Monday, 28 November 2011

The Incompetence of the Christian God

Looking back, I am astounded at the degree to which I suppressed the questions, doubts, and observations about my faith that now seem so obvious to me.  This god I worshiped is completely incompetent, inept and downright stupid!  I know how offensive that statement is and there was a time when I would have boiled with anger had I read or heard something similar.  But now that I have seen the truth, I can't unsee it.  Even if someone could convince me that there was a divine creator, it could not erase from my mind the problems that exist in the bible.  The conclusion is inescapable; if this god of the bible actually exists, he's a cruel and incompetent child, and no amount of appealing to "free will," can erase the evidence of his profound ineptness.

Here are a few examples.  *warning - sarcasm ahead*

The garden of Eden.  The supposedly omniscient god puts a tree with appetizing fruit in the middle of the garden, knowing full well in advance exactly what will happen.  You don't even have to be omniscient to realize how dumb of an idea this is!.  Then he tells the innocent and childlike Adam and Eve not to eat it, yet allows a talking snake to tempt them.  Then he punishes them and all their progeny forever because they gave into temptation.  This is the equivalent of leaving a dog alone in a room with a big steak just sitting there, and commanding him not to eat it.  Then torturing him, and every puppy descended from him, for giving into his completely natural desire, and eating the steak.  Not only is that incompetent in the extreme, is also cruel beyond measure.

Complex moral issues versus stupid rules: I think we can all agree that abortion is a controversial topic.  Within Christianity itself, there are some denominations that consider it to be OK.  And others, like the Catholic church, who consider it so evil that even helping someone get an abortion, or belonging to a pro-choice organization, results in automatic excommunication.  An omniscient god should have foreseen how difficult and divisive this topic would be and instructed or inspired one or more of the biblical authors to say something clear about his instructions.  Nope.  Not a word.  The only way to arrive at a biblical position on the matter is to cherry pick and interpret various passages.  I have heard very sound biblical arguments both for and against abortion (I was quite surprised to find the argument FOR was more convincing!).  But, despite his silence on such an important issue, this all powerful all-knowing god did make sure to inspire his bible authors to make long lists of geneologies,  because it's important that we know who begat who back in bronze age Palestine.  He also gave long lists of what we could and could not eat, wear or grow.  He went to pains to provide detailed instructions for important everyday situations like how to punish a woman who accidentally grabs a man's nuts while trying to break up a fight (cut off her hand), and reminds us to bury our poop when we're camping so he doesn't step in it when he stalks the camp at night.   These things were deemed important enough for god to include in his holy book,  his revelation of eternal truth, along with various other long lists of rules, often repeated in more than one section of the bible just in case we forget what was said a few chapters earlier,  on how to live properly in a bronze age desert tribe, and how to properly conduct rituals, most of which he then rendered obsolete just a few hundred years later, by sending his son and the apostle Paul to give us a new version of rules to live by.  Seriously, how can anyone believe god intelligently designed the universe when he couldn't even intelligently design his own holy book?

Lies mixed with great truth?:  
As an answer to critics it's often said that the bible is not a science manual or a history, it's a spiritual book.  This is, of course, a modern idea.  It wasn't until science proved that illness wasn't caused by evil spirits, and that the world wasn't created in 6 literal days and isn't only six thousand years old, that some started reducing the role of the bible from the be all and end all of human knowledge to a mere "spiritual book".  Of course, some do still cling to literal interpretations.  But regardless, why, if this book was inspired by god and meant to "reveal" to us things about god, does it contain inaccuracies and outright falsehoods about the natural world, which was supposedly created by god?  Why would god tell us illness is caused by demons when he should have known damn well about viruses and bacteria.  He went on and on about what was ritually clean and unclean, but didn't bother to tell us about washing your hands before performing surgery or assisting in childbirth.  A couple of simple lines in scripture could have saved innumerable lives and prevented suffering on a massive scale.  Why would he tell us crap about a firmament, and the world being supported by pillars, when he could have just said the world revolves around the sun and there are other planets, etc.  Why does this book, inspired by an all-powerful god, contain not one bit of knowledge about the world that humans didn't already know?  Why, when it does say something about the world, it just reflects the misunderstandings of the human writers?  Because it a human book, written by humans.  Since what it says about the natural world is demonstrably false, why on earth should we think it got it right on the spiritual stuff?  Why would an all-knowing god reveal a great spiritual truth mixed in with lies about his creation?

