The Power of Evil

 

How come you never see a headline like “Psychic Wins Lottery?” ~Jay Leno

When confidential information leaks out of an organization, people suspect a spy, not a psychic. ~John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy

Here we are back again to continue the examination of some common Christian beliefs, using Paul Hale’s An Ordinary Life, An Extraordinary God: Is Anybody Really Listening? as a sounding board. Here we’ll look at the monsters in the closet.

You see, like many not only is Paul a big God believer, he’s also a genuine believer in the powers of darkness to use mediums, spirititists and so forth. This tends to be a less explored area when it comes to critiques of the Christian religion, but such thinking is not uncommon. For many believers unseen dark forces are all around us, tempting us, and fighting over our very souls. In his book, one of the Hale’s first orders of business upon buying a house was exorcising it with prayer and praise songs, “claiming it for God.” People had been killed in it and stashed in the basement even while they were in the process of purchase, which is one of the more interesting tales in Paul’s book. So it’s understandable that the young couple had a case of the heebie-jeebies going in and wanted to “cleanse” the house. Alas, that is where that tale tapers off, so we’ll move on to Paul’s other tales of the occult.

Paul describes being asked by a co-worker to write what ails him on a card, in his own handwriting, to hand over to some readers at a psychic fair. Paul says he wouldn’t normally play along, but he decides to be ever so gracious and let the all-powerful God of the universe show his hand and work this out for His own purposes, because apparently God needs lots of help and can’t decide to do that on his own. So Paul prays over his card that it will be unreadable or otherwise blocked from the forces of Evil. This serves as a de facto admission by Paul that he believes psychics can tap into forces to perform supernatural acts. Paul did not attend the event where the people tried to ‘sense’ his card, but recounts his co-worker friend phones and says that two people shook while reading it, and declared the person “must be on drugs” or something. Is that evidence of divine protection? Paul, of course, thinks so. Again, as with other tales, Paul is passing along hearsay. He did not witness his card being read, nor can he report on how the readers reacted to any other cards. Was his the only one they shook at? Were all the other card readings 100% dead-bang accurate? Was his coworker friend so cagey not to tip off the psychic “readers?”  Would the readers have reacted differently if Paul had been there? Paul has no way of knowing.

Here’s what we do know: psychic powers and tarot readings and related shenanigans have never been shown to be reliable or scientifically validated. Paul can appreciate science at least some, because he’s tried to use it to corroborate the Genesis account. But, apparently, he doesn’t need it to evaluate what goes on at a psychic fair.

Tarot cards, Ouija boards, and other so-called occult practices are a lot like religion–you get out of it what you put into it. It’s quid pro quo. Want to piss off a professed psychic? Walk in and ask them, “What’s my name?” See, that’s not how the game is played. And like Paul’s rationalization for his God, psychics have their own mumbo jumbo for why this is so. Astrology didn’t work on Paul for the same reasons it won’t work on me. Neither of us are willing to play along, albeit for different reasons. What’s for certain is that you don’t need prayer for psychic powers to not work.

The Dark Powers would never subject themselves to scientific scrutiny, though, now would they? But why not? Because then we would know “evil” was real? Or dangerous? Why would one think that? Given that the goal of Evil/Satan is to pull as many people into hell as possible, wouldn’t subjecting itself to show that it scientifically works–meaning it repeatedly yields positive results in testing–draw even more people into it? It’s a cunning plan that cannot fail. But thus far Evil Powers have been strangely mute under scientific rigor.

Ah….but maybe God suppresses it so it can’t work. Well, wait. Then you’re saying evil only works when God permits it to work, as if God has his finger on the Evil Power light switch turning it on/off. But then that’s really God doing the evil, right? If I have a poisonous spider in a box, then I open the box so it can crawl out and bite you, knowing with perfect certainty that it will bite you, then I’m as culpable as the spider which, after all, is just being a spider.

Paul wasn’t finished with tales of the astrological merry-go-round. Another co-worker, Susan, who rode into work with him was always trying to get him to play along with the Zodiac game, too. But Paul always refused to give her his birthday so she could do a reading. Paul tells her if she can correctly guess his Zodiac sign, he’ll tell her when his birthday is (all the while silently praying she will guess wrong). She tells him, “One thing’s for sure, you’re not a Scorpio!” based on his personality not matching what astrology has to say about this sign. Naturally, that is exactly what Paul is. The co-worker continues to insist that it works, to which Paul replies, “Susan, the question isn’t whether or not it works, the question is why it works.”

Well, hold on here a sec. Why would anyone come out of that encounter thinking astrology works? Weren’t we just offered a first hand account that what astrology has to say about Paul’s personality, according to Susan at least, is way off base? Why is failure to guess Paul’s birth sign left to be assumed as God’s protection, rather than a sign that psychic predictions and other reading is, at best, unreliable? Because that’s not the story Paul wants to tell. He just expects the reader to suspend their disbelief and assume God did it. But Susan didn’t need to tap into any powers to take a stab at Paul’s sign that prayer could shield her from. It was based on the knowledge she already possessed based on her previous astrological study.

