Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Unicorn Delusion

Recently I re-watched a debate, from 2010, between Bart Ehrman & Dinesh D'Souza (found here).  In it, D'Souza makes an argument that I've heard him make numerous times before.  So as not to mischaracterize it in any way, I'll quote from Dinesh directly...

"If you really don't know, than what do you do?  Generally, you ignore it.  I don't know if there's life on other planets.  But I don't go debating guys who think there is.  I don't know if there are unicorns, I don't believe there are.  But I haven't written any books called 'The Unicorn Delusion', 'The End of Unicorns', 'Unicorns Are Not Great'...there is something about this new atheism, the aggression about it, and its obsession with God.  One of my atheist debating partners, Christopher Hitchens, I think he probably thinks a lot more about God than a lot of lukewarm Christians.  So there's an interesting thread that links belief and aggressive unbelief."  (Bolding mine)

It should be noted that Dinesh typically gets a great reaction from the crowd when he presents this.  In other words, the argument has been rhetorically effective for him.  It almost seems to me as if he keeps it in his back pocket, for extraction at the appropriate time (often during the q&a period) when he most wants/needs the audience to feel that he's just had a brilliant insight into the very nature of the God debates.  (But one that only he was smart enough to pick up on.)

So, what's my problem here?

Well notice, first off, that Dinesh began by making a case against agnostics ("if you really don't know...") but then flipped to making one about "aggressive" atheists.  That's fine by me, in so far as it goes, but I do think it's worth noting that he uses this bit regardless of who his opponent is or what their specific beliefs actually are (and Ehrman is an agnostic, not an atheist).

Secondly, it seems to me that the thrust of D'Souza's point lies in the bolded statement above.  I don't want to put words in his mouth but, to phrase it another way, he's essentially saying "why do unbelievers care about God so much?"  "Why don't they just ignore him!"  Bubbling just beneath these comments is the subtle (or maybe not so subtle) implication of a spiritual war, raging inside the heart of every infidel, an anger against God that results in their near obsession with destroying all things God related.  Of course Dinesh never says as much, since he knows such a premise would likely be challenged, but this is how I would have taken his statements while I was still a Christian myself (and I suspect he intends for the believers in the audience to make the same connection).

But there is a fatal flaw in Dinesh's line of reasoning.

Can you see it?

Here's the thing...some unbelievers are fixated on God, but not unicorns, because belief in the former is pervasive and harmful (and belief in the latter is fringe, at best).  As hard as it may be for Dinesh to believe, this is why they care so much about God.  Many of the so called "aggressive" atheists feel that religion is holding us back, as a society, if not causing irreparable harm (or even the potential destruction of our very species, should the wrong people happen to get their hands on nuclear weapons).

There is a thread of truth to what Dinesh is saying though.  People do often simply ignore things that they don't believe in.  Most of us don't spend a lot of time trying to debunk the beliefs of those who think they were abducted by aliens, for example (although thankfully there are some, such as Michael Shermer, who do this for us).  But suppose there were millions of people the world over, who insisted that we should be teaching our kids about the "truth" of alien abductions in elementary school...would Dinesh be o.k. with that?  Or, if it were unicorns instead, would he stand idly by and allow belief in unicorns to invade the science class?  I sincerely hope not.  What if teachers were being pushed to "teach the controversy", about whether or not there really are unicorns?  Or if scientists were being accused of having an institutional bias against further research into unicorns?

So, what Dinesh fails to see (or admit), is that actually people would write books called "The Unicorn Delusion" etc.. if in fact there were a unicorn delusion!!

But there isn't.

There is however a very large "God delusion", and therein lies the key to understanding this distinction that seems to puzzle D'Souza so.

Monday, 26 December 2011

The Five Stages Of Grief

I want to be careful not to sound overly cheerful, about my de-conversion, since in reality it was one of the toughest things I've ever been through.  It's true that I feel peaceful about it now, as I discussed last time, but while it was still going on my emotional life was anything but peaceful.

In the fall of 2009 I had one of those rare "eureka" moments, while reading an article online. Frankly, I can't even remember what the article was about but, for whatever reason, it made reference to the famed "5 stages of grief".  It hit me, in that moment, that I myself was in the latter stages of a grieving experience.  Oddly enough, I hadn't even contemplated this possibility prior to that very moment.  I guess I had always just assumed that a grieving process was only meant for those dealing with a physical death.  Not so.

Here's how the five stages of grief manifested themselves in my own de-conversion...


In numerous posts I've mentioned the fact that, initially, I set out on this investigation with the express purpose of deepening my faith.  What I discovered shocked me to my core, but even still I went through a very long period of denial about the implications of these various discoveries.  I still remember re-assuring my wife, as I shared with her about what I was reading, "don't worry honey, I may wind up with a more liberal version of the faith but I'll still be a Christian!".  This was a conversation I grew to regret, mostly because my wife actually believed me.  As such, it was an even bigger shock to her system when I ultimately revealed that I could no longer consider myself a Christian.  (She cried the first night I told her.)

I never intentionally deceived my wife, I was simply in denial.


For me, the anger phase centered around this general feeling that I had been lied to all of my life. What do you mean there are unreconcilable contradictions in the Bible?  Actual historical errors? In the Bible?!?  You've got to be kidding me!  Why didn't I know about this?  The evidence for evolution is conclusive?  The "creationist" arguments have long ago been soundly de-bunked? Why hadn't I previously been aware?  And you mean to say my "relationship with Jesus" has been imaginary the whole time??  Mixed in with all of this was an anger toward myself.  I was beginning to realize that all of this information had been "out there", all along, but I had simply never taken the time to seek it out.  Why had I been so content, to swallow the Christian worldview without really investigating it properly?

I also found myself having new problems at home, and at work, because things were getting to me in a way that I would never normally allow them to.  It took me a while to make the connection between what was happening in those other areas (work/home) and what was happening inside of me.


I've written before about the bargaining phase, at this link, so I won't repeat myself here.  Suffice it to say, I wanted desperately to have some sort of supernatural experience that would confirm the truth of Christianity.

I'm still waiting.


I have a confession to make...I've always been a believer in the power of positive thinking.  Not in some corny new age-ish "name it and claim it" sort of way, but in the simple sense of believing that what we say to ourselves matters.  I even read a Tony Robbins book once and, at the time, it actually helped me out of a funk that I was in.  I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, but it's true.

Having said that, no amount of positive thinking was enough to hold off intermittent bouts of depression during my de-conversion.  Coming to grips with the fact that Christianity is actually false was almost more than I could bear.  Everyone in my family was/is Christian, as I've already talked about, I work for a Christian company (a situation I have yet been unable to remedy), and my very identity itself has always been inexorably tied up in the Christian faith.

Who am I?  What am I supposed to do now?  How can I ever tell my family & friends about this? These sorts of questions, when experienced simultaneously, are almost enough to lead anyone to the edges of despair.  It was while I was in the midst of this on again/off again depression phase (and still struggling with anger too) that I stumbled into the aforementioned article on the five stages of grief.  I realized then that many of the problems were actually of my own making; a direct result of my stubborn refusal to move on to the final stage of the process...


It was almost exactly two years ago that I finally accepted the fact that I am an atheist.  I can still remember repeating it to myself over and over...not as a mantra, but out of shock and to get used to the feeling of those words in my mouth.  "I am an atheist."  "I am an atheist."  Holy crap, I am an atheist!!"  It felt weird.  In many ways, it still does.  Atheists aren't like I used to think they were.  Sure, I guess it's true that some of them are "angry", but not at all for the reasons I had always assumed (ie. that they're "rebelling against God", or some such nonsense).

Has anyone else, atheist or otherwise, gone through a similar grieving process?  How long did it take you to fully accept your change of heart?  What was the trigger that moved you on to the acceptance phase?

