The View from Higher Ground

PopesLast week, the good people of Ireland voted to legalise same-sex marriage. Predictably, the Holy Men of the Roman Catholic Church have emerged from wherever it is they secrete themselves when they’re not in their frocks to condemn the outcome. Sour grapes the Holy Spirit prompts Cardinal Raymond Burke to whinge:

I was deeply saddened by the result… I think that you cannot just talk of a defeat for Christian principles, but of a defeat for humanity… I mean, this is a defiance of God. It’s just incredible. Pagans may have tolerated homosexual behaviours, they never dared to say this was marriage.

Of course, same-sex marriage is not ‘a defiance of God’, because there is no God, and marriage is a wholly human institution that we can arrange and change exactly as we like – but perhaps I’m splitting hairs here.

Also lost on the Cardinal is the irony that he speaks for a church (one of several as it turns out) that systematically abused children for many years, attempted to cover up its crimes, lied to victims and, when finally caught out, denied it had done anything wrong. A church, in other words, that has voided itself of all moral authority and has forfeited the right, if it ever had it, to judge anyone else’s ‘principles’ or ‘behaviours’. Those who voted for equality in the Irish vote were right to ignore and defy an organisation as dissolute and hypocritical as the Roman Catholic Church. That this church now believes itself to be in a position to condemn same-sex marriage demonstrates just how shameless and arrogant it is.

To add insult to injury, this Burke goes on to declare that the church should respond to the growth of equality, not with humility and gracious acceptance, but by intensifying its efforts to convert others to a corrupted, lifeless religion:

The church must take account of this reality, but in the sense that it must strengthen its commitment to evangelisation.

Because believing in Jesus, Mary and a whole load of other dead people will make the gay go away. Or something.

Talk about a defeat for humanity.

BurkeCardinal Burke can be seen modelling a fetching chiffon two-piece in – what else – Cardinal red, with a dainty lace number to complement. Here he demonstrates the fabulous fullness of both items, which, regrettably, are no longer available in sack-cloth or ash grey.

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Christians’ Favourite Delusions 34: Atheism is a Religion

NoGodChristians like to claim atheism is a religion. It’s their way of saying, ‘look – atheists are as daft as we are. They believe in bullshit just like we do, except, of course, they’re wrong and we’re right.’ You can see them saying just this here and here and here.

But atheism isn’t a religion, any more than not collecting stamps is a hobby, as Penn Jillette puts it. It isn’t a religion because it is the absence of belief – primarily in a god, but also in any other kind of supernatural being. The atheist knows there are no saviours, angels, devils, demons, ethereal saints or eternal prophets, and no heaven and hell to house them either. Atheism is devoid of any sort of worship of imagined supernatural beings; nor does it address them, commune with them or otherwise revere them. It does not recognise the authority of ‘holy’ books nor that of self-appointed spiritual authorities, including popes, pastors, preachers, imams, mullahs and rabbis. It doesn’t regard anything as sacred, including its own experts; neither Darwin nor the so-called New Atheists are above criticism. (Try that with those who think they represent God’s Truth™!)

Where religionists build their belief systems on the insubstantial foundation of faith, atheists accept nothing on trust. Instead, they look for evidence to support their knowledge and value reason, not dogma – things that are anathema to religion.

Given, then, that atheism is the antithesis of religion and that atheists don’t do what religion demands, it is intellectual dishonesty to insist that atheism is a religion. Those who do so are false witnesses; mistaken at best, liars for sure.

Spontaneous Conversion

st-paul-conversionThe missionaries pressed on into the Amazonian jungle. They were now in uncharted territory. No-one had ever been this far in. And then, sounds from somewhere not too distant; human sounds, human voices – singing even. The missionary troupe emerged into the clearing to an amazing sight. Groups of Amazonian natives gathered together, a rudimentary cross in front of them, towards which they were undeniably directing their worship. These people, whose existence had hitherto been unknown, and who had never before encountered Westerners, were Christians!

