When I was in college, the scientific community thought they knew fundamentally how the universe came to be and how it got to its present state. However, the better we made our instruments and measurements, the more questions we had regarding the theories we once held as true. It seems we now "know" less than we did 40 years ago, but, alas, this is the nature of true discovery! If you care, below is a well-written link that succinctly captures the issues surrounding the "standard model" of the universe as science understands it today.
The bottom line is that 96% of the universe is missing and we don't really understand the nature of these absentee entities. We simply infer that "something else" must be out there. We have made up the "place holders" of "Dark Energy" and "Dark Matter" that make our current understanding of physical laws work in the universe as we know it. Without DE and DM, the universe doesn't make sense. To some physicists, DE and DM don't make sense either! To many, DE and DM are statements of faith. These remind me of Hebrews 11:1 "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Christianity doesn't make sense without a measure of faith and neither does physics!
However, one of the things I love about science and all discovery is that they are "self-correcting". Science has "the guts" to admit it was and can be wrong! When new discovery demands a new definition of truth or, in this case, physical laws, they are revised and/or corrected. To me, this is how it should be. Truth evolves with discovery and vice versa. There are no absolutes and when there are, humanity suffers.
Christianity has evolved, but not in the right directions. A study of early Christianity reveals it to be far more tolerant of diverse views in the first few hundred years than it has been in the last. Perhaps, if it had moved away from intolerance and an utter contempt of scientific discovery, many or us would not be posting here.
We human beings like to think we are right, all the time.
Why is this?
- ⇒ An insatiable need to be right which masks a deep fear of being wrong?
- ⇒ A high need to expect others to see it our way?
- ⇒ An inability to say, "I don't know." and "I was wrong"?
- ⇒ A feeling of being threatened from new ideas from other people?
- ⇒ A fear of hearing new information that threatens our beliefs?
- ⇒ A preoccupation with winning approval from a god or other people?
- ⇒ The need to always be seen as tough, powerful and strong?
- ⇒ A belief that others who disagree with us are wrong and should change?
What we human beings don’t like to admit is that we are frequently wrong.
I am quite aware of my ability to be wrong. I believed for decades that being a Christian was the right thing to be. I was sure that studying to show myself approved was the highest of callings, and that sharing my discoveries with others was the greatest good a person could do. I was convinced of my position in all matters religious. No one could argue me out of anything. If someone brought up a question I couldn’t answer, I dove into the masses of commentaries and apologetics until I found an answer that quieted my mind and gave me the assurance that, after all, I was still right. I pacified my ego and pride by telling myself that the Holy Spirit had promised to lead me into all truth, and therefore, it was unlikely that I was wrong. Anyone who insisted on arguing with me I easily dismissed as either mislead or under the oppression of the devil. And of course I did all this with a humble and prayerful heart.
As a Christian, I refused to accept the possibility that I might be wrong when it came to Christianity. Christianity was the truth, and any contradictions or inconsistencies I found in the Bible or the lives of other Christians, I excused as human frailty and the inability to completely comprehend or grasp the will of the Almighty. On top of that, I had the witness of the Spirit. I "felt" that Christianity was the truth. It gave me great comfort to believe in Christ, to walk with HIM and talk with HIM along life’s weary way.
In essence, I stopped questioning anything that would cast doubt on my faith, consumed massive amounts of literature supporting my faith, and made a dogmatic decision to believe, regardless of what anyone, anywhere might say, ever.
I’ve been humbled since that time. Age, experience, and finally, honest, open investigation into the history and development of Christian belief through the last 20 centuries forced me to admit the possibility that no magical ghost was leading or teaching Christians, and that my unshakeable faith in Christianity was more akin to stubbornness and the need to be right, than anything else. Christianity has changed and mutated so much in 2,000 years, and yet, every generation of Christians believes that they, and perhaps they alone, have the best and most true version of the faith that was once delivered to the saints.
Benjamin Franklin once said:
"For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions, even on important subjects, which I once thought right but found to be otherwise."
Being right is something that people value. Who wants to be wrong about anything? Who wants to admit to being wrong?
Non-believers and believers alike are equally prone to stubbornly refusing to admit to the possibility of being wrong. But what Christians too frequently fail to understand is that ex-Christians have already admitted to being wrong. Ex-Christians were once Christians who whole-heartedly embraced a cult that claimed to hold all the answers to the universe, and later, sometimes much later, for any number of reasons, came to the realization that they were wrong.
Most people become Christians early in life, before they really have the experience or knowledge to make a well-thought-out decision. Childhood conversions may be sincere, but are bereft of thorough investigation. Adult conversions are often emotional, occurring during times of personal stress or problems, and equally without probing research. The well paraded testimonies of reformed alcoholics, drug addicts, criminals, et al., rather than confirming the truth of Christianity, illustrate something else entirely: a desire for change. Religions and philosophies do offer change, especially for the person who feels out of control. If a person finds the strength to limit or avoid self-destructive behaviors by becoming immersed in a cult, more power to that person, I suppose. However, ultimately, these stories of redemption from self-destruction speak less to the efficaciousness of religion and more to the natural human instinct for personal survival. Most people understand that a lifestyle of self-destruction will eventually destroy a person if nothing changes. And once the person is free of a dangerous addiction, he or she may equate leaving the cult as a guarantee of returning to the abandoned lifestyle. Christianity reinforces this pattern of thought by teaching that a person must abide in Christ or risk being cast aside. At no time will a person be told it is possible to live a clean life outside of Christianity.
Of course there may be other reasons for conversion, but can there be any question that childhood conversions and adult conversions during difficult times comprise the bulk of conversion stories? I was a Christian for 30 years. These two types of personal testimonials filled my ears during those decades.
Now, many years later, I am an ex-Christian. I didn’t become an ex-Christian because someone hurt my feelings. I became an ex-Christian after studiously endeavoring to learn all I could about my God, my faith, Christianity, history, theology, and other closely related topics. Little by little I discovered that Christianity is just another magical cult that captured the imaginations and satisfied the emotional needs of enough people over the years to gather a strong following. I found out that it is not truth, it is not even unique, and that I had been wrong.
No doubt, Christians will continue to insist that the ex-Christian is closed minded — that the ex-Christian hasn’t closely considered all the facts — that the ex-Christian is stubborn and refuses to admit to being wrong. But in reality, it is the Christian who is calling the kettle black. Most Christians are afraid to analyze their religion from a position of neutrality, from outside of the approved list of authors and books. When I was a Christian, I was discouraged from reading anything written by non-Christian authors. Such materials could damage faith, I was told.
Those prophets were correct. Once I finally broke taboo and started reading materials less apologetic in nature, not to just argue with the materials, but to actually listen to what the authors had to say, my faith started to show cracks.
When it comes to religion, few people read things to test their faith. Most read things that confirm their faith. They like to read things that tell them they are right. If they do read an opposing view, it is with the intention of finding flaws in the argument, and once again, confirming the position of faith.
It is a difficult thing to admit being wrong. I know.
So, Christian, when you come here and post, please be aware that ex-Christians have already agonized over being wrong. We know we can be wrong. We admit to having been wrong in the past, and admit that the possibility to be wrong again still exists in the future.
Be honest with yourself, Christian. Are you willing to admit you might be wrong?
Traveling down Route 2 upon our first snow of the season, and our first taste of the holiday season, I trailed a car that had a bumper sticker that read, “Merry Christmas: How is THAT offensive?” Not long after I learned that Wal-Mart had decided to greet their customers with “Merry Christmas,” rather than the politically correct, “Happy Holidays.” I found these two incidents oddly related, and contemplated the issue a bit further.
My question was, is wishing someone a “Merry Christmas” offensive? I am among the staunchest civil libertarians and an outspoken non-theist, yet I do not ever remember being offended when wished a Merry Christmas. However, according to the media, there seems to be a “War on Christmas.” And, for many, the war is real- as evidenced by those that rejoiced in Wal-Mart’s decision and the amount of Christmas Cards sent to the ACLU.
My curiosity was aroused, and I decided to find out if there was indeed a “War on Christmas,” and if so, who was responsible and what exactly people were fighting about. I conjured up a small, very unscientific, survey and e-mailed it to both my religious and non-religious (agnostic and atheist) friends. In addition to the “War on Christmas,” I wanted to know if people, specifically my non-religious friends, were offended by the “Merry Christmas” greeting. I also wondered if my religious friends were upset at the political correctness implied in wishing folks a “Happy Holiday.”
