheist, these are a few of the things that I have accepted about Christianity and about religion:

1. I accept that morality has been derived as a product of naturalistic altruism and cooperation.

2. I accept that there are many flaws and contradictions in the Bible, which render much of it to be unreliable and untrustworthy.

3. I accept that evolution by natural selection is the best explanation of the diversity of life on planet Earth, that this scientific facts precludes any literal interpretation of the Biblical text, and that the process of natural selection displays no indication of divine guidance whatsoever, especially from the all-good, all-loving, all-knowing God embraced and proclaimed by most Christians.

4. I accept that there is no evidence for a physical soul which survives death.

5. I accept that there are a multitude of religions, several of which condemn me to eternal suffering or to annihilation for disbelief in their individual religious tenets.

6. I accept that faith reveals just as much to the Muslim and the Mormon as it does to the Christian, and that faith reveals just as much to the Baptist and to the Methodist and to the Roman Catholic as it does to the Lutheran - I accept that each new theological innovation is a product of fallible human beings.

So here comes the big question:

If you don’t get it, God has not yet opened your eyes and, unless you strive with Him to do so, He may never, in which case you will go to your grave still guilty of sin against Him and will be judged and condemned to eternal hell. That’s because you will have embraced the LIE that Demian wrote of in this post, and God will have given you the desire of your heart, allowing you to be absorbed in strong deception, to your undoing forever.

Will I allow myself the chance to "be judged and condemned to eternal hell"?

As I've said before, if you're right about this, then I certainly don't want to be wrong.

But that's a risk I'm willing to take.

It's the occupational hazard of being a skeptic.

And that's something I accept. I accept the possibility that I am "absorbed in strong deception", that I have "embraced [a] LIE". However, I cannot accept the possibility, that there exists some kind of God out there who leads not only atheists and agnostics in deception, not only Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Mormons in deception, but also Methodists, Anglicans, Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Calvinists, Arminians, the non-denominational, the prosperity gospel crowd, and the Pentecostals and the Seventh-Day Adventists in deception.

If your God exists, then the history of civilization must be a deception, the history of the Christian churches must be a deception, the history of human religious practice must be a deception.

If you don’t see, it is because you are blind in the grasp of spiritual death. Looking at the first comment on this thread I see our old friend, Teleprompter (and I mean that, Tele)– someone whose intellect I greatly respect, even though it is his worst enemy. I read your comment, Tele, and right smack-dab in the middle of it you state your problem: “…but I definitely don’t see…” I love you, my Friend, as Christ loved me when I was His enemy (if you wonder why, I have no answer), but your eyes are sightless in spiritual death– that’s why you don’t see. The god of this world has blinded your eyes.

As a skeptic, spiritual death is an occupational hazard I'm willing to risk. I hope my previous statements in this response explain adequately why I have such a strong willingness to take this risk. I am not trying to be cavalier about this enterprise, but to candidly state my beliefs and why I continue to maintain them even against such high potential stakes as the possible damnation or annihilation of my eternal soul.

We will each and all spend eternity in someone’s service. Pray God it may be His who loves you, and not one who hates you.

I am genuinely grateful that you are concerned for my welfare - I mean this wholeheartedly. If you sincerely believe that my intellect is indeed my worst enemy, then it is only love that could move you to subvert its machinations. However, I believe that this is not the case.

Al, if your God exists, then why would He give me an intellect that He knew would destroy my faith in Him? Perhaps I am misusing the intellect that I have been given. But I do not believe that I am misusing my intellect by applying it in the manner in which it has been entrusted.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Paradox of Theistic Morality

Hello again, dear readers! I apologize for the extended layoff, but I have been terribly busy lately. Today's topic concerns the relationship between religious values and morality.

I have envisioned a brief analysis of religion and morality as a casual, but animated, conversational dialogue. I imagine that such a conversation may develop between two close friends, Q and A. Our pal Q is a theist (he or she could be a Jew, a Muslim, or a Christian - it doesn't matter) while A happens to be a non-theist.

Q: It's incomprehensible to me how an atheist could have an explanation for morality.

A: Why so?

Q: Well, I've always believed that there must be some form of absolute morality, and that God is the best explanation for our sense of right and wrong. This seems especially likely to be the case in light of the arguments of famous defenders of the faith such as C.S. Lewis and William Lane Craig.

A: I think it's highly unlikely that God's morality is absolute. Doesn't the god of the Bible say that it's wrong to murder, yet even in books such as--

Q: --Allow me to interject. Do you believe in right and wrong? If I ask you about slavery, do you believe it is wrong? If I ask you about rape, do you believe it is wrong? If I ask you about theft, do you believe that is wrong?

The bottom line is that we all agree that certain things are just wrong, yet why should we agree to this if there is no objective morality in place?

A: You're asking me why we should agree that slavery and rape and theft are wrong?

Q: Yes.

A: Well, first of all, you're asking me whether we agree. Don't you think that if there were an absolute morality, you wouldn't have to ask me whether I agreed? In that case, wouldn't I just know that they're wrong?

Q: But don't you agree that they're wrong?

A: I do. But it's not because I believe that any god said so.

Q: Then if there is no god watching over you, if there is no ultimate moral standard, then who can tell you not to run out into the street and rape, steal, or kill? Who can tell you that it's not okay to cheat on your wife or your taxes?

A: I think you're finally beginning to understand what I'm trying to say. Who can tell me that it's not okay to cheat on my taxes? Who can tell me that it's not okay to rape or kill or defraud someone?

Q: Are you going to answer my questions, or are you just being cute with me?

A: No, I'm going to answer your questions directly. Allow me to elaborate.

Let's pretend that you have a group of agents in one place. All of them can benefit if they take something away from the others, but none of the others benefit if something is taken away from them. Wouldn't it be the most beneficial for all of the agents if everyone could have security for themselves and their possessions?

Societies decide on what is moral or immoral. Societies are built upon a foundation of respect, trust, and empathy.

If your husband or wife catches you cheating, he or she is going to lose that trust, and your relationship will deteriorate. If the government catches you cheating on your taxes, you'll go to jail -- if you aren't caught, then there will be less money to pay for things like national defense and road construction and social security, and if everybody acts like that, then the relationship of the country will deteriorate. If individuals don't cooperate, everyone suffers.

Do you really need a god to tell you that people will get hurt if you're selfish or rash or cruel? Do you really need a god to tell you that peoples' lives will be improved significantly over the long run if they would only cooperate?

Q: I'm afraid you're missing the forest for the trees. What if the majority of individuals liked or enjoyed rape? Would you still say that it's moral? Wouldn't you still say that it's morally wrong?

A: If there were a society that approved of rape, then perhaps that would be a difficult dilemma. But how likely is it that a society which widely approves of rape can survive or flourish?

Q: How naive you are. Do you realize that patriarchal societies throughout history have engaged in and even justified spousal rape under the law? Here's a case where most of the people in a society see no problem with something, the society is not negatively affected because of this something, and yet you still would hesitate to say that you are not morally opposed to this something.

A: You're right; just because something survives or flourishes doesn't make it fair or just.

Q: Ah ha, fair and just! You're using the vocabulary of absolute morality. How do you have any idea what is fair or what is just? Aren't you arguing that fairness and justice evolve along with the societies in which they develop? You have no justification to say that something isn't fair or isn't just because you have no consistent standard to say what it is that makes something fair or just in the first place.

A: You're right, again. Racial minorities and women and religious minorities and those of differing sexual orientations than the majority have struggled to obtain rights and are still struggling to obtain rights today. How far have we come in discerning what is fair or just, and how far must we go?

Q: How far? Not only are you avoiding my questions now, but you're also just bringing more and more difficulties for your position in this discussion. You can't analyze the past and discern whether something that happened then was moral or immoral unless you have a consistent, absolute standard of morality.

A: Humanity has developed different moral ideas such as justice, empathy, fairness, and loyalty. As we learn more about the universe around us and the reality of our existence, our knowledge about ourselves and about our world increases. As our quantity and quality of information increases, so does our potential opportunity to reflect upon what is fair and just.

