Friday, 24 August 2012

Christ-Like Atheism

Now that I'm an atheist, I can't help but notice that a lot of believers strongly associate particular virtues with Christianity.  Some of these laudable attributes have become so closely tied to the Christian faith, in fact, that some people have difficulty even recognizing the distinction between Christian beliefs and "Christian values".  In their minds, Christianity is a package deal.  What I mean to say is, "Christian values" have become bound, intractably, to the belief that Jesus was god, that he rose from the dead, and so on and so forth.  If you accept one (Christian beliefs), in so doing you accept the other ("Christian values"); and if you reject one (Christian beliefs), it is assumed that you have also rejected the other ("Christian values").  Or so the thinking goes.

But, does Christianity really have ownership over these values?

Clearly not, because I am an atheist who still believes in many of these (so called) "Christian" ideas.  Is this merely because I was raised in a Christian home and culture?  And does it also make me a Christian (or Christian-ish) atheist?  Is such a thing even possible?  Let me offer some examples, so you can see what I mean; three concepts; commonly associated with Christianity, that I still adhere to...


I was taken aback, a few weeks ago, while browsing another atheist's blog (not one from my blog roll).  The author, whose name I can't even remember, was listing off certain elements of Christianity that they now repudiate.  A little dramatic, perhaps, but fair enough.  I agreed with the content of everything they were saying.  That is, until they happened to throw forgiveness into the mix.  Whoa.  Wait a second here.  You reject forgiveness?  Why exactly?

Don't get me wrong, I'm open to the suggestion that forgiveness *might* be a bad idea.  But I strongly suspect that Christians have it exactly right, when they extol forgiveness as a virtue.  I would need to hear a pretty solid argument that it's not, before just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  In the absence of such a well formulated case, it seemed to me that this might be precisely what the atheist blogger in question was doing.

Having said that, I do think that a lot of people misunderstand forgiveness.  As I see it, forgiveness is not about releasing the offender from responsibility for their actions.  Rather, it's about releasing you from the resentment that resides in your heart; this resentment is, quite possibly, rotting away at your insides anyway.  A number of studies have shown that people who forgive report less health problems.  They are also happier.

And forgiveness doesn't imply that what the offender did was o.k., as if you had somehow sanctioned their actions by releasing your anger.  You can forgive someone, fully and completely, but still not wish to ever so much as see or be associated with that person again.

Now, I obviously no longer believe that we are commanded, by a supreme being, to forgive (lest we not be forgiven ourselves, like the Bible threatens).  Doesn't such a threat cheapen forgiveness anyway?

But I still think forgiveness is a pretty darn good idea, at least most of the time; and I don't need to believe Jesus rose from the dead to see that.

Serving Others

I won't spend a lot of time here because, in so far as I can tell, most atheists are completely with me on this issue. It's one of the things I appreciate most about blogs like "Friendly Atheist", for example.  Hemant frequently spotlights atheist humanitarian initiatives, of one form or another, and I say the more the better.  This is precisely the sort of thing that atheists need to become known for, in my view, if we are to change the public's perception of atheism.  (Need I remind anyone that polls generally show we are not viewed favorably by society at large?)

I have often wished that there were more secular organizations offering the equivalent of the church mission trip.  These trips, even though they often last only a few days or weeks, have given many a Christian a sense of real purpose and meaning (especially young people).  Atheists need to make it abundantly clear that you need not buy into the Christian worldview to have such purpose.  You can serve the poor without proselytizing.  In fact, you don't even have to do it "in the name of Jesus".  How about doing it simply in the name of compassion and empathy for your fellow man?  What's wrong with that?  Is any additional motivation really needed?  (Side note--If anyone does know of atheist organizations, that offer something comparable to the church mission trip, please enlighten me in the comments section below.)

When atheists show, through their actions, that they are good people it has a weird (cognitive dissonance) effect on Christians.  It becomes increasingly difficult to imagine that someone *deserves* to burn in hell, for all eternity, when every time you see them they are on their knees serving food to the poor (or something equally awesome).  This is a dynamic that I have previously termed "The Ellen Effect".

Let me also point out quickly that serving others goes well beyond charity work.  It applies in the business world (serving the customer), in marriage (serving our spouse), and so on.

I still believe in service, and that leads me nicely to my final point.


Humility is one of those things that's challenging to write about.  As soon as someone begins to wax eloquent, on the topic of humility, they run the very legitimate risk of being accused of arrogance.  It's like the old joke, about the guy who wrote the book, "101 Ways To Be Humble...And How I Achieved It".