I received dozens of responses, and the results were a little surprising. Most of the non-theists did not acknowledge a “War on Christmas,” while nearly all the religious responses felt that there was. As for a greeting of “Merry Christmas,” only 2 of 26 non-theists said that they were offended. It seems, almost conclusively, that the war for political correctness is not being fought by non-theists. Conversely, the religious response was that they were, often very, upset about being asked to be politically correct. Many of the arguments focused on the theme that this is a “Christian nation.” Non-theists blamed the media and the conservative base for making an issue out of nothing, while religious responses primarily blamed the ACLU and atheists. Finally, in a show of solidarity, both non-theists and theists felt that Wal-Mart changed their policy for financial gain and publicity. I would agree, I think it is a great strategic move by Wal-Mart- attempting to mobilize the conservative base- at a time when they are facing increased resistance from communities.
It seems then, unexpectedly, that Christians were more offended at the political correctness of “Happy Holidays,” than non-theists were over “Merry Christmas.” In other words, being politically correct is more offensive to Christians than not being politically correct is to non-theists. Christians seem to be rallying behind the premise that their “right” to say “Merry Christmas” has been taken away. However, it might only be a self-inflicted skirmish.
One atheist made this comment, “As a former member of a cultic fundamentalist group, I know it is valuable as a method to maintain cohesiveness in a group to make the members feel embattled, that the world is against you.” Whether it is the ACLU, atheists or the media that is responsible for the “War on Christmas,” there is certainly a measure of embattlement. My survey was retuned by the ACLU which noted that they are inundated with Christmas cards, empty donation envelopes, and large donations on closed bank accounts. Furthermore, some of the Christmas cards are filled with expletives and the ACLU voice mail is often filled by after-hour callers. Promoted by Christian groups to their members, and through e-mail campaigns, the endeavor does not seem very kind or Christian-like.
For the record, the ACLU’s involvement in Christmas is limited to the separation of church and state insomuch as it related to the government endorsement of a particular religion. While it may occasionally represent religious discrimination, it does not have any influence over corporate or individual decisions regarding how the holidays are celebrated. Much of this misinformation is propagandized by the media and people like Bill O’Reilly. In truth, governments are permitted to exhibit some religious displays so long as secular displays are also represented.
While I favor diversity, respect and consideration as a measure of inclusiveness, I am not always in favor of political correctness. What I am in favor of is discourse, and believe that with understanding- ignorance and prejudice would be eradicated. The unwritten rule forbidding the discussion of religion and politics in many arenas only amplifies the misinterpretations. People need to be willing to have a civilized debate, and to occasionally change their minds. It is this level of discussion that might eventually lead to real political correctness. Because, like saying you are “sorry,” political correctness only means something if it is sincere.
Non-Christians have the same guaranteed rights as Christians, but must also accept that that the majority of this country is Christian, complete with their holidays and traditions. On the other hand, Christians must acknowledge and embrace the premise that just because they represent the majority, they cannot trample the rights, culture and traditions of the minority. While not personally offensive, wishing someone a “Merry Christmas” is exclusive and presumptive.
Minorities have the same right to celebrate the holiday season as Christians. Other religions celebrate traditional December holidays, such as Hanukkah, and the non-religious celebrate other events such as Kwanzaa and the Winter Solstice. In fact, for those unacquainted with the “real” story of Christmas, it actually began as a celebration of the winter solstice, as noted here by the History Channel:
"The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of the man called Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.
The end of December was a perfect time for celebration in most areas of Europe. At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking."
Moreover, it is unlikely that Jesus was born on December 25. The history and tradition of this holiday is as muddled as religion itself. In fact, it was the Roman god Mithra that was said to have been born on December 25- which, incidentally, is also the date of the pagan Saturnalia festival. The History Channel continues:
"In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. Unfortunately, the Bible does not mention date for his birth. Although some evidence suggests that his birth may have occurred in the spring (why would shepherds be herding in the middle of winter?), Pope Julius I chose December 25."
The winter holiday season is my favorite time of the year, narrowly winning favor over the comfortable autumn tone. There seems to be a kindness in the air, save the indomitable holiday shopper and the perplexing, as debated here, choice of seasonal greeting. Many of the responses from my survey spoke of about the meaning of the holiday season and Christmas- an affection that my family and I share. Nearly all responders, theists and non-theists, share the holiday tradition with family and friends, and engage in the exchange of gifts.
Perhaps my favorite plea was for the traditional “peace on Earth and goodwill to men.” There are so many important issues in the world, such as war, disease and poverty, it almost seems ridiculous to waste time analyzing what is most often a sincere and warm holiday greeting. In the end, the decision is a personal one, and with that, I would like to wish everyone a wonderful holiday season — and not just because it is politically correct.
Where do atheists and non-believers go?
That's a question that seems to be universally answered in all religions. The answer? You probably know it. Those who do not believe, no matter how good they are, go to hell, where they suffer for eternity for their idiotic and selfish choices while on earth. Pretty much every non-liberal Christian theologian, such as Billy Graham and Greg Laurie, says that those who don't believe in Jesus are in for an eternity of suffering.
However, when you point out how unjust and cruel such a fate that is, you'll get one of the now-standard fundamentalist stock answers, such as: "God is perfect and just", "God cannot stand sin" "God cannot behold evil" "God doesn't send you to hell, you send yourself there", "It's your choice to go to hell", "Our sinful natures mean that we cannot enter heaven", etc. You've probably heard all the excuses trying to explain the justice in sending people to hell for all eternity with no hope of justice or release.
The first answer, "God is perfect and just" is a curious one. The typical descriptions of God in the Christian tradition is that God is perfect, omnipresent, benevolent and just. Such a being, according to logic, would be better then his (or her) creations. This God would be more loving then we are, more caring then we are, and more just then we are. This God would be everything good. But could such a God embody our worst traits as well? Could a perfect, benevolent, just God embody rage that is worse then ours, get more angry then we possibly can, and be more cruel then we can?
If God does (I should say now that I do believe in God, even though I am an ex-Christian) have both those features, embodying our best and worst traits to a degree that we can't even imagine, then God seems more like a giant human then a benevolent being, a giant human who's temper tantrums can and (if you believe the bible) have wiped out millions of people (who are this being's pride and joy) in gruesome and terrible ways.
God is described as being Just. That is, God is fair, balanced and better at giving justice then we can be. If God is benevolent as is is often claimed to be, then God's justice would ultimately be restorative. It would heal and undo all the hurts. Our justice system does not work that way. It's focused on punishment, rather then healing and rehabilitation. God is sometimes described as being a judge.
The problem here however, is that God's justice, as described by fundamentalists, is, for the lack of a better word, stupid. We are sometimes told that God cannot stand the presence of sin or evil (which begs the question of why a benevolent, all-loving God apparently throws a temper tantrum or scowls in disgust at the sight of human mistakes, AKA sin), that no sin and no imperfections are allowed in heaven, which is perfect. Thus, according to one argument put up by Christian fundamentalists, even one sin is an irreparable stain that cannot be allowed into heaven. Furthermore, it is an offense to God, and because God is perfect and holy, even that one little imperfection is worthy of being punished endlessly, over and over and over again.
Our justice system is not perfect. But even we, as humans, know that punishing someone again and again and again and again for the same mistake is not just. Only sadists enjoy giving pain. Normal, sensible people can see that it's not right to to punish someone for longer then need be. A murderer may be deserving of punishment, yes, but is it right to continuously punish him with pain over and over again, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year for year after year after year after year? Or, is it right to punish him with solitary confinement twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year for year after year after year after year? In the beginning, perhaps it would make sense, when the memory of his act of brutally murdering someone would be fresh, and the anger for retribution would be great. But after a time, people would start to realize how cruel it would be to keep going in that manner. Could you imagine watching someone, no matter how evil, being tortured non-stop every day for years? Watching him or her scream in pain for years... doesn't that seem like a horrible thing to watch?
The problem with God giving an eternity of hell due to one little mistake can be compared to our justice system giving everyone the same sentence, no matter what they've done.
"Your honor, this man has murdered a family, raping the wife in the process and bashing the skulls of the children in with a mallet."
"Life in prison with no parole! Next case."
"Your honor, this woman killed her boyfriend by dropping a bowling ball on his head."
"Life in prison with no parole! Next case."
"Your honor, this young man painted some graffiti inside his school's bathroom."
"Life in prison with no parole! Next case!"
