Archive for January, 2012

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.

Advertisements
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.

January 1, 2012

Is religion harmful?

There’s an ongoing debate among the non-religious about whether to accommodate religion or to stand against it. For me the key question seems to be whether religion is is benign or harmful.

If it is benign, or even positive, despite being wrong then it can safely be accommodated. We shouldn’t really care if people are religious or if children are indoctrinated into religion. However if religion is actually harmful then we should rail against it and fight it at every turn. We should work to eradicate it from every area of public life and discourage its spread just as we would for other harmful beliefs.

But how do we tell? Is it even possible to tell? As a (now) outsider I have several issues with the role of religion in society. There are, I think, two essential problems.

The first is that bad data leads to bad decisions. Though it’s possible for good outcomes to occur from bad data they’re unlikely and on balance bad outcomes will be more common. Examples of this can be found all over. Christians and Scientologists eschewing medical assistance in favor of faith healing is just one but there are many. Anytime one takes unsubstantiated faith over proven evidence things are going to start going wrong.

The second is related to the first. Religions (with few exceptions) claim to be the source of absolute truth. Truth that is unchanging and good for all time. Unfortunately this truth bears a striking similarity to the morality and understanding of the time when the holy books were written. Slavery and misogyny are commonplace among the older religions and the fight to end slavery and for women’s suffrage required fighting against organized religion. Today in America we’re seeing the same thing being played out in the fight for gay rights and gay marriage. Ultimately religion will evolve. The religious will change their position on gay rights just as they have on slavery and women’s suffrage. But until then many will fight against those rights on the grounds that they go against God’s absolute truth.

On balance therefore my belief is that religion is actively harmful to society. I believe it retards our moral progress by elevating primitive and barbaric beliefs to that of absolute truth. This leads me to an anti-theist position. A position where I believe that the ultimate goal should be the sidelining, marginalization and ultimate eradication of religion.

p.s. I want to make clear that I’m not talking about the criminalization of religion. I think it’s good to keep government and religion separate. That means no support for but equally no discrimination against religion. Rather I’m arguing for the non-religious to stand up and speak out against religion. Highlight the flaws, the fallacies, the contradictions and the immorality of it. This will be sufficient, I believe, to ultimately eradicate it.

%d bloggers like this: