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.