Unintelligent design:
How can any man who has ever been hit in the balls claim that we are intelligently designed by god?  Take that logic a step further; god is male, and we are made in his image...  Does he have a foreskin?  Did he circumcise himself?  Does he have a celestial scrotum?  How can an all-powerful being have a weak spot like external testicles that are ultra-sensitive?  Jokes aside, any god who would create our frail human bodies as the crowning achievement of his creation is a terrible designer.  Other than thinking and making good use of our opposable thumbs, whatever we can do, there is another animal that can do it better.  Our knees are prone to wearing out.  Without glasses, nearly half the population would be nearly blind.  All of our senses are dull.  We see poorly and in a very narrow spectrum.  We hear poorly and in a very narrow range. We smell poorly.  Our immune systems are weak, and we are very prone to microbial diseases of all sorts.  We are so weak and frail, the only reason any of us survive is because we live in groups, taking care of each other.  A lone human in the wild is generally food for other animals.   

Poor documentation:
If you were god walking around the earth as a man, in direct communication with your father, preaching a message that would need to be passed on through many generations and different cultures, wouldn't you or dad or the holy spirit - being omniscient and all - think it might be a good idea to either have the son of god maybe learn to write, or pair yourself up with someone who does?  I mean seriously, how hard would that be?  Instead we have to rely on four differing accounts of his life, written decades after the events they describe.  The four gospels contradict each other on some very important things.  And those are just the four versions that the church accepted.  There were many others written that the church tossed out, not because they checked to see how historically accurate they were, but because they didn't suit the doctrines that the church wanted to keep.  As if the gospels being accounts based on stories that had been told and re-told for decades wasn't bad enough, some portions such as the story of Jesus saying "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" (one of the best stories in there in my opinion), weren't added until centuries later.  So, if the god of the bible exists, he is an extremely poor communicator and record keeper. A reporter for a junior high school newspaper could have done a better job!

No new info? None at all?
Bible believers will of course argue that the bible is full of useful knowledge and revelations.  But is it really?  Why then, is all the information that can be verified - i.e. history, science, understanding of the natural world, etc. never anything ahead of it's time?  Never anything useful.  Just imagine what the world would have been like if god had said to Moses, there are little animals that cause disease and so you need to wash your hands before helping a mother in child birth, performing surgeries, etc.  Nope.  We had to wait until about 19th century to figure out the concept of hygiene.  Maybe god could have proved himself by revealing some amazing mathematical principle that wouldn't be fully understood until centuries later.  Nope.  Maybe tell us how to invent the printing press, so we could spread his word easier, you know.  Nope.  How about predicting something exactly - as in date, time, exact details, instead of obscure prophecy that can be easily interpreted to fit.  No - can't do that either?  Man, just how omniscient are you? 

Military might:
The old testament is full of stories of god helping his followers kill neighboring tribes, commit genocide, dash infants' skulls on rocks,  take young virgins as spoils of war (gee, what for?), and other wonderfully all-loving and merciful stuff.  But since this particular blog post is about god's incompetence, and not his vileness, I won't go into detail about that stuff.  Everyone knows the story of David's near miraculous victory over Goliath.  An almost as popular story is the supposed destruction of the walls of Jericho by blowing trumpets.  But for some reason, they don't make any bible colouring books about Judges 1:19 "The LORD was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had chariots fitted with iron."  So almighty god helped his army conquer weaker tribes, but he wasn't quite almighty enough to overcome those iron chariots.  Isn't that interesting.    