So, I do not intend to claim, or even imply, that I am a humble person myself.  But I do want to make the point that I still very much believe in the concept of humility.  Nothing will cause me to gain (or lose) respect for someone, more quickly, than the perception of humility (or the lack thereof) in that individual.  It's a character trait that I greatly admire.

So, there you have it--forgiveness, serving others, and humility--three "Christian" values that I still believe in.  In my opinion, the emphasis Christians place on these attributes, and others I haven't mentioned, is representative of the very best that Christianity has to offer the world today.

What's my point, you ask?  Well, I have two of them, and with those I will close...

My first point is that "Christian values", such as the three I've listed here, have nothing to do with the claim that Jesus was god.  Let me say that again; "Christian values" have nothing to do with whether or not Christianity's core assertions are true.  This might seem obvious, and it is, but it needs to be said out loud because many Christians assume that it's their values us skeptics are rejecting at root (instead of their beliefs).  This is a hidden subtext in statements like, "he's just rebelling against god", but it's completely ass backwards.  As I have just explained, I still accept many "Christian values", but I think I've also made it clear, in previous posts, that I fully reject Christianity's historical claims.

My second, and I think most important, point is this...what many people refer to as "Christian values" are not unique to Christianity.  "Christian values" are only considered "Christian values" because, over time, certain concepts have become attached at the hip to the Christian message.  Is forgiveness discussed in the Bible?  Sure!  But that doesn't mean it's an exclusively Christian idea.  In fact, nearly every religion teaches on forgiveness.  Humility is also seen as a virtue in numerous religious and philosophical traditions.  Christianity has co-opted plenty of good ideas, but that doesn't mean Yahweh or Jesus invented them (yet this is precisely what some believers think).

This hit me like a ton of bricks, a few weeks ago, when a friend told me that, of all the Christians he knew, I reminded him the most of Jesus.  (He never would have said this, of course, had he known he was actually talking to an atheist.)  My first internal reaction was, "wow, what an incredible compliment".  My second, almost immediately after, was, "hold on a minute, something's not right here".  As I thought about it more, I realized that what he meant to convey is he sees in me characteristics he finds admirable.  In other words, my friend was simply assuming (wrongly, I think) that Jesus was the embodiment of all things commendable in human behavior. According to this logic, if you are kind, gracious, forgiving, or whatever it might happen to be, this automatically means you are "like Jesus".  It's the ultimate conflation of "Christian values" and Christian beliefs.  I suspect that most Christians think this way about Jesus.  Sometimes they will also take it a step further; picking up on something that Jesus said or did, in the gospels, and then attempting to frame that thing as if it were his central message while here on Earth ("Jesus was 'all about' serving the poor, didn't you know?").

So, as it turns out, the title of this post is something of a misnomer.  To say that someone is "Christ-like', is to assume: a) that Jesus was in fact "the Christ", and b) that Jesus had the very best character traits any human being could ever aspire to.  I don't happen to think either of those things are true.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Does God Heal?

I didn't realize, until well after my de-conversion, how often Christians use the word "miracle" seems to be especially prevalent in relation to physical healing.  Miracle is just another one of those words that you grow accustomed to hearing, when you're part of the Christian subculture, so it doesn't really draw mental red flags in the way that it probably should.

Under the category of "million dollar questions", here's a biggie; do physical healing miracles happen today?

I certainly can't *prove* that they don't, but let me just say instead that I am no longer convinced miracles exist as a real entity in any supernatural (god directed) sense at all; or that they ever have.

It seems to me a sizable chunk of evangelicals are already skeptical of the so called faith healers, such as Benny Hinn or Todd Bentley, and well they should be (even though both of these guys have large followings; Hinn in particular).  Given their already controversial nature, even within Christian circles, I'm not going to waste much time commenting on that movement (despite the Hinn photo above).

Instead, I'd like to discuss briefly the very broadly accepted Christian belief that god regularly heals people as a result of the prayers of their friends and family.  If you are a Christian, chances are high you believe this to your very core.  You probably know someone, or even several people, who have received a "miracle" by way of god's physical healing.

There are two such cases, that have come to my attention quite organically, which will serve to illustrate my recent observations in this respect.  In both of these cases it was the word "miracle" (or "miraculous"), which initially grabbed my attention and got me to thinking.  Before I jump into it, let me be quick to admit that anecdotes never *prove* anything, one way or the other (and we could trade them back and forth all day).  So my intention here is simply to use these two cases as a springboard for further thought & analysis, specifically on the issue of god's supposed involvement in physical healing.