If you’d like to learn more about how so-called psychics ply their trade, I recommend reading Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium by Mark Edward, who was one of the top “psychics” in the business. It’s a good read.

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Asking For Proof

 

In science, an observer states his results along with the “probable error”; but who ever heard of a theologian or a politician stating the probable error in his dogmas, or even admitting that any error is conceivable? That is because in science, where we approach nearest to real knowledge, a man can safely rely on the strength of his case, whereas, where nothing is known, blatant assertion and hypnotism are the usual ways of causing others to share our beliefs. If the fundamentalist thought they had a good case against evolution, they would not make the teaching of it illegal. ~Bertrand Russell

This blog entry is the continuation of a series using Paul C. Hale’s book An Ordinary Life, An Extraordinary God as something of a sounding board. Some may wonder why utilize a book written by an obscure, uncredentialed author. For in all probability readers have never heard of Paul Hale, much less read his book. Why not single out the stodgy William Lane Craig or that crazed Kirk Cameron? Those are interesting people, to be sure, but they aren’t the kind of people I encounter on a daily basis. At work, at the store, on Facebook, it’s the Paul C. Hale’s of the world that surround me.

Skeptics often ask for proof, or evidence, and the newbie Christian version of Paul Hale wanted that, too. But his brother was there to steer him right. Paul quotes his brother as saying, “We are not to be as Doubting Thomas, who insisted, ‘I will only believe if I see myself!’ Rather, the apostle Paul tells us in Romans, ‘Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.'” Paul then concludes, “I understood that my faith would not and could not depend on what I saw.” But never fear, for Paul’s book is nonetheless chock full of experiences to share which he believes validate his faith despite his insistence that it can’t depend on that. (Plus then there really would be no reason to write the book.) Because it’s only after he “no longer needed a sign to know God is real” that God stops hiding in the bushes to come out and play. God is cagey that way. Kind of like that clichéd story of the rich person pretending to be poor so they get someone who loves them for who they are and not their money. Sure God loves you, but he wants you to fall in line first before he just starts doling out miracles seems to  be Paul’s position. But is this what the Bible teaches? Not surprisingly, you don’t have to go very far to find where the Bible contradicts Paul’s take on the matter.

Perhaps the most oft quoted verse when it comes to skeptics asking for evidence is Matthew 16:4, where Jesus tells the Pharisees and Sadducees “A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas.” When it came to the Jewish leaders, that Jesus fella just wasn’t very cooperative. But, after all, if he’d convinced them, then there might not have been a crucifixion, and God would have to come up with a whole new plan. But moving away from those wicked and adulterous leaders, Jesus goes out of his way to provide signs for unbelievers. In the book of John, Jesus hears about Lazarus and lets him die and rot for four days for the express purpose of raising him from the dead so that the people standing around would believe God sent him. At the end of Mark 16, Jesus says, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: in My name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new languages; they will pick up snakes; if they should drink anything deadly, it will never harm them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will get well.” Mark concludes, “And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word by the accompanying signs.”

In Acts 14:3, Paul and Barnabas testified with signs and wonders. Hebrews 2:4 says God also testified by signs and wonders, various miracles, and distribution of the Holy Spirit. And, least it be forgotten, Jesus didn’t rise from the dead without a trace, he showed himself. So, really, expecting a sign prior to belief doesn’t seem all that much of an unreasonable expectation.

Now, if God really wanted to save the max number of people, why hide? Has this all-powerful, all-knowing,  long-suffering loving God really done all he can do to ensure that “none might perish?” No, according to Paul, faith has to come first. Only after refusing to trust in what you can see will God grant his favor. Let him into your heart and, once you agree with Paul’s view, that should be proof enough to know you’re right. Does it go without saying that if you already believe in UFOs you are more likely to believe the fuzzy picture is really an alien spacecraft, or that alien visitors helped build ancient civilizations? And isn’t an exhortation that one should not require proof to believe exactly what one would expect to hear from someone who has no proof?

 

It’s a solid axiom that belief precedes reason. The result is a perilous, subjective approach prone to personal bias and prejudicial confirmation; instead of following where the evidence leads, one tries to take the evidence where they want to go. I did it for years. By Paul’s standard–belief independent of what is seen and testable–one can validate any position. It makes for an unfalsifiable claim and, thus, is worthless. And I seriously doubt Paul would lend credit to such a statement coming from, say, a Mormon. And yet they’re just as sincere in their belief. So why would he think such should be a valid position for him? But the more you talk with people, the more you realize how much they rationalize their position, and what little credence they give to contrary ideas. I subtitled my blog “no one is ever as reasonable as we imagine ourselves to be” for this very reason. It’s a reminder to myself that I can be wrong. But truly, truly, I say unto you: an omniscient God who thinks that unverifiable miracles delivered through a superstitious people thousands of years ago by questionable transmission should serve as a sufficient tool to convince people of His existence hasn’t put a lot of thought into the matter. Or just really doesn’t want to reach that many people.