Legal loophole?
For god so loved the world that instead of just forgiving them for being stained by their first ancestors' having eaten a stupid piece of fruit that god tempted them with, he instead created a loophole.  You see, despite being all powerful, god can't just forgive.  He requires blood sacrifice.  And since eating fruit is the worst possible thing one can do, you need the absolute best blood possible to satisfy his bloodthirsty craving.  So, what better idea than to manifest himself as his son and sacrifice himself to himself?  But even that wasn't good enough, he then decided it was a good idea to require belief in this oh so well  documented sacrifice, and obviously not made up resurrection story, in order to obtain forgiveness.  What better way to make sure everyone knew about it than to have it happen in a tiny illiterate corner of the world and have it take nearly two thousand years to spread to the point where it could actually be known about worldwide.  Not to mention that had not Constantine's devout Christian mother Helena influenced him to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire, it's quite likely this odd little new religion might have died out or been reduced to a small community instead of coming to dominate the West.

I'm sure I could go on and provide more examples, but these few are more than enough to convince me that the god of Christianity is not worthy of my respect, much less my worship, devotion, or 10% of my income.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Apostate's Creed

One of my favorite parts of the mass when I was a devout Catholic was reciting the Apsotles' Creed.  I won't reprint it here, you can click on the link to read it on Wikipedia.  I'm not sure why it appealed to me so much.  In part I'm sure it was because it was so concrete.  It was a concise summary of the foundation upon which I had built my life.  I loved it so much I once spent hours drawing a sort of calligraphy version of it that I had intended  putting on a T-shirt.  I often included the creed in my prayers.  To me, it just sounded cool. 

 I decided to adopt a position of being a proud Apsotate after reading this line in the Wikipedia article about apostasy: "Apostasy is generally not a self-definition: very few former believers call themselves apostates because of the pejorative implications of the term."
I came up with the idea of writing an Apostate's Creed in part because it sounded cool.  Apostle and Apostate sound similar but are almost polar opposites.   
The idea also appealed to me, because it is a statement of conviction.  I am not just a non-practicing Catholic.  I am not just a sheep that has wandered away from the flock.  I was exactly that for a long time, but I have since moved on.  I have since taken a very hard look at my former beliefs and I have not just abandoned them.  I reject them and I renounce my membership in the Catholic Church.  I renounce the sacraments I received from the church:  my baptism, my confirmation, my communion, the religious part of my marriage, and the confessions I made (especially since most of the "sin" I was confessing, despite being categorized as mortal sin and deserving of hell by the church, was nothing more than a completely normal part of being a teenage boy. that harmed no one). 

I'm sure many would be tempted at this point to conclude that I am an angry atheist, that I'm lashing out emotionally.  I won't deny that I do harbour some resentment over the psychological damage my own beliefs did to me in those years, but my motivation to speak out is not some quest for revenge.  I speak out because is not just false, it's a bad idea.  Its doctrines have influenced history in incredibly negative ways and they continue to cast their shadow over the world.  I know it's out of context and deliciously ironic that I would quote the bible in an inspirational way, but I like Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 13:11 here: "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me." Religion is a part of humanity's childhood.  It's Santa Claus fairy tales for adults.  But humanity needs to grow up, put this childish doctrine behind us, and reason like the thinking animals we are.  So... without rambling, here it is:

The Apostate’s Creed

I don’t believe in gods,
Or anything almighty.
There is no heaven, no god created earth.
Jesus Christ is not my lord, he was just a Jewish preacher.
He was conceived by a human father
And born of a non-virgin Mary,
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, died and was buried;
He did not descend into hell, because it does not exist;
He did not rise from the dead, and neither will the millions killed in his name;
He did not ascended into heaven, and his followers won't either.
He is not seated at any anyone’s right hand, because he is dead and there is no heavenly father.
He will not come again to judge the living or the dead.
I do not believe in any spirit,
The holiness of the Catholic or any other Church.
There is no communion of saints.
Forgiveness is human.
Resurrection is a myth.
And life is not everlasting, so make the most of what you’ve got.


Sunday, 13 November 2011

What about the resurrection of Jesus?

Paul says if there is no resurrection, then the Christian faith is worthless. 1 Corinthians 15:14-17 So, having always been keenly aware of this important lynchpin of theology, when I picked up a copy of the book Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, I went straight to the chapters about the resurrection.

