Category Archives: Religion

Thoughts on Religion. Probably, Christianity and the Bible in particular.

Pastor Tim of New Hope

A captivating post from my agnostic brother Joshua’s MySpace page (private, must friend).

pastor tim of new hope

I backed my truck up neatly into a space on the lawn of Shrewsbury Christian Academy, where orientation was about to begin for my sons as they start their first year in school. And I would see my estranged ex wife in awkward moments.

I had changed out of my work clothes in some gravel lot on the side of the road. I had eaten and drank at a local dive. I was dressed for the city, out of style in this working class community where taste is only a sign of the queer.

Smoking my pipe as I parked the car, setting it down in the cup holder beside the stick shift before I turned the key loose of its hole, the classical music silenced, I opened the door and walked away in strange reddish uncomfortable zip up feminine cowboy boots.


I returned to my truck to find a business card tucked into the window. “New Hope” a local church I guess. Someone wrote on the back: “call me and we’ll have a cigar- my treat”. I guess he saw me smoking my pipe. A sign of a fellow tobacco afficianado I guess.

But I won’t call.

I’d love to smoke a free cigar. Even to drive forty five minutes north into podunk to smoke it…. but I don’t want to talk. Don’t want dig up my past to make for common ground with a religious man I would have loved to know in a time in my past. I don’t want to lead him to believe that I need jesus. I don’t want to be nice and polite and speak in his language, and know what he thinks I should want. What he thinks I really need but can’t see. I’ve already seen your precious Jesus. I’ve been baptized. Twice. I’ve been born again. I’ve known the joy of seeing grace in a new light. I’ve read your book. I’ve prayed your sincere prayer, and I left a jaded man worse for the wear.

carry on my wayward son,
there’s no peace when you are done
only deeper regrets than you knew before
deeper emptiness from that withered shallow whore.

The Good Side of Religion

The Barefoot Bum, an insightful atheist blogger whose site appears in my blogroll, has written a post in which he argues that “no one does any good that follows from religious belief.” I’ve heard this argument before, both from him and others, and decided to post a refutation. Within it, I make several points which I’ve been wanting to write to this blog, but hadn’t gotten around to.

The following is what I posted (very slightly modified) to Barefoot Bum’s site, and is probably visible there in the comments section, though it’s a moderated site and I just posted it, so it’s not there at the time of this writing (and may never be, at his discretion, though I doubt that’ll be the case, since he knows me and generally only refuses to post comments from assholes—and he’s not one of those who defines “asshole” as “everyone who disagrees with me”)

In any case, I recommend you read his post first, to provide context for my response.

To firmly establish the point of contention:

No one does any good that follows from religious belief. Zero.

This statement is immediately obvious to me as false, because I have direct experiences to the contrary.

I guess I’ll submit my proofs-by-contradiction before dissecting your arguments.

While a Christian, I can think of specific instances when I performed acts of charity or helpfulness that I was very disinclined to do, but did anyway in the end because I realized “that’s what God would want me to do” (yeah, WWJD), and would not have done them apart from that. Things like cleaning up after a large group meeting, or setting up chairs, etc, before. Helping a bed-ridden acquaintance with their yard work. All of these are instances of good done that followed directly from religious belief.

I have also been on the receiving end of good done specifically for reasons that stem from religious belief. Including twice having been donated cars from church members, at two different times when we were without transportation or means to obtain it.

Some of these things I continue to do on occasion, but for different reasons. So obviously one can’t make the argument (though many do anyway) that only theists will go out of their way to do good. There are other things, though, that I’m less apt to do these days, partly because I now have a more balanced view of my own needs versus other peoples’ needs—and I doubt anyone that I’m not really close to will be giving me a car any time soon. You really can’t get around that there are actual, observable, acts of goodness that do in fact follow from religious belief, so any further arguments to the contrary are pretty futile. What I see and know trumps anything anyone can argue.

Alright, on to your arguments, then.

It’s obvious that the religious assume that we can talk about doing good independently of belief. When they argue the point, they discuss examples like feeding the poor, providing medical care, helping old ladies across the street, etc.

