Can you be a Christian and… a rational thinker?

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This is the first in a series of posts that pose the question, ‘Can you be a Christian and..?’ It seems to me that certain ways of being are incompatible with religious belief. Any religious belief, that is, though here I’ll limit myself to the Christian faith as that’s the belief system I know best and the one on which I wasted a great deal of my life.

Conversion is, I’ve become convinced, an emotional response to being told God loves you (who doesn’t want to be loved?) and that Jesus sacrificed himself so that you – yes, you – can enter into a full and meaningful relationship with God. It’s an intuitive, gut-reaction to the ‘promise’ that once you’ve accepted Jesus as Lord and Saviour, he will  be with you always, guiding you through life and guaranting you’ll survive death.

What is rational about this? Nothing; it’s muddled supernaturalism, magic based on others’ dreams and visions, that appeals to your need to be wanted, to matter and your hope that your life means something and will go on beyond death.

The rationalisation comes after you’ve made this response and after your commitment. It’s rather like buying something incredibly expensive you’re not sure you actually need but which makes you feel good momentarily as you hand over your cash. On the way home, as doubts start to assail you, you start trying convince yourself that you were right to buy it, on the basis you deserve it, so that by the time you’re home you feel completely justified. Psychologists tell us we do this often: act first and then come up with the rationalisation for why we’ve behaved the way we have.

So it is that once you’ve made the emotional response to what Christianity purports to offer, you start justifying your decision to yourself. You know there’s really no evidence for what you’ve started to believe. All there is is the bible and other people’s enthusiasm for what it teaches, but still, there must be some sort of justification for it; all those others, including the guys who wrote the bible, can’t all be wrong. You’re helped in your rationalisation of the irrational by sermons in which a respected pastor explains what certain teachings mean, the warm and fuzzy feelings you get from fellowship with other Christians and from reading the bible with the aid of a study guide that smooths out its many inconsistencies and contradictions. You start reading too those devotional books that have been recommended to you, which give your new-found faith a respectable gloss. All after the event.

And before you know it you are fully invested in an entirely new belief system. Not only have you accepted the central mystery (magic) of salvation but you find yourself entertaining the notion that there exist all manner of supernatural beings; angels, demons, devils, spirits all engaged in spiritual warfare in higher places. You convince yourself, even when your intellect is telling you to exercise caution, of the existence of Heaven and Hell. You become persuaded that talking to yourself inside your head is communicating with the God of the Universe and that your very thoughts can change his mind. You assume what you are told is biblical morality and alter your world view so that it conforms to the bible’s: sin everywhere, yet miracles happen; God creating humans and not just (or even) evolution; Jesus returning at any time soon to change the word so it is more to your liking.

Yet there is no evidence for any of this. A book written by Iron Age tribesmen and first century religious zealots is not evidence. Nor is any of it rational. You know this, but you hold fast to your belief that God’s ways are not our ways. He likes, it says somewhere in the bible, to conceal his plans from the worldly wise. Like many other believers you are not stupid but you’ve happily sublimated your intellect to assume irrational, unsupported beliefs. You’ve subjugated your capacity for rationalisation in deference to these beliefs. If and when a rational objection forms itself in your mind, you dismiss it as a doubt, or worse still, a Satanic attempt to snatch you away from your salvation.

How do I know? Because I did so myself.

So, can you be a Christian and rational thinker? No. Because once you’ve tethered your intellect to ancient superstition you’ve denied yourself the possibility of independent thought. Rational thinking can go then in only one direction, towards the conclusions already established by the Faith. It isn’t possible to be an independent thinker and to adopt a worldview based on others’ emotions, dreams and visions. It isn’t possible to believe irrational things and be a rational thinker.

In which the Messiah loses his mind and his mother loses her memory

BlogXmas

So there it is; all the evidence you need that the nativity stories are pure invention, right there in the bible itself.

In Mark 3:20-21, Jesus’ family witness him spouting platitudes and setting himself up as a leader of his people. They think, not without reason, that he’s lost his mind.

