More fairly random, half-formed thoughts on Evolution

Flintstones42

(Note to self: check the captions to this and last time’s pictures are the right way round.)

 

3. On God in Nature

God is revealed in nature! The bible says so (Romans 1.20) and you don’t even have to be a Creationist to see it – the evidence is there in plain sight.

But to suggest that, because aspects of nature are beautiful (or stunning or endearing) from a human perspective, the natural world can only have come from the hand of a loving Creator is merely to argue from a position of incredulity: “I can’t conceive how such beauty came to be; it must have been God.”

I live close to the countryside and although there is much that is impressively beautiful, the mercilessly cruel working of nature is also apparent: ruthless competition, even between plants and certainly among animal wildlife; waste on a vast scale; predation – young blue-tit (chickadee) chicks in my garden eaten a few weeks ago by magpies – death and sex.

The incredulous believer who refuses to see these aspects of nature and sees only beauty – and much of it is undeniably beautiful – is being disingenuous in their selection of evidence (confirmation bias in action). If God reveals himself in nature, then just as it is, he has to be callous, cruel and indifferent to suffering too.

“Ah, yes,” says the Christian, “but that’s because we live in a fallen world,” which is having it both ways: God is apparent in nature, except when he isn’t… because then it’s a fallen world.

Speaking of which –


4. On This Being a Fallen World

Creationists, such as those at Answers In Genesis, like to argue that genetic mutations in humans and animals fail to ‘increase the information’ and, further, that such errors would only lead to malfunction and the death of the organism. They’re right about the latter; significant mutation is almost always detrimental. However, according to Nature, ‘others have little or no detrimental effect. And sometimes, although very rarely, the change in DNA sequence may even turn out to be beneficial to the organism.’ A mutation that increases the chances an animal will survive and reproduce ensures that the particular mutation is passed on to its offspring.

The constant shuffling and recombining of genes in sexual reproduction also changes and ‘increases the information’ within the genome with the consequent effect on the phenotype (the genome’s physical expression). This is analogous with the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet producing new, unique sentences, paragraphs and texts every time they are recombined.

Creationists are wrong therefore to insist that mechanisms do not exist to change or add to genetic ‘information’. They are wrong too that variations caused by mutation cannot contribute to the evolution of an organism; while most born with such variance are likely to die before they can reproduce (natural selection in action) a minority are able to pass on the changes. Mutation and sexual recombination of genes are integral to evolution and the development of the organism.

I mention this because the bible presents quite a different scenario. In Genesis, the world and everything in it is created in a state of perfection. Then, because of human disobedience and sin, God feels compelled to curse his entire creation and the sudden or gradual – Christians are none to clear about which it is – transition to degradation, entropy and death begins.

It’s here that creationists’ objection to the role of mutation in evolution proves a stumbling block for their own scenario: a system designed to function in a particular way cannot continue to operate effectively after undergoing such a radical, brutal overhaul. We know of no other system that, having undergone such demolition, can continue to work in the way it was intended to, and certainly not as effectively as the ecosystem has for millennia. Look, for example, at how human activity has contributed recently to radical changes in climate.

Nature relies on those things that Christians say arose because of God’s curse on it: death, disease, waste, competition, cruelty. A system with such inherent ‘faults’, so far removed from how it was ‘designed’ to operate, would have failed long ago.

From this we can conclude that:

Nature/ecosystems/life were not ‘designed’ at all.

     They were never part of a ‘perfect’ creation.

         They were not cursed and are not now faulty components of a fallen,     malfunctioning world – nor could they be.

                       They could not operate any differently from the way they do.

                             They will not, despite what the bible says (Romans 8.20-21), be restored one day to a state of perfection they didn’t have in the first place.

 

How the bible gets almost everything wrong: volume 3

Paul4

So there we have it. The bible is historically, scientifically, medically, morally, and psychologically inaccurate. It is a muddle of contradiction and confusion, written by pre-scientific, bronze-age tribesmen and religious zealots who made guesses about how the world worked. In almost every respect they got it wrong.

So what does this mean for the central premise of the book, its claim that the Creator of the universe, the Father of mankind speaks through it? Why should we suppose that when it gets everything else wrong, it manages to get this right?