I’m having trouble seeing what the second sentence has to do with the first. The items you list there may be done for various possible reasons, religious belief being one among them. In particular, the second sentence does not demonstrate that “the religious assume that we can talk about doing good independently of belief.” A religious person can talk about all of those things in the specific context of doing them for religious belief, and quite happily assert (and I’ve known some few that do, quite wrongly of course!) that they would be impossible apart from religious belief. (Naturally, I’m not refuting your assertion that we can talk about doing good independently of religious belief; I am, however, questioning whether you’ve successfully argued the point.)

Your argument wrt “wanting to do it anyway” is a good one, but does not quite lead to your conclusion. In particular, it is non sequitur that

if you already want to do something, and you can tell that people in general want to do it independently of religious belief, then there’s no additional justification necessary to actually do it.

Wanting to do something and doing it are different things, and just because I may want to do something (or, more specifically, desire that it be done, not necessarily by me) does not mean that I am not in other ways disinclined to do it.

Obviously, for all the cases of helping with yard work, or setting up meetings, etc, I wanted to do them, in the sense that they were good things to do. However, I also wanted not to do them, in that I did not particularly like doing them enough to be willing to actually volunteer for it. What tipped the balance in many of these cases actually was the WWJD thinking.

I’ll still help with odd jobs, setting up and tearing down at meetings and events (though, of course, without being a churchgoer, I attend fewer meetings at which to have such opportunities). Sometimes my desire to do a good thing so I continue to be the sort of person I want to be is enough to outweigh my disinclination to do them. And, while there may be some things I decide not to do because “WWJD” wasn’t there to tip the balance, there are other things that I do that I might not have done when a Christian, and wishing to be a particular sort of person, along with heightened desires for squelching ignorance, superstition and irrationality, tip the balance on those occasions. So I don’t think any conclusions may be drawn about whether religious beliefs or their lack or more or less likely to produce a larger total of “good deeds.” This does not change the fact that some good deeds do in fact stem from religious belief.

Anyone who argues that they don’t want to kill me because of their religious belief is basically telling me that they’re a dangerous asshole who would otherwise want to kill me.

Of course. However, it has nothing particular to do with your argument. First of all, you’re speaking here, not of doing good because of religious belief, but of not doing bad because of religious belief. Doing good and not doing bad are perhaps similar, but certainly distinct concepts.

Second of all, regardless of whether you want to categorize “not doing bad” as a form of “doing good”, you have just asserted that its cause is, in fact, religious belief. Ridiculing someone for making decisions based on religious belief is obviously a poor way to demonstrate that the decision did not follow from religious belief. If this point had been relevent to your argument (in other words, if “not doing bad” were a form of “doing good”), you would have just succeeded in firmly disproving the conclusion you are attempting to make.

Note too, though this is irrelevant to the argument, that most Christians I’ve met would actually agree with your conclusion that they are “a dangerous asshole who would otherwise want to kill me.” Wretched sinners saved by grace, remember? These folk happily admit that they are evil by nature: it is in fact an intrinsic part of their belief system. :p

It’s concerning to me that many atheists I’ve conversed with (and for those who do not know me, it’s perhaps worth pointing out that I am, in fact, firmly an atheist myself) wish to paint particular (or all) religions (and/or their practitioners) in black-and-white. If no good ever follows from religious belief, while of course evil does and has demonstrably followed therefrom, it follows that religious belief (at least those which have demonstrably resulted in evil, which doesn’t necessarily include all religious beliefs) is pure evil. Nothing is pure evil; not one thing. It may certainly be argued that religious belief, and in particular, certain religious beliefs, produce more evil (much more evil, even) than good; and even that the beliefs themselves are therefore evil. But nothing is evil in all of its aspects. Nothing in life is ever that black-and-white.Note, that, when arguing whether a particular belief or belief system is true, all of the following arguments are irrelevant to that point:

  • It tends to produce more good than harm.
  • It tends to produce more harm than good.
  • It tends to make the believer happier (thanks Bertrand Russell!)
  • It tends to make the believer less happy.
  • It is immoral not to believe,
  • Dire consequences will result to you (boy, have I heard that one) and your family (think of your children!) if you do not believe.
  • All or some or the majority of the accepted leadership in that community of believers/unbelievers are immoral and/or hypocrites.
  • All (or some, or the majority) of believers/unbelievers are immoral and/or hypocrites.