"Your honor, this woman shoplifted some bananas from a grocery store."
"Life in prison with no parole! Next case!"
"Your honor, this man went ten miles over the speed limit in a city street."
"Life in prison with no parole! Next case!"
Sounds crazy, no? Yet this is essentially the case of fundamentalist god's justice. Eternity in hell with no parole, no matter what you've done. Your only crime in life could be stealing a pack of cards from a store, and you'd be sent to hell for all eternity (while flawed and mistake-filled people who believe in Jesus get to go to God's perfect heaven, despite the fact that they are chock full of sin and far from perfect).
Doesn't that sound unnecessarily cruel? Even our system, flawed as it is, establishes guidelines and rules for how long a person should be punished. If you shoplift for example, your time of punishment will be far less then that of, say, Hitler. If you're good and work at making up for what you've done, then you can get out of prison early. Yet a perfect god lumps all crimes together and punishes then endlessly without even bothering to try and correct. One would think that a benevolent and perfect God, who's more just then we are, would have a system that ultimately heals and corrects, rather then punishes endlessly for no reason.
Therefore, we essentially come to the big question: Was Jesus wrong?
Jesus talks about hell more then heaven in the Christian bible. In the four gospel accounts you can find him talking about how people will be punished for eternity, how the wheat will be separated from the chaff, etc. Jesus, it seemed, believed in punishment after death. If we take the gospel accounts as is, Jesus believed in eternal punishment for those who did not believe. Perhaps his most famous saying in regards to this comes from his description of the day of judgment. You've no doubt heard about it, when he will gather those and say "Welcome, for I was hungry and you fed me, etc" and then he will gather everyone else and say "Depart from me because I was hungry and you did not feed me, etc."
However, have you ever noticed that this famous scene seems to value works and deeds over beliefs? Even those who believed in Jesus, yet didn't feed, clothe, and help those in need were sent to everlasting punishment. Jesus, it appears, believed more in doing good works in this account. Many theologians now believe that getting to heaven is a matter of balancing belief in Jesus and doing good works, but is it possible... just possibly... that the belief in who goes to heaven is really wrong?
Now we come to our big moment: Examining the justice of a perfect God.
For this purpose, we will assume that God is benevolent, above human frailties, that God is just and that God is better then us. These are some of the traits that are agreed upon by most religions that believe in God, and they will serve our purpose for this article.
The question of who is going to heaven and who is going to hell is one that has caused untold amounts of dread and despair over the centuries. Traditionally, you have to be a member of the right faith, do the right things, and believe in God. But let's try taking a look at it from God's point of view.
God is in heaven and wants everyone to come home. God however, will not force people to come to heaven because God will not violate man's free will. Therefore, God faces the following situation: God has to create a system that is just and fair in regards to who goes where after they die. This system has to apply to ALL the people who will ever live. It has to be a system that is above religions and above religious belief. It has to apply to the first caveman to the modern day businessman. What kind of system must God create?
Fundamentalist Christians would say that Jesus, and his sacrifice for our sins, is the answer. However, this is not correct. All those who lived before Jesus died in sin, and thus, because they cannot be forgiven (because for some strange reason, the Christian god's mercies end at death. Aren't they supposed to be everlasting?), they are doomed to hell. Some theologians believe that they will be judged according to how they lived, and how well they embodied Jesus' teachings without knowing them, but this brings up an odd paradox. It is better to live a good life without knowing of Jesus' teachings and thus get to heaven on the merit of a technicality, then to know about Jesus and risk going to hell. And even then, this system is still not perfect because belief in Jesus is mandatory in getting to heaven. Thus, if we follow this system, the overwhelming majority of all the people who have ever lived will go to hell and be with Satan forever. In this model, God gets a minuscule amount of souls to himself while Satan gets at least 90 times as many as God does. Thus, God is the loser in this competition. He looses more souls then he gets. His system of justice, through Jesus, is a complete failure in getting people to come to heaven because the overwhelming majority go to hell simply because they do not believe in Jesus. Personal merit and character are not taken into consideration.
However, there is a better method that is perfectly just in deciding who goes where, regardless of personal beliefs. What is that method? Cause and effect. For every action, there is a reaction.
Let's imagine for a moment that the spiritual world, assuming it exists, exists in layers, similar to pancakes piled up on top of each other. Each layer corresponds to the type of people in it. The very lowest layer would be people who are hateful, cruel, sadistic and mean, people who have no goodness in them. The middle layer would have people who are neither evil nor perfect. Between the middle layer and the top, we have people who are good, kind, generous and all-around nice people. At the top would be those who are overwhelmingly good, as well as God.
The way this system would work is that upon death, an individual goes to where they fit in. They would go to where they fit in with others who are exactly like them. Birds of a feather, flock together, so to speak. If you are a good, kind, and nice person, then you would have nothing to fear upon death. Even if you are an atheist, you would go to be among others who are like you in disposition and character. With this system set in place, it is perfectly just because everyone gets exactly what they have earned in regards to character and how well you have lived your life. This system ensures that everyone, no matter what time they have lived, no matter what religion they follow (if they follow one at all), has an equal chance of getting to heaven. Thus, all the good people of the world would go to a happy place, while all the mean and nasty people would go to a bad place.
Near death experiences, if you believe that they are glimpses of the spiritual world, do seem to point in this direction.
Everything in God's Super Universe is regulated by vibration, electrical current and frequency ... the higher our Soul's level of vibration and frequency, the higher and further we are able travel throughout the Divine Realms and God's Super Universe. What is interesting about the Realm is that our energy automatically brings us right to the place that either most interests us or resembles our own energy. Source
When we manifest unconditional love, our soul vibration are so high that the only place we can fit into is heaven. People don't go to heaven because of their good deeds, but because their soul vibration of spiritual love fits in and belongs there. After death, people gravitate into groups according to the rate of their soul's vibration. Birds of a feather flock together. This connection between the level of soul vibration we have in determining the level of heavenly vibration we realize after death is the same principle as putting a coin into the slot of a coin counter. The coin just naturally fits to its proper location. So it is with the soul. After death, our soul naturally fits in the level of heaven we have developed within us. In fact, while we live on earth our soul actually dwells, not only within us, but also in the spiritual realm we will find ourselves in after death. Source
If God wants to get the most number of people to heaven, God would have to create a system that applies to everyone, regardless of personal belief. A system that allows you to go where you fit in is not only more fair and just then the fundamentalist Christian idea of simply believing in Jesus, but it makes more sense. With this system of justice in place, both the Christian, the Buddhist, the atheist and the agnostic all have an equal chance of getting to heaven. It all depends on the personal character, on what's inside. With the fundamentalist mindset, only the Christian has a chance of getting to heaven. It all depends on what you believe, not personal character.
One system, Jesus, has God losing the vast majority of souls to Satan. The other system ensures that everyone has an equal chance of going to God, no matter what they believe. If God wants to be fair and just, then the system that ensures fairness and equality is the better choice.
If God is just, and if God is genuinely good, then that means that any justice God would give would eventually be healing and restorative. Thus, the individual who is in hell, according to the fundamentalist, has no hope whatsoever. But could it not be possible that God, if God is better then us and our justice, would allow individuals the chance to get out of hell (the lower levels) when they decide to make up for what they've done? God, I think, would be overjoyed when a spirit decides to take responsibility for their actions and make up for them. Therein lies the beauty of the system of cause and effect. If you decide to make up for whatever crime you have done, you will be allowed to do so. It will not be a pretty or easy process, but you would eventually succeed at making up for what you have done. That means that Hitler, even though it would probably take countless centuries, would eventually make up for what he did in life. Inevitably, he would make it to heaven when the justice is complete, and when all the hurts have been healed. Would that not be the sign of a great God, a God who can heal and bring Hitler back from hell? Such a God would be more worthy of worship then a god who simply ignores those who are suffering in hell.
Though we cannot know for certain what happens after death, we can theorize about what comes. To some, it will be endless, dreamless sleep. To others, it will simply be a continuation of life in another form. If this life in a different form does exist, then it would make sense that a perfect, benevolent, and loving God would be just, in that every person would receive what they have earned, regardless of what they believe religion wise. Such a perfect God, not needing worship, would be more interested in our character rather then our religious beliefs, in how we treat others.