Weeks later once basic communication had been established, the tribe’s chief priest and the head missionary communed together. The priest explained how, long ago in the past, his ancestors had recognised God’s presence in the incredible world around them and had opened their hearts to him. As a result – Miracle of Miracles! – God sent them a vision of Christ himself, much as he had to St Paul and the other disciples, and the whole tribe came to believe in Jesus. Ever since then, the tribe had worshipped the one true God and his only son, that same Jesus Christ.

“Amazing,” said the missionary, “so it looks like St Paul was absolutely right when he said God reveals himself in nature and speaks to our hearts to make himself known to us. It’s not as if we ever needed the Bible, or to go round telling people how to be saved. God is more than capable of doing it for himself. Praise the Lord and pass the communion wine!”

What a story! And it happened time and time again as the world was opened up by explorers and missionaries.

Or maybe not. Definitely not, in fact. But it should have happened if what Paul says in Romans 1.18-21 is right, as Ken Ham believes it to be:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.

If God is so obvious in the world that (supposedly) he created and if we humans can see and understand him through it, then why do Christians need to proselytise? Why doesn’t God make his personal presence felt just that tiny bit more clearly – with the odd ‘revelation’ like the one he provided Paul, say – so that people come to believe in him more fully? And by ‘him’, of course, I mean the proper God – the Jesus one. Why does he leave it so that folk seemingly pick up on the special vibes he’s placed in their hearts but then worship a ‘counterfeit’ god, like Allah or Jah or, back in Paul’s day, Zeus? Why doesn’t he provide revelations like he used to, to ensure everyone knows just who it is who’s standing at the door knocking?

If he did that, if God did indeed plant clues to his presence both around us and in us as Paul says he does, then the Bible wouldn’t be needed to convert people. But that’s not what we find, which is that the Bible is essential in perpetuating the God-myth. We wouldn’t even be aware of Paul’s ridiculous claims if they were not preserved in that ramshackle collection of writings.

The indoctrination of others is utterly reliant on two things and two things only. Not God-in-nature or inner prompting or visions, but on ‘the scriptures’ and those who are driven to spread the Jesus-meme. Now does that not strike you as odd? It strikes me as something entirely human, with nothing supernatural about it. If people have to be told, evangelised to and indoctrinated into Christianity, then it can hardly be the case that they see the one true God in nature or have an intuitive feel for him. If that were the case, then we would have discovered hitherto unknown groups of humans who already knew of him and the nonsensical clutter of beliefs that surround him. And we haven’t. Ever.

Christians’ Favourite Delusions 33: Atheists know in their hearts that God exists

DenyTwo tried cliches trotted out by evangelising (i.e. aggressive) Christians are that ‘atheism is a religion‘ and that in their ‘heart of hearts atheists know there really is a god’. Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis is fond of both assertions, as are other equally desperate promoters of unsupportable beliefs. We’ll come to the first in a later post, but here’s how Ham expresses the second:

They (atheists) know in their hearts that God exists, but they are actively suppressing this belief in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). They fight so hard against a God that they claim doesn’t even exist because they know that He really does! We need to pray that, instead of fighting against God, these lost individuals will repent and put their faith and trust in Christ and in what He did for them.

Romans 1.18 that he cites says: For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.

Assuming Paul is saying here what Ham claims he is (it’s doubtful from this verse alone) both he and his hero are demonstrably wrong – as they are about so much. The evidence suggests that while young children look for meaning and assume agency, they do not necessarily attribute these to a god until they are taught to do so by others. The god they then come to acknowledge is the one already prevalent in their social environment. In a predominantly Christian context, they will come to be acquainted with – and may go on to develop a full-blown belief in – the interpretation of the Christian God common within their particular culture.

It is the same for conversion generally. You are more likely to be a Mormon in Salt Lake City, a Roman Catholic in East Timor. If raised in a Jewish environment, it’s more likely you’ll subscribe to YHWH; in an Islamic one, an interpretation of Allah; Buddha – not strictly speaking a god – in a Buddhist one. Statistically, those who adopt a religion and a belief in a god, almost always opt for that which is prevalent in the society into which they are born. This is not god ‘writing a knowledge of himself’ in their hearts, it is a cultural, human phenomenon.