We shouldn’t. The bible’s knowledge of God comes from the same source as the rest of its information: the wild imaginings of men who knew no better. The bible itself tell us so, many times. By its own admission, it is a catalogue of dreams, visions and inner ‘revelations’. In the New Testament alone there are at least twenty ‘meaningful’ fantasies of this sort, including the entirety of its final book, the aptly named ‘Revelation of St John’. The bible comes from an era when dreams and other subjective internal experiences were widely regarded to have significance as messages – revelations – from the gods, not the routine and not-so-routine workings of the human mind we now know them to be. Every era, before the scientific, regarded them in this way.

So Paul interpreted his psychotic episodes, depicted as a disembodied voice and bright light in Acts but far more dreamlike and hallucinatory in Paul’s own descriptions, as experiences of the risen Jesus himself (1 Corinthians 9.1 & Galatians 1.11-12) and of heaven (2 Corinthians 12.1-4). From these he built up all of his fanciful ideas of ‘the Christ’, not one of them based on anything demonstrable or real. All of them mere notions in his head, notions that others were all to willing to accept as the words of a god. After all, wasn’t that how the Almighty always communicated with mere mortals?

Still today people surrender to these ‘revelations’; Paul’s theology built on out-of-body experiences, the disciples’ grief-induced visions, John’s hallucinogenic ‘bad trip’. These are the foundation of Christianity as we have it, providing all we know of God, Christ and salvation, and all of them without any basis in reality. Some believers even claim to have the same sort of ‘revelations’ themselves; God speaking to them, Christ bathing them in light, visions of Heaven. All of these, again, entirely within their heads and no more real than the occasional appearances of my long dead grandfather in my own dreams. However much Christians might insist on a rational basis for their beliefs, it is an inescapable fact that the faith has its origins in ancient people’s dreams and hallucinations. Rationalising after the fact doesn’t alter this.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in basing my life on others’ emotionally-induced inner visions, whether those of a Paul, or a Joseph Smith or a contemporary whack-job. I don’t want to learn about the world and life from people whose understanding and knowledge derive from their sub-conscious and hallucinatory fantasy life. Give me science any day, with its attempts to minimise subjective, human biases from its exploration of how things are. Give me its discoveries that have enhanced life, however imperfectly, in the here and now. Above all, give me honest rationality over sub-conscious imaginings and psychoses.

I have no interest in a god, or a saviour, constructed from other people’s dreams, visions or hallucinations, even, or especially, when they’re recorded in that most unreliable of sources, the bible.

 

Sin

Sin

During the recent election in the UK, the leader of the Liberal Democrat party, Tim Farron, was asked if he thought gay sex was a sin. Farron is a born-again Christian and instead of answering the question, he hedged round it. Predictably, this meant that journalists returned to it, with the politician dodging it each time.

In all probability, Farron does regard gay sex as a sin. The bible teaches that all behaviour that offends God is sin, causing a rift between mortals and the deity. This, biblically speaking, is what defines sin. Tim Farron would have been better being honest, saying that his faith leads him to believe that sex between people of the same sex is sinful but that personally he is a supporter of equal rights for all. His voting record indicates this to be the case; he has consistently voted in favour of LGBT rights while, presumably, maintaining his faith. Perhaps if he had answered in this way, he might not have felt the need resign as Lib-Dem leader on the grounds that his role as party leader conflicted with his personal beliefs. Predictably, evangelical groups have claimed he was hounded out of office because of his beliefs, but it seems far more likely he was, as he said himself, finding it difficult to reconcile his faith-induced worldview with his public duty. It must be difficult defaming your colleagues when you’re supposed to be demonstrating Christ’s love.

Whatever the reason, those who believe that human behaviour is sinful are wrong. Nothing humans do is a sin. Nothing we do, gay sex included, offends God because there is no God to offend. Sin is an entirely religious concept that has outlived its usefulness, if it ever really had any. Which is not to say human behaviour cannot be immoral. It can, but immoral behaviour and sin are not the same thing. As a rule of thumb, morality is determined by the extent to which our behaviour adversely affects others. Deliberately harming them physically, materially or emotionally is (likely to be) immoral behaviour. Murder, theft and abuse are immoral – but they are not ‘sin’.