The word "eternity" in the New Testament has been questioned recently, as to if it refers to, literally, eternity, or that which pertains to an age (therefore meaning that those who will be punished for eternity will really only be punished for an age). Perhaps the word "eternity" has indeed been mistranslated, and we have all had to deal with the consequences of an image of a cruel and mean God who, while perfectly loving, will throw all non-Christians into hell (or his son, who is just as mean in that regard). Perhaps Jesus did believe in punishment after death (after all, being with murders and cruel people is not fun at all), but perhaps he believed that this punishment, of being with others who are like you, would eventually come to an end, that all things would be healed, that all the hurts would be repaired for all things, not just good Christians (one can find hints of this in the bible, such as how he came to die for all men, to save all men, etc).
Perhaps Jesus believed that a benevolent and perfect God, being just, would allow everyone to receive what they have earned, and that those who got cruelty, hate, and anger would eventually be healed and brought back to goodness.
Such a God, to me, just makes more sense.
Just 40 years after a famous TIME magazine cover asked "Is God Dead?" the answer appears to be a resounding "No!" According to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine, "Why God is Winning."
Religions are increasingly a geopolitical force to be reckoned with. Fundamentalist movements — some violent in the extreme — are growing. Science and religion are at odds in the classrooms and courtrooms. And a return to religious values is widely touted as an antidote to the alleged decline in public morality.
After two centuries, could this be twilight for the Enlightenment project and the beginning of a new age of unreason? Will faith and dogma trump rational inquiry, or will it be possible to reconcile religious and scientific worldviews? Can evolutionary biology, anthropology and neuroscience help us to better understand how we construct beliefs, and experience empathy, fear and awe? Can science help us create a new rational narrative as poetic and powerful as those that have traditionally sustained societies? Can we treat religion as a natural phenomenon? Can we be good without God? And if not God, then what?
This is a critical moment in the human situation, and The Science Network in association with the Crick-Jacobs Center brought together an extraordinary group of scientists and philosophers to explore answers to these questions. The conversation took place at the Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA from November 5-7, 2006.
Sunday, November 5, 2006
Session 1(watch) -->
Steven Weinberg, Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer
Session 2(watch) -->
Neil deGrasse Tyson; Discussion: Tyson, Weinberg, Krauss, Harris, Shermer
Session 3(watch) -->
Joan Roughgarden, Richard Dawkins, Francisco Ayala, Carolyn Porco
Session 4(watch) -->
Stuart Hameroff, V.S. Ramachandran
Monday, November 6, 2006
Paul Davies, Steven Nadler, Patricia Churchland
Session 6(watch) -->
Susan Neiman, Loyal Rue, Elizabeth Loftus
Session 7(watch) -->
Mahzarin Banaji, Richard Dawkins, Scott Atran
Session 8(watch) -->
Scott Atran, Sir Harold Kroto, Charles Harper, Ann Druyan
Tuesday, November 7, 2006
Session 9(watch) -->
Sam Harris, Jim Woodward, Melvin Konner; Discussion: Harris, Woodward, Konner, Dawkins, Paul Churchland
Session 10(watch) -->
Richard Sloan, V.S. Ramachandran, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Terry Sejnowski
For those not familiar with what "real-time strategy" means, it's not very different from a game of checkers or chess, but all the pieces can move at the same time, restricted only by the speed and accuracy of the player and unit availability. Those more familiar with gaming will recognize similarities to other RTS games like "Age of Empires."
Unfortunately, the demo version isn't complete enough to give a full review of its potential theological components. However, even the demo version provides enough insight to give this game a firm "thumbs down" in that department.
The unit types (people) available in the demo include:
- Friends - Untrained individuals.
- Builders - Can renovate buildings.
- Advanced Builders - Can upgrade previously renovated buildings.
- Soldiers - Self-explanatory.
- Medics - Self-explanatory.
- Singer/Musician - Can raise the spirit of nearby units, possibly turning enemy units into neutral units ready for conversion.
- Disciples - Recruits neutral units into the Tribulation Force (and Christianity).
Christians, Agnostics, and Atheists, Oh My!
Units are divided into three groups, Tribulation Forces, Global Peacekeepers, and Neutrals. Which team a unit is on depends on how many "spirit points" that unit has. The point spread is as follows: Tribulation Forces - 60 to 100 pts; Neutrals - 36 to 59 pts; Global Peacekeepers - 0 to 35 pts.
Spirit points are raised through prayer and the special abilities of some friendly units (such as the Singer/Musician). They are lowered by combat and very slowly over time. If a Tribulation Force member unit falls below 60 points, it becomes Neutral and loses all training, though it may be recruited again and retrained.
Conversion takes place through the actions of the Disciple. Once conversion is successful (as it always is, of course), the unit then takes on the appearance of an untrained friend ready for training. Neutrals are easy to recruit, though it is also possible to recruit a member of the Global Peacekeepers. The latter simply requires more time, and the unit transitions from evil-doer to Neutral first.
One option available to each trained unit that has a special ability (such as Disciples, Singers, Medics, and Soldiers) is that its use of that ability can be set to automatic. This has some amusing applications. I didn't check to see if the function worked for each of the above units, but I did try it with the Disciples, hoping to see some auto-proselytizing going on. Unfortunately, nothing happened. Perhaps, as the author of this Gamespot review quipped, the "artificial intelligence isn't as committed to Christ as you might expect."
Kill 'em All, Let God Sort 'em Out - Sort of...
In fairness to LB Games it does appear that there is no gore or gratuitous violence. Of the few missions available in the demo version, only one is overtly violent, and even that one is defensive in character. The full version may be different, but it appears that the designers intended this game to be played as a defensive struggle. Playing time appears to be mostly spent converting people and buildings to the Tribulation Force.
During one of the tutorials that involved soldier creation, I had my soldiers commit a murder. That is, I had them shoot a Neutral unit. The consequence was a loss of 30 spirit points and immediate mission failure. Prior to the attack, I had spent some time raising the spirit points of the unit through extensive prayer. When the attack commenced, the spirit points stood at a solid 100. Had I not been in the midst of completing a mission, is it possible that the only consequence would have been the loss of spirit points easily regained?
There did appear to be some inconsistencies with consequences, however. For a control measure, I had one of my untrained units physically assault a Neutral unit. Though the digitized little character in sweater and slacks flailed away, punching and kicking the seemingly unaffected female (!), there were no consequences at all.
Here we can also see obfuscation on the part of the CEO of LB Games when he says, "...never does a player click a key or press a button to actuate a first-person violent act" (his statement is linked to below). The distinction is, of course, "first-person."
Come Get Your Stereotypes!
In any game, some homogeny is to be expected. Video games like this are usually predictated on the notion of easy identification of friendly units and types. Therefore, the appearance of the characters (males wearing slacks, females wearing skirts) is nothing but minutia and can be forgiven. However, gender stereotypes are definitely present.
The game makes the clear distinction between male and female units in a couple ways. First, male Friend units are just labeled "Friend," whereas female units are labeled "Friend Woman." This distinction carries over once the unit is trained. With the appearance factor, it seems redundant to do so unless the designers intended the distinction to be important. Second, females are limited to which training is available. Female units can become Singer/Musicians, Medics, or Disciples. They are not permitted to be Soldiers, Builders, Priests, or Doctors (the latter are only available in the full game).
During the third tutorial, the game instructed me to have a male unit enter a church to become a Disciple. Why it asked for a male I don't know, because when I had a female unit enter the training was still available. My guess is that the designers wanted to reinforce the idea of men being in a leadership role.
Perhaps due to limitations in the design engine there is no racial diversity whatsoever; everyone is Caucasian. However, there may be some stereotypes here as well. According to the review linked to above, many of the enemy characters have Arabic or African names. Also, it may be noted that the only "person of color" to appear in the opening video (same as the trailer located to the right of the review linked to above) shows up as the narrator describes those who have rejected God.
Get A Clue!
With the successful completion of a mission, the player is given the option to continue, play again, or "Get Found Clue." These clues are probably the most egregious example of Christian propaganda in the game. Though I only saw three of these so-called clues (there are more missions and maybe more clues, but the game has a tendency to lock up - bugs), each was an annoying list of Christian talking points with a backing track by a popular contemporary Christian artist.
One of these clues described the human eye as the most intricate device ever conceived (or something to that effect), and could not have come about without a designer - God. Another attacked Evolution more directly, reinforcing the false dichotomy between Creationism and Evolution and making the non-existent distinction between micro- and macro-evolution. The last one I saw talked about how archaeology continues to validate the Bible. Any other clues are probably much the same.