I should also mention that these cases represent people I know personally.

Case #1

A few months back, I went to the website of a Christian leader (an individual who is incidentally sort of a mini-celebrity, in certain limited circles).  I don't want to get into the specifics, so as not to reveal her exact identity, but there was a line in her biography that really leapt off the screen. It said that she was "miraculously healed of a terminal illness".  Wow.  That sounds really cool, and it certainly helps to give her story some serious street cred.  (*Note to those who weren't raised in a Christian Christian culture, the more stuff that you've been "saved from", the cooler you are considered to be.  It's an odd dynamic.)

As it happened, she actually also mentioned the name of the illness, but only in passing, so I decided to look it up on wikipedia.  You may have trouble believing this, but I always try to keep an open mind about these sorts of stories.  I realize, on one level, that I could be wrong about atheism.  I sincerely don't think I am wrong, but I am not so arrogant as to rule out the very possibility.  Maybe I was right before, and Christianity is true?  If that's the case, I want to be the first to find out.  This is, in part, why I retain a certain curiosity about statements like the one contained in her bio.

Anyway, to my genuine surprise, the wikipedia article included the following line, "remission can be achieved in up to 60-80% of cases".


How could she not have mentioned this??

If "remission can be achieved in up to 60-80% of cases", than why did she refer to the healing as "miraculous"?  This is extremely confusing to someone like me.

The ironic thing is it actually would have been more "miraculous", if you want to put it in that way, if she had not gone into remission after treatment.  If remission is achieved "in up to 60-80% of cases", the odds were actually in her favor!!

See my problem there?  

Case #2

Although it bugged me a little, at the time, I quickly forgot about case number 1 and moved on with my life.  That is, until a few weeks later, when I had a prolonged conversation with another Christian who also threw out the word "miracle"; and once again in reference to a personal illness. While my other friends, who were also a part of the conversation, were busy saying how awesome they thought that was (and relating their own stories of god's healing of their own friends/family members), I took it upon myself to ask her what the name of her sickness had been.  I also expressed to her my sincere congratulations, on the fact that she was o.k. now, and I did my best to divert away from the god talk.  I simply wanted to connect with her on a human level, but she was pretty intent on bringing god into the dialogue at every opportunity.

Later that day, I decided once again to look up the given sickness on wikipedia.  In this case, it was actually something, quite rare, that I had not even heard of before.  Could it be that this woman had experienced a genuine "miracle", I wondered to myself, as she had claimed?

As you've probably guessed by now, much as it had before, wikipedia told a very, very different story.  Included, in the article regarding her illness, was the following line, "the cure around 90-95%".  Yes, you read that right, "the cure around 90-95%"!!!  I have to tell you, I nearly fell out of my chair when I read that line.  This woman seemed to me to be a perfectly *normal* Christian, if you know what I mean, and my (intelligent!) friends seemed also to believe that she had experienced a legitimate "miracle".

But why?

I received a clue, a few days later, in a seemingly unrelated conversation with one of these same friends.  As she expressed it to me, her personal belief is that it is preferable to always "give god the credit" for something good in your life, even if he might not be responsible for it.  Far better to thank god, and be wrong, than to not thank him at all she would say.  My suspicion is this sort of (in my opinion) warped thinking stems from the Bible itself.  And I think it may explain, at least in part, why it is so extremely difficult to divest everyday Christians of the "miracle" type language they use ever so casually (and irresponsibly).  When my friend said this, Proverbs 3:6 came immediately to my mind, "in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight". Could it be, that Christians are desperate to "acknowledge" god, in "all things", because they believe they are commanded to do so?  I think this may well be the case.  The problem, of course, is that it tends to lead to a highly credulous approach, as illustrated above, to "all things" that their god *might* have been responsible for.  This, to me, is a major flaw in my friend's logic.

Christians will sometimes falsely say that there is no amount of evidence that will convince a skeptic to believe in god (or, in my case, to believe in god again).  We skeptics are simply determined, they will say, to persist in our unbelief.  I was just accused of this myself (under the comments section of this post).  But it's an entirely false charge.  There are in fact many, many things that would convince me Christianity is true.  I would be happy to provide specific examples, if you're interested in hearing them.