The arguments in a nutshell are:
1. The bible says so.
2. ...

Actually, that's really it. The whole thing is about looking closely at the bible and what it says and why we should accept it as a good historical document. I'm not going to bother going into detail on each little event that's recorded in Paul's epistles or the gospels, that's already been done by people far more qualified than I am. So, instead I'm just going to give some thoughts on the matter based on comparison with my own experience (trust me, you'll see there's a point). If you want the scholarly historical analysis of texts and sources and all that, I'll include some links.

The first thing that struck me was the lack of material. This is supposed to be the single most important event in the history of humanity according to Christian theology, and yet there is not a single written contemporary - and by contemporary I don't mean decades later - mention of it that we're aware from anyone, anywhere. No one at the time of this most important thing to EVER happen bothered to write anything down about it; not the Christians, not the Jews who you would think might have had some interest in trying to discredit a story that was so important that it threatened their entire faith, not the Romans, not anyone. We're supposed to believe god is perfect and omnipotent and omniscient, yet he was apparently so nearsighted he didn't think to maybe say to one of his followers, hey, you know, it might be worth writing something down for the future about me rising from the dead and all? Oh, but the early Christians thought Jesus was coming back within their life-time so they didn't need to write it down. So what? Jesus should have known and could have given instructions. Apostate XP 1:7 'And then Jesus said unto them "Peter, write this down. Thomas, you too." and they did.' There, done, history changed, we now have an accurate record of everything by two separate independent first-hand witnesses to everything. Nope, guess it was better to be mysterious and have thoughts higher than ours that don't fit into a puny human conceptions of what a perfect deity should look like. The earliest records are in Paul's letters and come from oral tradition. We're told that since this is from a creed - a memorized statement that is transmitted word for word - that it must be reliable. Ummm, seriously? So rumours have been spreading for a decade or two about a Jesus rising from the dead (a feat which wasn't all that outstandingly amazing considering the semi-literate and ultra-superstitious cultural context), it gets worked into creed, repeated over and over, and eventually Paul writes it down, and that's good evidence? So, if I write a story about some dude based on a poem I heard about from a friend, who heard it from his cousin, who heard it from her boyfriend about events that happened two decades ago, would you trust it to be true and accurate even about something important and noteworthy, yet completely believable with no element of supernatural? No? What if it was a ghost story? No? What if it was in an email forward from your mom? Maybe. What if you pray about it and you get a warm fuzzy feeling? Yes! Oh, ok then.

Apparently, it's especially good evidence since it mentions real people, alive at the time it was written, as witnesses and anyone could have checked them out. So therefore, someone must have checked them out and since no-one bothered to contradict it that we know of, it must mean the witnesses cited agreed with what was written. Really? There are chain letters circulating on the internet that are supposed to be quotes from or stories about real people and real events and even include references. Bill Gates said... The Dalai Lama said... etc. etc. Anyone could look them up in a fraction of a second with a Google search. But guess what?  These things still circulate for years, are re-posted in blogs and various social media, re-told orally, added to, embellished, etc and BELIEVED, even though literally anyone could fact check in seconds. Very few actually do. And despite there being those who try and correct the record, they barely make a dent in the circulation of these stories because they're good stories that people want to believe. Most of the people passing these things along are reasonably intelligent, certainly more educated than first century Palestinians, and are at least passingly media savvy enough to know that not everything you read is true. But still, they pass it on uncritically. Add onto that the bias of belief and trust. Sure, people COULD have done some fact checking to find out if the preachers in the early Christian movement really did get their story from so-and-so who lives in that town, but why would they? Human nature says they didn't.  Yet on this most important matter we are meant to conclude that since nobody in this semi-literate culture wrote down that he talked to Bob and Bob said Paul is full of crap, that it means Bob must have corroborated the story, right?