These clues are probably what the CEO was talking about when he said "...the players' objective is to find ‘tribulation clues', which include Bible mysteries, codes and fascinating and eternally relevant information." In other words, the job of the game is to proselytize and/or reinforce existing faith.
Every single unit in the game has been provided with a background story, which is a unique feature in a video game. However, after reading about two dozen of these, I noticed a subtle difference; the stories attached to Tribulation Force units were slightly more upbeat than their Neutral counterparts. It appears that the Christian perception that believers are happier than their non-theist counterparts is projected into the game this way. Also, it might be significant that none of the Neutral units I checked included a secular individual, though there were several of these on the Global Peacekeeper side. All of the Neutral units are simply undecided with regard to faith.
Some of the dialogue is contrived, and little sayings by friendly units as they are directed to move or do something are a constant annoyance. Disciples (male) are given to saying things like, "Praise the Lord," and "With all speed." Singers (male) say things like "C'mon, Make a Joyful Noise," and "I got a gig, man."
Finally, the Global Peacekeepers seems to be a not-so-subtle allusion to the UN, though the UN had been replaced by the time the storyline starts.
In his statement defending the game (also quoted above), the CEO of LB Games indicates that "Left Behind is not the Bible, it is a fictional story..." Setting aside the implication that the Bible is not fiction, I can't help but wonder why he bothers unless it's to put off detractors long enough to sell the game.
The designers attempted to put together a game that would influence young minds in the real world, but honestly I don't think it'll work. The game's theological aspects wind up being expressed in a way that makes it into a parody, as the writer of the Gamespot review wrote. Those in its intended audience who already believe will gain nothing from it, and those who don't are too smart to fall for it.
All in all, this game is just like all the others - a waste of time.
What do you think?
They would be wrong. That's why the following bothers me.
On Dec. 12th, Dr. James Dobson contributed a guest column to TIME magazine entitled Two Mommies Is One Too Many (see also here), which he apparently wrote as a reaction to Mary Cheney's recent announcement that she's pregnant. That announcement rekindled the public debate concerning same-sex parenting, and has prompted mixed reactions from both conservative and liberal pundits, bloggers, and leaders.
In his column, Dr. Dobson expressed his concern that children raised by same-sex parents suffer from the lack of an opposite sex parent. He asserts that 30 years of social-science evidence tells us that by every measurement of well-being, children do best when raised by married heterosexual couples. Additionally, he writes that there is something intuitive about a child's need for a mother and father, and that God's divine plan gives children the best opportunities to thrive.
While he carefully tries to avoid casting aspersions on the character of Ms. Cheney and single parents, he does take shots at politics, political correctness and no-fault divorce, which he seems to imply indicates a breakdown in our moral culture. In the final paragraph, he characterizes same-sex parenting a social experiment that defies 5,000 years of human experience.
Dr. Dobson's apparent concern for children is well-known and laudable. However, there are some problems with his conclusions regarding same-sex parenting that simply cannot go unanswered. Among the more glaring errors is that he chose to cherry-pick quotes from studies that he uses as examples of "30 years of social science" supporting his view, when the fact of the matter is that these studies do nothing of the sort. It is a truism when he writes that "love is not enough," but tautological to state that two women can't provide a father or that two fathers can't be complete role models for girls. By comparing today's culture to 5,000 years of human experience, Dr. Dobson reveals his ignorance of history.
The above might be surprising given his credentials were it not for Dr. Dobson's equally well-known status as an Evangelical Christian. That is to say Dr. Dobson's views are ultimately derived from his belief in biblical doctrine, which he allows to prejudice his analysis of existing science on the matter.
In fact, both Dr. Kyle Pruett and Carol Gilligan, whose work he references, expressed dismay at the misuse of their work, and wrote letters to Dr. Dobson asking him to stop (see here and here). Additionally, though he cites a 1996 article from Psychology Today dealing with fatherhood behavior , he fails to note a 1999 article from the same publication dealing directly with same-sex parenting. Furthermore, his assertion that over 30 years of social science affirms his conclusions is patently false. Several well-respected organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, the Child Welfare League of America, the North American Council on Adoptable Children, and the National Association of Social Workers have published research or issued position statements on same-sex parenting, each refuting the notion that children of same-sex parents suffer any negative impact from their unique family situations.
A few examples:
- A 2002 technical report by the American Academy of Pediatrics stated:
"A growing body of scientific literature demonstrates that children who grow up with 1 or 2 gay and/or lesbian parents fare as well in emotional, cognitive, social, and sexual functioning as do children whose parents are heterosexual. Children’s optimal development seems to be influenced more by the nature of the relationships and interactions within the family unit than by the particular structural form it takes."
- Even while acknowledging that current research is limited, a 2005 study completed by the American Psychological Association found:
"...no evidence to suggest that lesbian women or gay men are unfit to be parents or that psychosocial development among children of lesbian women or gay men is compromised relative to that among offspring of heterosexual parents. Not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents. Indeed, the evidence to date suggests that home environments provided by lesbian and gay parents are as likely as those provided by heterosexual parents to support and enable children's psychosocial growth."
- In a position statement from the Child Welfare League of America, it was noted that:
"Studies using diverse samples and methodologies in the last decade have persuasively demonstrated that there are no systematic differences between gay or lesbian and non-gay or lesbian parents in emotional health, parenting skills, and attitudes toward parenting (Stacey & Biblarz, 2001). No studies have found risks to or disadvantages for children growing up in families with one or more gay parents, compared to children growing up with heterosexual parents (Perrin, 2002). Indeed, evidence to date suggests home environments provided by lesbian and gay parents support and enable children's psychosocial growth, just as do those provided by heterosexual parents (Patterson, 1995)."
- The Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Social Workers published an op-ed piece in which it was stated that:
"Anyone who wishes to examine the twenty years of peer-reviewed studies on the emotional, cognitive, and behavioral outcomes of children of gay and lesbian parents will find not one shred of evidence that children are harmed by their parents’ sexual orientation. In a recent national study of adoption by lesbians and gays, The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute concluded the following: gay and lesbian parents are no more likely to be emotionally disturbed than their heterosexual counterparts; there is no link between homosexuality and child sexual abuse; children raised by gay and lesbian parents display no significant differences compared to children of heterosexual parents with regard to levels of depression, self esteem, conduct problems, emotional functioning, and other areas of social and psychological adjustment."
"The empirical and clinical evidence suggesting same sex parents are equivalent to heterosexual parents in their ability to care for children and provide loving homes is so compelling that there is a growing consensus among legal and child welfare experts that there is no rational basis to deny adoption to gay and lesbian couples solely on the basis of their sexual orientation."
Furthermore, the same organization has been active in New York and Maryland, coming out in support of same-sex marriage, in at least one case filing an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief stating:
"...decades of social science research proving that gay couples are just as capable of being good parents as straight couples, debunks arguments by marriage equality opponents that allowing same-sex couples to marry would somehow be harmful to children." See this 2004 press release.
- The 2005 position statement and philosophy of the North American Council on Adoptable Children with regard to same-sex parents is that:
"Children should not be denied a permanent family because of the sexual orientation of potential parents."
"All prospective foster and adoptive parents, regardless of sexual orientation, should be given fair and equal consideration.
NACAC opposes rules and legislation that restrict the consideration of current or prospective foster and adoptive parents based on their sexual orientation."
Jennifer Chrisler, Executive Director of Family Pride, wrote a scathing response to Dr. Dobson in which she characterized Dr. Dobson and those espousing similar positions as "politicizing" the family without regard to existing science.
Bill O'Reilly also weighed-in on the issue (see here), but in his usual fashion failed to draw a useful conclusion, instead comparing same-sex parenting as a violation of nature on par with cupcakes causing pregnancy. Thanks, Bill. I needed that.
I can unequivocably state that neither myself nor my siblings ever suffered any adverse effects from our father's homosexuality. At times, our father was an anchor we could cling to when things got out-of-control. You see, my mother and stepfather were alcoholics. Yes, it was a 'traditional' family in the sense that we had a mother & father in the home. But isn't it interesting that my sister was removed from that home by child services, my brother moved out after being physically assaulted by my stepfather, and ultimately my mother was kicked out when her husband went on a bender.
My father and I had our problems. All of us did. But our problems were no different than those confronting any parent & child. Today, I am a happy, healthy, heterosexual male who never suffered any indoctrination, any abuse, or any other negative impact from having a gay father. The fears fostered by the Christian Right seem to be, in each and every way, unfounded.