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

What It Feels Like

For me, the single most surprising thing, about becoming an atheist, is how it feels.  Simply put, I have never felt more at peace with myself.  Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, by this, but I really am.  I think this peaceful feeling is pretty common among new unbelievers, actually.  I hear a lot of (other) former Christians say things like "life makes more sense now", and I think this is basically what they mean.

Surely, part of it has to do with the simple reduction in cognitive dissonance.  After the questions begin, and one begins to learn about the serious problems with Christianity's core truth claims (such as the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth, or Jesus as God), it creates a very uncomfortable feeling in the pit of the stomach.  This is mostly because your intellect goes to war with your emotions, and it does so with or without your permission. What I had wanted (and expected), when I first started out on this investigation, was to deepen my experience of God. What I got, instead, were more and more questions, followed by doubts and, ultimately, complete disbelief.  During that middle period though, when you know you're doubting but are still unwilling to say that you don't believe, there is a tremendous amount of inner turmoil.  (I'll be writing more about this turmoil in my next post.)

Having said that, I think there is an additional factor at play here.  My feeling now is that Christians are, essentially, thinking from within the confines of a pre-determined bubble. "Deluded" seems to be the current word of choice, for atheists (when speaking about the religious), perhaps because "brainwashed" unfairly suggests nefarious intent.  But the funny thing about a brainwashed person is that they do not know they are brainwashed.  It's only after coming out of the "delusion", or the "brainwashing", that it becomes clear to them, in retrospect.  So, do I think I was "brainwashed", as a Christian?  Well, yeah, kind of.  But the people who "brainwashed" me really believed it too!  Probably a better, and more accurate, word is indoctrinated.  I certainly don't have everything figured out today either (who does?) but all I know is I'm thinking much more clearly than I used to.

A few weeks ago I ran across the following photo, at the Unreasonable Faith blog, and it generated some interesting discussion.  The caption read "This is what becoming an atheist feels like...".

There were a few who took objection to the photo; claiming, for example, that it was "elitist" and "arrogant".  One commenter said that it implied atheists think of themselves as "part of an illuminated minority that knows better".  I'm actually very sensitive to this critique and, more generally, to the view that many atheists give off an elitist vibe.  I don't always agree (that this person or that person is arrogant or elitist) but, regardless, I can certainly understand where the criticism is coming from.  On the other hand, I think the photo is partly trying to capture an emotion, and in that sense it represents perfectly how I felt upon leaving Christianity.  If I were still a Christian I would probably say that the photo "ministered to me"; this is Christian-speak for "it touched my emotions, and I'm pretty sure the Holy Spirit had something to do with it".

Speaking personally, I would much rather someone just tell me what they truly think.  Straight up. No punches pulled.  If you believe I'm "brainwashed", "dead wrong", "deluded", "deceived by the devil", or whatever, I'm o.k. with hearing it that way.  I won't take offense.  And I will actually (gasp!) consider what you have said with a (double gasp!) open mind.  I'll also expect you to stick around long enough for a conversation about it.  "The problem" comes in, I think, when we express our legitimate disagreements in a disrespectful tone.  But, of course, you would expect a guy who calls himself "Respectful Atheist" to say that, wouldn't you?

What do you think?  When I say above (somewhat reluctantly) that I feel like I was "deluded/brainwashed/indoctrinated", as a Christian, are believers justified in saying that I'm "elitist" or "arrogant" for framing it in these terms?  No one has actually ever accused me of this, I'm just thinking out loud here.  

Sometimes I wonder if Christians only think this way because it plays perfectly into, what I believe are, their pre-conceived notions that atheists must be angry and rebellious (because, deep down, atheists actually know that God exists; and they're super pissed off about it)!

For those reading this blog who have themselves held to two diametrically opposed worldviews, at different stages of life (ie. Christian turned atheist, or atheist turned Christian etc.), did one feel better than the other?  If so, why do you think this was the case?

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Roots Of Faith

It was difficult to let go of Christianity.  Looming before me was the prospect of becoming literally the only unbeliever in my entire extended family.  Our family has, what Christians sometimes call, a "spiritual legacy" and (until this point) it had remained completely in tact among my siblings, first cousins, aunts, uncles etc.  How might breaking that chain impact future generations?  Would my children become atheists, Christians, or something else?  And what about my children's children, and so on and so forth?  There was simply no way to be predict the ripple effect.

I knew very well what my reasons were for leaving the faith but, this got me to thinking, why had I become a Christian in the first place?  On one level, the answer is pretty straightforward.  My mother led me to Christ, at the age of five, by the side of my bed.  It's a day that I still remember vividly.  But, why had my mother become a Christian?  And, my father?  

My dad's "testimony" begins with an invitation to church (it was somewhere around age 8, I believe).  The sermon that day was on hell and, long story short, the little boy, the one who was to one day become my dad, went forward and got "saved".  Afterward, in part because of his influence & persuasion (plus that of a local pastor), both of my father's parents "accepted the lord" as well (and, ultimately, his siblings).

My mother's parents were also "unsaved" when they got married.  As I understand it, they found themselves in a pentecostal church, got "born again", and the rest, as they say, is history.  (I get the impression it was one of those highly emotional evangelistic revival type meetings.)

So, why do I bother to bring this up?  

Well, what really struck me, as I thought more about this spiritual legacy, was how incredibly flimsy its foundations were (and are).  

I mean, my father was just a kid who (quite literally) got the hell scared out of him.  What child wouldn't go forward, to get saved, after a sermon on the horrors that await them if they don't "accept Jesus as their lord and personal savior"?  Had he really understand the implications of what he was agreeing to, especially at such a young age?  Did he consider the fact that this information (presented to him by a trusted adult) might, in actual fact, be false?

Of course not.  Like I said, he was just a kid.

In my mother's case, her father had been doing a bit too much smoking & drinking, in the early days of his marriage.  The conversion experience helped to put him on the straight and narrow, so to speak, and he subsequently took the necessary steps to clean himself up.  From that point forward, they were a "Christian family" and my mom, plus all of her siblings, accepted the lord. Might my mom's dad have become an alcoholic, were it not for what happened at the pentecostal church that day?  It's hard to say.

Here's the thing...despite the positive side effects, which I don't question, do either of these stories represent good reasons to embrace Christianity?  Remember, it was these very experiences which led to the so called spiritual legacy in my family.

As I pondered more on this dynamic, I began to also analyze the conversion experiences of other Christians that I know pretty well.  Were their initial reasons, for "accepting Christ", any better than my mom's or my dad's?  I won't take the time to tell you each of their stories, since I have already illustrated the essential point, but my conclusion, after going through this analysis, was as follows...people, generally speaking, convert to Christianity due primarily to one of the following three factors (or some combination thereof)...

  • a Christian home
  • a personal crisis (emotional, financial, physical...)
  • the influence of a friend and/or family member

I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule (aren't there always?) but it's crucial to keep in mind that exceptions don't disprove the rule (that's why we call them exceptions).  Having said that, I've actually found it surprisingly difficult to think of viable exceptions to the above three scenarios (even when I'm trying to do so).  Reflect on your own conversion experience for a moment...does one or more of these areas apply, as the primary factor leading to your conversion?  How about the conversions of your family & friends?  I'm willing to bet that nearly all of them will be a perfect fit with only, at best, the occasional exception.

Initially, I wondered if someone like William Lane Craig might serve to be an exception.  After all, Craig is arguably Christianity's #1 living defense lawyer.  Surely he, if anyone, must have accepted Christianity for purely rational reasons.  Not so.  Actually, the way Craig tells it, he was on his way to becoming a "very alienated young man", filled with "hate" and "inner anger", the kind that "eats away at your insides", "making every day miserable" etc.  While in high school he ran into a girl, named Sandy, who had a happiness about her that he didn't have at that time in his life. After finding out she was a born again Christian, Craig read the New Testament and became captivated by the "ring of truth" to Jesus' teachings (yes, he actually used the phrase "ring of truth").  It sure sounds to me like the main influences, in his conversion, were personal crisis (my second point) and the influence of friends (my third point).  I would encourage you to watch Craig's testimony, in his own words, right here.