Ham and others see this as evidence for their belief that we all have some sort of ‘god-shaped hole‘ in our psyche that we can just as easily fill with false gods as with the real one (theirs). But this is a shift in the argument; it’s not now that God makes himself known to everyone but that we all find a need for a god. This is not the same thing, nor is it true. Certainly humans have a history of creating gods to explain the strange, magnificent and sometimes hostile universe in which we find ourselves; but this does not mean these many gods exist, as Ham would be the first to admit (c’mon, there’s only one real God – his.) It means only that the human brain seeks pattern and meaning, and has often drawn the wrong conclusions in its quest for them. The gods – and God – are part of these wrong conclusions.

And what of Ham’s assertion that atheists deny their awareness of God because of ‘unrighteousness’ – because, he implies, we just want to live a life of rampant ‘sin’? Well, I admit, I like a bit of a sin as much as the next man, but that’s not why I’m an atheist. I’m an atheist because, like most others, I find no evidence for gods or God either in my ‘heart’, nor in the way the world works nor in collections of iron age stories. Morality doesn’t come into making this assessment. In any case, those who buy into a god don’t have a monopoly on ‘righteousness’, as their weak morals, judgemental attitudes and destructive behaviour regularly demonstrate. More than this, and as Ham admits, Christians are only concerned about others because the Bible says they should be: ‘The reason I care about poverty,’ he says, ‘is because God’s Word instructs me to care, and all humans are made in the image of God as God’s Word tells me.’ This is not righteousness, nor a morality that comes from any real concern for fellow human beings.

Finally, atheists don’t, as Ham claims, ‘fight so hard against’ a non-existent God that we secretly believe in. We oppose Christians and other purveyors of supernatural nonsense when they try to impose their irrational beliefs on others, when they condemn fellow human beings, seek to control them and try to limit their rights in the name of God and the cause of ‘righteousness’.

So, no, don’t condescend, Christians, to tell us we all know that there’s a God that we wilfully ignore. You’re wrong, and I’ll show you even more reasons why you are, next time.

Jesus: The Dark Side

SacrificeDo not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10.34).

Well, isn’t that a comfort. Jesus, who said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ and for whom Christians like to claim the title ‘Prince of Peace’, declares himself to be anything but.

Of course, it’s possible these words were put into Jesus’ mouth once belief in him had indeed started splitting families and communities; between those who subscribed to his cult and those who saw it for what it was. Maybe though he really did advocate armed rebellion – against the Roman and Jewish authorities – rather more than later believers care to admit. Even as they’ve come down to us, the gospels retain references to taking up arms in the cause of God’s Kingdom. For example:

  • Jesus didn’t see the transition from the existing system to the Kingdom as a peaceful one:

Matthew 11.12: From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been coming violently and the violent take it by force.

Matthew 3.10: Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

  • He instructed the disciples to arm themselves:

Luke 22. 36-38: He said to them… ‘the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.’ They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ He replied, ‘It is enough.’

  • And evidently they did:

Luke 22.48-49: Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?’ When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, ‘Lord, should we strike with the sword?’ Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. (Jesus promptly heals the slave and then says, sanctimoniously, that ‘those who live by the sword will die by it’, as if swords weren’t his idea in the first place!)

  • More than this, when, as he clearly believed he would be, Jesus is appointed King in God’s new Kingdom, he hints he will be happy to see all of his opponents put to death:

Luke 19.27: “But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.”

  • Jesus was executed by the Romans as a revolutionary. Crucifixion made an example of those who actively opposed Roman rule. The charge against Jesus was that he was an intended usurper of power; two fellow ‘rebels’ are executed with him:*

Mark 15.26-27: The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two rebels, one on his right and one on his left.