For those who are interested, my mother since got clean & we are all very happy she's around for us. Like my dad once was, she's an anchor we can turn to.
Returning to Dr. Dobson, with regard to history he seemingly ignores that even according to his Bible, non-traditional families have been commonplace. Setting aside biblical inconsistencies, did not God allow men to divorce their wives, thereby sanctioning the single-parent household? Did not God permit polygamous relationships? Did not Abraham, sanctioned by God, set aside Hagar and her child Ishmael? In other words, there never has been the 'traditional' family to which Dobson so lovingly clings, even in his most sacred text.
It seems that even someone who holds a PhD is not immune from drawing blatantly erroneous conclusions by cherry-picking data, mischaracterizing existing science as supporting a certain position when clearly it does not, and ignoring history. Then again, this seems to be the modus operandi of politically-motivated Evangelicals, who blithely and apparently without irony portray their cause as righteous even as they behave dishonestly.
As an ex-Christian, I find none of this surprising.
What do you think?
Christian people dispute whether we are truly ex-Christians. Since this particular question comes up so often, I am creating this Blog entry on it, so ex-Christians can simply refer these Christian people here, rather than continually arguing over and over about the same question.
At one time we were all members in different churches, from various denominations (anyone who doubts this can check our respective church registries). I am not opposed to believing anyone who claims they were a former Christian, whether Catholic or Jehovah’s Witness, or Seventh Day Adventist. As an atheist I no longer make judgments about whether someone was a Christian. If these people say they were one, that's good enough for me. Judging whether somone is/was a Christian is something Christians do, not me. If you think other groups who claim to be Christians are not really Christians, then start a Blog called, “I know who the real Christians are! I know what they should believe! I know how they should act and vote!” Then provide us the link so that we can sit by and watch the ensuing debate….and laugh (sorry, but that’s exactly what I would do).
I am a former member of the centrist Christian Churches/Church of Christ (not the leftist Disciples of Christ, and not the right-wing non-instrumental Church of Christ). Some Christians think my former church group is a semi-heretical sect, and the reason is because of their view on baptism. But not everyone within Church of Christ circles adheres to the strict interpretation of Christian baptism being “necessary for salvation” (there is a swelling movement otherwise). I was personally let go of my teaching responsibilities at Great Lakes Christian College, Lansing, MI, for a couple of essays on Christian baptism, so maybe this helps Christians who visit here decide about me, if it matters at all.
And to a large degree it doesn’t matter whether Christians think we were former Christians, although we think such a view is very ignorant. They still have to deal with our arguments. So if you’re a Christian and you think we were never Christians in the first place, don’t harp about it. It’ll do you no good. It’ll just produce tension and frustration between us. You see, we know differently. It'd be like us claiming you really do not believe as a Christian. Who am I to make that judgment?
Christians who think this way about us are deluded, and that's only one of the delusions they have. Many of the other things they believe are delusions too. Maybe they ought to begin interpreting the Bible in light of the evidence instead of interpreting the evidence in light of the Bible? For starters, maybe Calvinistic theology is wrong? Many Christians reject such thinking. Start there.
I'll tell you what, for those of you who think there is no such thing as an ex-Christian, start a Blog and argue for Calvinism, or the once saved always saved doctrine. Invite Arminian Christians to debate this with you. Then when you all come to an agreement about this issue come back and tell us what it is. I just let Christians debate this issue. Don’t ask us how the Bible is to be interpreted here, and don’t quote a Bible verse to us that is interpreted differently by Arminian scholars. Instead go debate other Christians who disagree with you. We do not believe the Bible. So quoting a Bible verse will not show us otherwise. Again, since we are all former Christians we know otherwise. We have personal experience that the once save always saved doctrine is false, okay? You will not convince us otherwise, so don’t even try. Keep it to yourself if you believe otherwise, okay?
Your interpretation of the Bible on this issue needs to consider the evidence of every ex-Christian here as well as everyone mentioned in the almost encyclopedic link here. It’s very interesting to us that Christians will reject our personal testimonies to the contrary and at the same time believe the personal testimonies of ancient superstitious people in the Bible who claim to have experienced miracles, even though their testimonies are all contrary to our experiences in the modern world, where there are no miracles happening today on the same scale.
Christian, you can always investigate our claims. You can talk to people who know us (including past preachers and teachers, parents, siblings, friends, and people we ourselves converted to the Christian faith!); you can listen to our sermons; and you can read our Christian writings.
So, to answer your specific question, were we ever really Christians? Well it depends on the particular perspective you want us to respond to.
There are two perspectives to describe our lives as former Christians. On the one hand, from our former Christian perspective, we can describe ourselves as having truly been Christians, in that we experienced salvation, regeneration, the Holy Spirit, and answered prayer. We had accepted Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross for our sins, and believed he bodily arose from the dead and would return to earth in the parousia. We repented from every known sin, again and again. We confessed “Jesus is Lord.” We prayed the non-Biblical sinner’s prayer (where is that in the Bible?) by inviting Jesus to come to live inside us. We had a personal relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Like you do now, we tried to live a spiritual life in gratitude for God’s grace by reading the Bible and obeying what we read in it. So we evangelized, tithed, attended worship services, Bible studies, and became leaders in our respective churches.
Some of us were ministers, pastors,and preachers. Others were Sunday school teachers, superintendents, elders, deacons, and/or Bible study leaders. I taught people at a Bible College who are now in ministry. There are at least three men presently in the ministry because of my influence.
For you to reject our testimony you will probably have to reject the testimony of someone you know right now in your church whom you look up to as a Christian who may reject Christianity in the future. The problem is that you just may not personally know someone like that. But the chances are that you will. Then what will you think?
On the other hand, from our present skeptical perspective, the Christian faith is false and based upon ancient superstitions. We believe we were deluded about it. We were never true Christians in the sense that there is no truth to Christianity. If being a Christian means that we had a personal relationship with God-in-Jesus Christ, then we never had such a relationship, for such a supernatural being is based upon non-historical mythology. There is no divine forgiveness because there is no divine forgiver. There was no atonement because Jesus did not die for the world’s sins. There was no God-man in the flesh to believe in. Our petitionary prayers were nothing but wishful hoping. And we believe this is true about your claim to be a Christian too. You are not a Christian, either, because there is no Christ, no Messiah, no God-in-the-flesh, no Holy Spirit regeneration, no devil and no heaven to go to when you die.
Bill O'Reilly got all up in arms about this short YouTube video, I think, because he was mentioned by name in it. So, in response, he called in an expert on his program to accuse the girl's parents of being child abusers. I'm not sure if that's slander or not, but, regardless, I don't recall O'Reilly having a conniption about the emphatic and emotional testimonials given by the overly excited, evangelically zealous children in the Jesus Camp movie. Perhaps using children to promote a message designed by adults is only a questionable practice when anti-religious rhetoric is involved?
I think this is a controversial topic. The gloves are off. What do you think?
A Critique of Common Reasons Christians Study the Bible
If you are a Christian you have probably been told the virtues of daily Bible study. Among other things, you have probably been told that doing so will teach you how to live and/or grow in your faith (1 Peter 2:2), that you will be equipped to answer questions (1 Peter 3:15), you will learn to discern whether others speak spiritual truth (as exemplified in Acts 17:11), and perhaps most importantly that it pleases God (2 Tim. 2:15). In simpler terms, Bible study is supposed to teach you how to live, think, and judge the truth. Plus, it will make Him happy.
These results certainly seem worthwhile. As confusing as this world can often be, a bit of focus and guidance is appealing. If in the process we ingratiate ourselves to a God with the power to give eternal glory or damnation, so much the better.
Yet what if those reasons are flawed? Is it possible that a student can be completely earnest, yet become misinformed due to his purpose for study? To put it another way, would a student learn anything about the world by studying the Lord of the Rings, regardless of how intently it is studied or how much he wanted to learn how to behave based on that text? The point is that the student gains nothing if study is approached in the wrong way, for the wrong reasons. Historians don't learn about ancient Greek culture from Homer's Iliad or Odyssey by assuming the mythical beings interspersed through those pages are real. They are critical, careful, and compare the text to other writings to extrapolate aspects of ancient Greek society.