Here again, you might be tempted to ask, what's my point?

Well, take note of what's missing here.  If my basic theory is correct, than consideration of the evidence is not one of the primary factors which leads to (the lion's share of) Christian conversions.  In other words, the majority of Christians embrace Christianity, initially, for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with its truth claims.

Later on, some Christians do seek out rational reasons, to stay with Christianity, but in doing so most still don't stop to truly consider the potential implications of the fact that they initially embraced it for really bad reasons. And, of course, the longer one holds to a belief (whatever it is) the more difficult it becomes to change.  Our own brains works against us, in this respect, falling victim to various sorts of bad thinking; ie. the sunk cost fallacy (the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it).

Now, a Christian might be tempted to say, as a defensive measure, that the same three factors apply to de-conversions; ie. those who, like me, move away from Christianity to some manner of disbelief.  They might be tempted to say this, but I genuinely think they would be mistaken. Actually, as best as I can tell, the majority of de-conversions are solo (in fact, often deeply private) experiences that are spurred on, at root, by intellectual doubts.  Usually these people are moving away from how they were raised (in contrast to the first point), typically their lives are going reasonably well (in contrast to the second point), and they are more often than not turning against everything that their family & friends still believe (in contrast to the third point).  Are there exceptions?  Of course there are.  But the more I read de-conversion stories, the more I realize that they differ markedly from conversion stories; and usually in ways that are quite similar to the ones I've just mentioned.

Of course, it would be fallacious to immediately disregard something, simply because of the manner in which it was first embraced (that doesn't necessarily mean it's false).  Even still, I now see that there are "good" reasons, and there are "bad" reasons, to both accept and reject beliefs. Not all reasons were created equal, and recognizing this is one of the keys in learning how to think well.

How about you?  Did you embrace your current belief system (be it Christianity, atheism, or something else) for "bad" reasons?  If so, maybe it's time to re-examine it.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Burn In Hell!

Ok, I admit it.  I gave this post a provocative title, in part because I wanted to grab your attention.

Having said that, I'm also trying to make a point (keep reading).

I've written before, about hell, right here.  But at that stage my blog was just beginning, and I wanted to tell a significant chunk of my de-conversion story before getting into this issue too heavily.  Suffice it to say, the time feels right to share some of my more recent thoughts on hell.

As I began to strongly consider the fact that Christianity might be false, deliberations on hell became both deeply urgent and deeply personal (for obvious reasons).  Surprisingly though, I felt very little fear throughout.  Logically speaking, I should have been utterly petrified since, if Christians are right, I am now on my way to an eternity of horrific and unimaginable suffering (separated from both God and nearly all of my family/friends).  Why was I (am I?) not more afraid??  As I began to ponder this, it hit me...I'm not afraid because I find the case "for" hell to be alarmingly unconvincing.  I think, at a certain point in the de-conversion process, my mind changed, on hell, without my even realizing it consciously.  But, what was it that led me to conclude hell is imaginary?  Well, there was no one argument.  Actually, I now find the Christian hell to be implausible for all sorts of different (but complimentary) reasons.

As such, consider the following to be my "top 5"...

5) The Christian hell is implausible because only part of the Bible teaches it

Yes, you read that correctly.  It is indeed true that only part of the book that God supposedly wrote (from start to finish?) even teaches that there is an afterlife, at all, much less a heaven or hell.

Listen to John Loftus, "The concept of life after death mostly developed in the Apocryphal literature during the intertestamental time between the Old and New Testaments (from passages like Job 19:26, Isa. 26:19, and Dan 12:1-3)... wasn't accepted until the second century BCE, in the days of the Maccabean crisis when the return to life of the dead came about.  The whole concept of hell developed during the Hellenistic period and then was adopted by the New Testament writers."  (from "Why I Became an Atheist")

It seems to me this is problematic for the Christian worldview.  Don't Christians believe that God inspired all of the Bible?  Is it likely that he would allow entire books, to become part of his holy canon, that hold inaccurate views?  But the bare fact remains...some of the Old Testament, in particular, simply assumes that there is no afterlife.  I'll have more to say on this topic, especially as it pertains to how Christians latched on to the concepts of heaven & hell, in point number two.

4) The Christian hell is implausible because the punishment doesn't fit the crime

Frankly, this is so plainly obvious, I almost feel silly in extrapolating the point.  I need to do so, unfortunately, since many Christians will not accept it at face value.  Also, I've found the usual responses, to this argument, to be incredibly weak.  The most common one seems to be that sinners deserve "eternal" punishment, because they have sinned against an "eternal" God.  But, where is the proof of this contention?  It's a pithy (and as such memorable) way of responding to the objection, sure, but is it anything more than a play on words?  Hardly.  In fact, that's precisely all it is.  Do we, as humans, punish people for greater lengths of time based on the greater age of their victim (ie. an older person vs. a child)?  If anything, it's the other way around.  Thoughtful Christians, of course, will say this comparison isn't applicable (since God is "outside of time", whatever that means, and therefore in a wholly separate category).  But when they're done, with all of the philosophical hand waving, I'll still be here asking them for actual proof that sins committed during a finite lifetime are worthy of "eternal" punishment.

I've also noticed that, on the rare occasions, when Christians dare to talk about people "deserving" an eternal hell, they inevitably use someone like Adolf Hitler by way of illustration.  But the vast majority of those in hell, according to the Christian worldview, will be law abiding citizens.  Not only will they be incomparable to Hitler, in nearly every conceivable respect, they will actually be "good" people by our human standards (did God give us those sensibilities, or didn't he?).  Y'know, your neighbor down the street; the one who volunteers at the soup kitchen once a week.  That's the guy God deems worthy of eternal suffering (with no chance of reprieve).  And it does Christians no favor to argue that hell has different levels/gradations, of punishment, since all of it is still pretty awful by their own admission.

Let's face it, a loving God would never allow a hell to begin with.  And to say that he essentially had no other choice (as some apologists argue) is ridiculous.  He could have created only heaven, for example, with all of us living in it from the very get go.  And if he foreknows that billions of people will burn in hell, for ever and ever and ever, why not prevent those people from ever being born?  Why create the human race at all?  The questions are nearly endless.

This leads me into my third point...

3) The Christian hell is implausible because it necessarily means that humans are more compassionate than the Christian God is

If, somehow, the human race were able to vote on how Hitler would be punished, what do you think we would decide?  Initially, there may be some who would argue for "eternal" torment (mostly the religiously minded, perhaps?) but, after the dust settled, is that what we would wind up settling on?  I don't think so.  I believe that reason would win out, in the end analysis, and even if we did decide to torture him, let's say, we would not vote for it to be never ending (if such a thing were even possible).

Does this mean we are more compassionate than the Christian God?

Dr. Keith Parsons makes a similar point, in a chapter called "Hell: Christianity's Most Damnable Doctrine" (from "The End Of Christianity")...

"...we now refrain from subjecting even the worst the sorts of punishments that the most advanced societies regularly inflicted on criminals just a few centuries ago.  Not that long ago criminals were regularly broken on the wheel, roasted on gridirons, torn to pieces with red-hot pincers, drawn and quartered, impaled, crucified, flayed, starved, and so forth.  We no longer inflict such punishments on even the worst criminals.  Why?  It is not that criminals have gotten any better; we have.  However odious someone is, we now think it's wrong to boil them in oil, skin them alive, or beat them to death with sledgehammers. Again, why?  Are we more sentimental or more tolerant of moral turpitude now than our forebears?  No, I think that the unwillingness, at least in liberal democracies, to resort to the old medieval punishments is one of the few unquestionable examples of moral progress.