Lunar Apocalypse

I was dreamin’ when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray. But when I woke up this morning I could have sworn it was judgement day. The sky was all purple there were people running everywhere. Tryin’ to run from the destruction and you know I didn’t even care. ~Prince, 1999

The lunar eclipse is nearly upon us, and thousands of Americans are armed with their special glasses to witness this once in a life time event. That is, if those pesky clouds don’t get in their way. But, you can’t have an astronomical event like this without some doom and gloom, too. The grand misanthropic ancient tradition of interpreting the workings of the universe as impending human peril for their trespasses and sins is alive and well to this day.

As Anne Graham Lotz writes, referencing Joel 2:31, “I knew with hair-raising certainty that God’s severe judgment was coming on America!” Anne says she felt compelled to repeat this warning she had given earlier due to the upcoming eclipse. You see, in the bible Babylonian King Belshazzar was partying the night before the Persians sneaked in and overthrew the empire. Well, a lot of people are throwing eclipse parties and, well, you can see the obvious connection here. Anne finishes hoping that “in the midst of His coming wrath, God would remember mercy.” Because, given his advanced age, we all know he’s been known to be the forgetful sort.

And I just don’t understand this kind of constant fear mongering, whether it’s a lunar eclipse, a Mayan calendar, or whatever happened last week in the Middle East. When people didn’t comprehend how or why things like earthquakes, comets, and solar eclipses happened, sure. But most of these things today are understood, and when it comes to something like an eclipse we can predict with precise calculations, not only far into the future but eons into the past. Which means that, if we are to use Anne’s interpretation of an eclipse as a “warning from God,” we have a pretty good idea of when he’s going to be pissed on our calendars for years to come. And the thing is, even if we all repented right away, the eclipse is still going to happen no matter what. It would seem a more attention grabbing tactic for God would be if the eclipse didn’t happen. Like if the moon took a detour and went around the sun instead of passing over it like we all know is supposed to happen.

Taking an event like this seems to me no different than when my pastor’s told me God had a plan for my life. There’s no way to show there is a plan, but you just interpret the events in your life as if there is one. Likewise, if something terrible does happen, people like Anne can tell us that “God warned us with that eclipse” that was totally going to happen anyway.  Or if nothing happens then God has suspended his judgement (but he’s probably still stewing over how awful we are).

Anne is tame, though, compared to some others. Christian numerologist Dave Meade claims the August 21st eclipse is a harbinger of the planet Nibiru (aka Planet X) colliding with Earth around September 23rd. Of course, this isn’t the first time Nibiru conspiracy theorists predicted this collision.

Party on, friends.

The End Cometh Not

 

“The End is Nigh!” the man shouted.
“Is there still time for hot chocolate?” Riley asked.
The-End-is-Nigh guy blinked. “Ah, maybe, I don’t know.”
― Jana Oliver, Forbidden

I’ve written about this before, and I’ve just learned to live with the disappointment. The End didn’t come. Again. I post this because it is such a constant recurring subject, and it’s good to get it out of the way up front. Take for example Harold Camping’s prediction The End would come October 21st, 2011  (after a previous prediction the Rapture would come in May of that same year failed), which received more ridicule than not. That is, when it received attention at all. He’s far from alone in his failure. And when it comes to failed prophesy, contrary to what one might expect, the end result tends to be strengthened belief as reasons for the failure are explained away. Unfortunately Camping won’t be teasing us anymore with his eschatological buggery, since his own end came on December 15, 2013.

But most End Timers are a bit more circumspect in their approach. There’s a plethora of Christians who are savvy enough not to peg The End with a specific date other than “real soon.” Events in the Middle East are oft presented as Exhibit A, with last week’s natural disaster being Exhibit B, C, D, and so on. These folks aren’t quite brave enough to peg a date, or even year, but the impression is that it’s right around the corner. Often, depending on the age of the given individual, within their life time. They’re really hoping for that Rapture Get-Out-Of-Death-Free card.