Morality is not always clear cut, however; arguably it would not be wrong to murder a terrorist or suicide bomber before he can embark on a killing spree. Aborting collections of cells in a woman’s uterus, if that is what she wants, is also not an immoral act. Similarly, victimless behaviours such as sex – both hetero and homosexual – between free, consenting adults is neither wrong nor immoral. Nor is masturbation, gender fluidity or transgenderism. And as for the betes noir of the church of my youth (and who knows, they may still be) – listening to rock music, having the odd drink and dancing – they’re not either.

On the other hand, some of the activities indulged in by religious people are immoral: attempting to impose their beliefs on others; misrepresenting and denigrating those different from themselves; pressurising gay people to deny their sexuality; advocating the death penalty for homosexuality; covering up fellow-believers’ criminal activity; teaching children that creation myths are true; dismissing science; persuading people that prayer works; convincing others they are sinners.

We all behave immorally, thoughtlessly and carelessly, from time to time. But we are not, as a consequence, destined for hell, nor are we in need of a saviour to magically wash away any wrong-doing; if that really worked, we would see no immoral Christians. No, when we have behaved immorally we need to make reparation to those we have harmed, not ‘repent’ by begging forgiveness of some irascible god. What we should never do, whatever the Righteous ones tell us, is regard ourselves as sinners. We are not: it is impossible to offend a deity that doesn’t exist.

 

Making Excuses for Jesus

jesus-jw

Excuse 5. When Jesus said the ‘Kingdom of God is coming soon’, what he meant to add was ‘but only in heaven and then in 1874. Or 1878. 1914? Er… 1975. After 2017?’

So say the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 1897 they claimed that Jesus had started on his comeback tour in 1874:

Our Lord, the appointed King, is now present since October 1874, A.D., according to the testimony of the prophets, to those who have ears to hear it: and the formal inauguration of his kingly office dates from Apr 1878, A.D. Studies in Scriptures Series IV (p.621)

and

The year A.D. 1878 … clearly marks the time for the actual assuming of power as King of kings, by our present, spiritual, invisible Lord… The Time is At Hand (1911 ed) p.239

When there was no sign this had happened – and goodness knows what sort of sign there could possibly be – the JWs changed their minds again and said the real date for the start of the ‘full’ kingdom was to be 1914:

In view of this strong Bible evidence concerning the Times of the Gentiles, we consider it an established truth that the final end of the kingdoms of this world, and the full establishment of the Kingdom of God, will be accomplished near the end of A.D.1914. Studies in the Scriptures Series 2: The Time is at Hand (1889 ed) p.99

and

October, 1914, will witness the full end of Babylon, “as a great millstone cast into the sea,” utterly destroyed as a system. Watch Tower (Jun 15 1911) p.190

Alas, over a century later there’s no sign of the Kingdom’s ‘full establishment’, while the old, corrupt system (Babylon) carries on as normal. So, after another change of heart, and a quick, futile stab at 1975 as the right date, Jehovah’s Witnesses came up with a revised plan. Here’s how it looks:

Jesus will return while the generation alive in 1914 is still around, when he will finally get the Kingdom underway. This is the ‘generation’ to which he refers in his prophecies in the bible; his return and the Kingdom coming to the earth will definitely happen while the 1914 generation  is still alive.

But hang on! A person born in 1914 – and there are some still around – is now 103, while those who were already adults in 1914 are long dead. In other words, the 1914 generation has almost gone and there’s still no sign of Jesus or his Kingdom. Either he’s going to return real soon, before the last of the 1914 generation depart, or he’s going to miss the deadline yet again (Guess which it’s going to be).

But worry not, Jehovah’s Witnesses have this one covered too! When Jesus referred to ‘this generation’ he didn’t just mean one generation, but to the generation that ‘overlaps’ with that generation. There’s nothing biblical about ‘overlapping generations’, of course. Jesus didn’t say, ‘the Kingdom will come while this generation and those that overlap with it are still alive,’ but like mainstream Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses need to give Jesus and themselves an excuse if they’re to avoid admitting that he and they have got it wrong.

