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.

The Choice Is Yours

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I don’t get a lot of coments on this here blog, but when I do they’re rarely as cogently argued as this one, left recently on an old post,Unbelievers are Going to Hell:

NO OBLIVION. HEAVEN OR HELL. HOLINESS OR DEBAUCHERY, GOOD OR EVIL, VIRTUE OR VICE, JESUS OR SATAN, THE SPIRIT OR THE FLESH, GOD OR IDOLS, RIGHTEOUSNESS OR WICKEDNESS, KINDNESS OR SELFISHNESS, LIGHT OR DARKNESS, PIETY OR PERVERSION, PLEASURE OR PAIN, TRUTH OR ERROR, THE NARROW GATE OR THE WIDE GATE. THE CHOICE IS YOURS.

Difficult to argue with, I think you’ll agree. This is reasoning of the highest calibre. All those false dichotomies have convinced me I need to change my debauched, perverted ways and take on the mindset of a first century zealot. You win Watchman Outreach Evangelism!

Or, as I may have just put in my response:

Lower case or UPPER CASE
Logic or LUNACY
Reality or FANTASY
Sense or NONSENSE
Seems you made your choice already.

The Darkening Age

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I’ve been reading Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. I highly recommend it.

Its sub-title says it all. The early church’s determination to destroy any way of life, any belief system or enterprise that it didn’t agree with was deliberate, systematic and brutal. It set out to eliminate the forms of worship, culture, learning and social norms in which it found itself. It did this initially by demonising, literally as far as it was concerned, the opposition. If it wasn’t Christian then it was demonic; ancient religious beliefs especially, but also schools of philosophy, science, education, the theatre, dancing and sexual mores.

As it grew in power, the church went from holding its ‘heathen’ neighbours’ views as suspect to actively and violently opposing them, destroying temples, toppling and mutilating statues of the old gods, razing to the ground historic buildings they considered ‘demonic’. Those they regarded as ‘pagans’ were compelled to convert to the new religion. According to the Christian propaganda of the time, these pagans turned to Jesus with joy in their hearts, once shown the error of their demonic ways. What choice did people have? It was either that or lose everything they held dear.

Once Christianity became the state religion under Constantine, religious authorities legislated against other philosophies and beliefs. As the Justinian code put it, ‘we forbid the teaching of any doctrine by those who labour under the insanity of paganism.’ Free thinkers could be arrested and have their possessions, including their homes, Blog393aconfiscated. They could be imprisoned for believing and saying things that ran contrary to Christian orthodoxy. Their works were burnt, often on public pyres, and that which survived was frequently written over with pages of scripture. Soon, however, even this wasn’t enough. It became a capital offence to subscribe to alternate beliefs, to write or teach about them. Similarly, same sex activity became outlawed and punishable by death. No wonder the philosophers of the day called Christianity ‘the tyrant’.

In 392, Christian mobs destroyed the magnificent temple of Serapis in Alexandria. The Great Library in the same city had disappeared by then too, quite possibly at the hands of Christian mobs. Hypatia, one of the Library’s greatest mathematicians, was degraded in the street and then murdered. (You may have seen the 2009 film Agora where Hypatia is played by Rachel Weisz; if not you definitely should.)

By AD500, the church had successfully and completely eradicated the opposition. The culture that had preceded it had gone; its knowledge, mythologies, philosophy together with the ability to think freely and to criticise – all consigned, if not to hell, then to oblivion. Nixey reports that 90% of classical literature is lost forever (p246), including almost all Greek writing from the ancient world. As John Chrysostom boasted, the writings of the Greeks ‘have all perished and are obliterated’ (p245). From the little that survives we know that Greek philosophers had postulated that the world was made from atoms and didn’t have a beginning as such. They had also developed a form of evolutionary theory (pp35-36). It would take the world 1500 dark years to catch up with these suppressed ideas.

The elimination of Christianity’s opponents was carried out in the name of the man who supposedly said, ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Nixey points out that the persecution of Christians was greatly exaggerated; many early believers aspired to martyrdom and the church undoubtedly meted out more persecution than it received.) It was done to bring the world into line with the way they thought God had decreed it should be:

That all superstition of pagans and heathens should be annihilated is what God wants, God commands, God proclaims! (‘Saint’ Augustine)

Thank Enlightenment we can’t, in the west at least, be executed these days for our beliefs and philosophies. And whatever became of Christians? Those who oppose anything in their culture they consider contrary to their tyrannical views, who would punish, perhaps execute, sexual non-conformists and who regard other belief systems, atheism especially, as demonic. The same believers who would eagerly take us back to the demon infested dark ages.

They’re still with us of course and have, in the UK where I am and certainly in the United States, a disproportionate amount of influence and power. We must be grateful they are moderate, reasonable people who wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Aren’t they?

Bathwater

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While putting together the ‘Can You Be a Christian and…’ series, I encountered on more than one occasion the line of reasoning (I use the term lightly) used by moderate Christians that, essentially, certain parts of the Bible are no longer relevant. So you can, they said, be both a free thinker and a Christian; you can be gay, so long as you disregard what the bible says about homosexuality; you can be a Christian woman if you dismiss Paul’s denigration of women; you can acknowledge evolution provided you reinterpret what the bible says about creation; you can be a realist if you ignore the bible’s supernaturalism.