Popular Christian end times eschatology today is primarily driven by dispensational premillenialism. Its roots are most often attributed to one John Darby in 1830 (making the position as a coherent whole less than 200 years old) who made sharp distinctions between grace and the law, earthly and heavenly people of God (Israel and the church), and went by “literal” interpretation of the fulfillment of prophecy. Under dispensationalism, history is divided into a number of epochs, or dispensations, in which God works out his plan and exercises his authority and relationship to man in distinctive ways, like a restaurant changing up its menu to keep it fresh. This is not what the position is known for, however, and not too many people seem to care about this aspect. It is the End Times scenario that captures and fires the imagination, with a pretribulational rapture, the rise of the Antichrist, and seven torturous years of tribulation (often especially bad for the Jews). Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins’s prolific Left Behind fictional series are based upon this theological framework. LaHaye is one of those who has been cagey enough not to peg a date, either, but in considering how “close” we may be it’s worth noting the authors found it not untimely to include the now deceased Mother Teresa, who is raptured in the first book ( published 1995). Even though she was Catholic and all.

All predictions that the world will end, regardless of faith or origination, share one thing in common: failure. A small fact the Chosen don’t like to be reminded about. This may be said of them: they are very forward-looking. Just because the flavor of the month/year didn’t turn out doesn’t mean it won’t be a hit the next. More facts will line up, and there will be more reasons to believe than ever before. And thus they’ll say, “The chances now are greater than ever before.” Which goes without saying, given the failure of all previous predictions. Any chance is greater than no chance. The very life blood of modern prophecy is “adapt your view and move on.”

It’s natural for people to want to live at the conclusion of things. To be in the movie’s climax. Some segment of every generation has believed they were living in The End. Not only are we living at the end, things are always Worse Than They’ve Ever Been, contrary to evidence against. And the world keeps spinning.

I was still just a pup when Hal Lindsay’s (some say the godfather of modern prophecy) book The Late Great Planet Earth was released, followed in 1980 by The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon.  The later book warned of something called the “Jupiter Effect,” which amounted to all the planets lining up in 1982 in a straight line perpendicular to the sun (in itself an inaccurate description). This alignment would cause the earth to slow ever so slightly, causing stress to fault lines which would result in tumultuous earthquakes. There would be fiery storms on the sun’s surface, calamity and chaos, dogs and cats living together…typical end of the world stuff. Even after the scientists who had postulated this stretch of imagination said “no way,” Lindsay continued to push it. Yeah, none of that happened. 1982 came and went like most any other year. That does not end the Hal Lindsay story.

The Late Great Planet Earth had made it clear, if not precise, that Christ was to return in 1988. The reason being that a biblical generation is often equated to 40 years, and that Israel had been reestablished as a state in 1948 (the restoration of Israel is a critical component for fulfillment of prophecy in most dispensational circles). The whole “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt. 24:34) is crucial here (ignoring the obvious context that the verse was talking about way back when). 48 + 40…you get the math. Meaning believers (subtracting 7 years for the tribulation) should have been raptured in 1981, leaving the unbelievers and misguided Jews behind to suffer. And while 1988 was quite enjoyable to me on a personal level, it also came and went like most any other year. And again, not the end of the Hal Lindsay story.

Lindsay adjusted his obviously wrong predictions in the 1990s to start in 1967 with the capture of Jerusalem by the Jews. That would put Jesus back…mental math…hey, around 2007. Ooops. But Lindsay’s constant revisionism, of which you might guess there has been a lot, has not dampened his popularity. In a 2007 video he said he would “look at the prophetic trends of 2007…Those events are now occurring at breakneck speed and the pages are flying off God’s prophetic calendar” followed closely by “I am not a prophet. I am, however, a careful interpreter of what God’s word predicts will be happening in the world just before Christ’s return to earth.” Honestly, I don’t know why anybody would think this about him.

And remember the Y2K crisis? When thousands of people were sure they’d be living in the dark and planes would fall from the sky at the tic of midnight? It was a tempting doomsday scenario that sucked in many bible pundits, whether they believed it or saw a quick buck. Grant Jeffries was sucked in by it (but poor Jeffries is sucked into just about every new cock-eyed thing that comes along, after which he promptly writes a misinformed book–or, assuming the worse, he just takes advantage). Jeffries, being not only a bible pundit but also a financial type of guy, was not only predicting doom and gloom, but was also willing to offer his financial cunning to help you through it. But a blurb at the beginning of the book reads “The author and publisher cannot be held responsible for any loss incurred as a result of applying any of the information in this book.” Which is the hallmark of every great Prophet–listen to me, but don’t expect me to take any responsibility for being wrong! Hal Lindsay was right there with them, slinging out a video titled Facing Millennial Midnight: The Y2K Crisis Confronting America and the World. The back read “Y2K is a logic bomb that could do to our civilization what the iceberg did to the Titanic. Are you safe? Is anybody safe? What are the experts saying? Are you ready for Millennial Midnight?” And Christians wonder why they are called naive.