When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

As Bob Seidensticker says in a recent post, this could be because the writer of Mark’s gospel wanted to denigrate Jesus’ dumb old family in favour of Paul’s brand of Christianity. 

Luke 2:19, however, tells us that, back when she was still passing herself off as a virgin, Mary ‘treasured in her heart’ all the amazing things that happened at the time of her son’s birth.

Shouldn’t, then, Mark’s ‘out of his mind’ story be followed by something like this?:

And lo, when his brethren did decry Jesus, saying was out of his mind, Mary his mother did jump up and sayeth out loud, ”leave off, you bullies. I know from the way the Almighty impregnated me, from what Gabriel said and the miraculous things that on went on at his birth – wise men, armies of angels and magic stars – that my boy is the Messiah, the Son of God, maybe even God himself.”

And his brethren were amazed at this, because they’d never heard any of it, on account of those fanciful nativity stories not being invented for another fifty years.

I wonder why it isn’t?

A very happy Christmas to both my readers.

 

Bible Truths

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If ever there was evidence that Christianity is an entirely human affair it’s the way believers constantly disagree with each another. If the bible really was, in some way, ‘the Word of God’ (they don’t all agree even with what this might mean) then surely it would offer greater clarity on what being a Christian entails. Given what’s at stake – heaven or hell, a life of fullness or one spent mired in sin, helping the poor and hungry or self-indulgence – you’d think God would be just a little more precise about what his expectations are.

Instead, what do we get? A rag bar collection of myths, pseudo-history, folklore, poetry, fantasy, yet more pseudo-history, letters, forgeries and invective. Muddled and inconsistent about what the Supreme Being requires of his creation, it ranges from a forever agreement that says following a set of arbitrary laws is what he wants, along with a spot of male genital-mutilation (Genesis 17.1-16), to a new scheme that involves magical incantation (Romans 10.19), to yet another that says helping those in need is what he requires (Matthew 25.31-40).

I’ve been involved at different times in my life with writing policy documents for a range of organisations. Despite creating what I’d estimate to be around 50 of these documents, it never occurred to me to cobble together myth, stories, letters and fake news in even one of them. They needed to be precise, detailing how the organisation worked, what its take was on various areas of operation and, most importantly spelling out for people as clearly as possible what was expected of them. This precision was important; the documents had to be water-tight and open to as little interpretation as possible. They couldn’t allow for the possibility of one part of the organisation acting in one way in a given area while another acted completely differently in that same area.

If I, a fallible human, could manage this more often than not, why couldn’t God? Why could he not, for example,

Declare definitively how old the Earth is so as to leave no room for dispute?

Why could he not set out his requirements for pleasing him as one single, unequivocal list? (he’s not averse to bullet points – see his ten commandments, of which he manages to present two largely incompatible versions, both of them fairly useless.)

Why could he not ‘inspire’ scribes contemporaneous with the figures in the Old Testament to record what happened as they happened and not centuries later?

Why could he not ‘inspire’ eye-witnesses of Jesus ‘ministry’ to write about it at the time, instead of waiting decades before giving the job to strangers who’d never met him?

Why could he not say decisively what happens to people when they die?

Why could he not present one definitive way of how to get in his good books instead of offering a range of confused alternatives, about which he is prone to change his mind?

And so on and so forth…

If the managing director of an organisation produced policy documents as shoddy and shambolic as God’s they wouldn’t last five minutes. Nor would the organisation.

But of course God didn’t write, inspire or otherwise cause the bible to be written. It’s human through and through, culturally-bound (to a range of ancient cultures) and not intended by its myriad authors to be a single volume. This fact doesn’t trouble most Christians; they read it selectively, if they read it at all, and believe what they are told about it. Others, who are aware of the bible’s shortcomings, have a variety of ways of negotiating around them. All of these entail great dollops of cognitive dissonance. We’ll look at some of them next time.

