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.

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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.

Religious Atheism?

Atheism is a religion. ~Lisa Kennedy Montgomery

And with that quip above on the HBO Real Time with Bill Maher show Lisa Kennedy Montgomery unleashed a floodgate of irate replies from unbelievers across the fruited plain that atheism sure as hell is not a religion. Kennedy didn’t have much chance to defend her statement on Bill’s show, but she did get that chance within the pages of Reason magazine. So is Kennedy right? Is atheism a religion?

Kennedy writes in Reason “the problem doesn’t seem to be so much in pinning the term religion on atheism, but defining religion in the first place. No one really wants to do this…No one I spoke to…really wanted to take this cloud and pin it down in the examination tray.”  But that’s not true. I do. Certainly people have their own definitions of words and what “religion” (or atheism) means to them and, if you’re not careful, you can end up talking right past each other. For instance, Catholics and Protestants both talk about God’s grace, but grace operates differently under their respective doctrines. In Catholicism, God’s grace is dispensed by a priest with the Church; in Protestantism, God’s grace is granted freely to all who ask. After reading Kennedy’s article, I would say there is a good chance Kennedy and Bill were talking past each other. Not knowing what is bouncing around inside another’s head when it comes to matters like this can lead to much confusion, especially when one starts putting their own personal twist to what words mean.

My Meriam-Webster app defines atheism as 1) archaic: ungodliness, wickedness; 2a) a disbelief in the existence of deity; 2b) the doctrine that there is no deity.

You can see the prejudice in the archaic form from a day when being an atheist wasn’t simply a matter of not believing in god(s), but that meant you weren’t a very good person, either. For many people still, “atheist” remains more than just somebody who doesn’t believe. They’re instruments of evil. And so atheism is a term itself in flux, as it transitions to the later definition from the former.

Religion: 1) the belief in a god or in a group of gods; 2) an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods; 3) an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.

On 1 and 2 atheism definitively gets a pass. There is no belief in gods or ceremonies and ritual designed around such. But on 3, which I believe is close to the point Kennedy was driving at, atheism could be a match. I am reminded of a time when a group of friends was working out a good time for us to regularly gather to play games when one of them quipped, “Martin can’t play games on Sunday, he’s very religious. Religious about his football.” And atheists seem to forget that the word religion can be used in this fashion. You can be religious about your diet, religious about your studies, whatever. It’s just saying that x is a significant part of your life dance. And I will contend that Bill Maher’s heathen leanings are a significant part of what he is all about, so far that he went and made a movie about it, Religulous. You might say Bill, and many other notable atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, pursue their irreligiosity with religious fervor. That’s accurate, and there is nothing wrong with that. Dispelling belief in superstition is their mission.

Here’s the problem. When an atheist hears “atheism is a religion” they don’t hear “atheism must be very important to you.” What they do hear is, “Your position is no better or different from mine and takes just as much faith.” And, very often, maybe almost always, that is exactly what is meant. What atheists don’t like is the suggestion they are just like faithful believers–that their stance is one of faith. One of the kickbacks Kennedy received was “if atheism is a religion, then off is a TV channel.” Kennedy goes on to reply “I contend that if your system is about God–or about the non-existence of God–God is still at the center of the argument’s ‘aboutness.’ In the spirit of that ‘off is a TV channel’ comment…God is the TV. Religions are the channels. If it is off, maybe he’s dead or disengaged, but at least you admit there’s a TV.” Later she tacks on “Atheism…is about God and proving such a overpostulated supernatural being does not exist.” It’s a decent metaphor, but it falls way off the mark. Proving that such a being does not exist is not what atheism is about. Theists can’t even begin to agree on an unambiguous, coherent concept of god for it to be disproved.

It doesn’t take faith to not believe in God. At least no more faith than it takes not to believe in unicorns, faeries, magic, and other mythological creatures.  These tenets are all held with equal candor. The only time a TV comes into play is when a group decides its time to “take America back for God” or want to legislate how the rest of us live. This is why religion gets more flak, why, as Kennedy writes, “[atheists use] the same fervor the religious use when making their claims against secular society,” and why disbelief in goblins, ogres, and Zeus is not considered being “religious.” So if God is the TV, or otherwise topic of debate, and talking about the TV makes us religious due to its cultural pervasiveness, fine.  But in no way is being religious about a subject matter in this manner equivocal to that of the religious faith variety.