So, an overlapping generation would be one like my own, whose grandparents were children in 1914. But we can extend this – and we can be sure JWs will once Jesus fails to return on time – because, using the same ‘reasoning’, my granchildren’s generation ‘overlaps’ with my grandparents’ through me. My grandchildren’s grandchildren too will be connected with all previous generations, including that from 1914, because of those who have preceded them… and on and on, ad infinitum. In fact, Jesus could come back at any time in the future so long as someone is alive who can trace their ancestry back to 1914.

But he’s not going to. He wasn’t talking about a ‘generation’ almost 2000 years after he lived. He was certain the Kingdom of God was coming to his time and his people. All of these convoluted and ultimately unconvincing explanations of what he ‘really’ meant when he preached an imminent heavenly Kingdom on earth simply won’t do. While mainstream Christians mock Jehovah’s Witnesses for their silly conjecturing about Jesus’ return, they share the belief Jesus is coming back. Most won’t venture a date (though there have been plenty who have) because, they will tell you, Jesus also said ‘no-one knows the precise day or hour’ when the Son of Man and the Kingdom will appear (Mark 13.32). Nevertheless, they remain certain that Jesus will return: this year, next year, sometime… any time other than that which he actually predicted.

While evangelical Christians and others insist that the bible, where all Jesus’ failed prophecies appear, is the literal and infallible word of God, they refuse to take literally his pronouncements about the coming of the Kingdom. While he might have said he didn’t know exactly when it would arrive, he was certain it would be while his own generation lived. As he is made to say in Matthew 16.28, ‘some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’.

All of which is a problem for Christians: if these predictions are not to be ignored, then they must be interpreted, explained and, eventually, explained away. The last thing believers want to do is accept them for what they are; the demonstration of Jesus’ failure. The Kingdom didn’t arrive when he said it would and, given how far it is past its sell-by date, it’s certainly won’t be now.

Making Excuses for Jesus

Hokum2

Excuse 3. When Jesus said ‘Kingdom of God’ what he really meant was ‘heaven’.

According to many Christians, the Kingdom of God is a supernatural realm where those whom Jesus has redeemed are going to go when they die. This kingdom is not, despite what Jesus said, coming to the Earth; believers are going to it, and it’s called heaven.

This is probably the most prominent view among Christians today and it couldn’t be more wrong. As we’ve established, Jesus says repeatedly and consistently that the Kingdom is coming here, to the earth. As well as all of his assurances (cited in earlier posts), he taught his followers to pray to God that ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven’ (Matt 6.10), a petition Christians affirm whenever they repeat ‘the Lord’s prayer’.

Nowhere does Jesus promise his followers that they will spend eternity in heaven with God. Neither does Paul, nor any of the New Testament writers. Heaven, according to the bible, is God’s abode beyond the clouds; it is not a theme park open for visitors or long term guests. True, Paul believed that deceased souls would enter the presence of Christ to be kept safe until the Kingdom’s arrival, at which point they would be housed in new, spiritual bodies (1 Corinthians 15:35-58; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18). These new bodies would not be for life in heaven, however, but for a resurrected existence here on earth, once the Kingdom had been established.

Amazingly, Paul expected people to believe this appalling drivel. Later Christians evidently couldn’t, and so invented the idea that they would be going to Heaven permanently post-mortem. John 14.3, which makes Jesus say he’s going to prepare a place for his disciples ‘in his father’s house’, might be an early sign of this wishful thinking. On the other hand it might mean something else altogether – as usual Jesus is made to speak in obtuse riddles.

Whichever it is, Christians are not promised an existence in heaven when they die. The only offer is of a place in God’s Kingdom on Earth, which both Jesus and Paul thought was coming very soon.

 

Excuse 4. When Jesus said ‘Kingdom of God’ what he really meant was ‘an internal kingdom of the heart’.