It’s my belief that there are even several good things that arrive from certain practices that are encouraged in religious settings, that are significantly more difficult to achieve outside of those settings. The practice of prayer, for example, though based upon and directed at a lie, still has important psychological benefits, and while some people are able to find meditations that are not quite so steeped in fantasy that provide similar benefits, I’ve failed as yet to find a reasonable replacement with which I can get comfortable, and I’m not very good at playing pretend. I have encountered one atheist on YouTube who admits to still praying regularly to the God he knows without a doubt does not exist (for mainly emotional reasons, I gather).

A practice of “lovingkindness” has psychological, behavioral, emotional and some tangible benefits as well, and generally results in “good deeds” towards others. This practice is obviously attainable outside of religion, but is still (AFAICT) somewhat more rare there (not that it isn’t fairly rare within the religious community). Mainly, because despite the many harmful (especially fear- and guilt-ridden) structures present in most religious systems, there is often also a structure in place to promote both the practice and attitude of lovingkindness towards other human beings. The Dalai Lama suggests a form of meditation that consists of sending concentrated thoughts of good will and lovingkindness at an object or person. I have mixed feelings about this, and can’t quite manage to practice that myself; and the practice obviously has no real, tangible or direct benefits to the target of such thoughts—it is a psychological exercise only. And yet, the exercise itself can form good “mental habits”, which can in turn bring indirect benefit to the target.

A practice of humility is also beneficial, also somewhat less frequent outside of religious structure (where, however, it is often caricatured and grossly exaggerated to the point of some harm to its practitioner). I would like to see more structures encouraging attitudes of (appropriate) humility and lovingkindness among freethinkers’ children, to encourage the right sorts of psychological habits and practices, that can be very valuable when they are older.

The Desire for Truth

Quote from DagoodS’ blog entry today; it echos my own case. Emphasis on the last sentence is mine.

In retrospect, I now realize my God-belief was NOT at the core of my being. It was NOT the very center. What was more important to me was the answer to the question: What actually is? If it was the Christian God; good. If it was some other God: not-so-good, but doable. If it was no God; bad, but if that is what actually is then there is no use crying about it. As key as God-belief was, there was something even deeper—something that could trump that God-belief to the point of no longer believing in a God—the desire for what is actual reality.

Atheism Versus Theism

My brother-in-law Tim had some interesting points to make about neurotheology, which he submitted in comments to my posted link to DagoodS’s article, Prove It!. I responded in-thread to most of what he had to say, but some comments he made presented an opportunity to discuss a topic that I believe is worth a separate post, and so here it is.

Tim says:

The fact that you can measure something like that [one’s spirituality, via externally observable properties in the brain] implies to me that atheists and theists should adopt a truce similar to the one Stephen Jay Gould offered between science and religion.

I’m very much in favor of this. I have no quarrel with theism, I just don’t personally hold to it. The atheist, if he is honest, cannot lay claim to a certainty of explanation in support of abiogenesis (the spontaneous transition of lifeless matter into living). There are some interesting hypotheses, to be sure, but I’m confident that we will never be able to determine how life really began.

Modern scientific inquiry may well bring us to understand how all the matter in the universe came to be: it appears that we may have done so, through the study of quantum mechanics, the veracity of which findings I cannot begin to pretend to be capable of ascertaining. If we have indeed done so, however, we are still left with the unenviable task of determining how the underlying fabric that spawned our matter was itself activated; and whether it was “started” somehow or forms some sort of perpetual motion machine.

