In which Paul takes a trip to the third heaven

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In the New Testament, there are:

8 or more supernatural ‘visions’;

18 or so ‘appearances’ of angels;

about 6 significant dreams, through which God talks to people;

a dozen apparitions of dead people and

at least 3 significant ‘revelations’, in which individuals sense God in their heads (Paul, Jesus and John of Patmos).

The man who is largely responsible for Christianity as we know it, Paul, alludes only briefly to his magical conversion to the faith, describing it as ‘in’ his head in Galatians 1.16. It’s up to the writer of Acts to elaborate and embroider this non-event. Paul does, however, give rather more detail about another hallucination he has, in 2 Corinthians 12.1-4. To avoid boasting, he says boastfully, he refers to himself in the third person:

I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to gain, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of it I do not know, but God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or out of it I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to Paradise. The things he heard were too sacred for words, things that man is not permitted to tell.

This is evidently a psychotic episode; seeing things that are not there, experiencing events that are not happening. Paul himself admits he doesn’t know whether it was a real experience, nor does he know if he was in his body or not (definitely in it, just out of his mind.) He heard, he says, things he can’t possibly repeat, which makes you wonder why he bothers mentioning the whole bizarre episode in the first place: ‘I had this fantastic experience, unlike anything I’ve experienced before – but I can’t tell you a thing about it.’ It sounds like a dream he’s having trouble remembering or, like, man, a really freaky hallucinogenic trip.

From psychotic episodes like this – his conversion is another one – Paul spins his entire theology. Yes, the faith of Christians everywhere is founded on the hallucinations of a first century nutcase visionary.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve better things to do with my life than base it on the dreams and visions of a psychotic who lived 2000 years ago.

 

 

Demons, demons everywhere…

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I wonder if any Christians out there can help me understand something. I know that not all of you believe in demons; some of you are far too rational to believe in non-existent supernatural beings! I know too that when the bible mentions demons, as it does often, you know it’s as a metaphor, for sin perhaps, or as the personification of evil. Presumably, you reach this conclusion with the help of the Holy Spirit (you do believe in him, don’t you?)

And yet other, lesser brethren are led by that same Spirit to see demons as 100% real.

Take this guy, Jeremiah Johnson, a preacher/prophet/author from Florida who recently had a real live conversation with a demon:

On the night of May 30th, while praying and pacing over the United States in my home around 2 am, a demonic entity appeared right before me in an open vision. This type of encounter has only ever happened one other time while I was ministering in a foreign country in 2015. I have always engaged in this type of spiritual warfare while asleep and dreaming prophetically, but rarely if ever to this degree while awake.

This demonic entity had a visible and deep scar underneath its right eye, but it also had the ability to mutate or rather change forms. I watched this “being” morph several times right in front of me, yet the gash below its right eye remained.

As I see it, there are three options here. Either –

a) This really happened, or

b) Jeremiah made it up, or

c) It happened but entirely within Jeremiah’s disturbed mind

Can you advise me which it is? I’m leaning towards b) or c). I say ‘leaning’ when what I mean is I rule out a) entirely, though I’d be interested to know which conclusion the Holy Spirit is leading you to. (Actually, reading the comments following Jeremiah’s posting of his ‘Urgent Prophetic Alert and Warning’ on Facebook, I already know what 4 thousand of you think: you fall for this crapola hook, line and sinker.)

Of course, not all supernatural encounters are with demons. Sometimes your fellow believers have encounters with angels, or dead people from the bible. Here’s an example of that:

I kneeled down, and prayed, saying, ‘O Lord, what Church shall I join?’ Directly I saw a light, and then a glorious Personage in the light, and then another personage, and the first personage said [of] the second, ‘Behold this is my beloved Son, hear him’” 

Wow, that sounds amazing, doesn’t it? Joseph Smith recounting his first ‘vision’.

Again, you’ve got three options:

Either:

a) This really happened, or

b) Joseph made it up, or

c) It happened but entirely within Joseph’s disturbed mind.

If you’re a Mormon, the Holy Ghost will have led you to embrace option a). I lean myself towards b), possibly c). If you’re an evangelical Christian, however, you probably think Smith’s vision was demonically inspired. Can I ask you why you think this? Is it because that’s what your version of the Holy Ghost tells you? Ain’t it amazing how ‘he’ always confirms what you already believe?

