March 5, 2012

The Question

“Does God exist is the single most important question, everything else is just window dressing” — Unknown

Some have claimed that this is largely irrelevant in deconversion. Others have argued that it’s a boring and uninteresting. This was, and still is, not so for me. As I thought about religion I concluded that the essential question was whether God exists. It matters not whether I like the answer only that it is the correct answer. God could be a misogynistic, racist and homophobic, it would ultimately make no difference. If God exists there are serious implications for my life.

I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out whether or not I could even discern the answer to this question. I call this blog “hard of thinking” because I’m not a great philosopher or thinker and this question troubled me. I ran into the philosophical questions of understanding and of whether we can ever truly know anything. I am however ultimately a pragmatist and I settled on some imperfect but workable principles by which to operate.

  1. I can only make my best judgement based on the information available to me.
  2. I must rely on my senses and my perception of the evidence as that’s all I have.
  3. I should not trust purely in personal experience or other single sources of information.
  4. I am fallible and some of my beliefs are almost certainly wrong.
  5. I should be open to reevaluating any belief in the light of new evidence.

One question that preyed on my mind was that of what difference, if any, a God would make to the world. There are those who argue in favor of a vague God. One that’s there like a kind of spiritual safety blanket but who makes no discernible difference in a practical sense. I concluded that it would be impossible to determine if there were an impersonal, non-interventionist God and that it would make no difference to my life whether such a God existed or not.

It seems to me that if there were a creator God that God would likely have had views on how we live. I realize that this may be nothing more than projection of my own attitudes, but why go to all the trouble of creating the universe and mankind only to ignore it? And if we are just a celestial science experiment we’re back to it making no difference if God exists or not. So, if there’s a creator God who takes an interest and who has opinions on how we live my conclusion was that he/she/it’s probably associated with one of the major religions.

It also seems to me that the existence of a personal, interventionist God in the Judeo-Christian mold should affect both the world and myself in noticeable, even measurable ways. This led me to considering how the world might be if a God existed or did not exist. I started by considering the God I was familiar with, the Judeo-Christian God.

I found myself contemplating what differences might exist between a world with or without the God of the Bible. My conclusion was that there is nothing claimed or stated in the Bible about our physical world that would not be true in a Godless world. We do not see miracles. We do not see the judgement of God on peoples. We do not see anything that is not adequately explained by natural phenomena. (Leaving aside the question of abiogenesis and the advent of the Universe for the moment). Of course there are those that claim the existence of miracles but that deserves a post all its own. Suffice to say the evidence for miracles is not well proven.

Conversely though we do see many things that are very hard to explain if there is a loving God. The problem of evil for example. Despite the Bible’s claim that evil entered the world through Adam’s sin there seems to be no reason for, nor explanation of, the harsh, casual and meaningless cruelty of life. Equally, we don’t live on a planet where our very existence as a species is in question every year. In short, things could be both so much worse and so much better and yet still fit the Biblical narrative. Actually if things were much much better it would seem to fit the Biblical narrative better. That 60% of fertilized embryos never make it to term seems like completely meaningless destruction of a life.

The conclusion of this thinking was then, and is now, that I am unconvinced that there is an interventionist God.

In the years that have passed since this shocking, frightening and unexpected revelation I have become more and more convinced that this is the truth. Everything from natural events, to history, to scientific breakthroughs to the behavior of religious peoples around the world have served to underscore and reinforce the conclusion that there is no God.

January 25, 2012

Saved by grace through faith

As a child my church would run summer holiday camps. These were daytime events kind of like Sunday school all week. I recall one in particular that focused heavily on the following variation on Ephesians 2:8.

“For you are saved by grace through faith, not by works lest any man should boast”

I recall sitting in a large tent in the local school playing field learning this verse and repeating it over and over. It was quoted at the start and end of each session. As I look back on it a question raises its head.

Grace I get. We’re nothing compared to God, sinners lost in iniquity, entirely unable to put things right on our own. But why faith? It’s central to Christianity, to the “Christian faith”. But what is it and why is it important? The dictionary gives two different definitions for the word faith.

faith/fāTH/

Noun:
  1. Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
  2. Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.

When I read the bible it appears that many (though not all) of the references are using faith and particularly faithfulness in the first form. It’s about having confidence and trust in a person, someone you know and have met. Today however we take religious faith to be exclusively the second definition — belief without proof. And this is supported, even encouraged by biblical teaching.

“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:21.

What I have not ever understood though is why is it good to believe without evidence? We are rational beings. The scientific method was not developed by accident, it is a formalized version of the process by which we learn all things. Using trial and error, hypotheses, tests, evidence and results. So why is faith, blind trust, a requirement for salvation? Why would a God create a race of rational beings that make decisions based on evidence and then require that the single most important decision they can make should be made on entirely different grounds? Is it just an arbitrary hurdle to cut down the numbers?

Then there’s the issue that throughout the Old and New Testaments God performed all kinds of signs and wonders. God communicated directly with people in unambiguous ways. He appeared and spoke to people. Prophets performed miracles as did Jesus. Today however we have to take it on faith, faith that increasingly contradicts what the evidence is telling us. Does not morality require fairness? How is this in any way fair?

This presents for me a contradiction. A contradiction that’s easily resolved if we consider the Bible to be just another religious text containing a creation myth and associated stories. However a contradiction for which I have yet to find an alternative satisfying explanation.