Would you ever tell someone to "burn in hell!", and actually mean it??

2) The Christian hell is implausible because of its origins

Firstly, many Christians don't realize that the notion of having a destination for the wicked was, at one time, tied to a literal place, right here on earth, called Gehenna.  Eventually Gehenna became divorced from its geographical location, but it retained many of the same (fiery) characteristics.

Secondly, as I began to understand more about the apocalyptic nature of Jesus himself (which I discuss here, here, and here) many additional pieces began to fall into place.  Listen, as Bart Ehrman explains...

"...Jesus' message--like that of other apocalypticists--can be understood as a kind of horizontal dualism between this age here on earth and the age to come, also here on earth.  I call it a horizontal dualism because it can be imagined as a horizontal time line divided into half.  At the end of this age, which is imminent, there will be a judgment and we will enter into the new age, on the other side of the dividing line.  When the end never came, Christian thinkers reconceptualized this time line and in a sense rotated it on its axis, so that now the 'end' involves not a horizontal dualism but a vertical one.  Now it is not a matter of two ages, this one and the one to come, but of two spheres, this world and the world above.  No longer is the physical resurrection discussed or even believed.  Now what matters is this world of suffering below and a world of ecstasy in heaven above.  This duality works itself out in a doctrine of heaven and hell.  Why above and why below?  Because the dualism remains in place, but has become spatial rather than temporal... ...In short, with the passing of time, the apocalyptic notion of the resurrection of the body becomes transformed into the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.  What emerges is the belief in heaven and hell..." (from "Jesus Interrupted")

1) The Christian hell is implausible because there's simply no good evidence for it

I don't think there's much more to be said, on this point, other than to issue it as a simple challenge to Christians.  If you have evidence, that hell exists, where is it?  I remember reading Bill Wiese's original (2007) release of "23 Minutes In Hell", while I was still a believer myself. These sorts of personal stories seem to be the best that Christians have, on hell, in the evidence department.  It's worth noting that I found the book unconvincing, even then, despite the fact that I had no doubts whatsoever about there being a literal hell at that time in my life.  I think it goes without saying that I find it even less convincing now, in retrospect.

Before I wrap up, I'd like to share one more quick thought on hell.  It's something I could have rightly covered, under point number 3, but I wanted to save it to the end (since I find it to be especially egregious).  C.S. Lewis once famously argued that the doors of hell are "locked from the inside".  In other words, people are in hell because they choose to be there.  On one level this is an appealing argument, for Christians, since it seems to absolve God of responsibility while, at the same time, acting as a handy justification for why hell is eternal.  There's only one's bullshit of the highest order.  As I discussed a little, near the end of my last post, there are many, many, many people who don't believe in Jesus for primarily intellectual (instead of emotional) reasons.  To imply they will persist in "rebelling" against God, even after death (when they are decidedly proven wrong on the matter), is to assume that there are no sincere (but honestly mistaken) unbelievers out there.  Not one!!  What do atheists, like me, need to do to convince Christians they are dead wrong about this?

So, there you have it.  This is my case, in very brief form, for why the Christian hell is a mythical place.  To the Christian, reading this blog, how would you respond to these five points?  (Or, will you ignore them?)  And are you willing to honestly consider the fact that hell isn't real, or will you just continue to take it "on faith"?

Friday, 25 November 2011

What's So Special About Belief?

I think my Dad was right.

You see, when I was younger, my father and I used to have the occasional disagreement over which theological issues are essential, for salvation, and which are simply peripheral to the faith (the latter being items on which Christians can safely agree to disagree, while still calling themselves "brothers and sisters in Christ").  My Dad is, by his own admission, a "fundamentalist" Christian, whereas I came to consider myself more of an "evangelical", as a young adult.  Frankly, I always bristled at the term fundamentalist.  He says it simply means that one holds to the "fundamentals of the faith", something of which he is quite proud.  Fair enough, I guess.

But here's where I think my Dad got it right...he felt that if we admit, as Christians (I say "we", since I still was one at the time) that some issues are unimportant, it might lead to a sort of slippery slope effect.  A creeping compromise, if you will, where an individual slowly allows themselves (and others) the freedom to question larger and larger issues, until eventually "the Gospel" itself has been completely eroded.  (He used the emergent church as an example, of this phenomenon, a movement he basically thought came from the pits of hell itself.)

I used to think all of this was complete bull.  Today, I think it's pretty much bang on.

De-conversion has a way of causing you to question things you never thought you would question, or even needed questioning.  I've always thought of myself as a fairly analytical guy (and my friends/family would certainly have always described me in these terms).  Given this, it's funny how there were elements, about Christianity, that I never thought (dared?) to analyze while I was still a believer.

Once I lost belief in the inerrancy of the Bible (which I discuss here) I allowed myself the freedom, almost subconsciously, to question various other tenants of Christianity.  At one point I remember running into a rather pointed question, one that I hadn't seriously considered before.  It's a question that has stayed with me, to this day, and it goes as follows..."what's so special about belief?".  (Was it Richard Dawkins?  Or Michael Shermer?  I honestly can't remember.  Maybe both.)

But, seriously, stop and think about it for a second.  What IS so special about belief??  Does anyone (Christian or otherwise) actually have a good answer for this?

I realize the Bible says "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and though shalt be saved".  That's not what I'm asking.  What I'm asking is WHY does God care, in the slightest, what we believe about Jesus?

One possible answer would be to say that God cares about our belief because he wants, most of all, for us to "trust" him.  According to Christian thought, he created us for relationship (with him, primarily, and also with one another).  But, hang on a second, what does "trusting" have to do with what we believe about certain historical events??

I'll tell you what.


If Socrates came back from the dead, would he be offended that there are some people who doubt certain facts about his life?  (Or even doubt his very existence?)  Or would he care, instead, about what people have done with his ideas?

Or let's say you, somehow or another, got separated from your child while they were still a newborn.  If that child wrongly came to believe (later on) that you were dead, but you actually weren't, would you be angry that they didn't "believe in you"?  Would you scold them, for their lack of "trust" in you, upon your long awaited reunion?  Of course not!  You would understand fully that their not believing in you was nothing was simply a side effect of not having enough evidence of your very existence.

See what I mean?

Let me connect the dots even closer...when Christians say that we must "accept Jesus", they don't actually mean that we should accept his ideas (like with Socrates).  What they mean, instead, is that we need to mentally assent to the historicity of certain events, especially the ones that are recorded in the Bible.  But, the question still lingers, why does God care?  Shouldn't it be even more important, to God (logically), what we did (or didn't do) with his ideas (like those expressed by Jesus)?

If someone honestly doubts something, due to a simple lack of evidence, only a monster would punish them for being in error (much less eternally).

This bears repeating...if someone honestly doubts something, whatever it might happen to be, only a monster would punish them for being in sincere error.

Another possible answer is to say that the belief alone is simply representative, of what God actually that it's a token, of our willingness to follow him wherever he might lead.  But it seems to me this is also false, and on a couple of different fronts.  Firstly, it implies that belief is a choice.  I don't think it is (more on that in a future post).  And, secondly, it assumes that all unbelievers would be unwilling to follow God (were they to have enough evidence of his actual existence).

I can't speak for atheists en masse, of course, but personally speaking I am not angry with God.  I also don't have any problem with "trusting" him, in the sense of "surrendering my will" to his (if I came to believe he were real again).  None of this presents the slightest issue for me.  On top of that, my experience as a Christian was actually quite positive.  So, any accusations of leaving the faith for emotional (instead of rational) reasons just don't stick to someone such as myself.

I left the faith for one simple reason, and one reason only...I genuinely doubt the factual claims of Christianity.

There is little evidence in their favor, and there is a significant amount of evidence against them.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Reading Jesus Into The Text

Over the last several posts I've been discussing evolution and sex.  I feel that I've made the (rather basic) points that I wanted to make, at least initially, so for now I'm going to move on.  I have no doubt that both topics will come up again.