At some point then, both atheist and theist encounter something which must be eternal in nature, existing forever before, and potentially forever after, the existence of everything of which we are currently aware. Theists presume that this something is intelligent on its own, and call it God. But we have no explanation for what started God, and, I believe, God is no more of an answer than leaving that answer blank, as it has not explained the mystery of something being eternal to any greater satisfaction than we had before we placed God in the answer space. The difference between atheism and theism (without addenda) seems very slight, then, to me, and doesn’t bother me much. I think it can be useful and interesting to debate, but I have no compulsion to convince theists that they are wrong.

But theism is not religion. The degree to which I may have a quarrel with religion is proportional to the degree to which that particular flavor of religion encourages the suspension of rational arguments based on what may be observed, in deference to faith; and the suspension of our innate moral sensitivities, in deference to what someone put down in a book. Since my abandonment of Evangelical Christianity, I have become increasingly disturbed by Bible literalism, and the actions, philosophies, sensibilities, and thinking processes of Bible literalists.

Basing one’s morality and decision-making upon the Bible is great when the book is saying, “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and proclaiming that the essence of good is to “do justly, love mercy, and walk in humility.” There are many principles that I love and admire from the Bible, and still continue to seek to apply to my life.

But using the Bible as the basis for morality is less great when it approves the wholesale slaughter of infants for the mere fact of who their parents were [1 Sam 15:2-3, & various], or of women on the basis of a test for virginity that is not even remotely reliable (that is, the absence of the flow of blood, subsequent to her first act of copulation) [Deut 22:13-21], places women under the subjugation of men, insults and discredits women as being significantly more susceptible to deception than men and unfit for giving instruction to men [1 Tim 2:12-15], and condemns consenting adults for what they may choose to do in the privacy of their own home.

Does the cannon of atheism have an equivalent to Matthew 5:16? Should you convince the Jehovah’s Witness at your door to become the next Bertrand Russel, or just take his flyer and bid him cuique suum?

Is there such thing as a canon of atheism? 🙂

If there were, Richard Dawkins and Samuel Harris would probably feature prominently. I have not read Harris, and I have mixed feelings regarding Dawkins; in any case, neither of them seem to be the “be and let be” types. 🙂

Let me say this: I would not derive any satisfaction, as many atheists of my acquaintance appear to do in “debating” with religious people, from telling the Witness how very wrong he is, and how my views are vastly superior to his. The Watchtower is a destructive cult, however, and I would be glad for any individual to escape its influence, so I am motivated thereby to attempt to debate beliefs with the open-minded (not a particularly common creature in the Watchtower, given that they apparently forbid the reading or examination of other points of view).

I’m not saying you should let others run roughshod over your beliefs in the public sphere; I’m saying it may be more personally fulfilling to be a pluralist than a polemicist.

I doubt it: the idea of pluralism—which to me means the notion that all beliefs are approximately equal in acceptability—leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Which is why I’d have some trouble being a Unitarian Universalist, though I sometimes toy with the idea of attending Unitarian services, and suspect that there may well be some such churches in which I could even be comfortable. I find the Society of Friends to be a more palatable prospect, as it is a fairly mild form of theism, and in some versions of Quakerism I could feel free to substitute a simple humanistic innate inner voice for the concept of The Guiding Light.

I don’t hate religion, and I feel no need to convince people that all religion is bad (though I do feel that most religions have some negative aspecs), or that Christianity in particular is bad (but see my previous parenthetical remark). I do despise ignorance, and am very motivated to write against that. As my chief encounters with ignorance by far are in connection to my experience with particular brands of my particular former religion, that is undoubtedly where my thoughts, and my writing, is likely to center.

Intolerance of the Intolerant = Hypocrisy?

So, I recently subscribed to the Answers in Genesis magazine, a publication dedicated to spreading the creationist and Bible-literalist viewpoints, and refuting new evidence that comes to light that supports the evolutionary standpoint. I’ve done this because, being a former Bible literalist and creationist myself, I was shocked to discover the degree to which information was carefully filtered, and evolutionist arguments were twisted or removed from context, in order to bring me to the desired conclusion: that (macro-)evolution is a hoax, and creationism is the only standpoint that makes any sense.