Lee Strobel spends a lot of his efforts to try and debunk theories (actually they are speculations or at best hypotheses) put forth over the years by scholars and other authors about possible alternative explanations. In most cases he's right, these alternative theories don't make sense. For example, Jesus probably did actually die, he couldn't have just passed out (the swoon theory) etc. This may sound very convincing to one already convinced; oh, so if these speculations by other people aren't right, then by default it must mean that the resurrection story is true, right? This is right in the same vein as saying you can't disprove god, therefore Christianity is right. That argument is probably equally convincing to those who already believe.  But anyone with a skeptical mind can see that is illogical. One thing being wrong, doesn't make the alternative automatically true.  The only evidence either for or against the resurrection is an interpretation of the bible itself.   Short of having technology that allows us to look into the past and view events exactly as they happened, we can never know for certain the entire truth of what went on at this turning point in history.

But what about the witness of the apostles who were martyred for their faith? The argument here - and repeated others - is that they would not have died for something they knew was a lie. First, where is the documentation of any of them being given an ultimatum to denounce the resurrection as a lie or be martyred? You can take a look at a critical examination of the existing evidence (most of it legends written long after the supposed events) here.  For most, we don't have any idea how they really died.  Even if we had proof that every one of the apostles died professing the resurrection, it would only prove that they had strong faith.  We see examples of people willing to die for strong belief all the time.   Faith doesn't necessarily mean that their memory or interpretation of events was accurate. Do we know for certain that they believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and not a spiritual resurrection? Maybe they saw a man who pretended to be the resurrected Jesus. You don't have to look very far for examples of people who believe they saw things that aren't possible and will swear to their deaths that what they experienced was real. Think alien abductions, ghost encounters, religious experiences of all stripes like appearances of Mary, of saints, and on and on. Put yourself in the shoes on the apostles. Their whole life has just been taken away from them, their world shattered. They are distressed, they are vulnerable, they are praying for a sign. They are also superstitious believers who accept the miraculous as a part of their lives, and interpret what they experience with a bias towards seeing the hand of god in every event. They are already primed, ready to believe, ready to interpret what they experience in light of their beliefs and expectations. They are poor witnesses, as biased as any witness can possibly be.   Even if they are completely sincere, their  testimony is highly suspect.

According to the bible, there were hundreds of people who saw the resurrected Jesus.  This from that creed I mentioned earlier: 1 Corinthians 15: 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (NIV)

We know Paul didn't see Jesus in the flesh, but in a vision (Acts 9:3-8) yet in this passage he places his vision on the same footing as the other encounters. Interestingly, this is the only place anywhere that these 500 witnesses are mentioned. Perhaps none were literate enough to write down their encounter with the living lord. Perhaps some did know how to write, but for some reason chose not to. Or maybe they did write, but their testimonies were not considered important enough to ensure they were preserved.  Maybe there were some oral traditions regarding this encounter, but no one preserved them. Was it not important enough? Why, if so many people witnessed the resurrected Christ is there so little written about it? Seriously, the son of god rises from the dead and walks around, preaching and teaching to hundreds, and there's barely a handful of accounts written about it? Not even a single story about what happened at this encounter with 500 brothers and sisters. What did they see? What did he say? What did he do? Sure, it's not like there was an army of bloggers or facebookers in Jesus' day to report their encounters for everyone to see, but you would think that something so momentous would have had numerous written accounts circulating. But all we have about this mass appearance is Paul's one-liner.  God did not see fit to inspire others to write about this important event.  How mysterious of him.

So, all in all, considering the extraordinary claims, I would like extraordinary evidence before I accept this story and revert back to my formerly religious mode of life. But, unfortunately, the best the creator of the universe could manage to provide was an event less well documented than what happens in the locker room after any major league sports game.

Interested in further reading?

Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story (6th ed., 2006)
Richard Carrier

The Rest of the Story (1999)Jeffery J. Lowder

Monday, 7 November 2011

The China Teapot, the Dragon in the garage, The Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Invisible Pink Unicorn

The stories in the heading are all attempts by atheists to illustrate to theists how ridiculous their beliefs are.  If you're unfamiliar with them, there are links to videos about them below.  They all make basically the same case - believing in the existence of god is just as ridiculous and just as impossible to prove or disprove as a teapot flying in space, an invisible dragon in my garage, a unicorn that is simultaneously invisible and pink, or that a flying spaghetti monster created us and the world and touches us with his noodly appendage.  While all quite brilliant analogies, they usually fail to even dent the faith of true believers.  Why?  Precisely because they are ridiculous.  The believer simply has a disconnect, a blind spot.  Their own belief does not seem ridiculous at all, it makes sense to them, it is supported by millennia of history, tradition, and - perhaps most importantly - communal belief.  They may be able to see a superficial resemblance between these examples and their own faith, but most will just smile in that smug way that says cute, nice try.  I know, I have been one of those faithful that smiled like that.