It’s interesting to have a collection of prophesy books spanning time just to see how they change. Some prove amusing after the years have passed. My favorite by far, and the only one I make sure to keep, I found in a bargain bin in 2001 or early 2002. It was entitled 50 Remarkable Events Pointing to the End: Why Jesus Could Return by A.D. 2000 by one Ed Dobson. It has a yellow sticker in the upper right hand corner that reads “Sale $7.97 (reg. $12.99),” and right above the sale price it says “Slightly Imperfect.” That was, of course, referring to the condition of the book, but it gave me enough of a cynical giggle to buy it for 99 cents.

Certainly Christians aren’t the only ones to fail miserably at predicting The End, but they do seem to make an ungodly amount of money perpetuating said fears. It was pushed to new publishing heights with the Left Behind series, and every news-making headline in the Middle East seems to warrant another book (often a “revised and updated” one). Saddam Hussein graced many of the apocalyptic book covers for a time, but he was found hiding in a hole and is dead now. Scratch that. And I think it is the constant rearranging and bargaining that bothers me the most. I don’t really care if people want to predict when The End will be, but you should only get one crack at it. After that, you have to shut the hell up. We’ll shuffle you off to some nice quiet job where you can genuflect on your bad timing.

I’m sure the years to come will be just as entertaining from The End standpoint, and the History Channel (remember when they used to talk about history?) is sure to keep me informed on all Nostradamus has to say…again. Perhaps not as exciting as the anti-climaticism of those interpreting the Mayan calendar in 2012, but like bubble gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe, The End follows us around wherever we go. The aggressive actions of Russia of late are sure to spark the Gog and Magog interpretation (again). Maybe even as a nation the United States is grinding to an end. We are, after all, past the expiration date for a civilization based on our freedoms. But nations come and go. The world keeps spinning.

Beware Those Other Christians

It has happened that all the answers which I have seen to the former part of the Age of Reason have been written by priests; and these pious men, like their predecessors, contend and wrangle, and pretend to understand the Bible; each understands it differently, but each understands it best; and they have agreed in nothing but in telling their readers that Thomas Paine understands it not. ~Thomas Paine, Age of Reason, Part Two

So if you’re an atheist, freethinker, skeptic, secularist, or igtheist such as myself and think Christians judge you harshly, don’t feel bad. They judge each other too. In fact, the vibe is some of them probably shouldn’t even be calling themselves Christians, the way they treat God’s infallible Word. Kind of a “no true Scotsman” argument. I keep a diverse range of friends and acquaintances because I don’t want to live a closed off existence, and therefore ideas are not closed off either. And so pearls such as this sometimes hit my media walls:

Beware!

That doesn’t seem full of hubris nor a begging the question fallacy at all, right? And you know, those Christians, dem dere are the ones you have to look out for. Those with their own ideas and feelings, because we all know how dangerous ideas and feelings can be (presumably the person who posted is serving only as a God conduit with no thought or feeling of their own put into this). So even though I am no longer one of “those Christians” or any other faith bearer, that didn’t stop me from jumping in. It was a short conversation and went something like this:

Me: Interesting. Can you objectively demonstrate your interpretation of scripture is not based on your ideas and feelings as opposed to other Christians?

Xn: I believe one can.

Me: Based on your own ideas and feelings?

Xn: No…

Xn: I believe the Bible is the infallible word of GOD. Scripture does not need anyone to add or take away from it.

Me: Okay.  If your belief isn’t based on your own ideas and feelings, where does it come from?

Xn: From the word of God. Do you believe the Bible is the infallible word of GOD? [Notice the shift in trying to place the burden on me?]

Me: I have no evidence to support such a claim, but if you have objective evidence to the contrary, I’m happy to listen. So you believe your thoughts and feelings on this matter are imported into you from an outside source? How does one reliably differentiate your word of God from the word of God of those thinking/feeling Christians your meme warns us about?

Xn: If you don’t believe the bible is the infallible word of GOD then we really have no foundation to continue this discussion. The bible is clear on casting pearls. It is something you just don’t do.

For those of you not so familiar with the bible, that’s a reference to Matthew 7:6, which reads “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” So, basically, the conversation ended with this Christian calling me a pig, which is probably not the best diplomatic approach to reaching an unbelieving world. In fact, it is quite at odds with what the bible says elsewhere: “Always be prepared to articulate a defense to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But respond with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who slander you will be put to shame by your good behavior in Christ.…” (1 Peter 3:15 -16). Not so much in this case.

A point of disagreement seems a good starting point for a discussion to me. And the infallibility of the bible was irrelevant to the question at hand. Even if one grants that for the moment, the real question in this matter would be, “Is your interpretation of the bible infallible?” So much so that you can say those Christians who disagree with you are wrong and should be avoided? That was something this Christian wouldn’t face. And with good reason it seems to me, as I know no way to objectively show that one’s reasoning bypasses one’s own ideas and/or feelings. Perhaps this Christian should have paid more attention to the verses immediately preceding the one he quoted, Matthew 7:3-5, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” No doubt this Christian believes their vision to be log free. But, again, how does one know that with objective certainty? Just as Thomas Paine says, “each understands it differently, but each understands it best.”