January 17, 2012

Religion and ignorance

This article really spoke to me: When People Ask Why I Have a Problem With Religion…

Though much of what is posted can be attributed to ignorance, the concept of an eternal truth based on a millenia old concept of morality inevitably leads to trouble and retards attempts at education.

 

January 17, 2012

Faith without works

“Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead” — James 2:17

There’s a maxim in Christian circles, “faith without works is dead”. It’s a paraphrase of the verse above. The entire passage is interesting to me for two reasons. The first is that it stands in direct contradiction to Ephesians 2:8. The second is more interesting and is the subject of a recent conversation between myself and a number of evangelical friends and family members. Isn’t Facebook wonderful?

The debate was triggered by this Slate article. My contention is that if faith without works is dead then a statistical analysis of a Christian nation examining the works of faith should show a statistical difference to similar non-Christian nations. This is essentially the point of the article and it’s one with which I agree.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) Jesus specifically told his disciples:

“‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’” — Matthew 25:41-43

He goes on to state that if anyone did not do those things for the least of the people they did not do them for Jesus. The message is clear, do these things or you are not a Christian.

Logically therefore a Christian nation should have excellent services (government, volunteer or charity) to support the poor, the sick and the homeless. By comparison a non-Christian nation (one where there is no such mandate) should be expected to be poorer in this regard. What the article makes clear is that the USA, the most nominally Christian developed nation, fares very badly in such a comparison with many more secular nations.

But what conclusions can we, or should we, draw from this evidence? I see three possible conclusions.

The first is that perhaps the evaluation is wrong. If it were one or two metrics I could agree. However his trend holds true on a wide range of comparisons. Whichever way you look at it America is not very supportive of or caring towards the poor and the sick. The country lives by and is quite proud of an independent “look out for yourself” mantra quite at odds with Jesus’ teaching.

The second is that perhaps the Christians aren’t really Christian. This is a serious contention. Christian groups down the ages have been arguing that other Christian groups aren’t real Christians. The problem with this is that just taking into account nominal Christians it is clear that God created mankind with the full knowledge that the majority would be damned to eternal fire. If one further limits Christianity to some smaller, presumably much much smaller, and ill-defined sub-group God must be planning on burning far more people than previously thought. Furthermore it’s extremely hard to argue that so many millions of Americans are either deliberately misleading the world or are completely misled as to their eventual salvation.

The final alternative of course is that, despite its claim to be a personal relationship with the creator of the Universe, Christianity has as little positive impact on people’s behavior as any other religion. That it is as dead as it tells us it must be given the lack of works by which to judge it alive.

The Christian response to this article was pretty negative even before I detailed by conclusions. I think this is because it’s pretty clear that nominally Christian societies are not noticeably kinder and more supportive of the poor, sick and needy than secular ones. This, left unchallenged, leaves Christianity looking pretty meaningless as explained above.

The lack of any statistical evidence for the effect of faith (or for that matter of intercessory prayer) is another of my reasons not to believe. I can not fathom that having a personal relationship with the creator of the entire Universe would not fundamentally alter one’s outlook. If one truly believes what it says in the Bible then surely one would be compelled to dedicate every aspect of one’s life to it. As I went through my deconversion process the fact that the overwhelming number of Christians in the world do not appear to be fundamentally altered by their faith was a major concern and a serious reason why I believe Christianity is no different to every other religion in the world.

January 2, 2012

The problem of evil

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
— The Riddle of Epicurus BC 341-270

This is, perhaps my number one reason for not believing in a God. It would not be an issue were I a follower of Cthulhu. The God of the Bible however is claimed to be an omnipotent, omniscient benefactor to humanity.

I have discussed this issue with many Christians over the years and find the explanations fall into just a few key areas.

The first is to blame humanity and the fall (the introduction of evil into the world through Adam and Eve’s eating of the apple, also known as original sin). The Bible of course places the blame for the fall firmly with Adam and Eve. For many Christians it’s mostly Eve’s fault of course. But how about the fall? What kind of parent deliberately places a temptation to which they know their child will succumb directly on the child’s way? Then when the child succumbs the parent throws the child out of the house and disowns them. This is not the behavior of a loving and responsible parent.

The second is to argue that it’s all part of God’s ineffable plan and that even if we can’t see the ultimate good in the outcome that’s because of our limitations. There are a number of verses commonly used to support this but the following is the most often quoted:

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” — Romans 8:28

Potentially this deals with everyday disappointments and difficulties. However it’s impossible to argue that the death of 250,000 people in a tsunami was for the good of every Christian among them including the babies and small children. It’s clear, we live in a world where bad things happen. They happen to good people and bad people. They happen to innocent babies and terrible murderers. There really is no rationalizing it. At this point my experience is that Christians start to either get angry or just state outright that they don’t have an answer.

Some Old Testament quotes tend to come up at this point. Especially

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” — Isaiah 55:8-9

In the end there just doesn’t seem to be any rational response to the problem of evil than blind faith. What the Bible says about God and the reality of the world simply don’t match up. As I’ve come to realize in conversations and by looking back over my own life, most Christians gloss over these issues. They mentally skip past them. The road to my deconversion started the moment I stopped performing those mental gymnastics.

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