There is a real blind spot that the faithful have that simply does not allow them to view their own beliefs through the same lens as  they view the beliefs of others.  I remember studying the mythologies of the Greeks, Romans, Norse, etc. and thinking how could anyone have ever believed these obviously made up stories?  I know he was speaking of sin, but Jesus' advice here is just brilliant:  Matthew 7:3-5  “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye." (NIV)  Believers place their faith in a protective bubble, isolated from criticism.

But what if I were to say that there was a modern day prophet who received the word of god and he built upon the foundations of Christianity and other world religions, synthesizing them with the best ideas that rang true to the sensibilities of believers, but not outright rejecting the prior faiths?  What if he - or she -  preached things like the importance of individual lives, that all races are equal, that the sexes are equal, that no one may be made a slave, that war must be avoided, and other ideals that we hold dear in our modern society?  What if his visions resembled those of the old testament prophets, his language beautiful and poetic?  What if miracles were performed that defied easy explanation, and had eyewitnesses?  What if his followers were rational people, upstanding members of society, professionals, people we admire and respect?  What if this new religion was persecuted and had martyrs willing to die for their faith, not in some obviously cultish way like mass suicide, but murdered by intolerant people who saw the ideas as dangerous?  This new religion would seem real, on par with others, and over time as it gained adherents and mainstream credibility it would join the ranks of other respected world religions.  I could do it.  Anyone with sufficient charisma and a dedicated core of followers could create such a religion.  But would it mean that it was true?  That it was real?  What if, at some appointed time in the future decades from it's founding, the followers opened a time capsule set up by the now deceased founder, and in it was a video of the founder clearly admitting the whole thing was made up, and showed how the miracles were illusions, mere magic tricks?    Now that, a real life example of an admittedly invented religion, would shake the faith of many.  It may even shake the faith of those who believed in older religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam.  They might think if this seemingly legitimate religion with miracles that were even more well documented than those of my own religion is a complete sham, how can I know that my own religion isn't also a sham perpetrated by well meaning people who really truly believed it?  

You know what?  Even then, many, and possibly most, of this phony religions' adherents would say that the founder actually was guided by god unknowingly, even if they didn't believe it themselves.  It would be held up as an example of how god can work wonders in the heart of an unbeliever.  It would be proclaimed as a miracle that god used an unbeliever to reveal his true religion.  This fact that disproved the religion would be held up instead as proof of its veracity.  And people would believe it.  By the millions.   
People want to believe more than they want real truth.  They want hope.  They want to know that there is a higher purpose, that there is an eternal truth, that it all means something.  I think perhaps they fear the empty and depressing anomie of nihilism they imagine would be a natural consequence of not believing   I have heard this question again and again - if there is no god, then what's the point?  What's the point of living?  what's the point of having morals?  What is the point of anything without god?  My answer is that the point of life is what we make of it.  It's freeing to know that I was not born with a particular destiny not of my own choosing, but that I can choose to live the life I want.  My life has meaning and worth because I have made it that way.  I want to live because, quite simply, I enjoy living.  My family, my relationships, my community ties, my accomplishments, hopes and dreams are no less worthwhile for the lack of god.  As many Christians feel that the best way to evangelize is to live a life of love and charity and be "christ-like", so too must we atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and those with a naturalist worldview show others through how we live that we are moral, we are loving, we are charitable, ad we live lives worth living.  A believer will be more willing to consider unbelief if they can see that on the other side of that fence is not a desolate wasteland, but a world just as - if not more - green and vibrant as their faith world.