Actually, in the coming New Year, I'd like to organically transition the theme of this blog...away from "here's the stuff that made me de-convert" and toward "musings from an 'in the closet' atheist".  There are many things that I can't say, to most people I rub shoulders with each day, and, frankly, I'm dying to get some of them off my chest.  (The lion's share of my friends and associates are Christians, and sadly they believe that I am still one too.)

Until that time, I'd like to circle back and touch lightly on a few areas I haven't really focused on up to this point (but which nonetheless played a noteworthy role in my de-conversion).  One of those areas relates loosely to Biblical prophecy.

I'm convinced that many Christians think of Biblical prophecy as Christianity's smoking gun...the ace in the hole that shows, definitively, the Bible is God's word and Jesus was the Messiah.  It's not hard to see why they would believe this (I certainly did at one point).  For example, if there were in fact numerous things written down, prior to the life of Jesus, that turned out to describe him perfectly (in a way that could not be passed off as coincidence) this would indeed be powerful evidence in Christianity's favor.

For the Christian who has not read much skeptical literature, the evidence here can be pretty compelling.  It is for this reason that it actually hit me quite hard, during my de-conversion, when I discovered that Biblical prophecy is essentially a giant game of smoke & mirrors.  As it turns out, there isn't one genuinely fulfilled prophecy in the entire Bible (if you want to have some fun grab a coffee, and try searching for the term "Bible prophecy" right here.  Happy reading!).

One of the light bulb moments for me came when I finally realized and accepted that the New Testament writers were not neutral and/or unbiased.  No, these were already believers in Jesus, and they were trying very, very hard to prove he was the Jewish Messiah.  One of the passages, that helped me to see this, was Matthew 21.  Listen to how John W. Loftus describes the problem it contains (from "Why I Became an Atheist")...

"For a specific look at how the New Testament writers wrote their stories based upon the Old Testament, notice that Matthew 21:2 has Jesus requesting both a donkey and also a colt to ride into Jerusalem on, based on a misunderstanding of Zechariah's 9:9, which reads: 'Rejoice...your king comes to you...gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.' Zechariah's prophecy is an example of Hebraic parallelism in which the second line retells the point of the first line.  There is only one animal in Zechariah, but Matthew thinks he means there is a donkey and also a colt, so he wrote his story based upon this misunderstanding in order to fit prophecy!"  (bolding mine)

This chapter translates to sort of a "gotcha" moment, for Matthew, since it shows us that he wasn't above manufacturing elements in the stories about Jesus (but for a purpose)!  Most believers assume the Gospels are nothing more than biographies, in effect, as if their main thrust was simply to record what happened historically, for posterity's sake.  This assumption is false.

On top of that it raises the following question...if we know that some elements of the New Testament are not "historical", how much of it is historical?  And how can we be sure??  (For example I've already written, previously, about some of my reasons for concluding the Nativity stories are complete fabrications.)

The New Testament's writers did everything they could to demonstrate that Jesus was the Messiah, and that includes force fitting Jesus into passages they believed (wrongly) to be about him.  This is one simple and straightforward reason, among many, that we should be extremely skeptical of what they tell us.

Monday, 14 November 2011

The Gay Thing

As you can probably well imagine, my changing views on the Bible also caused me to re-consider my views on homosexuality.  I had always been one of those people who thought it was wrong to be gay...y'know, "love the sinner/hate the sin", and all that fun stuff.

One thing that struck me, as I thought through this issue in a fresh way, was that there aren't actually any good "secular" reasons to be against homosexuality.  Now, I realize this may seem like an incredibly obvious statement, to some people, but it really was a revelation to me.  I had always been under the impression that there was a large body of research, which clearly showed children are better off with a "two parent family"; namely a Mom and a Dad.  But then, as I looked into things a little deeper, I started to run into videos like this one...

So, if the research doesn't in fact show that homosexuals are unfit parents, than what other "secular" reasons might there be for us to fight against "the gay movement"?



(I'm not aware of any.)

I now believe these "secular" reasons are just a front anyway.  Christians are well aware of the fact they can't say in public "the Bible says it's wrong to be gay", since this sort of argumentation won't hold water among non-Christians.  So, rather than just admitting they don't have any solid secular reasons, for their views on homosexuality, they try instead to find some way to argue against it without needing to invoke the Bible (although they won't hesitate to do that, also, if pushed into a corner).

This is where I agree completely with Sam Harris when he argues, in effect, that on some cultural hot buttons religion is not merely involved in the problem...religion IS the problem.  If we really want more acceptance of gays & lesbians, in society, we need to stop talking about "tolerance" and start acknowledging instead what's really going on beneath the surface.  In other words, we can't just debate the stuff that Christians are actually saying (or should I say, admitting), in public, we need to talk as well about the stuff they're not saying (but we all know they're thinking).  At the end of the day, it doesn't truly matter to conservative Christians what the research shows...they know homosexuality is wrong, because the Bible says as much, and the Bible can't possibly be mistaken (on anything) because it is a completely perfect book.  Period.  End of story.

Christians also don't see their views as "intolerant", so using this sort of language flies right over their head and gets the conversation nowhere.  Let me pause for a moment, to state that last part again...Christians don't see their views as intolerant.

They don't.

What we should be saying, instead, is something like, "Yes, I realize that you view being gay as wrong, because the Bible seems to speak against it, but, even if that's true, what is your argument for why this should be binding on the rest of society?  We're not all Christians, as I know you're well aware."  At this point in the conversation, Christians will typically revert to citing the social science studies, referenced above, and that's where you come in with fact based arguments to counter their skewed (or poor) understanding of the research in question (much like Al Franken did, to good effect, right here).

Just as with other areas of sex (and evolution), discussed in my last few posts, there are things about homosexuality which are awkward for Christians to explain and/or explain away.  For example, the ex-gay movement has been, for the most part, unsuccessful.  Also, how do Christians rationalize the fact that many animals demonstrate homosexual behavior?  Is God playing some sort of sick joke on us?  (ie. "Yes, it's wrong to be gay, just like I said in my Holy book, but I only meant that for humans...I'm cool with it otherwise!").

Let me say it straight up...homosexuality is not a "sin".

I was wrong.

And the Bible is not God's word, so it's high time we stopped treating it as such.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

True Love Waits (or not)

In the 90's, when I was a teenager, abstinence pledges were all the rage.  It felt like nearly every youth conference I went to, at the time (and there were plenty), had essentially a "don't have sex until you're married" theme. There were even a few (burgeoning) Christian singers who, seemingly, turned the "purity" message into pretty much the core of their public image (hint, think back to when Rebecca St. James and Jaci Velasquez were just starting out).  

Long after my teenage years (but prior to the start of my de-conversion process) I remember reading about a follow up study on abstinence pledges.  Actually, as I was later to discover, there were numerous such studies to choose from.  The big question, of course, for all of them, was did the pledges work?   

Well, to put it plainly, "no".   At the very least, the results were mixed.  Wikipedia sums it up this way, "Studies have generally found virginity pledges to be ineffective...After five years, studies find that pledgers have similar proportions of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) as non-pledgers and at least as many have engaged in anal and oral sex as those who have not made a virginity pledge. Pledgers are 10% less likely to use condoms and 6% less likely to use birth control than similar non-pledgers."

Fast forward to 2009 (while I was in the throes of my de-conversion) and I stumbled into an article, in Christianity Today, called "The Case for Early Marriage".  The whole article is worth a read, but allow me to sum it up thus...since it's a fact that Christian teenagers are having sex, at nearly the rate of secular teenagers, perhaps they should just get married earlier.  After all, the apostle Paul did say it is "better to marry", than to burn in lust, right?

Well, yeah, but does anyone else notice this reveals a really big problem; one inherent to the Christian worldview?