So much for ‘love your enemies’ and ‘turn the other cheek’. So much for the Jesus who does nothing but preach love and forgiveness. So much too for Paul’s mystical Christ. There is a very dark side to Jesus that expresses itself in vengefulness and megalomania. That anyone so disturbed could be considered an emissary from God, let alone God the Son, beggars belief.

 

* Since writing this post I’ve read Marcus J. Borg’s Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. Borg makes precisely the same point about the charges against Jesus (though he sees him as a non-violent revolutionary). He explains that the Greek word used to describe the two killed with him – rendered as ‘rebels’ above – ‘is the term more commonly used for those engaged in armed resistance against Rome – “terrorists” or “freedom fighters”, depending on one’s point of view (p265).

Always and Forever

nurseGod is trustworthy and true. He always keeps his promises. We know this because Christians, either in person or on web-sites, like to tell us so.

Let’s take a look at some of the promises God made back when he only liked Jewish people. How well do they hold up?

As part of his promise (covenant) with Jewish patriarch, Abraham, that he would look after his descendants in perpetuity, Yahweh came up with a particularly gross way for them to sign up:

I will always keep the promise I have made to you and your descendants, because I am your God and their God… Abraham, you and all future members of your family must promise to obey me. As the sign that you are keeping this promise, you must circumcise every man and boy in your family. This will be a sign that my promise to you will last forever. Any man who isn’t circumcised hasn’t kept his promise to me and can’t be one of my people… The promise I am making to you and your family will be for (your son) and his descendants forever (Genesis 17.7, 9-13, 21; my emphases).

‘Always’ and ‘forever’ obviously meant only until God changed his mind – which he did when he came up with the new ‘covenant’. You know the one: ‘believe in Jesus to be saved, no primitive surgery required.’ Of course, Jews still feel the original promise is in force and so keep up the old slicing’n’dicing membership requirement. So who’s right? Jewish people who feel that a promise is a promise? Or Christians who insist God eventually lost interest in mutilating penises? It’s hard to tell, but if it’s the Christians, then God, being omniscient and all, must have known he would change his mind eventually. So why tell ol’ Abe the agreement with him was ‘always’ and ‘forever’?

Then there’s the one where God promises there’ll be a descendant of King David’s on the throne forever:

I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father when I said, ‘You shall never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel’ (1 Kings 9.5).

Oops. David’s line ceased ruling over Israel when the Assyrians defeated it in 586BCE. Since then there has been no king of the Davidic line ruling over Israel. Why didn’t God see this coming? And if he did, why’d he make a promise, with ‘forever’ and ‘never fail’, that he knew he wasn’t going to keep? Yes, I know Christians like to claim that Jesus took over the kingship when he came along, but he didn’t, not really. His descent from David is highly questionable and there’s still that awfully long gap between 586BCE and Jesus’ time that blows a hole in ‘never fail’ and ‘forever’. In any case, Jews, by definition, have never seen Jesus as their king and they’ve got a point: it’s difficult to see how someone dead and/or totally invisible can be king of anything.

Never mind, let’s try another. This time God’s promise that everything’s going to work out okay:

(The Lord) will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore (Isaiah 2.4).

Safe to say this didn’t happen either. Not while people were still using swords and spears anyway.

Finally, what about the promise that’s trotted out every Christmas? –

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever (Isaiah 9:6-7).

Whatever Christians might claim for these verses, they’re not about Jesus. At the risk of repeating myself, I’ll repeat myself: Jesus did not and does not reign on David’s throne. He said he would, it’s true, believing himself to be the fulfilment of ‘prophecies’ like this, but he was wrong, as events went on to demonstrate. He didn’t, in any case, fit the description of whoever it is who’s being spoken of here; an earthly ruler who – yes, you guessed it – has still to show up. We’d have spotted him if he had. Some Jewish scholars think they might have done, pointing to King Hezekiah who ruled Israel in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, for almost 30 years. That’s hardly ‘forever’ though, is it. Yet more evidence that ‘prophecy’ doesn’t ever work, principally because it’s impossible to know the future.