With that in mind, let’s look at one final example:

When Jesus stepped out of the boat, a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”  Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”  He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea. (Mark 5.1-20)

Either:

a) This really happened, or

b) Mark made it up, or

c) Mark made it up but it’s a metaphor for something or other.

I’m guessing most of you, including those who regard yourselves as rational Christians, opted for a): you think this really happened in some form. Why? Because this time it’s your hero, Jesus, who’s involved.

However, and this is my point, Jesus’ encounter with a demon – and it’s not the only one in the gospels – is no different in kind from Jeremiah Johnson’s or Joseph Smith’s. If you believe one really happened – the Jesus one – you really haven’t any reason not to believe the other two. And yet, my Christian friends, you reject at least one of the other two, don’t you. You dismiss Smith’s encounter with God and Jesus as, at best, a delusion and at worst, a fiction intended to dupe others. You may, as I’ve suggested, see it as demonically inspired (even though no actual demons appear, unlike in the Jesus and Johnson accounts.)

You may also, if you’ve half a brain, dismiss Johnson’s ridiculous story too. I hope so. So why persist in believing that Jesus met with demons? It’s not the Holy Spirit who convinces you that this story is the only plausible one of the three. The Holy Spirit is only as real as Johnson’s morphing demon. No, the only reason you give Jesus a free pass, but not Smith or Johnson (possibly), is that the Jesus story is in the bible.

So, what’s the answer to the question at the top of this post: which of those men, Jeremiah Johnson, Joseph Smith and Mark’s Jesus, is deluded? The answer is… all of them. And at least two of them are frauds.

Myself, I’m leaning towards all three.

 

Another name for confirmation bias

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Most Christians admit to a belief in the Holy Spirit. The majority also subscribe to the notion that this manifestation of God (or Jesus?) guides them in their spiritual journey, supernaturally from within. The Holy Spirit, the Bible says, lives inside believers (1 Corinthians 3.16); an aspect of God designed to fit the human body.

You’d think then, that with part God embedded in their psyche or wherever it (or ‘he’, according to most believers) has taken up residence, that all Christians would think alike; would have the same priorities; would subscribe to the same doctrines; moreso when that other embodiment of God, Jesus himself, supposedly prayed for such a unity (John 17. 20-23).

Evidently they don’t achieve any of this. There are, depending on which authority you consult, in the region of 34,000 Christian denominations, sects and groups, all of which see themselves as possessors of God’s sacred truths. Most regard that it is they alone who possess this truth in its purest form. There wouldn’t be separate denominations otherwise.

And from where do they derive their own peculiar revelation of the Truth? Ultimately, most would say, from the Holy Spirit. It is he who guides them in all truth, as John’s Jesus promised (John 16.13), showing them how to read the bible and interpret it aright (1 Corinthians 2.6-16) and allowing them to discern truth (1 John 4) in what they hear from God’s chosen instruments on earth: pastors, ministers, prophets, evangelists, popes.

And the Truth they arrive at is different from the Truth arrived at by that other sect or wayward denomination elsewhere.Quote4

The Holy Spirit leads different Christians to contradictory doctrines on the essentials of the faith: about how an individual is ‘saved’ for example; whether it’s legitimate to talk of being ‘saved’ at all; predestination; free will; the place of baptism in salvation (essential or not?); Heaven and Hell; the nature of faith itself; the role of ‘works’; God’s plan for individual lives; evangelism; the ‘infallibility’ of the bible; how best to worship God; the nature of God; the existence of other supernatural beings; the role of women in the church. If they can’t agree on these – and they don’t – then what the f**k is the Holy Spirit playing at?

Then there are the issues they claim are of concQuotes2ern to God, though of course they don’t all agree on what these might be: social justice, morality, sex, same-sex relationships, equality, feminism, science, evolution, Hollywood, making America great again, guns, Trump, right-wing politics, liberalism, Covid-19 (many of which, we might note in passing, the bible has absolutely no interest in.) And what do we find?Quote5Quotes1First, the Holy Spirit provides diametrically opposed ‘truths’ to individual Christians, as the quotations within this post illustrate. Second, that same Spirit affirms the views, prejudices and biases of each Christian he speaks to. God’s thoughts are, miraculously, the same as those seeking them out. 