Not every Christian uses such undiplomatic tact, and others try to be genuinely helpful, even if while doing it they are looking at you as a potential convert. This bothers some unbelievers, but not myself, as I don’t see a way to talk to somebody about their faith and them not try to be persuasive about it. And, truly, I can be persuaded, given evidence. But faith doesn’t operate on evidence, or at least not so far as I have been shown. As Joseph Campbell once quipped in a lecture, “They call it ‘make believe’ for a reason.”

I’ve been told that faith operates on more than intellectualism and, indeed, Proverbs 3:5 urges the faithful “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” and other verses also exhort followers to not trust in the wisdom of man. But when you get down to the nuts and bolts, everybody uses their intellect and reasoning to come to conclusions. Experience and emotion all have to pass through the brain before one can interpret it into cogent ideas and feelings to be passed along. It is impossible to “lean on the Lord” with anything but your own understanding. Of course, our beliefs can be greatly influenced by society and familial influence, which all exert tremendous pressure to conform. It’s not surprising that most of the kids I grew up with in small town America are today Christians and not, say, Hindus. Almost all of them that are of faith, hands down, would reject accepting the message the nice Mormon boys, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Islamists (if they went door to door) have to deliver if told they shouldn’t “lean on their own understanding” but just trust in this other religion. Just, you know, all those people telling you what to believe growing up couldn’t possibly be wrong, right? And they’ve had their own life experiences interpreted through this indoctrinated lens, so that blessings are attributed to Jesus instead of, say, Vishnu.

I’ve also been told to just pray to the Holy Spirit about it. If I pretend hard enough, I’ll come to think God is real I guess is the angle? That is, unless you’re a Calvinist. Then it’s all on God. But here’s the deal on that either way: an omnipotent, omniscient God knows exactly what it would take to make me believe, and if he hasn’t done that he’s not trying very hard. Such a god should have no trouble convincing me they exist. Christians often say atheists don’t want to believe in God so they can do what they want. This is a non sequitur. There’s no reason why belief would necessarily entail obedience. After all, that Lucifer fellow totally believed and he rebelled, right? Thus I can’t believe this God is all that interested in saving me from his own eternal torment that’s been percolating lo these many millenia. What makes belief in something that can’t be demonstrated to be true such a virtue that God (who wants to save us really, really bad) doesn’t just reveal himself? Show me another area in life where such belief would be considered virtuous.

Then I’ll be told that the bible is self-authenticating. This is like Crest telling us it’s the best toothpaste ever. That’s exactly what we’d expect Crest to say. This leads unavoidably to circular reasoning. The bible is the claim. A claim can’t authenticate itself. We run into the same situation when Christians tell us God can’t lie. How do they know God can’t lie? Because the book that same God wrote says so! D’oh! Or “it’s all part of God’s plan.” Meaningless statement. How would you show something is not part of God’s plan? And, by the way, when the vast majority of the creation it is claimed God loves so much is going to a fiery hell, that seems like a real crappy plan.

Failing all else, I will be given lists of books as appeals to authority or, more likely, due to the fact many people feel inadequate in their ability to convince others by their own testimony. Or they’re just lazy–“Go read this book by so-and-so and if that won’t convince you, too bad, but my personal effort ends here. I can’t be bothered with your pesky nay-saying.” For starters, and what most don’t realize, is that I worked in Christian retail for a number of years. Even if I haven’t read the particular book suggested, I’ve certainly read one similar to it. I was especially fond of books presenting multiple points of view: Four Views on Revelation, Five Views on the Law and the Gospels.  Many are at complete loggerheads with each other; for example, preterism and dispensationalism, the former of which proclaims most (and in the case of full preterism, all) prophecy in the bible has been fulfilled, and the later that the Second Coming is yet to happen.

Ah, well, those Christians, I suppose.

 

Free Will

Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in. ~Mark Twain

One of the timeless questions of religion and philosophy is whether man has free will. Indeed, the topic has been cause for great divides in the church, with Calvinism/predestination on one hand and Arminianism/free will on the other. Both will pull out this and that biblical verse to support their case. But what about God? This topic is not debated as often. While the debate over man’s free will, which now spills over even into science, has been going on for centuries, nobody much poses the question about the righteous dude in the sky. I believe the first inclination would be, at least for those who fancy such lofty sky lords, yes. God must have free will. He’s God, after all.