The enemy is not religion, the enemy is faith. Believing something without proof is a fuck you to all the other people on earth. ~Penn Jillette to Lisa Kennedy Montgomery, quoted in her article.

The Johnson Amendment

I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend. ~Thomas Jefferson

With the Trumpster still hammering on about the Johnson Amendment, it might be good to look at this again.

“It’s all good for churches to speak out on politics,” say the secularists, right before smugly adding, “if they want to give up their tax exempt status.” Kind of as a “gotcha!” That the religious tax exempt status somehow goes hand-in-hand with keeping mum on politics is assumed. The history of this is worth examining, however.

The Johnson Amendment, which can be found here, is not so much an amendment as a law. Under it, tax exempt 501c3 organizations are described as one “which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” And, just as “In God We Trust” wasn’t printed on paper money until 1957, the Johnson Amendment has only been with us since 1954. Consequently, the same year that the words “under God” were officially added to the Pledge of Allegiance. When something is older than a large majority, it’s easy to think things have been that way forever. So it’s good to keep such things in perspective.

Senator Lyndon B. Johnson proposed the Johnson Amendment as a political push to silence other particular non-profits speaking out against his re-election. I know, a politician pushing self-serving legislation?? No way!!! Conversely, tax exemption for churches is something that goes back to the founding of the country and beyond. Historically, before 1954 it was in no way tied to what they could or couldn’t say in regards to politics. And, to point it out again, the Johnson Amendment says a candidate can’t be endorsed (or not). Most churches don’t believe they should be endorsing candidates anyway. They can still speak out on policy issues and, given the nature of what religion is, I hardly see how people would expect otherwise.

According to a 2012 NBC article  a Lifeway Research poll, which is part of the Southern Baptist Convention (don’t get much more fundamental than that), 87% of pastors didn’t believe they should endorse candidates from the pulpit. And only 44% had endorsed a candidate, and that was outside of their church role. The poll carried a +/-  3.2 percentage error. Again, if you want religious ideas to go the way of the horse and buggy, let them out into the public square. Religion would like to think of itself as unchanging truth when it comes to its teachings, but that is far from the case. Consider, for example, the historical milestones of women preaching and interracial marriage. All once frowned upon and forbidden and common place today. Religion will come around and adapt as it has always been forced to do, whether that is in regards to accepting powers shrugging it off (see King Henry VIII) or tossing out its musty hymnals to attract a more hip audience (see modern praise & worship). Either that or it will become irrelevant to the day and age.

No doubt there is a wishful desire on the part of some secularists that religious bodies could just be silenced in these regards. As appealing as it may seem to stifle the opposition, that’s not what living in a free, liberty-minded society is about. Many, if not most, secularists are merely nonreligious and content to coexist with a live-and-let-live philosophy. But there is definitely an anti-religious faction out there, the polarized opposition to religious fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalism is not interested in living in a free, liberty-minded society either, consequently. They also want to stifle lifestyle expression that doesn’t fall in line with their holy book and would rather sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist. The rest of us get caught between the extremes.

I don’t care for the suppression of expression. History has shown that fundamentalism, whatever the brand,  thrives under suppression and persecution. And the petulant Left seems to be trying their own play at this here of late. It’s a bad idea no matter what ideology it springs from. The persistent faithful’s (and political dogma can be a sort of faith) attempts to make the rest of a free society fall in line with their particular moral code has led to bitterness and resent in like respect. More and more we are a polarized country when it comes to politics and culture with a middle ground of interlocution melting faster than the polar ice caps. The best way to test ideas is not to shut them down, but to drag them out into the daylight to be examined and debated.