Of course, there is no Holy Spirit. There’s no Holy Spirit because there’s no God. What those who speak for him are doing is voicing the frequently ill-informed and evidence-free suppositions of their particular branch of the cult. Claiming these are endorsed by God is at best a delusion, at worst, sheer deceit.

The Holy Spirit, then: just another name for confirmation bias.

 

The God Who Never Was

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I’m considering reasons why God is unlikely to exist. The sixth, though by no means final reason is (drumroll): Christians.

If God existed and if he did the things the Bible, and Jesus in particular, claimed for him, then Christians would be very different creatures. They wouldn’t be beligerent and self-righteous, desperately trying to draw others into their cult, callously condemning everyone outside it while claiming they themselves are the persecuted (a caricature, I concede, but not without truth).

Instead, and according to Jesus and Paul, they would be brand new creations (2 Corinthians 5.17), infused with supernatural power: the Spirit of God no less (John 14.26; Romans 8.7-9). They would, moreover, have abandoned their families (Luke 14.26) and sold all they own to give to the poor (Matthew 19.21), relying solely on God for their needs (Mark 11.24; Matthew 21.22). They’d spend all their time as his slaves (Matthew 25.21; Romans 6.22), helping the sick, the destitute and the imprisoned (Matthew 25.35-40) and in return God would have endowed them with the ability to heal all disease (Mark 16:15), raise the dead (Matthew 10.7-8) and do miracles even greater than Jesus’ own (Mark 16.17-18; John 14.12).

If Christians were like this, as Jesus and Paul promised, the world would be a much more remarkable and better place. What does it tell us that it isn’t? When Christians don’t constantly demonstrate compassion and miraculous powers but instead spend their time demeaning gay people, ranting about abortion and proselytising (the latter a redundant activity when, if they were the new creatures the Bible promises they’d be, we would all see God in and through their actions and superpowers.) That Christians are not like this tells us Jesus got it entirely wrong; that his God had no interest in him and has none in us; that faith in God, as Jesus and his early followers envisaged it, does not deliver.

Christians actually know this, which is why they ignore what the Bible says they should be like, or explain it away with convoluted exegesis. They’re focused on their own ‘spiritual growth’, ‘worship’ and on how they’ll be going to heaven when they die – an offer the Bible never makes. Whichever avoidance strategy they resort to, the Bible says what it says: that God will enable his followers to do great miracles, like healing the sick and raising the dead; ‘all things’, in fact, though Christ who strengthens them (Philippians 4.1). The evidence demonstrates conclusively, despite the disingenuous claims of some loopier evangelicals, that God does nothing of the sort. He fails, yet again, to come through. The only reasonable conclusion is that this is because he’s not real.

So those are six major reasons why it is highly unlikely God exists. There are others, some of which I’ve touched on in other posts: how, despite Jesus’ promises he will, God looks after his devotees no better than caged sparrows (Matthew 10.28-31); how there’s no evidence the supernatural exists; how the spiritual realm and the gods that go with it are products of the human imagination. Collectively – and even separately – these convince me there’s no God, and certainly not that sorry excuse for one, Yahweh.

God: more reasons why not

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The third reason it’s unlikely God exists (see the previous post for the first two) is that he is a mass of contradictions; omnipotent and yet vulnerable to his creation’s ‘sin’. Loving yet unable to stop himself from meting out savage justice. Interventionist yet conspicuously absent when actually needed. Distant and mysterious and yet intimately involved with a select number of humans. Oblivious to the thousands who starve to death each day yet overly concerned with how others dress, spend their money or have sex.

The God of the Bible is everything a badly conceived character in a third-rate novel might be. Not surprising really, when that’s what he is. The all-too-human authors of that most mixed, muddled and deplorable book creating and recreating him in their own image, modifying and evolving him until he is a transparently human creation. He is a product of their misinterpretation of reality, wishful thinking and vindictiveness, human traits he reflects throughout the so-called ‘holy book’ and in his church throughout history.