But wait. God can do only good. In most Christian circles there is no chance of him performing an evil act. Ever. Even though by default he was the one who allowed evil to exist in the first place. So how can he have free will? As all-powerful as he might be, by the virtue of this definition of being incapable of an evil act (much as Christians say of man that he is incapable of any good on his own), God can not have free will. Just as it is said man is born to sin and in bondage to it, incapable of doing right since the Fall, so in like respect God must be a slave to “good.” What’s the problem with that, you might ask? Nothing, I guess. I reckon you could say that is a good thing, if true. But it’s not free will. It will be argued then that God has free will, but just lacks the desire to do evil. But it’s also hard to see how one can call God good in this sense. People are called ‘good’ when they do right when they could have done otherwise. Let me illustrate for further clarification: we don’t consider animals that kill and eat other animals to be either good or evil, that’s just their nature and what they do to survive. But that’s not the case when it comes to people killing people. If God is no different from those animals, that it’s just his nature, then likewise there is no reason to call him either good or evil.

But more to the point, if God can have free will and not be evil, he should be able to create us the same way–with free will but incapable of performing an evil act. After all, isn’t that what heaven is supposed to be like? At that point, your seat is secure, right? Because you’re not going from bondage to sin to bondage to God, right? So why all the drama and tortured souls to get there? If God can do only good, and is all-powerful, how can there be the possibility of evil, even in a passive sense? It thus seems to follow that the existence of evil, of an eternal place of torture and torment called hell, must be good, or such things wouldn’t exist under such a luminous being.

One of the common arguments against these questions and angle of reasoning is, “God doesn’t want robots. He wants people to freely choose Him.” As humans we can relate very well to this sentiment. We want our friends and loved ones, our children and spouses, to love us for who we are. But this reasoning simply cannot work with the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God that Christians espouse. An all-powerful, all-knowing God, by virtue of being what He is, can create nothing but robots. There is no mystery, no lack of knowledge, in which a person’s choice of God would be giving him warm fuzzies. Christians will tell us that God loves us more than anything, that he is “long suffering…not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9). That humanity is the crown of his creation. Despite this, we are to understand that God has known from all eternity that his favored creation would fall and that the majority of it (and, for an all-powerful God, I believe we can safely say that this, no matter your view on free will versus predestination, serves as a resounding fail) would be thrown into an eternal torment he created. But gosh, He loves us. At no point did this all-powerful, all-seeing God go, “maybe I should approach this differently, because gee, I’d like to save more than a handful of these cute guys.” No, it is quite clear that this God does not love everybody. This can only be the brutal God of Calvinism, the one who says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). At least the New Testament Paul seemed to get it. Calvinists are okay with this, because it’s not like they are getting pitched into hell. They are the special elect. Sucks for you, though. Of course, a God that finds fault with a creation that He created to be damned is, of itself, problematic and Arminians interpret the verse a different way by jumping through a different hoop. It is complications such as this that have led some believers to what is called open theism, which posits a God that, in some sense, puts his power in his hip pocket or otherwise turns it off and that the future is not so predetermined. Ergo, it is open. Hardline fundamentalists regard this as heresy.

And what makes something Good? Another option is that an act of God is good by virtue of God being God, regardless of what the act may be–because God declares it to be so, and so by virtue it can be nothing less. Whether it is snuffing a race of people because he is angry with them or hardening pharaoh’s heart to demonstrate his power, it is all good, because God is the doer. That’s more problematic than it sounds, for either God creates good by virtue of what he decrees, or good exists extraneous from God. If something is good only because God says it is–ergo he creates good–then murder, rape, theft, it can all be good. God only need give the nod. And in Old Testament times, he did. If, however, good exists extraneous from God, if certain things hold true regardless and by which God himself is restricted, then it must be said something higher than God exists. And if God can only do good because that is so much a part of his nature he can do nothing else, then good is more powerful than God. If the former is true, all God has to do is declare everything good. Problem solved, we all go to heaven. That doesn’t seem to be the case, though. God is bound, he can’t just say what is good and what is not anymore. There is a code that governs and which God must follow, even if we don’t fully understand that code. In defense one might say God IS the code. Which would also be to say, of course, God has no free will. He’s a program, a robot. And, again, a robot can be considered neither good nor evil, but only follow its programming. In this sense, God is no different from the robots he doesn’t want.

So it’s not a question of if God doesn’t, for instance, lie to us just because he’s such a great guy, but if God even has the capacity to lie. Consequently, if there is no capacity, there is no chance for temptation or desire. And how could a being with no capacity of choice possibly relate to the humans who face temptation and by whose choices they are judged? The concept of choice, of temptation, would be an alien concept. Some argue that is why God became man, to better relate to the human experience. But, generally speaking and definitely in fundamentalist circles, that’s not the reason given. That whole death and resurrection was also part of the program.