Senator Lyndon B. Johnson proposed this restriction on tax-exempt organizations. His target wasn’t churches, as I believe I heard Trump once suggest, but was a political push driven by the fear of communism to silence a couple of secular non-profits speaking out against his re-election. Churches and other non-profits were just fallout from the bill. While it’s not hard to imagine a politician pushing self-interested legislation, that doesn’t inherently mean the legislation is bad. This was not a new issue when Johnson brought it to the fore, and the law should be judged on merit, not just what Johnson may have hoped to get out of it.
Both more and less seems to be made of the Johnson Amendment than is warranted. Both secularists and religious proponents alike seem to like implying that churches aren’t allowed to speak out on political matters, and that isn’t so. Per the IRS “churches and other 501(c)(3) organizations can engage in a limited amount of lobbying (including ballot measures) and advocate for or against issues that are in the political arena.” Churches are more than welcome to speak out on abortion, taxes, healthcare, or whatever. What they can’t do is directly endorse (or oppose) a particular candidate as previously noted. Given what dirt that often comes out on candidates down the road, I can’t imagine why they would want to, either.
Those pastors intent on opposing the Johnson Amendment have organized Pulpit Freedom Sunday, aimed at directly flying in the face of this law. Their consequences? Nothing. And it is worth noting that the number of churches that have ever lost their tax exempt status under the Johnson Amendment is exactly zero. That makes the net sum effectiveness of the law, at least against churches, zero. And, consequently, the abolition of the law as a boon for churches also zero. At least from a pure endorsement perspective. This isn’t really about freedom of speech. Who cares if Pastor Bob endorses Trump from the pulpit? What it comes down to, as it so often does, is money. Money for candidates, and money for churches.
It should be pointed out that it is possible for tax exempt organizations to endorse candidates if they file as, for instance, a 501c4. Churches and other organizations, including schools and the ASPCA among many, file under 501c3. This allows their donors to take tax deductions for their contributions, whereas this isn’t allowed under a 501c4. If they wanted, churches could create separate sister organizations under the 501c4 and get the political input they crave (and some other charities do exactly this). Of course, then contributions to that tax exempt organization would not be tax-deductible, and churches don’t much like that because it cuts back on the giving. Turns out, people aren’t as eager to donate to Jesus when they can’t deduct it from their taxes. But here’s the deal. You can’t deduct from your taxes monies paid to directly support a political campaign, so why should you be allowed to deduct from your taxes monies paid to indirectly support a political campaign through a 501c3? The answer: you shouldn’t. So, there is a workaround here. Churches just don’t want to utilize it. This is why they make it a freedom of speech issue for themselves instead of a campaign finance reform one. And, of course, if the Johnson Amendment were repealed, it gets repealed for everybody, not just churches, who are as singularly self-focused here as Johnson.
Many secularists would like to see churches lose their tax exempt status as a righteous civic duty that brings them in line with the rest of society. It’s a civic duty that would bring many a ministry to its knees, as most churches are not mega-churches or headed by pretentious people such as Joel Osteen. But the secularists that think this have not thought the issue through. Paying in means you get a say. Paying in means you have more political power than ever. Paying in destroys separation of church and state. It’s a bad, bad idea. This is the reason churches remain tax exempt, and why 501c3 tax exempt organizations are not allowed to support (or oppose) particular candidates–so they, churches or otherwise, don’t become tax loopholes for political activism.
So,  while I’m all for preachers having the freedom to speak their mind from the pulpit, I do agree that, as a campaign finance reform measure, the Johnson Amendment is a good thing. And that, as par for the course, Donald Trump has mischaracterized the issue with overblown rhetoric. Again.

 

God versus Your Opinion

According to Christians and other True Believers, life does not have meaning unless that meaning is given from a Higher Power, and consequently that Higher Power has Laws. Without that Higher Power and a handy printed revelation it is, if not impossible, very difficult for us to determine right from wrong. And that’s mostly because we’re so messed up and broken. The Book and the revelations found therein are an absolute standard. It’s all just opinion if you don’t believe in a god, and in no way should belief in a temporal book be considered opinion. After all, the True Believer is just passing along what was written. It’s not like they wrote it. They just accept it and, in instances, feel obligated to enforce it upon the rest of us to save the country or whatever.

Given my libertarian leanings I take something of a live and let live approach to how most people want to live their lives. That is, the idea that so long as one doesn’t use force to hurt or defraud others, or otherwise interfere with the equal right of others to live as they see fit, do as you will. This can still lead to some interesting conundrums to complex issues like, say, whether people should be forced to vaccinate their children, where a very personal decision may have detrimental effects on others. But it seems like a good starting point, and it also seems to square up well with the United States Constitution as it was conceived. But it’s not the starting point of any holy book of which I am aware. In fact, it seems downright anathema to most of them going by rules as written (even if those rules are not in fact played out that way in life due to outside social pressures).

Not having a god to fall back on for justification brings up the inevitable, “Then why is it wrong to hurt or defraud others?”  Our brains like to put things in definitive, nicely categorized and labeled bins with desktop shortcuts to absolute answers, and holy revelation is great at helping set those boundaries. As children, we were told a jolly elf was keeping track if we were naughty or nice, and that helped us be especially good for a few days out of the year–mostly in December. As adults it seems many are engaging in a similar trick, which is about as effective as the first at helping us be especially good. The promised punishment is usually worse, though.