Jesus, plus nothing

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‘Jesus, plus nothing’ is the motto – the slogan – of ‘The Family’, a secretive, clandestine Christian group that for 60+ years has influenced, and been part of, the government of the USA. Yes, poor persecuted Christians, who find their rights eroded on a daily basis (or so they like to tell us) actually exercise a disproportionate amount of control over those in power. Controlled for many years by ‘the most influential Christian you’ve never heard of’, Doug Coe, this group disregards any notion of separation of church and state. The new Netflix series, The Family, based on Jeff Sharlet’s books The Family and C Street, documents their activities, which include affecting policy both at home and abroad, and taking the gospel of ‘Jesus, plus nothing’ to the mighty and powerful across the globe, often on the taxpayer’s dime.

But what does ‘Jesus, plus nothing’ really mean? There’s no doubt it’s intended to convey a stark honesty: this version of Christianity, it says, is without all the clutter that has accrued since Jesus walked the Earth, including all of Paul’s complicated theology. The Family’s holy book is not the bible in its entirety but a slim volume simply entitled Jesus that contains only the four gospels and Acts. The Jesus story, pure and simple.

Except there really isn’t anything simple about the Jesus story. It isn’t even a single story. Nor is there one, single Jesus. (As you’ll see at the links, I’ve written about both of these problems before.) The Jesus that The Family promotes is one of its own making. Of course, every version of Jesus is a construct, loosely based, at best, on bits and pieces from the bible, but manufactured entirely by what different groups and individuals would like him to be. It’s probable that the gospels themselves are constructs built on Old Testament ‘prophecies’ and references, and that the Jesuses they portray are no more than literary creations. Even so, the Jesuses held dear by modern believers, and The Family in particular, bear little resemblance to the constructs of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John on which he is supposedly based.

He is, as one of The Family’s Christian critics points out, a talisman, a magic word that opens doors for speaking ‘truth’ to dictators and tyrants. A Jesus synonymous with power; the power to control nations’ policies, direction and morality. A Jesus who chooses his men (always men) to wield this power; a Jesus who chooses ‘weak vessels’ to do his bidding; a Jesus who, The Family is convinced, chose Donald Trump to be president. And when Jesus chooses you – or when his agents on Earth do – then you are chosen indeed. They make sure of it.

To be continued.

What have reason and logic to do with faith?

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Last time I considered the Christian claim that reason and logic can only derive from God, and that non-believers’ use of them is nothing more than a illicit hijacking of powers supplied by the God they deny. Why is it important to modern day Christians to attribute reason to their God? After all, the bible only ever speaks disparagingly of reason. It is, it says, the path to self-delusion; Proverbs 3.5 warns ‘trust not in your own understanding,’ while faith, according to Paul far surpasses the limitations of reason and rationality. More than this, as I discuss here, the God of the bible is far from reasonable and logical himself. His response to every issue is the death penalty, mass murder and blood sacrifice.

According to Christians, human reasoning makes no sense if it is ‘merely’ the product of evolution. A random and undirected process cannot produce a reliable rationality on its own. Naturally, they are never entirely clear why this is the case; evolution has, after all, led to other distinctly human characteristics on which we regularly depend, imperfect though they may be: language, memory, social bonding and creativity among them.

However, having singled out reason and dismissed evolution as its cause, Christians then jump to the conclusion that the human capacity to think must come from God. According to Tim Keller, rationality is a ‘clue’, planted in every human being, to God’s existence.* It has evidently never occured to Keller that, by the same token, the human capacity for unbounded irrationality is likewise a ‘clue’ to the non-existence of any rational deity.

Human reasoning – and there’s no other kind – is, like every other evolved characteristic, flawed. It is only as secure as the premise from which it proceeds. Get that wrong, by adopting a premise with an insufficiency of evidence (such as ‘God is a God of Reason’) and human cognition will only ever abandon us in the blind alley of faith.

*The Reason For God, p141

The Incarnate Deity?

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Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail th’incarnate Deity,

Pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.