Which leads one to wonder exactly what heaven will be for those who make the cut. Heaven is most oft portrayed as a place of no suffering, no tears, no pain, and, of course, no evil. There is simply the adoration and bliss of being with and serving God (though I’m not sure what that service would entail). The Bible seems to make it clear there will be gradation or levels attained based on service/performance during your earthly existence, with the saints certainly being right at the top on Cloud Nine. But maybe you only make Cloud Five. Still, it’s heaven, and you’re perfectly happy right where you’re at, because there is no regret or envy, and certainly no sniveling. Given that you’re going to be perfectly happy no matter what cloud you land on, as the actor asks, “Exactly what is my motivation here?” Just get your foot in the door. To be honest, given one looses all desire to do anything but praise God, it sounds like a brainwashing program to me. And, to paraphrase a point made by Matt Dillahunty, I know such a heaven cannot exist, because it would make my beloved family who do believe sad to know I was not there. There is no way my grandmother is happy in heaven if she sees that I’m going to hell. If she is, or the memory of me has been wiped or altered or whatever it is God does against her will (because I can’t imagine someone wanting to forget their loved ones), then quite simply she is no longer my grandmother.

Such are the conundrums when your god is  elevated from a pleabian god amongst many to Master of the Universe.

 

 

Reasons To (Not) Believe

The struggle to believe and reason through faith is a constant battle for the faithful. Reasons To Believe is an organization that aims to meet this endeavor with a blend of modern-day science and biblical exegesis. It’s an organization I have more than a passing familiarity with. A younger, more faithful me once enrolled in their home study apologetics course. In a world where science and logic call metaphysics into constant doubt, it was the greatest factor keeping me tied to a tenuous belief as I grew older. The leading members of RTB aren’t just bible thumpers. They’re astrophysicists, chemists, biologists, and more. Unlike their interfaith rivals (the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis come to mind) served by young earth luminaries such as Ken Ham, RTB holds to a scientifically friendly old age creation date, the Big Bang theory, and some of them hold to a local (as opposed to global) flood. Their goal is to come up with scientifically testable models that support the bible. I have left my faith, but I still like to keep my toe in the theological swimming pool. So I still drop in on RTB now and again to see what they think they have up their sleeve.

There are some questions that continue to haunt the faithful throughout the centuries even while they bracket bible verses with scientific overlay to give hope. Such as why does an all-powerful righteous deity allow evil and suffering (aka the problem of evil). Fazale Rana, biochemist and Executive Vice President of Research and Apologetics at RTB, tried to answer this age-old question in regards to one example: earthquakes. You can read his original article here. Fuzz’s conclusion? It’s the fault of corrupt governments, not God. Seriously.

Fazale clearly seems to have his head out of the game in this article. At one point he writes “more deaths occur in poverty-stricken parts of the world” where, as one might expect, building codes aren’t the best and you get by with what you can, and then writes “yet, there’s another factor at play. Some countries experience more…deaths than expected based on the country’s income.” So, you live in ramshackle slums, your chances are better of dying in a severe quake. Kind of like if you don’t have a good health care system, that disease is more likely to kill you. Makes sense. But then Fazale wants to tie earthquake deaths to corrupt countries, quoting Transparency International as saying “It is in these countries that about 83% of all deaths from earthquakes in the past three decades have occurred.” The most “striking in comparison” for Fuzz are the two 7.0 quakes that hit Haiti and New Zealand, respectively. He says, in essence, that Haiti suffered casualties topping 300,000 because their government is corrupt and that New Zealand, being pillars of governmental virtue, had a death toll amounting to zero. His bottom line? “Quake-related deaths stem from, in large measure, moral failings and could rightly be understood as an example of moral evil, not natural evil. Blame corrupt humans, not God.”

Wait a minute. What?? Because God is punishing the poverty-stricken because they are subject to bad governance? Or God would stop earthquakes if governments would just straighten up? Certainly a case can be made for better architecture resulting in a lower death toll, but how does that play out historically under this notion? You know, before architecture reached this zenith. Under Fazale, I take it he believes we should be living under a nanny state government whose duty it is to keep us out of poverty and provide us with the best in quake-proof architecture. At no point does Fazale, besides leaving the definitions of poverty and corruption parameters undefined, scientifically demonstrate how governmental corruption is a better explanation for quake deaths than, say, this: Haiti is 10,641 square miles with a population density of 781 per square mile, while New Zealand is 103,734 square miles with a population density of 39 per square mile. Call me silly, but I believe where you have the most people crammed together, especially when that differential margin is extreme, is where your higher death toll is going to be regardless of how unpleasant your government is. So much for looking at this with a scientific bent.

This is what happens when believers stretch their “science” trying to make a case for or defend their God when they really don’t have a good explanation. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” One of the reasons I became disenchanted with RTB was their propensity for reading science into every passage of scripture they possibly could. Because at some point poetry and metaphor is just that, it’s poetry and metaphor. It doesn’t need a scientific underpinning to enhance it. By it’s very nature poetry and metaphor is subject to wide ranges of interpretation, and the Bible is far from western literature. So, much like people’s interpretation of their god, you pick the interpretation that best enforces your belief of what should be. That’s what believers do the world over, and RTB is no different.