When we are able to observe species in nature that have same-sex relationships, we gain more evidence that neither homosexuality nor bisexuality is a choice, but rather something inherent in the nature of certain individuals. When women have more choices outside the framework of their traditional roles as mothers and caretakers, we gain more evidence that women are not inferior to men. When DNA confirms that all human beings originated from the same ancestry, we gain more evidence that there is nothing superior about any one race over any other race.

Humanity's ability to learn more information about our world gives us new ways and new perspectives on what fairness and justice mean. Our circle of empathy expands; our horizon of moral concern is broadened by the new ways in which our lives are interconnected and intertwined. It has become increasingly difficult for humans to sink into their tribal tendencies and neglect those found to be outside the immediate circle of acquaintances, for we human beings have found more and more that our fate is interdependent on the fates of our fellow creatures. There is no nation, no tribe, no race, and no language that can unify or dominate our world - there is no nation, no tribe, no race and no language that can stand alone and take care of itself alone.

Our evolving morality is largely a product of two trends: our inherent moral intuitions which have evolved for the cooperation of our societies, and the ways in which our existence has been changed by technological discoveries - these two elements have combined to shift our moral compass and provide us with new perspectives on the meanings of old notions like fairness and justice. The underlying concepts are the same - the basic cooperative qualities which compel a society's attention have not changed - but the ways in which we perceive each other as a collection of overlapping societies has indeed changed. Our broader moral outlook is a function of the manner in which our way of perceiving ourselves as human beings has changed.

Q: That certainly sounds impressive, at first. You've argued that certain moral concepts develop in an inherently natural fashion because they advantage the development of complex societies, and that an increasing level of understanding between human beings emerging through new technology has also continued to expand the arc of human moral concern. However, how do you get people to accept this morality? Why should I listen to you?

A: That's a great question - I think you are getting this after all!

Before you ask, no, I am not pulling your leg. Let me explain.

Organized religion is a political system which expedites the acceptance of commonly held moral conventions by the masses. Adherence to the dominant religion of a society is an acknowledgment that one accepts the shared moral code of his or her peers. Religion is a system of political values which distills the accepted mores of the day and disincentivizes free riding from those agreements -- put more simply, religion punishes, or threatens to punish, those who do not pull their fair share.

Of course, we have both agreed that the commonly shared values of individual societies shift greatly and vary widely over time and place. The development and evolution of the dozens of widely embraced branches of the three major monotheistic religions is a prime example of this variation between evolving political values.

Thus, your claim that religion is the safeguard of absolute morality is false, because organized religions are almost exclusively interdependent with the majority views of the societies in which they develop.

Therefore, the paradox of theistic morality is this: while most theistic apologists claim assertively and vigorously that their religion is the safeguard of absolute morality, one of the major reasons that religious apologists abhor non-adherence of their religion is because of their fear that the non-absolute moral agreements of society will collapse if enough individuals dissent from the non-absolute "absolute morality" which is the paradigm of the particular time and place inhabited by said religious apologists.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Deliver Us From Evil

I have had many worthwhile discussions with Demian Farnworth of the Christian blog Fallen and Flawed. Our most recent exchange began with his description of writer A.N. Wilson's reconversion to religion.

I found several of the statements made in Farnworth's analysis to be provocative. Perhaps the most intriguing statement I found was this claim:
Materialism can not adequately explain our complex world. Christianity, on the other hand, as a working blueprint for life, can.
Since a substantial portion of my deconversion from Christianity has hinged upon the exact opposite argument - that while Christianity cannot adequately explain our complex world, naturalism can provide a working blueprint for life, to paraphrase the structure of Farnworth's claim - I was intrigued to see a discussion of this argument from a viewpoint distinct from my own.

I decided to enter the fray, and set my naturalistic beliefs side by side with Christianity, and attempt to compare which view could actually better explain the complexities of our existence.

I made a brief argument against Christian theism via the origin of suffering.

Traditionally, almost all Christians have interpreted the text in the Genesis creation stories to imply that their god originally created a paradise on Earth, and that only the disobedient sin of Adam and Eve introduced suffering into our world.
If suffering is inherent in the nature of the world, and not brought into the world by the transgressions of humanity – if the evil that happens in the world cannot possibly be the direct result of a Biblical Fall as depicted in Genesis, then traditional Christianity is falsified. Do you agree?

I have found that suffering persisted in our world for an incredibly long time before the first existence of humanity, therefore I believe it is impossible that humanity is the direct cause of evil and injustice in our world, and that therefore almost all types of Christianity are either absurd or implausible.
Here's an excerpt from Demian's reply, which he made shortly after my original comment:
Second, your argument for naturalism hinges on suffering existing before man. I don’t quite understand that. How could suffering exist before mankind? And how do you know? Furthermore, how do you define suffering in terms of naturalism? In other words, if the natural state of things is beast eat beast, how can you say “that’s suffering?” How are you defining suffering, that’s really what’s at stake.
Those are good questions. How should suffering be defined? How could suffering exist before humanity? Here's a hint to what I believe, courtesy of YouTube satirist Edward Current:

At the end of the video, Current's character states:

"You know, it's almost like, here on Earth, it's every species for itself.

Humans don't get any special treatment at all, do they?

It's because life evolves - through natural selection, not Intelligent Design."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

My Deconversion Story

This is the story of my deconversion from Christianity. I originally posted this account on the Forum of the blog "Unreasonable Faith". I hope you'll enjoy it.

I have been raised as a Christian, having attended services for most of my life at a small ELCA Lutheran congregation. I was baptized as a baby, and I was confirmed around the time I entered high school. I attended Sunday school, Bible studies, and church camps. I sang in the choir and I was an acolyte, usher, and greeter.

However, despite my active involvement in the church, I had not thought much about the basic essentials of my beliefs. I had read large portions of the Bible (I still haven't gotten myself to read it all - I've been meaning to do it), and I prayed often, but while I grew up, I was never confronted by any serious challenges to my perspective. I had friends who went to other churches, but I didn't really know anyone who was non-religious. I had this default assumption that there was a God, and that most of things I had been told in church were true.

I was never really one to question authority, and I enjoyed church greatly, and I had a lot of friends there at first. I wish I had a higher voice so I could sing "I Wander As I Wonder" in the proper key. That hymn is eerie, and that is why it was always one of my favorites.

Many things happened to me when I was in junior high and high school. Several rifts developed in my church, attendance lowered, and we had some pastoral changes. I also first learned that some of my friends were atheists or agnostics. It actually shocked me at first -- I grew in a fairly conservative community. Every time I drive on the highway, I spy a large billboard which declares "Trust In The LORD With All Your Heart". I thought to myself, 'atheist?! I don't believe that.'

But I didn't really know them that well, so I shrugged it off.

When I was a junior in high school, one of my closer friends let me know that he is an atheist when we were discussing religion. I started debating (casually) with him and his friends about religion during our study hall period. I was the Christian, and there were two others who were atheists.

Some of the questions he asked made me reflect for a bit, but I wasn't very phased. I didn't have a literal interpretation of the Bible, and I accepted evolution, so we actually agreed on a lot. I wasn't affected by a lot of the arguments he used in the areas that we agreed. However, looking back on the experience, I think if my friends had spent more time on how those points specifically apply to religion, I would've been more receptive. But I also realize that they didn't want to push me too hard, because we were friends, and they didn't want to ruin our friendship, which I also appreciate and understand.

He did ask me why God would create homosexuality and condemn it in the Bible? I didn't know - I was unsure. I didn't think he would. My friend referenced Leviticus, and I pretty much ignored it, I have to admit. I could've been more open-minded.

He also wanted to know if I didn't take the Bible literally, how did I *know* which parts were metaphorical and which were not? I gave an answer I had already heard, that the Holy Spirit guides the believer in the interpretation of the Bible. If I were my friend now, I would've emphasized the divisions in church history. I do remember that my friend emphasized the corruption of certain church leaders, but I always brushed these criticisms away by saying that God's church was for imperfect people, as everything human in this world was imperfect. Maybe I would've been more receptive if he had argued specifically that the existence of so many divisions on interpretation and meaning of scriptures, which accord with cultural practices, makes it supremely unlikely that the texts are divinely inspired. However, that is a complicated argument and hard to fit into a 25-minute study hall period, and I know that when atheists talk to Christians, the harder they argue, the more militant or harsh they seem. I know this can be the case, so I can again understand why my friend didn't press me harder, and I do appreciate his willingness to put our friendship ahead of mere ideological differences.