So now that I’ve come to see just how contrary to the truth creationism actually is, I’m trying to keep myself abreast of current thought and misinformation that is spread from some of the major sources of creationist propoganda, so I can research them properly, and compare them with the actual information they purport to be refuting (strawman arguments seem to be the most common way to argue against evolution—that is, refuting positions that the opponent isn’t actually arguing—so the easiest way to discredit many of the arguments is to actually look up the original sources, verify quotes, and put them in their context).

Anyway, I just received a copy of Answers Update, a “monthly newsletter equipping Christians to uphold the authority of the Bible from the very first verse,” and I started reading the very first article, Goose-stepping to Zion?, which defends the Answers in Genesis organization against direct attacks from a new book, American Fascists: the Christian right and the war on America, by Chris Hedges, who, according to the article, draws comparisons between Bible literalists and Hitler-era Nazis. But, I couldn’t believe my eyes as I came across this passage:

Who are the people manifesting fascist tendencies 60 years after Nazi Germany? It’s those who, in the name of tolerance, will refuse to tolerate those who are perceived as intolerant (i.e., those who hold to absolute standards, such as Bible-believing Christians).

In fact, Hedges quotes (sympathetically) the late philosopher Karl Popper, who once wrote that we can “therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to be tolerant of the intolerant” (p. 1).

The inconsistency is so glaring to us. Hedges’ self-proclaimed open-mindedness and tolerance absolutely falls apart when he attempts to rationalize his (clearly obvious) hypocrisy.…

He also does not appear to understand that while he howls at Christians’ attempts to impose their views on society, Hedges wants to see that it’s his views that should be imposed.

Now, it may be that Hedges’ viewpoint is on the extreme-side: some of the quote that I’ve elided with an ellipsis includes the claim that Hedges has “publicly chastised liberal humanists who believe in inclusiveness and who express any willingness to dialogue with evangelicals,” which, if true, would be a rather extreme viewpoint.

However, I’m simply amazed that someone could find “intolerance of intolerance” to be hypocritical; there’s no such thing as “absolute” tolerance. If one were tolerant of intolerance, that one would in a very real way be passively approving the intolerance, and therefore not a true tolerance at all.

Moreover, it’s abundantly clear that even the most tolerant of people cannot tolerate every viewpoint: it would be insanity to call it hypocrisy for one to simultaneously claim tolerance and yet at the same time refuse to tolerate child molestation.

How unfortunate that they choose to attack Karl Popper’s conclusion, without bothering to even mention his very reasonable supporting arguments, in apparent violation of the popular evangelical exhortation, that in Biblical studies, “whenever we see the word ‘therefore,’ we should check to see what it is there for.”

You can read the full article online at AnswersInGenesis.Com, which was co-authored by the founder and CEO of Answers In Genesis.

I sorta Liked the fellow, actually

Another excellent piece by DagoodS at ExChristian.Net, responding to a debate between Christian author and speaker Rick Warren, and outspoken atheist Sam Harris. DagoodS takes issue with Warren’s appeal to the tired argument that Christians are perpetually claiming about atheists:

You’re more spiritual than you think. You just don’t want a boss. You don’t want a God who tells you what to do.

(Warren also states, “I’ve never met an atheist who wasn’t angry.” Guess I’ll have to introduce myself sometime.)

DagoodS refutes the claim quite roundly, discussing how pleasant and comforting it is to know that God has your back, when you’re out of a job looking for work and trying to make ends meet, or is ensuring you don’t slam full-speed into a tree as you dodge deftly between them during a skiing outing, or is keeping your child safe as you begin to realize that you’ve lost him or her while together at the mall. He clearly misses these assurances, as do I.

“Want” has nothing whatsoever to do with my belief there is no god. It has to do with evidence. In fact, quite the contrary, there are many things I find pleasing in a god belief. It does not make a god exist, however.

Please do check out the rest of this very well-thought (as usual) article.