God’s promises are like those of politicians: you just can’t trust them. There has to come a time when those who believe in them must face up to the fact they’re not promises at all, just ancient wishful thinking.

A new creation? Or same old same old?

Preaches3Over at Answers In Genesis, John C. P. Smith (who?) argues that Christianity must be true because of ‘the testimony of countless Christians to the efficacy and potency of the gospel to radically change people’s lives for the better.’ Supposedly, this change is the result of a radical take-over of the individual by the Holy Spirit. As Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 5.17:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

Even as we speak, Christian Voice’s Stephen Green is proposing, in one of his more spiteful and petty blog posts, that this is only way a young activist can be saved from a selfish, insensitive and deluded – talk about the pot impugning the kettle! – ‘gay lifestyle’, whatever that is. But do such changes really happen and are they ‘for the better’?

Speaking from personal experience and observation, I’d have to say they do. Sometimes they entail an apparent overhaul of the convert’s view of life, mindset and values. It’s as if the possibility of a spiritual aspect to life takes them by surprise and everything in their psychology shifts to accommodate new ideas. For others, the change is superficial and merely accentuates characteristics they already possess.

Having said that, many people have life-changing experiences without a religious catalyst; when they survive a bad accident or a potentially fatal illness, for example, or win lots of money; when they come to a full realisation of who they are or ‘come out’; when they first have sex or a baby; when they lose a loved one or experience an out-of-body experience or start a new job or move to a new area… and on and on.

None of these transformations involves Jesus, his Holy Spirit or ‘the gospel’. Humans are capable of the most drastic and radical of psychological change all on their own. How many times have you heard it said that someone isn’t themselves? Or that no-one knows what’s got into them? Or they’re acting out of character? Some even transform themselves without any external event playing a part. You may have done so yourself.

I would suggest that religious conversion is like that. The change can be real, but it has nothing to do with an external, supernatural agent. The human personality or psyche, whatever you want to call it, is much more fluid and pliable than we care to admit. Your self, values and thought patterns are in fact undergoing constant change, sometimes radically and rapidly so. The consistency you feel you maintain, the unchanging ‘you’, is an illusion. You are regularly updated, like the operating system on your computer. You’re not the same ‘you’ that you were last year and are certainly not the same as a decade ago or when you were a child. What you regard as ‘you’ is constructed from constant change.

The change that comes from religious conversion is no different. More, it doesn’t necessarily change you for the better; it can harden attitudes and make you less sympathetic towards others by transplanting values that are not conducive to empathy and generosity. You become one of ‘us’ and no longer one of ‘them’ as your chosen place of worship and the collective influence of fellow believers make a significant contribution to the process. This is why evangelists and those who are driven to convert others always insist you become part of a church (mosque or synagogue) afterwards – provided, of course, it’s one with the right sort of teaching (theirs). Your new attitudes and values are then reinforced by those who already have them, entrenching them further and convincing you that they, and now you, are ‘right’. This is how the ‘new creation’ you’re becoming is constructed and moulded.

As I’ve argued before, conversion can often reinforce behaviours that have already become habitual for individuals. Every church and Christian movement has adherents who are petty and spiteful, as well as those who are generous and considerate. But what becoming a new creation never entails, is making converts more intelligent, rational or stable. Why not? If it’s a miracle we’re talking about – and undoubtedly we are if God’s spirit suddenly or gradually takes up residence within a person – then surely it would result in a little cognitive rewiring so that the new Christian reaches their full intellectual potential. The fact it doesn’t bring about the ‘renewal of the mind’ (Romans 12.2) in anything like this sort of substantive way is the equivalent of the missing limb that no amount of prayer and laying on of hands can regenerate.

All of which suggests – no, more than suggests; demonstrates – that neither God nor his ‘Holy Spirit’ nor a dead Jewish preacher, nor ‘the gospel’, has anything to do with it. And perhaps that’s because an increase in intelligence, rationality or stability would run counter to the process which depends on blind faith and a submission to the very social forces that reshape the self.