Let me explain what I modern society marriage is being delayed, later and later, which results in Christian teens/young adults having to wait longer and longer to have their first (guilt free) sexual encounter.  (There are several reasons for this delay, of course, not the least of which is an increased focus on the importance of higher education.)  The median age of marriage varies quite a bit, by country, but in many places it's now over 30 (for men, in particular).  So, is it realistic to ask people to wait this long for sex?  I don't think it is, and that's why I totally get where this Christianity Today article is coming from...the logic goes something like this: a) Christians aren't supposed to have sex until they're married, b) abstinence pledges have been proven not to work, c) a heightened focus on abstinence is also unlikely to work (if such a thing is even possible), so therefore, d) to avoid this sticky problem we should revert back to a time when people got married younger.  

And, voila, problem solved!  Right??  

Well, here's the (new) problem...age of marriage is one of the top predictors of divorce (as the article itself admits).  In other words, people who get married young get divorced at a much higher rate later on.  This means that even if Christians were to solve one problem (requiring the faithful to wait ridiculous amounts of time for sex), via earlier marriages, they might well create another (potentially even bigger) problem down the line (namely more divorce or, at the very least, a lot of unhappy and/or mismatched marriages).  

Now, I'm not saying that I'm against early marriages.  I'm not, and I think they need to be examined on a case by case basis.  But, generally speaking, I don't think (apostle Paul notwithstanding) sexual lust is a good reason to get married.  Actually, I think it's a pretty awful reason. 

Interestingly, this problem is exclusive to those who hold unswervingly to the view that it's absolutely wrong to have sex before marriage.  For the rest of us, the concerns about pre-marital sex are much more pragmatic in nature.  Are you emotionally ready for sex?  Have you been sufficiently educated, about things like STD's and pregnancy?  And so on and so on.

This is what I mean when I say, as I did in my last post, that there are some elements of sex that just don't "jive perfectly with (the) Christian worldview."  Why would God cause human beings to develop, sexually, so long before they're ready to marry?  Evolution doesn't care about such matters, so it's up to us to figure them out.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Let's Talk About Sex

When I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, my parents gave me a book, about sex, by Dr. James C. Dobson (it was the original version of "Preparing for Adolescence").  At the time, I found it to be a very interesting read, for obvious reasons.  I can still remember several things that Dr. Dobson said, in the book, such as the fact that it was ok for boys to masturbate, but that it wasn't ok for girls (I'm not kidding, he really said this).  And of course, as Dr. Dobson pointed out, masturbation becomes sin, even for boys, if they think about girls in a sexual way while doing it.  (He never really explained how that was supposed to work.)  I also remember a few little quirky details, such as Dobson mentioning that a boy would often begin to find themselves attracted to seemingly random parts of a girls body during their adolescence (he used a girl's ankles, to illustrate the point). 

I couldn't argue.  (Yes, ladies, boys even find your ankles attractive sometimes!)

Looking back, I realize this book laid the groundwork, on how I would view sex for the next 20 plus years.  The bottom line is I bought the Christian message, on sex, hook, line and sinker.  That message goes something like this...a) masturbation might be bad, we pastors and theologians can't entirely agree on this, but it's definitely bad if you actually think about the opposite sex while doing it!, b) pornography, in any form, is for sure bad, very, very bad in fact (and this includes the lingerie ads on TV or the Sears catalog btw, just in case you were wondering guys), c) the only thing worse than pornography is sex outside of marriage, & d) the only thing worse, than pornography, and sex outside of marriage, is homosexual sex (in any context).

Even prior to my de-conversion, which began in my early 30's, I remember making the occasional observation, about sex, that just didn't seem to jive perfectly with my Christian worldview.  (Although, I'm not sure I would've thought of it in those terms at the time.)  For example, it wasn't hard to pick up on the fact that Christians seem to be just as driven by the "outward appearance" as anyone else in society.  Why do youth pastors, for example, have such a reputation for getting the "hot wife" (and the hipper the pastor, the "hotter" the wife)?  Shouldn't we Christians be less shallow, in this respect, since we are trying to emulate God?  In 1 Samuel 16:7 it says, "...Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (bolding mine). 

Oh well, I thought, perhaps the Bible is just describing the way things are here on planet Earth.  As such, maybe we shouldn't try to fight against it so hard.  Perhaps, instead, we should just accept the fact that "man looks at the outward appearance", and move on with that understanding in place.  After all, it's not like we don't take the heart into consideration, right??  We're still not as bad as those non-Christians who only care about the outward appearance (what heathens)!

Later I would also pause, to reflect and think, after learning (from their radio broadcast) that Focus on the Family had a phone line, specifically dedicated to pastors who are "struggling with pornography".  Really?  I mean, I knew pornography was a huge problem in society, generally, but is it really that major of an issue for pastors?  Apparently so.  The way they described it, "pornography addiction" was in fact a mammoth issue, amongst pastors, and one of the most active "ministry" branches at Focus on the Family.

But was Focus truly solving anything, I thought, or were they simply giving pastors a safe place to vet their guilty conscience and pray with a counselor for a few minutes (without risk of losing their job)?  After all, if someone in the congregation is struggling with pornography, and they are actually willing to come clean about it, who would they normally talk to?  Well...their pastor, of course!  How many of those very same pastors were struggling with it themselves, I wondered, but they had no one to go to?

Now, I don't mean to pick on pastors here.  For that matter, I don't mean to pick on Dr. Dobson, or Focus on the Family, either.  I simply want to make the point that there are some oddities about sex, if you want to call them that, which don't fit perfectly into the Christian worldview.  Even as a Christian, I could see that, but of course I just chalked everything up to this "fallen world" that we live in (and to Satan's corruption of God's "good gift").

Even still, I couldn't help but wonder, why did God make sex such a powerful force?  There had to be a reason.  He wants us to populate the earth, sure, but did He have to additionally make it so distracting, in our day to day lives, especially for those who sincerely desire to do His will?  Let's suppose that humanity's sexual urges were cut exactly in half, would that stop us from procreating?  Hardly!  But it might make things significantly easier, not only for those who are unmarried (and, as such, relegated to complete celibacy on the Christian worldview) but also for pastors (and the rest of us believers) who want so desperately to stay "pure" sexually. 

And what about all the marriages that breakup due to sexual indiscretions, of one sort or another?  Or the pastors who (sometimes famously) "fall from grace", as a direct result of being caught in sexual sin?  Can all of this really be explained by our "sinful nature" alone?  This seems to be the implication but, again, what if sex were a little less powerful?  Would it persist in being such a major issue, for Christians, or would we simply relegate it to the proverbial sin back burner?  (Like we do with gluttony, for example?)

These are the sorts of nagging questions I had about sex, while I was a Christian, but frankly they didn't bother me all that badly.  I just pushed them aside, as I always did with nagging questions, and it wasn't until years later (more specifically, when I began to think and learn about evolution) that they came bubbling up to the surface once again. 

During my de-conversion I would also consider an assortment of brand new questions, related to sex; questions that potentially cause a much more significant problem, for the Christian worldview.  I'll consider some of those next time.

So to the Christian, reading this blog, I would leave you with the following two thoughts, for now.  I realize they don't deliver a knockout blow, to Christianity, so there's no need to point that out to me (this isn't the point I am making).  Even still, I think they are worthy of consideration.  Firstly, why did God make sex so powerful?  And, secondly, could he have (safely) cut it in half, without losing any of His greater "purpose" for sex?

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Is Evolution Compatible With Christianity?

In the last couple of posts I talked, very briefly, about how it is that I came to believe in evolution (and, simultaneously, to reject young earth creationism).  I mentioned, at the outset, that evolution played a "side dish" role, in my de-conversion from Christianity, so in this post I'd like to examine that connection a little further. 