But if you’re going to disregard anything the bible teaches that appears incompatible with what we know about psychology, sexuality, biology and reality, then how does the Bible’s central objective truth, as one commenter on here calls it, survive? What makes its core message (that, in some way, Jesus’ death and resurrection is capable of saving humankind) an immutable, eternal truth, while almost everything else can be compromised, deemed to be ‘culture-bound’ and metaphorical, to the point of irrelevance?

I recognise, of course, that fundamentalist Christians don’t do this. For them the bible is inspired, infallible and immutable. They’re prepared to compromise themselves, science and reality in order to honour and preserve what the book says. For them evolution, feminism, homosexuality and independent thinking will always be wrong. The alternative is to acknowledge that the bible doesn’t get everything right and to take the approach of the liberal progressive Christian who is prepared to adjust and adapt what it says; to emasculate it.

Which brings us back to asking where this process stops. If progressive Christians are prepared to dilute to the point of meaninglessness what the bible has to say about creation, women, sexuality and reality itself then why not what it teaches about Jesus and salvation?

It’s a fact that almost all varieties of the Faith, including fundamentalism, are happy to ignore completely Paul and Jesus’ teaching that the Kingdom of God was due to arrive, in all its glory, in their own time. It’s the same with Jesus’ moral extremism (giving to all who ask, loving enemies, turning the other cheek.) So why not the rest of it?

Why are Paul’s muddled theology and selected bits of the Jesus stories considered to be the baby while the rest of the bible is the disposable bathwater? On what basis do progressive Christians decide what is inessential and what is crucial, critical, indispensable? Ideas about angry deities, blood sacrifice, the sins of the people and the resurrection of god-men are every bit as culture-bound as the bible’s perspective on all those other issues.  

Because really, in the end, it’s all bathwater.

 

The Voice in my Head is my Only Friend

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I hear it clearly, the voice in my head. It speaks to me all the time; telling me I am marked out for greatness. I am the Chosen One. I shall make this country and these people great again too. It all falls to me.

The voice speaks sure and true; it does not mislead me. It is of the Lord. Others tell me they have a voice within, but they are misled; the hear merely their own thoughts. I know this, for once, long before, I listened to that same voice, the endless annoying sound of the self, undermining, planting only doubt, questioning my true destiny. It was Satan’s voice, whispering sweet and low. But his is not the voice I hear now. It is God who speaks clearly to me now, strengthening me, reassuring me, directing my path. His voice sounds for me and me alone. It is my constant companion and there is no need of any other. I listen only to him.

He directs me to gather around me those I need to realise my mission. There are others who do not share my vision; the vision he gives me. It matters not; they matter not. Those who do not do my bidding fall by the wayside. Others take their place, true believers in the work I am doing. God himself tells me so, God alone guides me.

For I am the Chosen One; this he has made clear. I am his Son, his appointed Savior for this dissolute age. All else will pass away but what I do will never pass away. For I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.

 

The Chosen One

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Donald Trump is chosen by God. His powerful friends in The Family have decided. Other influential Christians, like the odious Franklin Graham, have endorsed it. Trump himself made reference to it in a speech recently. He claims this was a joke, but we know what’s said about words spoken in jest; the Donald believes what his Christian chums have told him.

Evidently Trump cannot have been chosen by God when there is no God to do the choosing. Nor does Trump’s behaviour indicate that he’s God’s man. He is ignorant, self-obsessed, spiteful, vindictive, boorish, narcissistic and cruel. Not only is he ignorant generally, he is ignorant about the bible, has no idea about what being a Christian entails and is unable to answer any questions about his supposed faith.

Why then do Christians of all stripes claim he is specifically chosen by God to be president? How do they know? Allowing for a moment that there is a God, the notion that he chooses his agents here on Earth is fraught with insurmountable problems. That he predetermines who will serve him or even who is saved is an insoluble paradox that I’ve written about before, here and here.

No, Christians who say Trump is God’s Chosen are convinced of this only because he supports and implements their agenda; he is anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-immigrant. He favours guns, white people, Israel, the wealthy and evangelicals. This is why Christians like him, why The Family says he is chosen by God, because these are their priorities and therefore, they conclude, they must be God’s priorities too.

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For any Christians reading, particularly in the U.S., the process goes something like this:

1. You decide what is important to you.

2. You find support for your priorities in the bible (because support for just about anything can be found somewhere in the bible. Alternatively, you can just say what you believe is in the bible. Nobody’s checking.);

3. You disregard any apparent contradiction in the words attributed to Jesus;

4. You tell yourself that because God supports your agenda somewhere in the bible, this must therefore be his agenda also;

5. You exercise cognitive dissonance, a.k.a. dishonesty, to enable you to conclude that any influential agent who is prepared to support your priorities must therefore be chosen by God.

Naturally your agent need not demonstrate any other traits that might reasonably be expected of a God-follower (humility, love, hospitality, treating others like they themselves like to be treated and so on.) These things are unimportant so long as the agent is carrying out your agenda.

6. You tell others only of point 5, thus furnishing the entire process with a high-sheen spiritual gloss;

7. You accuse anyone who doesn’t support your agenda and your Chosen One of betraying God.

A good deal of self-deception and deceiving of others is required to pull this off, but Christians are more than up to the job. That’s why Trump is in the White House and why his Christian fixers are never far from his side.