But it occurs to me there is a flip side to that coin...perhaps there is no amount of de-bunking that will convince some believers they are mistaken.  In other words, no matter how many "miracles" are explained, and shown to be (plausibly) quite natural events, these brand of believers will always cling to the hope that at least *some* genuine miracles still take place.  It may not be this particular story or that particular story, which qualify as a miracle, but until skeptics are able to explain away literally every potential miracle, the *possibility* remains that supernatural miracles are real.  But how could skeptics ever accept this massive challenge? We can't, of course, and it is irrational of such believers to even expect us to do so.  Doubt and skepticism are not signs of weakness, despite what you may have been told.  They represent the mature approach, as Michael Shermer demonstrates in his excellent book, "The Believing Brain" (see, for example, the Shermer quote at the end of this post).

So here's my bottom line...when Christians say something was a "miracle", what they often really mean is that it was unexplained.  Do people sometimes recover, from physical illnesses, where the odds are much lower than "60-80%", or "90-95%", in their favor?  Even when the odds are stacked strongly against them?  Of course they do...sometimes...but often they don't.  You can't count only the healing hits, chalk the misses up to god's sovereignty (or ignore them completely), and then call it "evidence" for god's involvement.  It just doesn't work that way.  Unexplained recoveries happen every day.  We should expect them, because the odds are never 100% in either direction.

You can believe that god is responsible, for your mother's/aunt's/sister's/best friend's physical healing, if you want to insist on doing so, but I sincerely hope the above will help you to understand, if even just a little, why former believers like me no longer find this stuff very convincing.

I would leave the believer with one final question, to ponder.  It is a question that haunted me, during my de-conversion, and it eventually helped to engineer a major shift in my thinking.  The question is simply this, "why won't god heal amputees"?

Do you have an answer?

Please think about it.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Empty Platitudes

The longer I am an atheist, the more I realize how much I have truly changed (and am still changing).  As I said to my wife, the other day, what I am coming to recognize lately is that I have a burgeoning passion for, what one might generally term, critical thinking skills.  I'm not sure if I even thought of critical thinking as a skill, per se (as in something that needs to be developed/strengthened), while I was a Christian, but I can see now that it is precisely that.  In some ways this new found passion of mine is also broadening my palette, because lately I am equally bothered by all manner of poor thinking (whether or not it has anything to do with my background in Christianity).  What I mean to say is the changes in me are not *just* about my leaving the Christian faith, as if that complete worldview shift weren't dramatic enough; they go much deeper.

That said, in this post I'd like to discuss three common examples of (what I deem to be) poor thinking in society.  These are views (most?) people seem to endorse that, in so far as I can tell, just don't stand up to scrutiny.

What Doesn't Kill You Will Only Make You Stronger

This is one of those phrases that we hear all the time.  Even Kelly Clarkson has a hit song about it.  But what do people really intend to communicate, when they say it to someone they care about?  Well, first off, I think it's clear that they are not talking here about physical strength.  If someone is in a horrible car accident, for example, but it "doesn't kill them", it seems to be quite obvious (and uncontroversial) that the person in question may additionally not be "stronger" for having had the experience (in fact, they might end up in a coma, or a wheelchair...etc.).  So, we can safely scratch physical strength off the list of possible meanings.

No, what most people intend to say instead is that difficult experiences make you emotionally stronger.  And this is where things get tricky because, for the most part, I actually agree with this sentiment.  I myself experienced some abuse, as a child, and today I firmly believe that I am stronger (in certain ways), than I might otherwise have been, specifically because of the abuse.  How crazy is that?!  I suspect that many others, who were abused, would say similar things.

But is it always true, emotionally speaking, that "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger"?  No. Terri Schiavo wasn't killed, by her initial collapse, but did it in any way make her "stronger"?  I think one would be pretty hard pressed to make that case.  Or how about people living with ALS, such as Stephen Hawking?  Would Hawking have been a weaker (or less brilliant) man, had it not been for the diagnosis?  Again, I would have to say the answer here is probably "no".

Sadly, some Christians would thoughtlessly espouse a philosophy, similar to Norman Geisler's, that has certain people pegged as essentially collateral damage in god's grand scheme (although it's doubtful they would dare use that term).  If this is correct than god's ultimate goal, in cases like these, could be to actually make other people stronger (friends or family, for example).  This sort of thinking turns god into a demented sicko, who uses his children in (quite frankly) pretty despicable ways.  It makes us all mere pawns in his chess game.