When I was a senior, my English teacher exposed me to existentialism - I started reading Camus and Sartre. However, I maintained that this was fully compatible with my Christianity, and in retrospective, I don't think that this was a contributing factor to my deconversion.

I also began reading a lot of Vonnegut when I was in high school. I read Player Piano, Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, and Slapstick. Those are all excellent, and I also read Vonnegut's brief essay autobiography, the title of which I cannot recall. I <3 Billy Pilgrim! But I hated the ending of Cat's Cradle - I despised it. It was so irredeemably depressing and gloomy. Somehow, Slapstick was the most amusing and intriguing book of the four, though it seems to be the least popular and the least well-known. There are many excerpts about tribal and community ties which really hit home what it means to be part of a group of people with the same feelings and the same beliefs. I think that book did lay some of the groundwork for my later epiphanies.

Finally, last year I was a freshmen in college. The summer before I left, I had to arrange a schedule of coursework. I was trying to fill my schedule with general education requirement classes, and I wanted to take World Politics very badly. Instead, my counselor stuck me with Forms of the Sacred, a class on Eastern religion. This would prove to be quite fateful.

The second or third week of school, we also had an activities fair. I was out walking after lunch one day, and I strolled along the path in the main common area to visit the booths for all of the clubs on campus.

I spied a banner for a non-religious group. Intrigued, I stumbled over to the display, and asked the volunteer about the nature of the club. I was told that this was a new club for discussing religion, which would primarily be focused on atheists and agnostics. Since I had discussed religion with my friends in high school, I added my information to the mailing so I could stay in contact with the club.

So two or three weeks afterward, I am sitting in my religion class, nonchalantly scribbling notes. We're talking Hinduism, and my professor is going off on a tangent. My ears perked up. The tangents were what made that class - I loved my professor's sense of humor and offbeat commentary.

So anyway, he's talking about all of the different religions in the East, and how they relate, and he casually lets out that some scholars speculated that there might be a link between the proto-religions of the East and some of the western religions. Normally, that would just be an interesting tidbit, a typically inane musing which may fascinate those students who are paying attention.

But that careless slight, that unintended observation -- it struck me. I really had an existential crisis. I felt a surge of doubt paralyze me at that very moment; thoughts of "what if this (my beliefs that I had grown up with) isn't true??!!"

"What if this isn't true?!"

Doubt. I was struck by doubt. Nagging, overwhelming, unceasing, terrifying doubt.

I suddenly realized that I had no idea why I believed what I did.

That was the beginning - that was the day I quit believing in "faith".

And of course, one of the first ever meetings of the atheists and agnostics organization was scheduled later that very week. So I went, not knowing what would happen. All I knew was uncertainty.

So I went. The chairs were arranged in a circular fashion. One of the first things that occurred, since everyone was just getting to know each other, was that each individual in the circle was supposed to say a little bit about themselves: what year they were in, where they were from, something cool about themselves, and if they were an atheist or agnostic, when they became one.

I was one of the last people to be reached, so I got to hear almost everyone else's accounts first.

I was quite nervous at that moment, I must admit. I really didn't know what to say -- I hadn't really reached out to anyone by that point. When I first told my Catholic roommate that I was going to go to the meeting, he looked at me with suspicion because I had already told him that summer that I was a Christian. I told him that I was a Christian, but that I was going anyway because I was interested in the group.

It was sort of a fib. I wasn't sure anymore if I was a Christian or not, because of the doubt that I was experiencing at that time.

Finally, it was my turn to speak. I related my year, where I was from, my hobbies, and my name. Then I stammered something like this:

"Well, I'm not really sure what I believe right now. I was raised as a Christian, but since I've gone to college..."

My brain fizzled. What was I going to say?

"I think my faith has..."

I couldn't say anymore, but I took my hand and made a downwards motion.

In the days before the meeting, I had begun to do some additional research about religion, and I continued this after I returned from the meeting.

Every time I examined my old beliefs, they made less and less sense to me.

The Bible seemed incomprehensible to me. I started asking a lot more questions about it that I couldn't answer. The evidence for a historical Jesus who did the things the Bible claimed was less than I would have liked to believe (I had never actually thought about whether he actually had existed and did the things the Gospels said he did.) It seemed there was too much cruelty and suffering in the world. Evolution and naturalism seemed to be performing spectacularly. Christianity was failing miserably. Everywhere I turned, it appeared that the answer could be better explained if there were no all-good, all-loving, interventionary god.

Finally, there was one particular area that seemed to be the nail in the coffin for my prior religious beliefs.

All the other religions in the world. I had heard Krishna call for grace - I had heard Buddha call for compassion in the wake of suffering - I had heard creation stories which sounded more plausible than the ones I heard growing up. "There was a time when there was neither nothing, nor something". That's a real creation story.

Frankly, Christianity became just another religion, just another faith, and just another mythology. People who believed in other religions seemed to be just as moral as Christians. People who were Christian based their moral ideas on the same principles that non-Christian people used.

And almost all of the so-called religious experiences claimed were more similar than they were different, no matter what the religion.

I remember reading of Near Death Experiences where Native Americans saw a vision of a great chief, where some Hindus saw a great bureaucracy in the sky, and Christians saw heaven and hell.

And even if that weren't enough, I began reading about neuroscience. I became convinced that there is no such entity as the soul. If I needed yet another nail in the coffin, that was definitely it.

The experiments demonstrate that when the brain is harmed, all of the things which have traditionally been identified with the soul are damaged.

What is the soul? Isn't the soul the essence of who you are? And what is the essence of who you are? When the brain is damaged, the essence of who you are changes irrevocably. So when the brain is damaged, is your soul damaged, or is your soul the brain? But we know what happens to the brain when you die -- it rots. So much for the after-life? How can you have a soul to be judged without the brain? It's not plausible.

Lastly, I was already an agnostic atheist for many months before I read "The Evolution of God", but it really cemented many of the conclusions which I had already reached. The evidence which emerges from the sections about political influences on the Old Testament, why the Israelites came out of Canaan and not out of Egypt, and why Paul sold Christianity the way he did in the days of the early faith really make it difficult for me to revert to Christianity or any religion similar to it.

I am an agnostic atheist. I believe that most, if not all, of the gods ever worshiped by humanity are implausible. I do not know if there are ultimately any gods or higher powers. However, I live as if there are none.

Even if there are gods or higher powers in or outside of the universe, I believe that I am living more deeply in communion with them by not adopting a set of beliefs which I am 99% sure are false, and by trying my best to live a moral life based on empathy and respect.

I know that I have prattled on at great length, but I thank all of you for sharing in my journey and my experiences. Thank you.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Is Faith More Reliable Than Science?

“Science is not only less reliable than faith, but faith is used in science."

Did I miss the science Crusades, the science Thirty Years War, or the science Spanish Inquisition?

How reliable is your faith, exactly? Are you a Christian? If so, what kind of Christian are you?

If you’re a Catholic, you may believe that your god directly revealed himself to a line of men who frequently embodied corruption, nepotism, and hypocrisy.

If you’re a Protestant, you’re already admitting that your faith is not 100% reliable, because why would there need to be a Reformation if faith is generally reliable?

If you’re Orthodox, how do you explain the abundance of Protestants and Catholics if faith is so reliable?

If you’re any kind of Christian, then how do you explain the plentiful and confusing abundance of contradicting interpretations of the same exact sacred texts?

If you're a Muslim, which tradition do you adhere to? How do you explain the existence and persistence of other sects? Why is your faith so fragile? Your holy book is even written in the same universal language, and you still have many of the same problems as the Christians.

You think faith is reliable? The wise walk by sight, not by faith.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

An Indifferent Universe: The Original 'Original Sin'

Here's a thought experiment:

"Sin is the fault of humanity, but it had to be that way, and fortunately, we still have free will.

How do I know this to be true?