Is evolution compatible with Christianity?  It would seem this is a million dollar question, and also one that nearly everyone has an opinion on these days (usually a very strong opinion).

But, are we really asking the optimal question here?  I believe there is a better, and more helpful, way to frame the conversation about evolution & Christianity.  When one asks "is evolution 'compatible' with Christianity" many Christians will simply interpret this as a challenge, and it's one they will very often willingly accept, "in defense of the faith".  To the believer the question then becomes "can you think of a way that evolution and Christianity could both be true?".  The hidden implication is that, if it can be demonstrated evolution and Christianity don't irrefutably contradict one another, the believer has won the argument and Christianity remains true, as if that were automatically the case by default.  (This is a category error, but that's a whole different discussion.) 

As such, I think a better way to frame the question is something along these lines..."Does the fact of evolution make Christianity less probable, more probable, or does it have no effect?".  Or, perhaps, "if evolution is true, does it make Christianity any less likely?".  I think the answer, to this latter question, is "yes".  Evolution may not disprove Christianity (although, as it happens, I think a reasonable case could actually be made for this), but it does diminish the likelihood of Christianity.  There are two points I'd like to make in this area...

1) Firstly, Christian theology is inexorably tied to the creation story in Genesis.

According to the Christian narrative, sin entered the world through the fall of Adam.  God, being perfect and holy, cannot look upon sin, so he sent Jesus to take our place, satisfying his wrath and allowing mankind to be reconciled to himself.  But, what if Adam & Eve never even existed?  This is precisely what scientists now believe.  (Christianity Today has an excellent 8 page article, on how Christian theologians are currently grappling with this new problem, right here.  It's worth a read.)

As it happens, the difficulties are yet deeper still, because both Jesus and the apostle Paul believed in a historical Adam.  Listen to Paul, in Romans 5..."Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people...death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come...For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!...For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!"

This leads believers straight into the middle of a very sticky the New Testament wrong, or are modern day scientists wrong??  Sadly, many Christians will see this as another opportunity to take a stand for Jesus (so they will reject the science, without so much as a nagging doubt about the validity of their faith).

2) Secondly, if evolution is true, why didn't God send Jesus sooner?

Christopher Hitchens has made this point many times, in his public talks, and here's one example...

I can't say it any better than Christopher, so I'll leave that one right there.

There are many other relevant issues, along this same theme, such as the intense (and pointless) suffering that animals go through.  Sure, Christians believe that we live in a "fallen world", but does God not care about the unspeakable suffering of animals?  (What did they do to deserve this?)

Let's circle back to where we started..."Is evolution compatible with Christianity?"  Well, not really, but I suppose one could try and make it so via strenuous and creative arguments (and many do just that).  But it's sort of like shoving a square peg into a round might get it in there, eventually, but that still doesn't mean it's supposed to go there (and both the square and hole will get damaged in the process). 

One need not prove something impossible in order for it to become improbable (even highly so).  In my observation there are many Christians who utterly fail to understand this key distinction.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Evolution Is...True!

In addition to watching dozens (perhaps hundreds?) of youtube videos, from both sides of the evolution/creation debate, I also began to read books on the subject.  Several of them were pretty interesting (ie. "Why Darwin Matters", by Michael Shermer) but there was one, in particular, that sealed the deal for the time I finished Jerry Coyne's "Why Evolution Is True" I was a full blown (gasp!) "evolutionist".  (I feel it's important to note, again, that only months earlier I had been a full blown, and lifelong, "young earth creationist".) 

I won't take the time to do a full scale review of the book, but what I will do is quote from three places and, in each case, I'd like to suggest you ponder a simple question (this is aimed squarely at the reader who still doubts and/or disbelieves in evolution, you know who you are)'s the question, "if evolution is false, how would you explain this?". 

Sound fair enough?  Ok, remember, be honest with yourself.

Let's begin with a quote from chapter 2, "Written In The Rocks", where Jerry is discussing the discovery, in 2004, of a transitional form between fish and amphibians.  As you're reading the quote, keep my question in mind...

"How did early fish evolove to survive on land?  This was the question that interested--or rather obsessed--my University of Chicago colleague Neil Shubin.  Neil had spent years studying the evolution of limbs from fins, and was driven to understand the early stages of that evolution. 

This is where the prediction comes in.  If there were lobe-finned fishes but no terrestrial vertebrates 390 million years ago, where would you expect to find the transitional forms?  Somewhere in between.  Following this logic, Shubin predicted that if transitional forms existed, their fossils would be found in strata around 375 million years old.  Moreover, the rocks would have to be from freshwater rather than marine sediments, because the late lobe-finned fish and early amphibians both lived in fresh water.

Searching his college geology textbook for a map of exposed freshwater sediments of the right age, Shubin and his colleagues zeroed in on a paleontologically unexplored region of the Canadian Arctic: Ellesmere Island, which sits in the Arctic Ocean north of Canada.  And after five long years of fruitless and expensive searching, they finally hit pay dirt: a group of fossil skeletons stacked one atop another in sedimentary rock from an ancient stream...

...Tiktaalik has features that make it a direct link between the earlier lobe-finned fish and the later amphibians..."

So, getting back to my question, if evolution is false, how would you explain this?  (Any takers?)  In this case, one would not only have to explain the transitional form itself (is it a fish, or is it an amphibian?) but also, and perhaps even more significantly, how it is that Mr. Shubin knew exactly where to dig for such a fossil?  If evolution is really false, was it just a lucky coincidence?

On to my second quote...

"...where we find transitional forms, they occur in the fossil record precisely where they should.  The earliest birds appear after dinosaurs, but before modern birds.  We see ancestral whales spanning the gap between their own landlubber ancestor and fully modern whales.  If evolution were not true, fossils would not occur in an order that makes evolutionary sense.  Asked what observation could concievably disprove evolution, the curmudgenonly biologist J.B.S. Haldane reportedly growled, 'Fossil rabbits in the precambrian!'  (That's the geological period that ended 543 million years ago.)  Needless to say, no Precambrian rabbits, nor any other anachronistic fossils, have ever been found.

Again, if evolution is false, how would you explain this?  Why are exactly the "right" types of fossils found in exactly the "right" places, every single time?  (No exceptions...ever!)  Any takers on this one??

My third (and final) quote comes from chapter 3, "Remnants, Embryos, and Bad Design"...

"When he wrote The Origin, Darwin considered embryology his strongest evidence for evolution.  Today he'd probably give pride of place to the fossil record.  Nevertheless science continues to accumulate intriguing features about devolopment that support evolution.  Embryonic whales and dolphins form hindlimb buds--bulges of tissue that, in four-legged mammals, become the rear legs.  But in marine mammals the buds are reabsorbed soon after they're formed...

...One of my favorite cases of embryological evidence for evolution is the furry human fetus.  We are famously known as 'naked apes' because, unlike other primates, we don't have a thick coat of hair.  But in fact for one brief period we do--as embryos.  Around six months after conception, we become completely covered with a fine, downy coat of hair called lanugo.  Lanugo is usually shed about a month before birth, when it's replaced by the more sparsely distributed hair with which we're born.  (Premature infants, however, are sometimes born with lanugo, which soon falls off.)  Now, there's no need for a human embryo to have a transitory coat of hair.  After all, it's a cozy 98.6 degrees Farenheit in the womb.  Lanugo can be explained only as a remnant of our primate ancestry."

And, once again, I would pose to you my simple and straightforward question, if evolution is false, how would you explain this?

If I had more time there are several other areas I could get into, but I think you get my point.  (Personally, I found chapter 4, on the geographic distribution of animals, to be the single most convincing argument presented in the entire book.) 

(Creationist) believer, how much do you really know about evolution?  Have you ever read any "pro" evolution books?  Why not start with Jerry Coyne's "Why Evolution Is True?".  If it's really "the truth" you're after, what have you got to lose?

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Evolution Is...True?