Assumptions and Problems in the Basic Christian Approach
There are certain assumptions implicit to the results listed in the first paragraphs. Among them is the assumption that the student is already familiar with Christian teaching, and is to look for ways in which to apply it to daily life. Another is the assumed validity of the Bible. Yet another is its assumed relevancy today. It could be easily argued that these assumptions also reduce the quality of the scholarship itself, as has already been suggested.
While still a Christian, I was often told to approach Bible study in a certain way. I was told the proper approach is one of prayerful consideration, that we can be assured of its divine origin, and that problematic passages or apparent contradictions have a resolution in light of progressive revelation or context. Contradictions were redefined as 'tension,' and I was told that the Holy Spirit would guide me to the truth. Other advice, some of it sound, was offered in the form of specific recommendations for determining whether a doctrine was intended for us today, methods of harmonization, and contextual evaluation. As reinforcement I was directed to several sources of apologetics materials.
Paradoxically, the Bible was also likened to a newspaper in the sense that it should be considered as meeting journalistic standards (a high ideal, seldom accomplished even today). Of course, this also implies accessibility and relevancy. Really though, the metaphor is misplaced because nearly all of us would agree that many newspaper reports have turned out to be false, or at least suffer from bias. It is perhaps a stroke of poetic irony that the same people who gave me this advice wouldn't trust a newspaper for anything except as a tool for housebreaking their pet. But I digress.
Chances are you've had similar experiences.
Part of what these recommendations do is to preclude the type of probing questions we might ask in other circumstances. This is understandable to an extent. The average American has not been educated in ancient near eastern cultures or languages, making the Bible difficult to understand even in English. However, the problem is that by failing to question those things we don't understand, we short-change ourselves and can easily fall into the trap of blind faith. Even while still a Christian, I felt this was a bad idea, particularly in light of the great commandment (see Matt. 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27). If the Bible is truly the work of God it should stand up to the most rigorous scrutiny. That is, we should not have to resort to special pleading to make a case for the Bible (e.g., God is hidden, God does what He wants, progressive revelation, God's ways are not men's ways, and so on); it should stand on its own.
And I believe it does - as a historical study of ancient Hebrew history and philosophy. The Bible is a fascinating set of writings, and worth studying for no other reason than it is rich with history, poetry, and ancient philosophy. Some of the principles expressed therein are even worth emulating. Others, sadly, are not. Though it is possible to learn the former principles elsewhere - from the writings of contemporary philosophers, for example - the Bible lends historical weight to these principles as functionally absolute. Unfortunately, if one approaches the Bible in the manner suggested previously by church leaders, it seems almost inevitable that the student will become a walking contradiction; asserting the love of God for mankind even as He condemns us for our failure to measure up to an impossible standard. Therefore I suggest that Bible study is worthwhile, but it should be done with the attitude of a student seeking to learn, not just emulate.
Brief Review of Christian Attitudes Toward the Historical Method
Many Christian authors decry the type of rigorous study suggested as misguided at best. Today these types of studies fall under the heading of textual criticism, scientific exegesis, or some variant thereof. Indeed, there is no shortage of attacks on these methods, which range from mild rebukes to charges of heresy. Though a few apologists do adopt some of the methods of textual critics, they ignore others or draw sweeping conclusions not warranted by the results of this kind of study. Essentially, apologists use these methods to shore up a priori beliefs concerning their faith, rather than as a vehicle for gaining knowledge. Yet even this is an improvement over the past.
Beginning well before the Reformation, studies of the Bible using the historical method usually met with harsh criticism. In fact, many otherwise innocuous books on philosophy, science, and so on were denounced - even banned - as heretical. As early as 496 C.E., books not considered complimentary were officially banned by the Catholic Church. Pope Gelasius I is traditionally credited with writing the Decretum Gelasianum de Libris Recipiendis et Non Recipiendis, which contains a list of books considered either acceptable or apocryphal. In the early 16th century, Pope Julius II convoked the Fifth Lateran Council, among whose decrees included a prohibition of the printing of books without the approval of the diocese, on pain of excommunication. At the Council of Trent in 1546, ten rules were developed concerning prohibited books. Notably, the rules allow for nearly any book provided the text contained nothing contrary to sound doctrine (which we can safely assume meant 'Catholic' doctrine only). Naturally, this includes any analysis of the Bible proceeding from a non-spiritual standpoint.
Just over ten years later, the Catholic Church issued the first of several editions of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum or, "List of Prohibited Books" (interesting recent articles on this document can be found here and here). Over the centuries, the works of many theologians, historians, biblical translators, and others were added to the list. Among those listed were the works of Richard Simon and Alfred Loisy, both of whom arguably inaugurated the study of the Bible in a modern (and critical) context.
Early Protestants adopted a similar attitude, and attacks both direct and indirect were leveled at the kind of reasoned study suggested. In addition to being considered the traditional father of the Reformation, Martin Luther is famous for his attacks on reason, saying "Faith must trample under foot all reason, sense, and understanding," and "Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has." With regard to books, he said "The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no limit to this fever for writing." Others also expounded on the evils of knowledge that doesn't originate with the Bible. John Calvin, for example, once stated that "Knowledge of the sciences is so much smoke apart from the heavenly science of Christ." These examples serve to illustrate that Christians have long been averse to anything that challenges their faith, including the historical method of Bible study.
As has already been mentioned, these attitudes yet prevail in some circles. Time, however, has wrought changes in those attitudes. Modern apologetics is often couched in language suggesting that the historical method supports the magical aspects of scripture. Writers such as Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel have successfully marketed their works to a broad audience eager to hear how science and history confirm the Bible. Meanwhile, the Vatican has also adopted a less stringent attitude. In the Pontifical Biblical Commission's 1993 document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, the use of the critical approach to Bible studies was affirmed, yet it also warned of spiritual dangers considered inherent to such an approach.
In spite of the change in attitude toward the critical method, its application still runs afoul of the credulity usually required of students, and has caused a great deal of misunderstanding of what constitutes evidence, the rules of logic, and honest questioning. For example, apologists sometimes point to the remarkable attestation of the Bible as evidence of its divine origin. However, simple logic and an understanding of evidence reveal that attestation does not validate that idea, for many reasons. It is not uncommon even today to find well-attested reports of current events having been reported inaccurately in the news, influenced by not only notoriously unreliable witness testimony, bias, difficulty in obtaining facts, and other challenges. Moreover, the Bible also reports several miraculous and magical events which simply cannot be trusted solely on the basis of thousand-year-old writings. Modern claims of UFO sightings, ghosts, fairies, and others fall into the same category. Regardless of how well-documented these phenomena may be, the documentation alone cannot bear witness of itself.
The standard Christian apologetic approach to Bible study is problematic in that it favors faith over reason. Any approach that a priori assumes a text originates with a supernatural author restricts the student to only a few possibilities, thereby leaving out a host of others. The same, perhaps, could be said of a completely naturalistic approach. What we should strive for is an understanding in today's context, for that's where we find its application. Moreover, it makes no sense whatsoever that a critical study of the Bible should be eschewed in favor of blind faith. Nor should this type of study be encumbered by sweeping and unfounded conclusions. If indeed the Bible is the product of divine authorship, it should be able to withstand such scrutiny with ease, without the need to resort to special pleading.
Some may be still be wondering what exactly is being proposed. Am I suggesting that we all go back to school and earn degrees in anthropology, archaeology, theology, linguistics, and so on? Not at all. With the resources now commonly available we can perform a reasoned survey of the Bible that can yield profitable results. In the end, only you can decide what to believe, and you have nothing to fear by asking questions. After all, Abraham questioned God concerning Sodom (Gen. 18:23-32) without suffering consequences. Thus, we should not fear to question the Bible and learn what it means for today's world.
In upcoming posts, we'll examine several aspects of Bible study. From basic materials, to the rules of logic and evidence, to suggested questions and resources for finding answers (both friendly and unfriendly), I'm going to do my level best to provide you with additional tools to add to your study arsenal. For illustrative purposes, I may sometimes propose alternate answers to some of the questions, but will refrain from drawing final conclusions.
If you live in the United States, the likelihood increases exponentially. Approximately 75% - 85% of its population identifies as Christian, making the United States home to one of the highest concentrations of Christians worldwide (followed closely by Brazil at about 66%). This means that about 10.5% - 12% of all Christians live in the U.S.. Therefore, regardless of what the Founders' intentions may have been, the U.S. is inarguably a Christian nation. At least from the perspective of demographics. As with the aforementioned world statistics, what percentage of American Christians are practicing their faith is subject to debate. Even among those that claim to actively practice their faith, there is much disagreement over what constitutes valid practice.