Four, God is ineffectual in the real world. He demands the love and devotion of his creation and gives next to nothing in return. Warm fuzzy feelings possibly, and a ludicrously nonsensical ‘salvation’ plan that undercuts his supposed omnipotence. That’s it. That’s all he offers. Oh, and eternal life spent as an automaton, forever worshipping him. Nothing in the here and now. Nothing to alleviate poverty, feed the starving, eliminate disease or rescue us from viral pandemics. He doesn’t even do this for those whom have pledged allegiance to him, however much they claim he has or will do. This leaves us with two options: he is either an absolute failure or he doesn’t exist. I conclude the latter.

Five: Jesus. Jesus is the prime evidence there is no God. Not one of the claims Jesus made for God was realised. God doesn’t answer prayer; he doesn’t give whatever is asked of him (Mark 11.24; Matthew 21.22); he didn’t bring his kingdom to the earth in the first century (Luke 9.27; Matthew 24.29-31 & 34); he didn’t set Jesus and his disciples up as rulers of the world (Matthew 19:28). In short, he didn’t do a damn thing his supposed son said he would. Jesus was sadly mistaken, deluded, about his Father. In terms of delivery, Jesus’ God did nothing for him, nor for those, like Paul, who came after him. The New Testament is nothing but testimony to its own failure, its God mere make-believe.

To be continued, again. I mean how many more reasons can there be that demonstrate God is unlikely to exist?

God: Probably not

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As God-botherers everywhere are fond of telling us, we can’t prove that God doesn’t exist. Of course, no negative can ever be proven. My own conviction that there isn’t a God does not rely on ‘proof’, but on the probability that he doesn’t. Perhaps this is the same as Christians’ own dismissal of Zeus and Krishna as real beings; if they think about such things, that is. So what is the probability that God does not exist? My next couple of posts will look at my reasons for concluding that the likelihood of the Christian God existing is ridiculously low. Some of these reasons have developed from my reading of the last thirty odd years, others from my own thinking about the subject. Both are now so intertwined I don’t know exactly which is which. You’ll have encountered some of what I’ve got to say in other posts on this blog but it seems worthwhile put all my arguments in one place.

So, reason one: God explains nothing. He isn’t required to explain the Big Bang, evolution, human psychology, germ theory, viral pandemics or anything else that science explains with far greater proficiency and conviction. At best, the god concept has atrophied into a god-of-the-gaps desperation. Science doesn’t know how life began, goes the ‘reasoning’, therefore it can only have been God. This explains nothing, merely adding an unnecessary element into the equation; Occam’s Razor demands we remove any such elements from our arguments and attributing life to an unknown supernatural agent is just such a redundancy. I’m confident that science will one day answer the question of how life started, but even if it that were never to happen, the answer would not be, as if by magical default, God.

Two: the more characteristics we attribute to God, the less likely it is that he exists. Let’s say, by way of analogy, that I’ve put myself on a dating app to look for a new partner. To start with I specify that all this partner needs is a good sense of humour. Then I wonder if this is enough. Wouldn’t they also have to be within my preferred age group? Of course. I’ve already narrowed my chances of finding my ideal person. So I think I may as well go for it: I want some who’s good looking too, with a place of their own, within travelling distance of where I live and with interests similar to my own, including a passion for the ukulele. The likelihood of my finding this person is pretty remote. The probability they actually exist, with all the attributes I want, is equally unlikely.

So it is with God. If he were only the creator of the universe he would be unlikely enough (because of reason 1 above) but that’s not all that is required of him. He has to be also a God that is interested in his creation, and not only interested but intimately involved with certain aspects of it, humans particularly. He is now beginning to recede from the possible into the margins of the improbable. But then it’s claimed that in addition to being the creator of everything and a micromanager to boot, he’s also ephemeral and unknowable. He’s simultaneously loving and a severe judge. He’s both omniscient and omnipotent (this last doesn’t follow from his being the creator; it’s a separate attribute). He’s a god of reason and yet only satisfied by blood sacrifice. And on and on, well beyond the bounds of probability and into the realms of the impossible, like my hypothetical ideal mate. God as envisaged by Christians (and others) is an impossibility.

To be continued.