Well, for hundreds of millions of years, various animals and plants endured enormous levels of suffering before humanity existed. So it is difficult to claim that the direct actions of humanity are responsible for suffering in our world. However, one could say that suffering was predetermined for humanity. Essentially, it must then be our fault that the suffering of the world was predetermined for us. So everything's our fault (even if it's not), and we still have free will (even if we don't). Christianity makes complete sense."

Obviously, I'm being sarcastic here.

We can now determine that there was never a Paradise - that there was never an Eden - and that the "original sin" of humanity is merely our own existence in an indifferent universe. Sure, Christian tradition can try to pin the blame on a species which only arrived on Earth during the most recent instant of geologic time, but the growing evidence across nearly all disciplines of science can easily refute such a bold and unsupported assertion.

How can I prove that the only reason a god would permit evil is to bring about some other end? How can I know that this is not the only possible world that it is feasible for a god to create? I most likely cannot fully prove either of these things to you; what I may be able to demonstrate adequately is the incoherence of Christian dogma when its doctrines are contrasted with the harsh, vivid realities of our existence.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Memorandum to God (Part One)



TO: God

FROM: Teleprompter


I hope you are well, whoever or wherever you may be. My friends and family have urged me to contact you over some pressing issues I have encountered. I hope that I am not wasting your time. Here are some of my questions for you:

1. "Your followers call you the judge of the world. You are expected to love justice and fair play. You’re expected to loath all ill treatment of one person by another. A corrupt judge who has no interest in seeing right triumph over wrong is, by biblical standards, a monstrosity.

Moreover, a judge who is found to be living a double life–one condemning criminals and one condoning his own crimes–deserves no such respect, honor or admiration."

- paraphrased from statements made by Demian Farnworth, Christian apologist

So why do you allow so much injustice in your name? Why have you allowed your followers to mistreat women, gays and minorities? Why do you allow wholesale slaughter of tribes with differing theological views?

Why do you condemn those who murder in the Ten Commandments yet simultaneously order the genocide of thousands at Sihon (Deuteronomy 2:34), Bashan (Deuteronomy 3:3), Jericho (Joshua 6:21), Ai (Joshua 8:2), Libnah (Joshua 10:30), Lachish (Joshua 10:32), Eglon (Joshua 10:35), Hebron (Joshua 10:37), Debir (Joshua 10:39), the Negev (Joshua 10:40), and the northern royal cities (Joshua 11:14)? Why did you allow the destruction of the Anakites (Joshua 11:21-22)? Why did you order the total decimation of the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizites, Hivites, and Jebusites (Deuteronomy 7:1-2)?

Why did you harden the hearts of the kings of some of these cities so that you could wage war against them so that your followers “might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy” according to your commands (Joshua 11:21)?

(NOTE: this project is an ongoing series; I will devote each installment to a new question; once again, thanks for your participation!)

(SECOND NOTE: part of the opening section to this essay is a paraphrase of commentary written by Demian Farnworth on his blog Fallen and Flawed; you can read the essay in which his statements originally appeared here. The paraphrase was borrowed for rhetorical comparison.)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Encounter with a Proselytizer (Part Two)

I apologize for the length of time which has elapsed since Part One. Thank you for waiting!

I received a phone call when I was at home several days later from the pastor of the church which handed me the brochure about Jesus.

I struggled to think of something coherent to say to the preacher on the other end of the line. Here I was, talking to him directly. What was I going to say? Was I going to make a fool of myself?

I told the pastor that I had been handed the glossy bulletin, that I had read it, and that I decided to call the included number to discuss some questions I had about the information in the brochure.

For my first question I stammered, "What does your church think about the Bible?"

He relayed to me the teachings on Biblical inerrancy: that everything in the Bible is truth, and that the Bible is internally consistent. The preacher also mentioned that his church exclusively uses the King James Version of the Bible.

I asked him why the church uses the King James Version? He replied that the King James Version used direct translation from the "original" languages of the Bible. I did not proceed further with this because I am not knowledgeable enough about the history of the Biblical documents to contend with his claims.

Another angle which my conversant preacher had emphasized about the Bible was that it contains God's messages. It was given to humans, but God had written it ahead of time, so the Bible was God's perfect word to humanity.

I decided to ask the pastor about certain tenets of Biblical morality. I discussed certain acts of genocide and crime in the world today: Serbia/Kosovo, Rwanda, etc.

Did he agree that these acts were wrong? Yes, he did.

I then cited the book of Joshua: the slaughter of the various tribes of Canaan whom the Israelites supposedly displaced.

If the Bible condones an act of terror that we agree is untenable, then why should I follow its teachings as a moral guide?

The preacher directly informed me that the slaughter of these peoples was really the work of God, not the Israelites, and that they were really evil, anyway.

I asked the pastor, "If God told you to murder someone, would you do it?"

He retorted that he would never murder someone, but if God murdered someone, he would understand why God did it.

Just as God slaughtered many of the Canaanites for their immoral ways, God could similarly "send judgment" to many Americans today for the current state of our immoral society.

But the bottom line, the preacher reasserted, is that Jesus saved us, and God sent the Bible to us. The real important point is whether I believe that or not.

"Do you believe in God?" he stated sharply.

"I don't know," I answered.

"You don't know? But the Bible is God's Word!" the pastor responded. "This book talks about Jesus and why he came, so Jesus was either telling the truth or he was a liar. Do you believe what the Bible says about Jesus?"

"What if the people who wrote the Bible made up the stuff that Jesus said?" I inquired.

(My query was ignored and previous assertions were repeated.)

"How can you not believe the Bible?" he asked incredulously. "It contains the words of Jesus. Do you believe them?"

"I could write a book about President Obama and say that he said something, but that doesn't mean he said it," I retorted.

My acquaintance was not amused by that comment. He abruptly ended the conversation.

"Look, if you don't understand this about the Bible, I can't even talk to you."

I thanked the preacher for the discussion, and hung up the phone.

Maybe I should've used some other analogy besides Barack second thought was Harry Potter...never mind.

Some conversations are doomed to futility.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Monday Meter: Losing My Religion

This post is a day late, but I want to let you know that I am creating a new regular feature here on Avert Your Eye.

Each Monday, I wish share writing that is meaningful from my life.

(Also, Part 2 of Encounter with a Proselytizer is coming soon. Sorry for the delay!)

And here are this week's pertinent thoughts:

"Losing My Religion"

Oh, life is bigger
It's bigger than you
And you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh no, I've said too much
I set it up

That's me in the corner
That's me in the spotlight, I'm
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don't know if I can do it
Oh no, I've said too much
I haven't said enough
I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try

Every whisper
Of every waking hour I'm
Choosing my confessions
Trying to keep an eye on you
Like a hurt lost and blinded fool, fool
Oh no, I've said too much
I set it up
Consider this
Consider this
The hint of the century
Consider this
The slip that brought me
To my knees failed
What if all these fantasies
Come flailing around
Now I've said too much
I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try

But that was just a dream
That was just a dream

(repeat chorus)

But that was just a dream
Try, cry, why try?
That was just a dream
Just a dream, just a dream


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Encounter with a Proselytizer (Part One)

I was working in the sun last week, trying to finish pulling weeds from my neighbors' lawn before the start of a thunderstorm, when a man came up to me and started a conversation.

"Hi there, I see you are a Reds fan, too?"

I was sporting a Cincinnati Reds baseball caps. In fact, I do happen to root for the Redlegs. Last summer, I was fortunate enough to catch Jay Bruce's debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The man introduced himself - let's call him "Jim" - and he said that he lived down the street. He told about his experiences as a young Reds fan growing up in Cincinnati during the era of the Big Red Machine - when Pete Rose, Davey Concepcion, and Johnny Bench proudly strode the environs of Crosley Field.

It was a normal conversation until the man pulled a brochure from his pocket and handed it to me - that's when the realization struck, that he was proselytizing me.

He stated that he didn't know if I had a church home, but let me know that I was welcome to attend his Baptist church. I thanked the neighbor, and stuffed the bulletin into my pants' pocket, eager to finish my work before the rain came down.

I didn't want to harass him about religion - being a former Christian, I know what nerves it takes to talk to a stranger about your church. Anyway, he wasn't too pushy, so I was willing to give him some leeway. I thought that it would be rude to argue with this guy on the street.