But this isn't about whose practice of faith is more valid or worthy. This is about Christian beliefs and the source that informs them; the Bible. More specifically, biblical literacy - or lack thereof.
If experience is any kind of teacher, many Christians profess to be Bible-believing yet seem to lack knowledge of the most basic character of their scriptures. There are, of course, many who claim to know the Bible. Indeed, Christians are often able to speak in generic terms with regard to certain teachings considered to be important. However, when pressed for details and/or critical analysis of a particular position, most founder and are given to simply repeating what they've already asserted. This is perhaps understandable in the context of today's culture, where soundbites and info-tainment style news reports have usurped previously held values regarding disciplined study. Yet it is disturbing because many of these same people cast votes for or against public policy decisions and/or government representatives based on the idea that they are acting in accord with biblical teaching. Since such policy decisions influence large numbers of people, something more than passing familiarity seems called for.
Recent research by the Barna Research Group seems to confirm the apparent lack of biblical knowledge among Christians. According to a 2003 survey, only 9% of self-described, born-again Christians (or 4% of U.S. adults) have what some consider to be a biblical worldview. Some stratification was apparent among religious classifications, with 7% of Protestants, 2% of mainline Protestants, and less than one-half of 1% of Catholics adhering to a strict definition of what constitutes a biblical worldview. Non-denominational, Pentacostal, and Baptist denominations produced the highest proportion of believers with this worldview (13%, 10%, and 8% respectively).
Not surprisingly, the news was considered alarming at best to many ministry groups. Each lamented the dichotomy that seems to exist among many Christians, who apparently deal with the world around them much as their secular counterparts while trying to live as Christians in their personal lives. Many recommended that churches do a better job of instruction. Others complained that the teaching of evolution is at least partly to blame. Some Christian groups considered the findings so disturbing they started projects to reverse it. For example, the public policy group Focus on the Family started what they call The Truth Project, which is a DVD-based series of 12 one-hour lessons directed at small groups.
As a secular humanist and skeptic, I don't usually find myself in agreement with Christians when it comes to the Bible. In fact, I find myself somewhat encouraged by the findings of the Barna Group survey. This is because the definition of what constitutes a biblical worldview was rather strict and one-sided. For the purposes of their research, the Barna Group used the following definition:
"...a biblical worldview was defined as believing that absolute moral truths exist; that such truth is defined by the Bible; and firm belief in six specific religious views. Those views were that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life; God is the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe and He stills rules it today; salvation is a gift from God and cannot be earned; Satan is real; a Christian has a responsibility to share their faith in Christ with other people; and the Bible is accurate in all of its teachings."
To my mind, the fact that a majority of American Christians reject some or all of this definition is positive news. If the trend of living more or less in harmony with others continues, that can only be a good thing. That some ministry groups want to reverse this and reinforce one of the many things that divide us as a people seems backward, elitist, and counter-productive.
On the other hand, I already intimated that I think Christians who claim to espouse the faith propounded in the Bible should know what it's all about. In that sense I agree with those ministry groups that would like to see an increase in biblical literacy. Many Christians cast their votes in a way consistent with the positions taken by prominent Evangelical leaders, thinking they're doing the right thing. Perhaps they believe these leaders know the Bible and take the right position for today's world based on its teachings. Also, I think that if a person asks the right questions and considers other options while studying their Bible, that it will lead them to reject its relevancy today. In other words, I think that many Christians remain ignorant of the kind of book they claim to base their faith on, and given their otherwise secular approach to life would reject the Bible as incompatible if they knew.
So it is in the spirit of ecumenical conciliation and amateur scholarship that I present this guide. I originally planned to post just one article, but there is far too many topics and questions to address in so small a space. Critiques of the ideas presented is desired and encouraged. My hope is that others will benefit from my experience, for it was good study habits and methods that led me to appreciate the Bible as something other than a divine source for moral and ethical wisdom.
Since others are getting into the act here, here, and here, let me throw my hat in the ring as well. Let me tell you how to be an apologist for the Christian Faith, as well as how to be one for skepticism. Like theirs, this too is sarcasm.
How to be a Christian Apologist:
1) Hide your head in the sand. Believe that people in the ancient world weighed the evidence for their beliefs with the same rigorous standards that we do today. But the Bible itself tells us otherwise.
2) Demonize the skeptic. Believe he or she is willfully ignorant of the obvious truths that you believe. Believe that the skeptic is just not interested in knowing the truth. Believe that the whole reason he is a skeptic is because he hates God and is in rebellion against him. Believe that he just wants to live an immoral life apart from God.
3) Claim that skeptical objections have been refuted long ago. Claim that Hume’s arguments have already been refuted, as William Lane Craig said to me at a conference. If they've been refuted, then why are they still very potent? In fact, Hume’s arguments against miracles cannot be refuted, strictly speaking, since he’s talking inductively. He argued that a wise person proportions his belief to the evidence. How can that be refuted?
4) Use rhetoric not substance. Do what William Lane Craig did in his debate with Bart Erhman. Claim that Erhman’s argument is “mathematically fallacious.”
5) Mischaracterize what skeptics are actually claiming. We do not claim to know that there is no God. We just think there isn’t enough evidence to believe in one. We do not claim miracles are not possible. We just don’t see enough evidence for them. We do not claim to have more knowledge than God purportedly does with regard to how he could’ve created a better world than this one. We just think that a Being with omniscience would know how to create a better world, especially since we have some knowledge about how a better world could’ve been created (like getting rid of all raced based conflict and slavery by creating all human beings as one race, and with no law of predation in the natural world).
6) Claim that the skeptic is ignorant of recent scholarship. While some skeptics are ignorant of recent scholarship, it isn’t more knowledge that is needed. As Dr. James D. Strauss would repeatedly tell his students in Seminary, “It’s not more knowledge we need. What we need is better interpretative schema.” Control beliefs, after all, control, and each side has them. The rise of modern science in the Occident, and the knowledge of religious diversity on the planet, and the presence of intense suffering around the globe aired nightly on the news have developed the skeptical control beliefs. Furthermore, Christian scholarship itself leads many Christians away from the faith. Me included.
7) Earn your living off what you claim to believe. So long as you are a preacher or a teacher in a seminary, you have a need to squash your doubts. I know of a few Christian professors and preachers who have openly expressed their doubts to me. But they refuse to entertain them for fear of losing their jobs and their livelihood.
8) Don’t ever take the skeptical arguments seriously. Just read them to refute them. You are sure of what you believe, so only read skeptical arguments with a view to refuting them. Never actually think about why that skeptic takes that view. Never try to step inside his mind. Never truly consider his viewpoint. Never think about whether or not his arguments could be true. After all, consider the source. According to #2 above, he doesn't really believe them sincerely either.
9) Deride the skeptical position and the skeptic himself. Talk about Stalin, Lenin and Marx. Talk about Soviet communism, Hitler, or other atrocious dictators as often as you can. Refer to gulags, concentration camps and even the Holocaust itself (although, about these things there is more to the story, especially inside Germany). Talk about Gay radical activists, mass murderers, and gang rapists who do not have “a moral compass.” At the same time explain away the Crusades, Slavery in the American South, Inquisitions and witch hunts. No one has a corner on moral truth…no one. But go ahead and continue to claim that Christians do, despite the evidence to the contrary, and despite the evidence that Christians do not get their morals from the Bible alone. Then simply deride the skeptic as a person as often as you can, in whatever way you can. Find some flaws in his character that will prove his arguments are wrong, then bring them up as often as you can. Doing so will refute all of his arguments.
10) State your arguments over and over until you believe them, and state them as if they are obvious to any intelligent educated person. Any falsehood can be believed if it is stated honestly and sincerely enough by many people over and over. Stay securely inside the Christian community from which you gain your beliefs. They will be reinforced every time you get together. However, if the Christian set of beliefs are truly obvious then anyone who encounters them should believe them. But it’s simply an illusion to think Christianity is a rationally superior faith.
How to be a Skeptical Apologist: [This too is sarcasm, by the way, although not entirely! Sorry, I just couldn’t resist. ;-). ].
1) Think evidentially.
2) Think scientifically.
3) Think philosophically.
4) Think psychologically.
5) Think archeologically.
6) Think anthropologically.
7) Think historiographically.
8) Think about religious diversity.
9) Think about the amount of intense suffering in the world.
10) Think about how often the superstitions of the past have been refuted by science.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)