The disciples who doubted the Resurrection

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

Matthew 28.17

On his Escaping Christian Fundamentalism blog recently, Gary Matson looked at this verse in which the remaining disciples supposedly encounter the risen Jesus. Gary discussed why they should have doubted what they are reported as witnessing, concluding that what they were actually ‘seeing’ was a ghost. A commenter called Rachel, who has also commented here, objected, arguing that the verse didn’t mean what it actually says. I responded with the following:

Well, let’s not, Rachel, accept what the text actually says. Let’s impose our own meaning that fits with what we want to believe. Then we can insist that none of the 11 doubted, even though the text clearly states they did. Let’s supplement that particular sleight of hand with the unproven myth that all the disciples except one subsequently died for their faith (even though there’s no evidence they did and even though we know nothing about the actual beliefs of the few who may have been martyred and even though zealots today are prepared to die for their beliefs despite never having seen the risen Jesus) and, hey presto, Gary’s hypothesis is disproved.

Except, of course, it isn’t. The resurrection accounts were written 40 years or more after the supposed event by people who weren’t there; and yet still they preserve the inconvenient fact that some of the disciples remained unconvinced by the visions and apparitions others of their number thought they’d experienced.

Rachel came back with this (my responses are in red with additional comments in blue).

Neil, you write the following as if you know for a fact (100%) that “there’s no evidence” — “(even though there’s no evidence they did and even though we know nothing about the actual beliefs of the few who may have been martyred and even though zealots today are prepared to die for their beliefs despite never having seen the risen Jesus)”

If I understand Rachel here, she isn’t happy I can’t prove a negative. However, if there’s no evidence, there’s no evidence. This in itself is a fact.

Neil, none of the 11 apostles/disciples of Jesus lied and died and convinced their families and loved ones to die for a fictional character. Unlike you and Gary, they literally saw the resurrected Jesus (that was enough evidence for them) and they spread the gospel (the good news of the Promised Messiah and that in Him the Old Testament pointed)

You’re right, Rachel, we have no evidence that any of them did any of this. This was the point I was making: there is no historical evidence whatsoever that indicates 10 of the 11 died for their belief in the resurrection. With the exception of James we simply don’t know how, when or why they died. I’m sorry you were unable to grasp this point.

Neither is there evidence ‘they literally saw the resurrected Jesus’. In fact, the only evidence there is, in the gospels, is sketchy, inconsistent and strongly suggestive of visions and apparitions, as Gary suggests. The only eye-witness report we have of the resurrected Jesus, that of Paul, is precisely of this nature, with Paul claiming the other sightings of Jesus were the same as his.

You say that “zealots today are prepared to die for their beliefs despite never having seen the risen Jesus.” Care to give me examples of Christian Zealots today “prepared to die for the risen Jesus” sight unseen?

Are you really questioning whether zealots today are prepared to die for a character they’ve never actually seen? A simple Google search brings up numerous Christian sites, either celebrating or lamenting this very fact. Here’s one to start you off: https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/stories/11-christians-killed-every-day-for-their-decision-to-follow-jesus/

And like Gary, there you go saying: “we know nothing!” Okay, I will agree with you and Gary, both of you have convinced me totally -— you guys know nothing! You will no longer get any argument from me! You guys know nothing! I am now fully convinced by your: “We (Gary and Neil) don’t know” true statement.

While I didn’t point it out to her, Rachel here assumes that acknowledging ‘there is no evidence for..’ means the same as ‘we know nothing’. A very basic and disingenuous error.

Ironic isn’t it, Neil, you do not believe the New Testament accounts as historical events, and yet you like Gary proceed to prove your case by using “fictional” accounts! Go figure!

Gary and I look at the texts as they are and draw our conclusions accordingly. We, like many others outside the evangelical bubble, acknowledge that the gospels are literary creations and as such are historically unreliable. The evidence they present for an actual, physical resurrection is weak, inconclusive and distorted beyond recognition by an agenda intended to promote belief – as they themselves admit.

You, on the other hand, argue entirely from a position of faith, which prevents you from seeing what is actually there, making you dismissive of external evidence and compelling you to supplement your arguments with assumptions (for example, that most of the disciples died for their belief in the resurrection.) It also prompts you to add unnecessary ad hominem insults. I’m sure Gary is as glad as I am that you’re slinking away in defeat.