This, according to Charles Wesley’ hymn, ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’, is what Christmas is all about: God manifesting himself on Earth as a child and subsequently a man.

What a disaster this whole idea is. The stories of Jesus’ birth do serious damage to two key elements of the Christian message:

First, they detract significantly from the good news the adult Jesus proclaimed and which survives to some extent in the synoptic gospels: the Kingdom of God was coming to the Earth very soon and people – Jewish people – should mend their ways accordingly. Instead, the nativity stories, which occur only in Matthew and Luke, are a reflection of what had happened to the faith by the time these gospels were written. The message had changed. It was less about what Jesus had to say and more about how he himself should be worshipped. He had, after all, as early Christians had started to believe, come from Heaven to save everyone from their sins.

Second, the nativity stories negate the resurrection. If a mortal Jesus rose from the dead, then we might conceivably have a miracle on our hands. But for an ‘incarnate deity’ to have accomplished the same thing – well, that’s no big deal. It’s what gods do all the time. The resurrection experiences, whatever they were, are invalidated by the gospel writers when, at the start of his story, they suggest Jesus is somehow divine. (John is even more emphatic; Jesus is the eternal Word made flesh.) So there’s nothing special about the resurrection, it’s just a god doing what gods do.

The nativity stories represent the confusion within early Christianity. Its adherents wanted it both ways, to have their cake and eat it. Maybe today’s believers can help us out of the dilemma: is it Jesus’ birth – his incarnation – that matters, or is it his death? Because it cannot be both. If Jesus was God in human form from the very beginning, then there’s nothing particularly special about his death and resurrection. Gods can’t really die, especially when none of them, including Yahweh, are alive in the first place.

God’s deficient policy documents

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If you have read even a small percentage of my posts then you know I focus a great deal on defining and presenting the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. I also focus on the Word of God as our source of God’s Truth, which is absolute. We also have defined faith and what God has done to save His people from their sins, which is the purpose of Jesus’ incarnation, perfect life, crucifixion, and resurrection.                 

Mike Ratcliff on Possessing the Treasure

 

Is your job description at work expressed as a story or myth?

       Are the aims and objectives of your company based on the hallucinations of the owners?

                   Is the health and safety policy made up of spells and incantations devised by someone with no real connection to the company?

Can you imagine if the kind of documentation that determines your work conditions was composed of myths, stories of dreams and visions, historically unreliable accounts and largely incomprehensible, magical terms and conditions? Not only this, but you’re required to root around within this documentation to discover what it is you’re meant to be doing and when you have, you need to find someone who can explain it properly to you.

This, according to Christians, is how God chose to tell his creation what he expected of it. The omniscient, all powerful creator of the universe, whose thoughts are so much greater than ours, was unable to put together a clear, systematic and concise set of directions about how he wants us to live and what we should believe if we’re to avoid an eternity of torture.

These messages are so important, apparently, that he thought they’d be best conveyed in folklore and myth – much of it plagiarised from other cultures – fantastic stories written decades after the events they relate, and muddled, contradictory theology.

Why on Earth would he do this? Why would he not speak directly and clearly to fallible, sinful humans? Provide us, perhaps, with a list that sets out straightforwardly and unequivocally what we need to do if we’re to be ‘saved’. (It’s not as if he’s averse to supplying lists; the Ten Commandments are a list, as are the rules in Leviticus about beating slaves and what should and shouldn’t be eaten.) Why not communicate with us so that we know it’s him and not, say, some pre-scientific tribesmen or a bunch of superstitious zealots? Why not speak to us in ways that are not identical with the way we ourselves invent stories about imaginary beings and far-fetched events?

Why provide us with a ragbag of myths, legends and fables crammed with confused and inconsistent ideas, all of them created by those same fallible, sinful human beings, and stitched together, eventually, by a committee with a vested interest in the success of such a book?

It’s a mystery. Unless of course there’s no God behind the bible. Maybe that’s why we have much better policy documents at work.