I've written a good deal about the Bible, here on the blog, since (in my view) its measure of reliability is of paramount importance, when it comes to discussions about the truth or falsehood of Christianity.  It would be almost impossible to over-emphasize this point.  It's not that Christians "worship the Bible" (as I sometimes hear it said, sarcastically).  This certainly isn't true.  But they do worship the God that the Bible supposedly describes.  Additionally the Bible is, by far, our best source for the life of Jesus...and there are about 2 billion people, on earth today, who believe that Jesus was synonymous with the very creator of the universe!  That's kind of a big deal.

But for these next few posts I'd like to take a left turn, so I can delve into a couple of issues that are certainly connected, but admittedly not directly related, to the Bible or even the claims of Christianity.  When one experiences a dramatic shift in their worldview, like I did, there really isn't anything in that person's life which doesn't get re-considered.  And sometimes when you change your mind on one (major) issue, it causes you to think, "wow, if I could be so spectacularly wrong about issue a), perhaps there are other things I've been really wrong about all this time??".

For me, there were two such issues, especially, that played what you might call a side dish role in my de-conversion...evolution and sex.  (It could be argued this is just one topic, but I'll treat them separately anyway)

It had already become clear to me, by this point in my journey, that the book of Genesis is terrifically inconsistent with modern science.  Naturally, this caused me to speculate, anew, about the whole evolution thing.  I'd noticed that, for some reason, it seemed to be pretty convincing to most non-Christians (especially those who were really "big into science"). 

My first foray, into this area, came via youtube videos (lots of them).  I started with the huge "Why do people laugh at creationists" series, from this guy I'd never heard of before (named Thunderf00t), followed by many, many, many others (such as the "Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism" series, by AronRa).  Initially, I was just taken back somehwat by the sheer volume of evidence that seemed to exist, in favour of evolution.  I was also surprised to see the evolutionists take on the creationist arguments so directly and forcefully.  These youtube users weren't unaware, for example, that creationists say carbon dating is unreliable...rather, they seemed to be keenly in touch with what the other side was claiming (and had little difficulty in showing why it was misguided).

Slowly I began to realize that, as a Christian, I had really only rejected evolution for one doesn't jive with what the Bible says in Genesis.  When properly understood, evolution isn't the ludicrous idea that many Christians think it is.  Also, many of the things that (creationist) Christians believe about evolution are patently false (ie. that humans came from monkeys, or that evolution is in question since it's "just a theory").

Maybe evolution is, actually, true?

If so, what a tragedy that I had never really paid much attention to it. 

These youtube videos planted the seed in me (to use a Biblical analogy) but, next time, I'd like to talk about a book that sealed the deal.  By the time I closed its pages, and in combination with everything I had learned up to that point, it had accomplished the nearly unthinkable...taken me straight from a "young earth creationist" to someone who embraces evolution.

More on that and, eventually, some thoughts on sex as well over these next few posts.

Friday, 23 September 2011

His Eye Is On The Sparrow

In 1905 (lyricist) Civilla D. Martin and (composer) Charles H. Gabriel wrote what is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest gospel hymns of all time.  I still know all the words, by memory...

"I Sing Because I'm Happy
I Sing Because I'm Free
His Eye Is On The Sparrow
And I Know He Watches Me"

If you grew up "in the church", like I did, just the very mention of these lyrics will also bring the melody immediately to mind.  (I caught myself singing it as I was preparing for this post)  Or perhaps, if you didn't grow up in the church, you know this song from some of the more recent renditions (such as the one by Lauryn Hill).

Frankly, it's not hard to tell why people like it so much.  The sentiment expressed is quite touching, not to mention biblical...

"Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?" (Matthew 6:26) and "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows" (Matthew 10:29-31).

I used to like this song myself (in certain ways I still do).

Frankly, some of my de-conversion is now a complete blurr.  That's the main reason I started this blog...I wanted to get my experiences written down so that, one day, my kids (who are still very young) could come to understand why Dad changed his mind on such an important issue.  I now realize that most former believers don't "lose their faith" all of a sudden because of, say, a difficult life experience.  It also doesn't typically happen in a moment of epiphany (or, as is often assumed by Christians, in an act of rebellion against God).  Instead, one loses their faith in a stepwise process, piece by piece by piece by piece...often as they become more educated, and begin to see much more clearly Christianities many implausibilities.  If I were to compare losing my faith to demolishing a house, it feels less like using a wrecking ball and more like removing a brick here, a window pane there, and a few roof tiles over what point is the house considered "demolished"?  It's hard to say.  The line between "Christian" and "non Christian" is not at all as distinct as I used to think it was.

Having said that, along the way, there were a few especially poignant moments that I know I'll remember forever.  I've already written about one such moment, here, but in this post I'd like to tell you about another...

Although I purposefully haven't covered it yet, if the truth be told I was musing a great deal on the problem of suffering during pretty much the entire two years of my de-conversion.  Even as a Christian, it had always bothered me a little that people die of starvation, every day, which of course isn't to mention those who perish, with what seems like alarming regularity, in natural disasters and the like (back then, it was just another nagging question).  I now realize that it should have bothered me a lot but, if I'm being honest, I tried not to think too much about it (my sense is this approach is pretty typical among believers).  After all, we need to leave those things that we don't fully understand "in God's hands"...right??

Suffice it to say, as I began to lose my faith, I felt compelled to look into this issue in a much deeper way.  I began reading about it, a lot, and I found myself thinking about it even when I wanted to put it out of my mind.  On one particular morning (after yet another late night of reading) my head was spinning as I tried to conceive of one possible reason for God to not send rain if/when it would (literally) save a child's life.  There are children who die of drought, I mused, so why doesn't God just send rain?  There must be a reason that I just don't understand

On the very morning I was having these thoughts, I arrived at work and opened up my e-mail inbox.  The first e-mail to catch my eye came from the church I was (still) attending.  Here is a rough paraphrase of the first line in the message I saw that morning...

"Thank you for your prayers and praise God for holding off the rain, yesterday, during the church's annual 'outreach BBQ'!"

Now, you need to understand, I had seen scores of e-mails like this before (and many since). There really was nothing special, or even slightly unusual, about it, but on this morning it hit me like a ton of bricks.  Something is SERIOUSLY wrong here, I thought, if God holds back the rain for my church's "outreach BBQ" but he doesn't send rain when it would save a child's life!!!  How could this be?!?!?!?  In that moment all of the times I had prayed (and participated in group prayers) for good weather, so that "God could be glorified" through this or that upcoming "outreach" event, came flooding back to my mind.  Why would God control the weather, for us, even once, but allow so many people to die because of things that are directly weather related (children, no less!).  In that instant, I suspected everything I had previously believed, on this issue, was (by sheer logic alone) complete bullshit

Now, of course, I realize my reaction that morning was an emotional one...and emotions are not always, well, entirely rational.  And I also know that Christian apologists have some (rather complicated) ways of "dealing" with this problem (more on that later).  But, for this post, I merely want to convey to you the complete explosion of cognitive dissonance that forced itself on me as I read the e-mail in question.  Christians get so used to simultaneously believing that: a) people die of starvation, thirst, natural disasters etc., and b) God can control the weather when he wants to, that it never occurs to them these two things completely contradict each other.  Is God deliberately allowing those children to die?  Is he unable to stop it?  Does God love the people in your church more than those children half a world away?  Christian, will you turn your face away from this blog, simply because I posted a disturbing picture?  Will you criticize me for doing so, to deflect the issue?  Or will you allow yourself to think more deeply about what it is that you believe?  Do you have good reasons for these beliefs, or is it easier not to look at them?

God's eye is not "on the sparrow", and the "heavenly father" certainly doesn't "feed them", despite what the Bible says in Matthew.  In fact, it can't possibly be true, unless he loves the sparrow more than he loves the children who die every 4 seconds.

Please think about it.