After I drove home and put my equipment away, I opened the brochure and inspected its contents. It contained a somewhat typical message about sin and Jesus, redemption and the wages of death. Pretty standard stuff - things I would've heard about, if I had still been in the church I had attended for the previous 18 years.

Then I spied a phone number, denoted with the following inscription:

"Have any questions about the Bible? We'd love to hear from you!"

Being the curious kind of guy that I am, I punched the church's number into my cell phone. I had to leave a message - I let it be known that I had received a tract and that I had some questions about its contents. I asked if it was possible that someone could call me back and that I could speak with someone about the brochure.

That was about a week ago. For a description of what happened when my call from the church was returned yesterday, please wait for (Part Two). Thanks!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

30 Great YouTube Channels for Freethought

The Atheist Blogroll provides a wonderful service for those who wish to participate in the freethought blogging community, and it's also a great resource for those who wish to learn more information about atheism and agnosticism. However, blogging is not the only way in which people can access information about freethought.

As many of you may know by now, YouTube is also a great place to inform one's self about these issues. Disconcertingly, there is no compendium or guide in which to index all of the highlights of the skeptical community's contributions on YouTube.

Therefore, I have composed an informal list of 30 YouTube channels about atheism or freethought that I really enjoy. I am subscribed to all of them. I did not rank the channels which fell out of the top ten in my rankings; those are listed in alphabetical order below my top ten.

Please realize that my preferences are entirely subjective, and I am sure that there are probably one or two channels I have listed which are bigger than the ones I mentioned in my top ten; there are likely some tremendous, outstanding channels out there which I have the misfortune of not having seen before, so if anyone can think of any good additions to my list, I'd be greatly indebted to you for it.

(Also, in the interests of full disclosure: two of the accounts which are included on this list [DefenderOfReason and theowarner] are subscribed to my personal YouTube channel; eight of the accounts included are "friends" of my channel on YouTube [FFreeThinker, AndromedasWake, cdk007, Thunderf00t, NonStampCollector, nathanforst, FactVsReligion, and DefenderOfReason].)

Lastly, I am including a small blurb of information about each channel with every listing.

The Top 10

1) Thunderf00t: A True Master. The PWN'er of creationists everywhere, and an unyielding champion of logic and reason. His "Why Do People Laugh At Creationists?" series is quintessentially fantastic. You will laugh, you will cry, and then you will write letters to YouTube about vote-botting five or six times.
2) EdwardCurrent: This is satire. Even commentators as wise as yours truly have mistaken Edward Current's uproarious brand of "Christianity" for the real item. Must-see list includes: "What If God Disappeared?", "What If Jesus Ran For President?", and "God's Cool Designs".
3) ProfMTH: Possibly the most intelligent, insightful, and thorough presenter of atheism/freethought on all of YouTube. No one has better arguments against Christianity, if that's your thing. Must-sees include: "Jesus Was Wrong" series and "Jesus Was Not The Messiah" series.
4) NonStampCollector: I have a weakness for animation, which explains why three animators are in my top ten list. NSC has created the most succinct and hilarious atheist counter-points to any claims about the morality or inspiration of the Bible, if that's your interest. Very funny takes on free will, Jesus, and the origins of religious thought.
5) TheoreticalBullshit: Yes, he's a professional actor, and it shows. The ladies will be all over him. But TB also happens to be one of the most brilliant debaters in the YouTube atheosphere. His videos are both highly informative and entertaining. Just watch all of them.
6) Nykytyne2: Nykytyne2 has one of the best voices on YouTube, though there are several others in this list who can match him. He's got an amazingly comprehensive series explaining the deficiencies of the main theological arguments called "Doubt 101" which is on-going. Watch all of those, and then watch "Greater Than Us".
7) DefenderOfReason: A rising star. I watch all of her videos. She is succinct, hilarious, engaging, and thoughtful. Her comedies and sci-fi videos are both funny and mind-bending. Be sure to catch "Crimes Against Humanity".
8) theowarner: Please don't get mad at me for this pick. Okay, you may not "get" theowarner's style at first, but once you appreciate his sensibility as an artist (and he is quite the artist), you will never regret the add. A good introductory video is "The Theology of Kodachrome".
9) 43alley: Again, my clear weakness for animation rears its head. I just eat up 43alley's "An Atheist Reads The Bible" series, which combines excerpts from the King Jame's Bible with cheesy 1970s style cartoons. His channel also features animations to accompany selections from Christopher Hitchens and Eddie Izzard.
10) azsuperman01: This is a sentimental pick: azsuperman's channel was one of the first places I found on YouTube. His account of his experience deconverting from Christianity is highly compelling, and it encouraged me as I was traveling down a similar path. Try his "Questions for Christians" series.

Honorable Mention

: "Welcome to the Universe" series. All that needs to be said - it will blow your mind.

AtheistExperience: Matt Dillahunty, host of the call-in show "The Atheist Experience", kicks ass. Some have compared his style to Christopher Hitchens on crack. They're right.

BionicDance: What can I say? Another animator, another sci-fi style video-maker. I like what I like, and BionicDance is freakin' sweet.

cdk007: If you want a good summary of complex biological concepts surrounding abiogenesis or evolution, this is where you should go. Still though, he really should get around to registering that PowerVideoMaker. ;)

DarkTheAtheist: This is another channel that, like theowarner, may not appeal to everyone. Dark's British, I think he's hilarious, and he has a killer video intro. If you like Monty Python, you will like DarkTheAtheist.

DrixDZanth: DrixDZanth, oh DrixDZanth, where have you been? He has not made any videos in months, but on his channel he promises that more will be coming soon - and this is a great thing, indeed. He's logical, he's entertaining, and he's pretty much a badass of science. (Well, that's the title of his video series, anyway.)

FactVsReligion: She is really a great film-maker. Most of these channels aren't in this list because it was someone smart or good-looking talking into a camera - there are usually some extra qualities which go into my selections. However, she does fit both of those descriptions quite well.

FFreeThinker: Does anyone know the YouTube atheist community as well as FFreeThinker? I think he friended me maybe five minutes after I made my first video? His "Best of Atheism" videos are well worth watching, as is the rest of his channel, which showcases quality videos from other channels in the atheist community on YouTube.

ghostofdayinperson: Unrepentantly zany. Her videos are beyond description - so why do I even bother? Her music, which she composes herself, is almost as good (and mind-shattering) as her videos.

hairyreasoner: His voice sounds so caressing that people deliberately send him things to read to them in his videos. Honestly, that's the only reason I'm subscribed to him, but trust me, it's a good enough reason.

healthyaddict: She's funny, she's intelligent, she's attractive - why aren't you watching her videos already?

KingHeathen: Hey heathens. I'd watch his videos just for the routine he does every time he has a video (and for the beer). But don't take my word for it, think for yourselves.

misterdeity: If you don't like Mr. Deity, please leave now. This show is a fabulously hilarious parody featuring the comedic trio of Deity, Larry, and Jesse. (But don't forget about Lucy!) And yeah, those readers who are attracted to men should watch this channel just for Jesse.

nathanforst: Nathan Forst is the poor man's next Carl Sagan, and he produced one of my all-time favorite YouTube videos, "Beauty Is Truth". It is one of the greatest tragedies of the Internet Age that "Beauty Is Truth" only has 2,000 views. It deserves your attention.

patcondell: Pat Condell is perhaps the most beloved and the most controversial YouTube atheist today. When I first joined YouTube, I devoured his videos as a parched desert traveler gulps water from an oasis. Now I can't really stand him. However, many of his videos are classics. Warning: if you are religious, you will be insulted.

PBBChannel: Dale McGowan runs this channel. Read his blog The Meming of Life. He provides excellent information on secular parenting. For those who would ordinarily skip over such advice, remember: if it wasn't entertaining, it wouldn't be on this list.

QualiaSoup: Watch "Open-Mindedness". Trust me, you don't have anything better to do, unless you're watching "Beauty Is Truth", NonStampCollector, or EdwardCurrent. "Open-Mindedness" could possibly be the best video on religious skepticism and freethought ever made. Even better, there are many other outstanding videos featured on this channel.