Some of the disciples doubted that what they were seeing – apparition? bright light? hallucination? – was really Jesus returned from the dead. It may be the case that this detail was included by the creator of Matthew’s gospel, 50 years after the event it describes, to disparage the favoured disciples of other early Christian communities. The disciples they looked to weren’t as good as those of Matthew’s cultists because they doubted. Who knows. Whatever the reason for including it, the verse is awkward and embarrassing for believers today. How to explain it (away)? Even some of those who ‘saw’ the risen Jesus weren’t convinced it was him. They were right. It wasn’t.

 

Can you be a Christian and … a Realist?

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If you’ve been reading this series of posts, you’ll pretty much know how this one’s going to go. You can’t really be Christian if you have, as the old song goes, half a brain. Still, it won’t hurt to see how compatible faith is with reality as we know it. You never know, we might be surprised.

Speaking of songs, I always liked Billy Joel’s ‘An Innocent Man’ from the album of the same name. Of course, by Christian reckoning there’s no such thing as an innocent man, nor woman or child – no, not one – because all have fallen short and are worthy only of death (Romans 3:23 & 6:23). All the same, we’ll give Billy the benefit of the doubt. In a song of insightful lyrics, the lines I particularly like are

Some people hope for a miracle cure
Some people just accept the world as it is
But I’m not willing to lay down and die
Because I am an innocent man

Christians seem to have such difficulty accepting the world as it is. They’re constantly upset that the world, which I’m taking to be synonymous with reality, does not and will not conform to what they expect of it. And when it doesn’t, it’s the world that’s at fault, that has it all wrong.

When the evidence is presented for climate change and our contribution to it, some believers announce, with no hint of irony, that God will never let it happen. He’ll step in, just like he always does, to prevent it. So take that Australia with your bush fires, Java with your floods and all you polar bears with your melting icebergs: God’s got it all in hand.

When a Hollywood movie depicts a same sex couple in the background of a scene for a nano-second, the born-again are apoplectic about the world’s immorality. When two female performers wiggle their bits, Franklin Graham – arch-supporter of the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief – has the hypocrisy to claim, ‘I don’t expect the world to act like the church, but our country has had a sense of moral decency on prime time television in order to protect children.’ Clearly he does expect the world to act like the church (which as we know is both spotless and sinless.) All these modern-day Jeremiah’s do.

Reality doesn’t, and won’t, conform to what Christians want it to be. So what to do? Either join with Graham and those other evangelicals railing pointlessly against reality, like Don Quixote and his damn windmills, or (and this a much more comfortable position to adopt) be like those climate change deniers and tell yourself that whatever sort of state the world is in, God will be step in any time soon to sort it all out. After all, this is what Jesus believed. He didn’t rant and rave about the state of things, brutal Romans and all, he just had a simple, smug faith that his Father was going to set everything right real soon and put him in charge.

Christianity demands that Jesus’ disciples deny the world; reject it, despise it. The faith has denial at its core, even of oneself. It demands reality be replaced with a fantasy version of the world.

As I’ve written before:

Christians, even moderate ones

Those older links could easily be replaced with up-to-date, reality-denying ones. This is what it’s like in the Christian bubble; with all this denial taking up space, there’s no room for accepting the world as it is, and trying to change what needs changing and improve what needs improving.

Again as I’ve said before, truth, reality and other people are the casualties of religion’s life-denying efforts at self-preservation. Fantasy and reality are just not compatible.

Can you be a Christian and… accept Evolution?

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People of faith have a problem with evolution. Some of them can’t seem to see it, but the Theory of Evolution is a significant encumbrance to faith, as it has been since Darwin first proposed it in 1859.

There are essentially four ways Christians (and those from other religions) deal with evolution.

1) There are those who recognise that evolution and faith are incompatible and consequently compartmentalise them both to avoid thinking about the problem: ‘Yes, evolution probably happened but my faith is important to me so I’m going to pretend it didn’t.’

It’s impossible to argue with this head-in-the-sand position, so let’s not bother.

2) Others insist that evolution is ‘just a theory’ and as such is in conflict with what the Bible teaches about the creation of life. But this is a double misunderstanding: of what ‘theory’ means in science, and of what the Theory of Evolution proposes. It has nothing to tell us about how life began, but how it developed. Nonetheless, it contradicts the order of creation found in the two creation accounts in Genesis.