I don’t find it necessary to believe in a higher power to justify the position that it is wrong to hurt or defraud others, or my desire to live in a free and open society of equals. Once one gets right down to it, free and open society isn’t what most interpretations of God are all about. We could delve into the philosophy of how God isn’t necessary to validate moral behavior, but it’s not strictly necessary here as the premise of the absolutist is flawed in regard to god(s).

The idea of liberty free from the interference of others isn’t good enough for believers who, despite many of their wranglings to the contrary,  don’t really believe in living in a liberty minded open society. God doesn’t operate under the principles of liberal democracy, but is a monarch ruling from on high. And any attempt to suggest society might be able to find its way without an inspired book millennia old is dismissed as “it’s just your OPINION that hurting and defrauding others is wrong? So what? Why should I be concerned over your opinion?”

Why indeed? Me believing that something is wrong because I don’t think that’s best for the advancement of society and people’s lives, and reasoning with others to achieve mutual ends isn’t good enough because I’m not God and can’t unilaterally enforce my self-approved will across the universe.  But, then again, I don’t see God coming down and doing much enforcing either. It all seems to be done by people. Most of whom can’t seem to agree on what He said, especially when it comes to the finer minutia. And somehow the statement, “Because God said so” is considered in no way an opinion by the faithful. It’s objective fact. And not just any god, but their particular Brand X of god, because each religion believes they have the inside scoop on what the divine really wants. Even though, by their own often admission, God’s ways are mysterious and can’t be understood by the human mind. That’s often in response to some horrific tragedy or when prayers aren’t answered.

This is coming from people who make statements to me like “One guy thinks it’s wrong to rape little girls and another thinks it’s acceptable. For you, that is simply a difference of opinion” presents a severe moral dilemma. It isn’t. And see how the word ‘simply’ is slipped in there? Remove that and it is quite easy to see upon reading again that yes, this is a difference of opinion. What else can it be? The word ‘simply’ is injected to suggest that some differences of opinion are not capable of being rightfully discerned without a Supreme Standard. But who gets to determine what that is?  In my opinion, and under the society I want to live, rape is wrong. I don’t need heavenly verification. In other countries, women are oppressed and forced to live lives of servitude. People are slain for leaving their faith. I believe all that is wrong as well, and again I don’t need heavenly verification. But those countries proclaim to have their own heavenly verification, don’t they? In none of these instances is the Supreme Judge stepping forward to enforce his Law. It’s all carried out by people. Certainly our differences lead to many disagreements, but do we really require God to come together and reason out that, for a number of reasons, rape is a bad thing? But people still like to pull the Santa Claus argument, which appears to lend weight to opinions.

So God may see these things as wrong, but it seems he’s going to let it happen anyway. The belief is just that Evil Doers are gonna get theirs later when thrown into a fiery pit or some other punishment to balance the scales. This enables one to feel a little better about the fact Bad Things are allowed to happen. Although under most Christian doctrine, even if you were a rigtheous dude by most people’s standards but didn’t believe, you’ll get to join them in eternal torment, too. Yay.

The word ‘opinion’ is oft treated as if being “just opinion” robs it of any authority. But that’s an axiomatically unfair approach. Practical opinion (ideas, views, your doctor’s diagnosis) can be put to the test. Effects on society can be measured.  Tag-teaming your God in as supporting your opinion does not make it any more authoritative than any other, or make it any less an opinion. Remember  it was once the opinion of the church that the Inquisition and Crusades were okay, and that converting people at the point of a sword was okay, and burning people at the stake was okay. Church people are full of opinions. Where they err is in projecting those opinions outside of themselves and believing it comes from God instead of people.

Is the only thing holding believers in check their belief in a Law Giver? If they didn’t believe would they turn into Heathens Gone Wild, go about laying baseball bats up against people’s heads because, without God, that suddenly becomes optional? Is that how they acted before they became a believer? It’s a matter of the value you place on life–both yours and others. But it’s not good enough that it’s just society’s opinion that people shouldn’t go around loping heads off. No, for believers only God’s command stays their hand from the sound of it. But that’s a bit scary, too, because God has been known to say it’s okay to go slaughter people. Even your own people. And it’s not that God has become all savvy and grown past that because of a “new covenant.” Christians skewered each other left and right back in the day as well as the pagan opposition (polytheism is much more tolerant by nature than its monotheistic cousins). It wasn’t the Church that stamped out slavery, fascism, or led the way for women’s rights. It was always drug begrudgingly along. It had to change along with the culture it had so long permeated or perish. At least in the West. The Middle East is a whole other ugly story in many places. Loping off heads and stoning people there is still A-okay with God it seems. That is, in their opinion.