SchrodingersFinch: Have you ever heard of MST3K? The finches unrelentingly mock creationist and ID propaganda, and the results are comedic brilliance, along with a healthy dose of outright pwnage struck for science and freethought.

TheAmazingAtheist: I couldn't make a list of outstanding atheist YouTube channels without referencing TheAmazingAtheist. As long as you ignore the fact that he leads a veritable army of 15-year-old males, you won't regret subscribing to his channel. Most of his videos are quite entertaining, but occasionally he makes one or two that almost force me to unsubscribe to him. Blueberry Pie, anyone?

ZOMGitsCriss: I love her videos, but for some reason I discovered that I wasn't already subscribed to her when I began making this list. Now that that gross injustice has been remedied, I can finally tell you how awesome her videos really are. I won't go Hemant Mehta here, but her channel's definitely worth watching.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Colour My World

Can you imagine the color blue? Do you know what it looks like? Have you experienced it? Is it meaningful to you? Do you see it all around you?

Can you imagine exuberance? Do you know what it looks like? Have you experienced it? Is it meaningful to you? Do you know how it feels? Do you see it all around you?

What if you were color-blind, to emotion? What if you couldn’t feel that sense of connection: that spark, that vividness of experience?

When I notice my friends’ care-free celebrations, their quiet joy, their loud anticipation of pleasurable sensation, I feel blank. I notice a void: there is a lull where the storm should be, and there is a shattering where there should be calm.

I stretch my arms and flex my muscles: here I am. But why don’t I feel like everyone else does? Why do I have the sensation of dis-ease? Why is my life so awkward and unwieldy?

I wish that I could live in the present: I wish that I could forget about everything and just live for once. Sometimes I am depressed, but I don’t want to die; I merely want to live as if I am alive.

I don’t laugh because I have some insight that others do not; I laugh because I realize that I may never understand.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Does the Euthyphro Dilemma Argue For Theism? (Part Two)

Marc Schooley, author of the The Areopagus, (who also comments as MS Quixote) argues adamantly in a post on his blog that the Euthyphro Dilemma advances theism. MS Quixote referenced this argument during a discussion on the reasons why people are theists or atheists at the blog Daylight Atheism.

I intend to present a comprehensive case as to why the Euthyphro Dilemma advances atheism, but to do this, I must substantively and seriously address the reasons given by MS Quixote as to why he believes the Euthyphro Dilemma advances theism. This is my goal, and I intend to demonstrate my case thoroughly and convincingly.

This is my second post which analyzes MS Quixote's argument for why the Euthyphro Dilemma advances theism rather than atheism.

Last time, I explained my assertion that one cannot avoid the ED by positing that the paradigm of goodness is embedded in God's nature:

The first philosophic move of the theist is to pass through the horns of the ED by locating the Good as the nature of God. In effect, the theist answers the dilemma by saying “neither.” Hence, the theist claims that the good is not independent of God, as posited by horn one, nor is the good commanded by God, as claimed by horn two. In effect, a tertium quid is presented: God’s nature is the paradigm of goodness. God’s nature is the good...Note, the theist objection does not say that God’s nature is good; it says that God’s nature is the good.

(The emphasis on the final sentence of that quote is solely mine.)

MS Quixote tries to argue that the paradigm of goodness is embedded in God's nature; but he is simultaneously arguing that God's nature is "the good" rather than good. So he seems to be arguing that there is, in fact, no way to tell whether the paradigm of goodness really is, in and of itself, actually good.

Let's try to use your argument for a thought experiment:

Goodness is embedded in God's nature necessarily, since God is the paradigm of goodness. God's standard for goodness is not a coherent concept - because God is the standard. But why is God good? Because he is; it's a brute fact of existence - deal with it. But what if God's nature was malevolent: if God's nature is the paradigm of goodness, and God's nature is malevolent, then is malevolence actually goodness? God could've been anything, but he just is good. We just got lucky that he isn't apathetic or malevolent or bipolar. God's the standard for goodness because he is - through God, all things are. We know God is good because all things are patterned from him - we can tell that all things are patterned from God's goodness, we can tell that he is the ultimate paradigm, because that's just exactly the kind of world we seem to inhabit:

No random, indiscriminate earthquakes, volcano eruptions, mudslides, or tsunamis,

No rampant diseases such as polio, typhoid, smallpox, or the Black Plague,

Just goodness. We know God is good because that's just the way the world works.

You want evidence, you say? You want to know if this assertion really means something?

Just examine the world around you. Then you'll know.

Why do we really say that God is the paradigm of goodness? Why do we really believe in a maximally great being?

Perhaps it's comforting. Perhaps it's disorienting to believe that we are here on this planet, in the middle of this universe, lacking guidance, lacking care, and lacking supervision.

Perhaps that was the best explanation we had at one time. Perhaps it helps us derive meaning from our existence. Perhaps we feel that it keeps us in touch with the traditions of our families and our communities.

It doesn't mean anything to say that any God is the paradigm of goodness if we refuse to define a standard for goodness. So you say that God is the standard? Fine, judge God by his handiwork, if that's what you believe.

God is "the good", you say. God is "maximally great", you say. How do you know?, I say.

Do you know that God's nature is the paradigm of goodness because it is good, or do you know that God's nature is the paradigm of goodness because it is his nature, by fiat?

If you know that God's nature is the paradigm of goodness because of some outside standard, then your God is inferior to that standard. If you know that God's nature is the paradigm of goodness because it is - by fiat - then you've admitted that you have no basis for interpreting God's nature as "good" or "evil".

Whatever God's nature becomes (or rather, what it has become) is the good; whatever it does not become (or rather, what it has not become) is not the good. As a consequence, you have absolutely no idea what the good resultant from God's nature should be, nor what it is, nor what it means.

Anyone can say, "this comes from God, it must be the good!"

"Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you believe atrocities." - Voltaire

Does the Euthyphro Dilemma Argue For Theism? (Part One)

Marc Schooley, author of the The Areopagus, (who also comments as MS Quixote) argues adamantly in a post on his blog that the Euthyphro Dilemma advances theism. MS Quixote referenced this argument during a discussion on the reasons why people are theists or atheists at the blog Daylight Atheism.

I intend to present a comprehensive case as to why the Euthyphro Dilemma advances atheism, but to do this, I must substantively and seriously address the reasons given by MS Quixote as to why he believes the Euthyphro Dilemma advances theism. This is my goal, and I intend to demonstrate my case thoroughly and convincingly.

First, I must commend MS Quixote for his well-written and well-argued critique of ED. I recommend his summary of ED and the surrounding controversies to anyone who desires to obtain a solid understanding of what exactly the dilemma is, and what is meant by it, when both theists and atheists refer to it.

Because MS Quixote has done such an excellent job covering the historic origins of the Euthyphro Dilemma and the traditional use of ED by atheists, I will not delve into those sections of his essay here. I hope that my readers of this entry will already have some knowledge of the dilemma, and if they don't, I recommend MS Quixote's summary of it, because he does a much better job of summarizing it then I could have done.

Let's cut right to the meat of this discussion: Quixote's critiques of the dilemma.

MS Quixote asserts that:
Another nemesis of the dilemma is the tertium quid, the third option. If a viable third option is presented, the dilemma is rightly deemed a false dilemma. The dilemmas above appear to be true dilemmas; there do not appear to be other alternatives to dead/alive and pregnant/not pregnant. However, if a dilemma states that children like either football or baseball, it is rather simple to provide other options, say, basketball. Thus, the dilemma is defeated. This is commonly referred to as “passing through the horns of the dilemma.”

Lastly, one may “grasp the horns of the dilemma.” If it may be shown that one or both of the premises of a dilemma is false, the dilemma is successfully defeated. With ED, the theist is able to both pass through the horns and grasp them.

So, is the theist really able to both pass through the horns of the Euthyphro Dilemma and grasp them? This is the bedrock of MS Quixote's argument: if I cannot demonstrate that his arguments (which purport to demonstrate that the theist can pass through and grasp the horns of the ED) are invalid, then I cannot state that MS Quixote is incorrect when he claims that the ED argues for theism rather than atheism.