All Things Work Together For Good

This is the only one, of my three examples, that is discussed directly in the Bible.  The whole verse goes as follows, "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28, KJV).  Incidentally, it's one of the many, many verses I memorized, back in the day, when I went through the Awana program.

There are two catches here.  Notice, first off, that the verse only promises that "all things work together for good" to them that love God.  This provides the perfect out, for Christians, when discussing the general concept in relation to non-Christians.  After all, the Bible never even promised that all things would work together for good for us wretched heathens.

But, even among believers, it seems clear that *all* things still don't work together for good.  How about the couple who loses their only child, to a stray gunshot in a bad neighborhood?  Will that 8 year old's death "work together for good"?  Now wait just a doggone minute, I can almost hear the Christians saying, how could I possibly know that it won't work together for good?  Well...I don't know that, but remember that I'm not the one making the bold claim here.  I'm simply saying that the evidence would seem to suggest that ALL things do not work together for good (even for Christians) in ALL situations.  The onus of proof now lies on the Christian, to attempt to demonstrate otherwise.  I need not prove your belief to be completely impossible, for it to be highly improbable.  As John Loftus has often pointed out, this is an entirely unreasonable standard.

This brings me to the second catch; heaven.  I've noticed that, on this issue, and numerous others, Christians use heaven as the ultimate escape clause.  If you argue effectively that something they believe doesn't hold water, they run immediately to the "but all will be made right in heaven someday" cop out defense.  It's a variation on what I have previously called playing the faith card.  But where is the evidence that heaven even exists?  (Are books like "Heaven Is For Real" the best that Christians have got?)

This also raises another interesting question...does eternal punishment, for unbelievers, somehow also work into something "good" in god's eyes?  Or does he only apply this principle to his chosen elect?  Either way, I'm curious as to how sending sincere unbelievers to hell, for all eternity, might (even in theory) work into the necessarily "good" plan that god supposedly has in place.  You'll have to forgive me if I find literally any master plan, that includes never ending punishment as one of its tenants, to be just a little confusing and extremely hard to swallow. 

Everything Happens For A Reason

This one feels like *the mother* of all false beliefs, and I'd venture to say it's also among those that bother us atheists the most.  Few people seem willing to accept the idea that seemingly random events in life are...well...random!  Come hell or high water, we desperately want there to be a reason behind every little (and big) unfortunate thing that happens. Even Justin Bieber once famously said that rape happens for a reason.  He has no clue what that reason might be, of course, and the truth is Bieber was merely parroting something that falls perfectly in line with his Christian worldview anyway.  (So it was a little unfair of us to blame him for simply saying it out loud.)  If god truly intervenes in the world though (and, if he doesn't, than why bother praying?), indeed it does follow logically to think that "everything happens for a reason".  Having said that, if ever there were a statement that had nearly ridiculous shit loads of evidence stacked against it, this would be the one.  Does every tsunami, earthquake, holocaust, infant death, accidental drowning, freak accident, and so on, happen "for a reason"?  If so, this brings a whole new meaning to the phrase "God works in mysterious ways" (which, as it happens, is itself another totally empty platitude).  I now believe this "everything happens for a reason" business to be simply another manifestation of agenticity.  As the thinking goes, if someone is up there controlling everything, than seemingly random events must not be random at all.  Never mind what the evidence points to, you just have to take it on faith.  (Surprise, surprise.)

As I wrap up, I'd like to circle back, ever so briefly, to make an additional comment on my second platitude; "all things work together for good".  I want to make it clear that, in one sense, I do believe that terrible things can work together for good; but only when we, as human beings, choose to make it so.  Let's re-visit the example I gave, of the child who dies from a stray there any way in which this event could ever be used "for good"?  Well, yes, actually there is.  Let's say the parents of that child decide to travel the country, telling their son's story and speaking out against gun violence.  Truly, this would be a "good" outcome, and something that resulted indirectly from an otherwise horrific situation.  But does this mean that ALL things work together for good?  Of course not.  And it certainly doesn't mean that the child died "for a reason" either.  In fact some parents, who lose a child prematurely, are unable to even muster the strength to continue on with their own lives.  How utterly sad.

At the risk of ending on a cheesy note, allow me to use this opportunity to remind my fellow unbelievers that we need to rally around one another during the tough times in life.  It really is all up to us, at the end of the day, so let's make as much "good" as we can out of the lot that we happen to be dealt.