How To Have Conversations With Your No-Longer-Christian Friend

The following is an excerpt from a delightfully insightful article posted by DagoodS at his blog, “Thoughts from a Sandwich.” The article is entitled “So Your Friend Is Deconverting…”, and gives advice to Christians how to interact with and converse with friends who are leaving Christianity.

How much water can you fit in a one-gallon bucket? No matter how much you pour and pour, the most you can fit is one gallon. After that, all the pouring in the world makes no difference—no more water is going to fit.

After interacting with theists on-line, your friend the deconvert has certain buckets that are full. You saying it again will make no difference. The following buckets are full:

“You really know there is a God.”
“You hate answering to authority, so you hate God.”
“You want to be God.”
“The wisdom of the world is foolishness.”
“You were never saved in the first place.”

Frankly, deconverts have heard those phrases time and time (and time) again. He knows you think it. He knows that it these are truths that are so grounded in your being they make “2 + 2 = 4” possibly more inaccurate. But he doesn’t need to hear it again.

Interestingly, you can still get the point across, but in the form of a question, rather than an accusation. Instead of saying, “You really know there is a God” you could say, “When you were a Christian, you thought Romans 1 was divinely inspired. As you know, it indicates that all humans know there is a God. How did you deal with that?”

You may not like the answer. But it comes across so much nicer in question form, rather than indictment form.

He knows you cannot fathom the concept that another person can believe, to the very core of their being, there is no God. He knows that you must question his sincerity in saying that. But rather than blurt it out, keep it to yourself. If he calls himself a former Christian, there is not a single ounce of harm to agree.

Yes, you have a duty to speak truth. Yes, you will choke on the words that state he was a Christian. But do you really want to argue “truth” with someone that you are convinced is lying to themselves? What is the gain? Let it go.

Stow the assertions; ask questions instead.

My Trigger

Valerie Tarico wrote the following comment to my article, Bursting the Bubble; my response ended up being extremely lengthy, so I decided to post it as a separate article instead.

Valerie Tarico writes:

I once spent a week reading testimonials at Almost always, the re-calc that allowed someone to shed Christian beliefs was triggered by some kind of emotional discomfort. The discomfort could be anything from being molested by a pastor or rejected by a snobby youth group to a grinding discomfort with the hypocrisy in the church or family. Sometimes it was a very personal life crisis or sometimes a believer couldn’t ignore the suffering in the world around them.

And yet you seem to have made the transition without a clear emotional trigger. So I’m curious what opened up the possibility of reconsidering your beliefs.

Hi Valerie, thank you very much for taking the time to comment on this post.

You are right that the shedding of Christian faith appears to be very commonly tied to some sort of emotional trigger. After I first announced my change in beliefs, it took my Dad (who, as I’ve already said in the original article, is a completely devoted pastor, and also a rare example of the very best sort of Christian) a while to recover sufficiently to even be able to write a response to me about it (as this comment from my Mom suggests). When he was able to write to me, he wrote that, essentially, he did not believe that it was any of the intellectual difficulties that I had described that were the root cause of my decision to leave the faith, but that it was issues of the heart, that had caused me to desire intellectual justifications for decisions I already wished to make, or had secretly–secret perhaps even to myself–already made.

Of course, I cannot prove him wrong; for who can judge my heart and mind, unless they know it thoroughly? One can’t even know his or her own heart and mind with that much certainty, that they can claim to have proved such a statement to be false, even to themselves–I know from my own experience that the heart often can be very persuasive in directing the mind to whatever conclusions are desired. I have only my own memory to serve as testimony–and that only to myself, and perhaps those who actually witnessed my anguish and despair, such as my wife Sara. The memory of arduously wrestling to reconcile the problems I could not resolve in the Bible, with my own experiences as a Christian, my love for many aspects of the faith, and my indescribably strong desire to continue in what was safe, what just “felt” true, and what had been the most defining aspect of my life for 28 years–this is mine alone, and I cannot haul it out to display for others to see and bear witness to. Continue reading