MS Quixote's first step is to demonstrate that the Euthyphro Dilemma is, in fact, a false dilemma, by presenting a viable alternative, a third option, in addition to the two horns of the Dilemma as summarized:

The first horn of the dilemma—Is good willed by God because it is good—locates the good independently of God. The good is conceived of as some standard or other that God recognizes in determining what is good. If this state of affairs obtains, God is subservient to standard independent of his eternal being; there is at least one entity He is not sovereign over. Moreover, he becomes the mere messenger of goodness. Admittedly, this position is untenable for Christian theists.

The second horn of the dilemma—or is it good because it is willed by God—tends to render the commands of God arbitrary. The ED proponent argues with this horn that God could have just as well commanded rape and murder as goods, and that they are evils is only at the whim of God’s command. Furthermore, under the second horn, often referred to as Divine Command Ethics (DCT), it is difficult to make informative claims about Gods goodness, if goodness is solely based upon what God says it is. What does it then mean to say that God is good?

While acknowledging that both horns of the original dilemma are untenable for Christianity, MS Quixote presents his third option:

The first philosophic move of the theist is to pass through the horns of the ED by locating the Good as the nature of God. In effect, the theist answers the dilemma by saying “neither.” Hence, the theist claims that the good is not independent of God, as posited by horn one, nor is the good commanded by God, as claimed by horn two. In effect, a tertium quid is presented: God’s nature is the paradigm of goodness. God’s nature is the good.

Ah ha, the ED is clearly bunk, then! So we're finished, right?

Not necessarily.

As MS Quixote aptly recognizes, many proponents of the Euthyphro Dilemma are not prepared to accept this alternative as an answer to the dilemma. In fact, these critics argue that this framing only moves the dilemma one step farther back:

ED is re-erected around the theist’s contention that God’s nature is the good: Is God’s goodness good in relation to some independent standard, or it is good because God’s character is good? The former presents the same problem as the first horn of the original dilemma, the latter, the same problem as the second horn of the original dilemma which again seems arbitrary or whimsical. After all, God’s character could have been anything.

MS Quixote responds that those critics who reply to his offered alternative with this response fail to understand exactly what he really means with his third option:

Theists generally consider the reformulation of the dilemma a clear indicator that the ED supporter has misunderstood the theist contention that God’s nature is the good. Note, the theist objection does not say that God’s nature is good; it says that God’s nature is the good.

The ED supporter has attempted to establish an infinite regress with the reformulation of the dilemma; however, the theist response precludes this outcome by positing God’s nature as a metaphysical ultimate, a brute fact of existence. Brute facts are explanatory propositions that require or admit no explanation themselves.

So God's goodness is a brute fact of existence. But wait, God's nature isn't good; it is the good, according to MS Quixote.

So how we can call God "good" if we have no standard for what is "good"? If "the good" is defined as God's nature, then anything that is God's nature is "the good". But God could be entirely malevolent, and since it is his nature, then complete malevolence is "the good". For who are the pots to question the potter? God can smash all of them if he wants, err, if that's his nature.

And why not? What's preventing God from being completely malevolent? And how do we know that if there is a God, that he isn't entirely malevolent? If God's nature is "the good", and we cannot define "the good" apart from God's nature, then how can we ascribe any qualities at all to this nebulous concept known as "the good"?

If we agree with MS Quixote's definition of "the good", then we now have no coherent standard for whether something is good or evil. In fact, good and evil become meaningless and obsolete; things are either part of "the good" or they are not part of "the good". God's nature defines what is "the good". And those who speak in the name of God get to define what is God's nature!

"Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." - Voltaire

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Prophecies of Jesus as Messiah? (Part Four)

Demian Farnworth at Fallen and Flawed recently composed a post entitled Who Do These 24 Statements Describe?

I wanted to respond point by point to each verse in the comments section of Demian's blog, but after only making my way through two of the 24 verses, I realized that Demian would probably kill me for taking up so much room on a blog comment.

This response will span four parts - during each entry, I will comment on six of the proposed prophecies mentioned in Demian's post. This is the final installment of the series, part four of four.

For the last time, here we go again:

19. Psalms 34:20 - "He protects all his bones; not one of them is broken."

In my previous installment, I discussed not only Psalms 34:20, but also Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12.

At that time, I had the following remarks about this passage:

Psalms 34:20 is a song of praise, and makes no specific mention of a Messiah; it's also another Psalm of David. The verse is clearly a figurative reference to the righteous man who obeys the Lord - not one of his bones will be broken. It's anything but obvious that this passage is about Jesus, or even a Messiah.

For those reasons, it is apparent to me that Psalms 34:20 is not a genuine prophecy of Jesus - in my mind, it hasn't even been established that this is a prophecy at all, especially a messianic one - and that can be said for many of these passages.

It is highly likely that the only person who will believe that all of these passages are obvious references to Jesus is someone who has been thoroughly indoctrinated into the Christian faith. If there is a God, then God gave us rational minds -- and we should not be afraid to use them. I will reject Jesus before I reject truth, if the truth of Jesus cannot be established. Alas, this is what I have done - and yet I am accused by some of "exalting intelligence above God". Funny, I thought using what you were given was an act of worship....

20. Zechariah 12:10 - "They will look at Me whom they pierced."

The full text of this verse from my NIV Bible:

"And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit (footnote: Or the Spirit) of grace and supplication. They will look on (footnote: Or to) me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son."

There's really no way to tell if this is a messianic prophecy or not. At best, this passage is vague and ambiguous.

The surrounding passages describe events concerning the House of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem - this is not exactly an ideal comparison to a Jesus-like figure.

Let me just say, like most "prophecies", it's a stretch to say that this passage really means anything at all. I doubt that anyone will be convinced by my summaries that these are not valid or genuine prophecies. I hate to be this cynical, but let's admit it, most people believe what they want to believe. It doesn't matter if the passage doesn't even say anything about a Messiah - people have been trained their entire lives to see the Messiah in that text, who am I to dispute such a strong intuition, even if it is the result of indoctrination?

Demian, I fear what you are going to say next - you'll say that I don't see Jesus in this text because I'm not a believer. And technically, that may well be true. But I believe that there is no reason to see Jesus in this text.

Let it not be said that there is no level of evidence that would compel me to believe in Christianity - that is not true. If there were prophecies that were unabashedly, explicitly, specifically about a Messiah - and Jesus fulfilled these impeccably, then I would definitely reconsider my position. But that is not the case.

Yet again, I see no reason to accept that this passage is a valid prophecy of Jesus.

21. Isaiah 53:9 - "They made His grave with the wicked, and with a rich man at His death, although He had done no violence and had not spoken deceitfully."

Thankfully, this is our final Isaiah 53 passage. I have spoken both in previous installments of this series, and in the comments section on your blog, giving reasons why it is obvious to me that Isaiah 53 refers to Israel, rather than a Messiah. For those reasons I have already carefully articulated, it is apparent to me that Isaiah 53 is not a valid prophecy of Jesus.

22. Psalms 16:10 - "For You will not abandon me to Sheol; You will not allow Your Faithful One to see the Pit."

Why couldn't this passage be referring to David? My NIV footnote on this verse says: Or your faithful one instead of "Holy One".

Eh, it doesn't really make much difference. It's ambiguous and unclear at best, manipulation at worst. Those who want to believe will believe it, I guess.

I am not convinced that this passage is a valid prophecy of Jesus - like so many other passages from Psalms, there is no specific mention of a Messiah, and it just seems to text the words that are there, and to twist the meaning of the original text.

23. Psalms 68:18 - "You ascended to the heights, taking away captives; You received gifts from people, even from the rebellious, so that the Lord God might live there."

What does this passage even have to do with a Messiah or with Jesus?

Yes, Jesus is said to have ascended to heights. So is Harry Potter.

Taking away captives? Okay, this could be stretched to say that Jesus is taking away captives from sin, or Satan, or whatever...but this passage doesn't mention a Messiah. It's a song of praise to Yahweh. Why put a Messiah into the text when there's no reason to do so?

Since this passage is so nebulous and incoherent, I strongly suspect that it is not a valid or genuine prophecy of Jesus.

24. Psalms 110:1 - "The LORD declared to my Lord: "Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies Your footstool."