Some believers are content to dismiss evolution on these grounds: a theory, in the popular sense, that is trumped at every turn by the Bible’s accounts of creation. Ken Ham and the laughable Answers in Genesis hold to this position:

The real issue is one of authority—is God’s Word the authority, or is man’s word the authority? So, couldn’t God have used evolution to create? The answer is No. A belief in millions of years of evolution not only contradicts the clear teaching of Genesis and the rest of Scripture but also impugns the character of God. He told us in the book of Genesis that He created the whole universe and everything in it in six days by His word: “Then God said … .” His Word is the evidence of how and when God created, and His Word is incredibly clear.

Hammy and his acolytes do accept what they call micro-evolution, the small incremental stages made within a species over time. Macro-evolution, as they like to call it, when one species gives rise to another over significant amounts of time apparently never happens. Why? Because the Bible says so (but good luck finding where.)

3) Still others extend this dismissal on the basis of ignorance: they are positively hostile to the idea of evolution. Street preachers who set up shop in my home town from time to time are always accompanied by a sign that says ‘Evolution is a Hoax’ (see above.) These kind of believers are not content simply to dismiss evolution as ‘theory’, nor do they accept that it occurs within species. They rail against evolution and disparage the vast amounts of evidence that exist for it. Evolution they declare over their megaphones, is not only a hoax, it is of the devil, who uses it to deceive people and lead them away from God. This is ignorance of a more wilful sort.

Christians in both these last two camps would themselves say that one can’t be a Christian and accept evolution. Actually, they’d say one can’t ‘believe’ in evolution, a word I’ve avoided. Evolution can no more be ‘believed in’ than gravity (itself a theory in the scientific sense.)

4) The fourth way Christians have of dealing with evolution is to attempt to marry the theory with their faith. They acknowledge that evolution has occurred, that life on earth has developed much as Darwin proposed and that the evidence from paleontology, geology, genetics and developmental biology fully substantiates this explanation.

Where then to fit God when he is superfluous to the explanation of life’s development, in much the same way the tooth fairy is superfluous to dentistry? This doesn’t stop these believers finding a place for him. They regard the apparent randomness (their term) of evolution impossible to accept and see a place for God in countering it. As Greg Allison puts it on Desiring God, without a hint of irony, the ‘entire process (of evolution) was undirected and purposeless, without God.’

Consequently, Christians who accept evolution have come up with a couple of ways of injecting God into the process, regardless of the fact he is not needed and there is no place for him. So-called Theistic Evolution, in both its forms, is the belief – and it’s nothing more than a belief – that God set evolution in motion and then let it take its course. One school proposes he occasionally gave it a nudge so that it went in the right direction, the other that he just sat back to see what would happen, though presumably he knew this from the start, being omniscient and all that.

This a hopeless compromise; the prevalence of suffering, death and extinction as drivers of evolution discount any involvement of a benign creator. Such a being’s disinterest in the constant struggle for survival of his created pets, every one of which perishes once past reproductive age (if they reach it in the first place) does not point to a loving God. Paul, who of course had no understanding whatsoever of evolution, believed that death entered creation only when Adam first ‘sinned’. Yet death and suffering existed eons before human beings first appeared. The ‘Evolutionary Creationists’ at BioLogos have a hard time trying to explain this one away. (Spoiler alert: they can’t.)

And let’s not even mention sex; sexual reproduction is a massive problem for the creationist.

As Greg Allison concedes, one cannot be a Christian and subscribe to a theistic model of evolution. Having considered the possibilities, Greg concludes that neither form of theistic evolution is compatible with faith. In this he is right. He comes back to the scriptural accounts of creation as the best explanation of life’s development. In this he is wrong.

No doubt there are commenters out there who think that some form of compromised Christianity and a diluted evolutionary theory are somehow compatible. They have no doubt discovered a way to put God at the heart of evolution or have a misunderstanding of the theory that somehow leaves room for him. Such arguments are unconvincing. Evolution and God are incompatible. One is true (as in observable, supported by evidence and predictive), the other imaginary. There’s no need to pollute the former with the latter.

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.