But here’s the deal, and why believers don’t want to admit that their views on right vs wrong is based on opinion. It’s not about murder or rape, these big issues modern communities generally all concede to be wrong whatever our moral reasoning. Those points aren’t in contention. No, it’s really about the smaller things. Because if you admit that your take on right and wrong is not based on an absolute Law Giver, but opinion, then you must also admit that it is only your opinion that God says gay marriage is wrong. It is only your opinion that a sexual business contract for profit between two people is wrong. It is only your opinion that children shouldn’t be able to read Harry Potter. Or for adults to buy beer on Sundays. The list goes on and on. And when it’s just your opinion interfering in the personal choices of other people who don’t harm anybody else, well, it just doesn’t seem to carry as much weight as opposed to it being delivered from On High.

And it would be nice here in America if our Christian friends and neighbors would be a bit more consistent in their application of scripture. For while there has been consistent outrage against gay marriage, think about how Christians treat divorce. Christians rail against moral relativism, but in practice they engage (or turn a blind eye to it) every day in regards to what the Good Book says.

First off, they shouldn’t get married at all and devote themselves entirely to the Lord as Paul did (1 Cor. 7:8) for “those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this” (1 Cor. 7:28). Paul believes time is very short, and Jesus would be coming back any moment. But, if you’re going to screw around, you should get married to make it official like in God’s eye. And then you are stuck. Forever. Paul is quite clear about this. Read all of 1 Corinthians chapter 7. The only loophole out of marriage is marital infidelity (according to Jesus, not Paul). And if you do get divorced, you aren’t allowed to remarry. You can let that unbeliever walk out of your life, but nowhere does it say it’s okay to remarry afterwards. And if you’re a woman, well, the bible doesn’t give you any outs. Clearly, not many Christians have taken Paul’s words about divorce to heart, and fewer still not to marry at all. There is plenty more that is ignored, including letting women speak (much less preach!) in church. Also, women are not to braid their hair, adorn themselves with gold or pearls, or wear expensive clothing (1 Tim. 2:9). And what about going into debt? But hey, that was all back then, and things are different now. Today’s Christian culture by and large ignores these New Testament teachings.  But that homosexual marriage, well, we can’t tolerate that.

Perhaps our modern age Christian brethren are merely practicing a bit of Old Testament moral relativism as Jesus described in Matthew 19:8, when he says, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives [not to mention also having a whole bunch of them] because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” So, maybe today’s believers are just hard-hearted, and that’s why it’s okay for so many of them to get divorced without denominational banishment. But there, right there, Jesus says one of God’s main dudes allowed for moral relativism. So, hey, spread the joy.

I don’t know very many Christians who take divorce this seriously. And to all my Christian friends who have been divorced this is not to make you feel bad. But when it comes to marriage and debt, Christians are as bad as anyone. Kind of a ho-hum, the bible said it but god will forgive me kind of saucy stance. We just kind of look the other way when our Christian friends get divorced and ignore it. We don’t kick them out of church or anything. Lawrd, no. Why, now, even interracial marriage is okay. But gay marriage? No way are we allowing that. That crosses God’s line that I’ve magically determined is more noteworthy than my fellow believer breaking God’s immutable laws (that God sometimes allows to be mutable).

So my questions for thoughtful reflection on this matter are thus:

  1. If morality comes from god(s) and not people, how would one objectively demonstrate this?
  2. If you are a believer and stopped believing in god, would you stop being nice (moral) to others? Why?
  3. If we can be nice (moral) to others without belief, is God a necessary component of morality? (If your response is God built into us an innate sense of right/wrong or similar, please see question #1.)

 

A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death. ~Albert Einstein, “Religion and Science,” New York Times Magazine, 1930

 

For further excellent reading, check out Michael Shermer’s response essay (and other views) today at Cato Unbound here: http://www.cato-unbound.org/2014/10/13/michael-shermer/religion-politics-science