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.


  1. "I am equally bothered by all manner of poor thinking"

    You mean like those who believe our universe came from another one of an infinite number of universes - this even though there isn't a shred of evidence for ANY other universe other than our own. "Those who make extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

    And this from those people (someone probably like you) who say they don't believe anything unless it's been proven by the scientific method observed, tested, verified).

    As to Romans 8:28. You error lies in the fact that you don't understand the Bible. You correctly stated that the verse is only for those who are followers of Jesus. What you miss or perhaps purposely ignored is that the positive changes promised are explained in vs. 29. The good promised is to be changed into the likeness or character of Jesus.

    1. The multiverse idea is just an idea, one of many. It is hypothetical. I don't think anyone actually believes in it the way that Christians believe in God.

      "You error lies in the fact that you don't understand the Bible."

      How arrogant. Can you please explain to us how having your child die makes you more like Jesus? And what about the child, are they just a tool? Can you really stand behind that verse for every situation?

  2. I suffered a really traumatic work situation and ultimately got laid off. I was truly devastated and I had to admit to myself that I was not resilient enough to just bounce back. I went to a therapist and cried about how unfair the world was. I thought I'd done all the right things and despite not believing in the supernatural I expected Karma to take care of me in return for suffering in silence at work. It didn't happen that way. The bad guy got the promotion. I got reassigned then laid off. Despite having severence pay, I was naturally worried about finding a job before it ran out.

    I had to find meaning and a purpose in my life outside of my job, which I had been really devoted to. I found another job (for 2/3 the pay) but I am not as dedicated as I used to be. This would be pretty much the conclusion that a believer would have to come to, though they would credit God with giving them that new purpose rather than finding it for themselves.

    My theory about the success of Christianity and Islam in attracting converts is that the core philosophy does not promise reward or punishment during the believers' lifetime but afterward. This is impossible to prove or disprove, as opposed to the Jewish philosophy that society as a whole would be punished for not remaining faithful to their jealous deity.

    The Biblical passages that contradict this message turn God into Santa Claus. The problem with treating god as a supernatural Pez dispenser is that he won't always spit out what you want.

    I am white but I have spent a lot of time in black communities and there seems to be a different focus, more on "God give me strength" rather than "God don't let my baby die." It's amazing to me how people in poverty with tragedy all around them can continue to believe in their deity. They must be getting something out of religion other than having their wishes fulfilled. They may say "God give me strength" but what they really get are hugs and good wishes and genuine sympathy from the people around them, many of whom have experienced similar tragedies.

    When a coworker's pregnant daugher & another relative were killed in a drive-by shooting at her brother's funeral, she took quite a bit of time off at work and nobody seemed to know what to say when she came back. I caught her alone finally and said I felt sympathy for what she was going through even though I couldn't possibly understand what she'd lost, and that what happened was unspeakably wrong and nothing could ever make it right, but I am glad to see her finding the strength to continue, which is what her lost family members would want. She really appreciated me taking the time to say that and to show my concern for her. Idiotic theology's true purpose, in my opinion, is to give people words when they don't have the imagination or courage to straight-up say "It was wrong and you didn't deserve that and I'm here for you."

    Or we could say "Well, maybe God knew that your grandchild was going to grow up to be the next Hitler so he found a creative way to off him in utero."

  3. Great post. "Everything happens for a reason" always bothered me, even when I was a believer. I know it is supposed to make people feel better, but it seems fatalistic to me.

  4. Leaving Christian faith? You never had Christian faith in the first instance; hence you left nothing and you lost nothing. Which also means that quote: "I am equally bothered by all manner of poor thinking (whether or not it has anything to do with my background in Christianity)" that be assured that your poor thinking couldn't possibly be attributed to Christianity :)

    1. You can believe that if you need to. But the truth is I was very much a Christian. I believed it to the core of my being, and had a "personal relationship with Jesus" for many, many years.