Once again, this is another one of the passages from Psalms (and Psalm of David, according to the notes in my NIV Bible) which appears to apply more to David specifically and contains no explicit mention of a Messiah.

Every single one of these "prophecies" is either flat-out contradictory with Jesus's narrative as portrayed in the Gospels, vague, mischaracterized, misapplied, misread, ambiguous, or is in some other fashion unimpressive and unconvincing. The best prophecies of the 24 are merely ambiguous and vague; the worst, manipulative and deliberately distorted. It is sad that these "prophecies" are considered the foundations for a robust prophetic portrait. Suffice it to say, I'm not convinced.

A Quick Reminder and an Announcement

Hello readers!

Later today, I am going to complete the final Part 4 of my four-part series analyzing Demian Farnworth's list of claimed prophecies of Jesus.

This week, I will be purchasing The Evolution of God by Robert Wright.

I recommend reading the Amazon customer review penned by John W. Loftus for a clear and concise summary of the book's contents.

I will review each chapter of The Evolution of God on this blog.

My reviews will be an ongoing feature of this blog until (and probably some time after) I finish the book.

I wanted to inform all of you of what is in the works for my blog, and if there are any more interesting developments, you'll be the first to know! Thanks for reading, and thanks for all of your interactions in the comments section, and for all you do.

If you have any other questions, please drop me a line in the comments. Thank you!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Prophecies of Jesus as Messiah? (Part Three)

Demian Farnworth at Fallen and Flawed recently composed a post entitled Who Do These 24 Statements Describe?

His list includes 24 prophecies which he believes indicate Jesus as the Messiah.

I wanted to respond point by point to each verse in the comments section of Demian's blog, but after only making my way through two of the 24 verses, I realized that Demian would probably kill me for taking up so much room on a blog comment.

This response will span four parts - during each entry, I will comment on six of the proposed prophecies mentioned in Demian's post. This is part three of four.

They say the third time's the charm. Here we go again:

13. Isaiah 53:4 - "Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted."

Yes, Isaiah 53. I am familiar with the details of Acts 8:26-39, where Philip convinces the Ethiopian eunuch that Isaiah is referring to Jesus in this passage.

I assert that Isaiah is not talking about Jesus in this passage, but about Israel. Why have I reached this conclusion?

From Isaiah 41-Isaiah 53, the servant is consistently identified as Israel.

Isaiah 41:8-9 (NIV) - "But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend,
I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, 'You are my servant'; I have chosen you and have not rejected you"

Isaiah 42:18-19 (NIV) - "Hear, you deaf; look, you blind, and see!
Who is blind but my servant, and deaf like the messenger I send? Who is blind like the one committed to me, blind like the servant of the LORD?"

Isaiah 42:24 (NIV) - "Who handed Jacob over to become loot, and Israel to the plunderers? Was it not the LORD, against whom we have sinned? For they would not follow his ways; they did not obey his law."

Isaiah 43:1 (NIV) - "But now, this is what the LORD says -- he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel"

Isaiah 43:10 (NIV) - "You are my witnesses," declares the LORD, "and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he."

Isaiah 44:1-2 (NIV) - "But now listen, O Jacob, my servant, Israel, whom I have chosen.
This is what the LORD says -- he who made you, who formed you in the womb, and who will help you: Do not be afraid, O Jacob, my servant, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen"

Isaiah 44:21 (NIV) - "Remember these things, O Jacob, for you are my servant, O Israel. I have made you, you are my servant; O Israel, I will not forget you."

Isaiah 45:4 (NIV) - "For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name"

Isaiah 48:20 (NIV) - "say, "The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob."

Isaiah 49:3 (NIV) - "He said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.""

Therefore, I feel comfortable concluding that the servant of Isaiah 53 is not Jesus, but Israel, as is apparent throughout this section of Isaiah. It should be clear that this is not even a messianic prophecy - unless one rejects what the text actually says, repeatedly - it is clear that this passage portrays Israel, not Jesus, as the suffering servant. The misapplication of this passage strongly suggests that this is not a valid prophecy of Jesus.

14. Isaiah 53:7 - "He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth."

Another Isaiah 53 passage? I can't believe there are still two more Isaiah 53 passages listed after this one.

By any honest accounting, shouldn't text from the same place be counted as only one prophecy? This problem also occurs with Psalms 22 and Psalms 69. There are really only fourteen or fifteen "prophecies" on this list, but the fuzzy math has made it appear that even the vague and misapplied prophecies which are listed here are more numerous than they really are.

I just provided a rather lengthy list of examples from previous chapters of Isaiah to demonstrate why the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 is Israel, rather than Jesus, so I will repeat my arguments here. However, I will conclude that for the same reasons listed in my previous post, it seems highly unlikely that this passage is a valid prophecy of Jesus.

15. Psalms 22:18 - "They divide my garments among them, And for my clothing they cast lots."

My NIV Bible notes that this chapter is a Psalm of David.

I've already covered Psalm 22 before in this series. Again, there are no specific references to a messiah and the text appears to be about David.

I believe that this is an example of retroactive application from the Gospel writers to make it appear that Jesus fulfilled prophecy.

Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:24, Luke 23:34, and John 19:23-24 all specifically depict soldiers casting lots for Jesus' clothing. John even mentions in the text that this happened so that the prophecy from Psalms 22:18 might be fulfilled. A footnote in my NIV text indicates that a few late versions of Matthew 27:35 included a direct reference to Psalms 22:18.

The passage from Psalms 22 is not directly linked to a messiah, but it appears that the Gospels were written to make it appear that Jesus did something that is linked to "prophecy" - even though Psalms 22 is clearly not of prophetic nature. For those reasons, it seems most plausible that Psalms 22:18 is not a valid prophecy of Jesus.

16. Isaiah 53:12 - "He submitted Himself to death."

Only two more Isaiah 53 passages after this one - we're almost done!

Again, I have provided a lengthy list of examples which demonstrate why the author of Isaiah is referring to Israel, not Jesus, as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. Given the context of the reading, it is implausible to claim that the passage applies to Jesus.

For the reasons I have previously mentioned in this post, it is apparent that Isaiah 53 is likely not a valid prophecy of Jesus.

17. Isaiah 53:12 - "He bore the sin of many and interceded for the rebels."

How hard are they even trying? This passage is from the same exact verse as the previous "prophecy". Fuzzy math, indeed.

By this point, I believe that my position on the servant's identity in Isaiah 53 is crystal clear, and it should not have to be repeated why it is apparent to me that Isaiah 53 is not a valid prophecy of Jesus.

Only one more Isaiah 53 passage after this - we're getting closer!

18. Exodus 12:46 - "You may not break any of its bones."

This verse is similar to Psalms 34:20 and Numbers 9:12. John 19:31-36 claims that prophecy was fulfilled in this manner.

However, Exodus 12:46 clearly refers to the Passover meal, not to Jesus:

Exodus 12:43-45 (NIV) - "The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "There are the regulations for the Passover: "No foreigner is to eat of it.
Any slave you have bought may eat of it after you have circumcised him,
but a temporary resident and a hired worker may not eat of it."

Now, I know enough about the Bible to see where apologists might make the comparison that Jesus is the Passover Meal, etc. However, there are some major problems for the Jesus narrative if this is the interpretation justifying this passage as prophecy:

1. Only the circumcised could share this Passover. Paul states explicitly in Romans 2:26-29 (NIV) - "If those who are not circumcised keep the law's requirements, will they not be regarded as those who are circumcised?
The man who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.
A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical.
No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code."
According to Christian tradition, Jesus served as a sacrifice for the circumcised and the uncircumcised alike. It presents a major problem to identify him with a Passover meal that is exclusively for the circumcised.

2. This passage says nothing specific about a Messiah.

Psalms 34:20 is a song of praise, and makes no specific mention of a Messiah; it's also another Psalm of David. The verse is clearly a figurative reference to the righteous man who obeys the Lord - not one of his bones will be broken. It's anything but obvious that this passage is about Jesus, or even a Messiah.

Numbers 9:12 is also a reference to the Passover, and shares the same problems as Exodus 12:46.

For all of the reasons I have listed, it is apparent that none of these three passages is a valid or genuine prophecy of Jesus.