The Kingdom of God, then, must be, as a commenter on Answers in Genesis recently assured me, ‘an internal kingdom of the heart’. But you’d be hard pushed to find this bit of fluff in the bible. The closest it comes to saying any such thing is in Luke 17.20-21 where Jesus announces that the Kingdom of God is ‘entos hymon,’ a phrase sometimes rendered as ‘within you’ but which is more accurately translated ‘among you’. It is not an assurance that the Kingdom of God is some sort of silopsistic comfort blanket for believers in the far-flung future. It is yet more evidence that Jesus (or his script-writers) regarded the Kingdom as imminent in his and their own immediate context: first century Palestine. 

That’s four excuses – four explanations that what Jesus really meant was what today’s Christians want him to have meant. It’s tough facing up to the reality that God’s Son – God himself according to some Christians – was so mistaken, so disastrously wrong. But he was.

So naturally, more excuses are needed…

 

How to argue like a Christian

Argue

If you’ve ever tried discussing matters of faith with a True Believer™, you’ll know how difficult it can be; like wrestling with a jellyfish – and just about as poisonous.

So here’s a guide for the unwary; 10 of their favourite lines (5 this time, 5 next), all of which I’ve experienced more times than I care to remember.

“You don’t know your Bible!”

Point out that Jesus’ ‘good news’ was nothing like Paul’s or that they were both wrong about the Kingdom arriving in the first century and this old canard gets trotted out. Even if you quote chapter and verse, a clear indication you do know the Bible, they still produce it. What they mean is ‘how dare you quote the bits of the Bible we true believers don’t like and prefer not to acknowledge.’

“You’re quoting out of context.”

I’ve posted about this one before. Seemingly as a sceptic you have no discernment when it comes to selecting Bible verses. How ever many you reference – one or a hundred – they will tell you it’s not enough; that you’ve not, somehow, caught the true meaning of what the Bible is saying, which is, naturally, what they say it means. Unsurprisingly. quoting isolated verses is something the Righteous themselves like to do all the time…

“The bible says…”

It doesn’t matter what point you make, this will appear somewhere in the Christian’s response, followed, of course, by some random verse from the book in question. Christians seem to regard it as the ultimate clincher, the way to silence any opponent, as if quoting the bible to those who recognise neither its credibility nor its authority persuades anyone of anything.

“You’ve no right to criticise Christianity when you can’t ‘prove’ how something came from nothing/how life arose/evolution.”

It’s unlikely anyone can explain these biggies in 140 characters or a Facebook comment, but we can direct those issuing the challenge to scientific works that offer viable theories soundly based on the evidence available. Needless to say our Christian smart-Alec is unlikely to read them, claiming instead that one’s inability to comprehensively explain the Big Bang or evolution ‘proves’ it must have been – watch the sleight of hand here – YHWH.

“‘People like you’ only want to wallow in your own sin (which is why you won’t let me have my own way).”

Now I like to wallow as much as the next man, but outside the Christian bubble, ‘sin’ is a fairly meaningless concept, designed only to induce guilt in others. Which means the point of this unpleasant finger pointing is to side-step any discussion and to dismiss whatever point you might want to make. What this retort really means is ‘you have an ulterior motive for saying what you’re saying and, in any case, your inherently evil nature doesn’t entitle you to have an opinion.’

More next time…

The original ‘good news’ had nothing to with any mystical salvation plan (part two)

Disciples2

Last time, I provided evidence that Jesus’ original ‘good news’ had nothing to do with any mystical salvation plan constructed around his supposed resurrection. My six references demonstrated that, even after his death, the disciples adhered to Jesus’ original message: God’s Kingdom was coming soon and they were going to rule over it. Here are six more reasons we can be sure this was the case:

7. Our earliest sources, Q and the gospel of Mark, do not give much credence to the resurrection as an actual event: Q records no sayings of the risen Jesus and Mark has no resurrection appearances; it ends with the women who discover the empty tomb deciding not to tell the disciples about it. In Mark’s gospel, then, the disciples are not even aware the tomb is empty, let alone that Jesus has returned from the dead. We can conclude from this that the community that produced Mark’s gospel, the supposed resurrection was not significant in and of itself.

8. Paul tells us that the disciple’s gospel was not the same as his, despite the fact he too believed the Kingdom wasn’t far off (1 Thessalonians 4:17). The disciples, he says in 2 Corinthians 11.4-5 and Galatians 1.6; 2.11-21, were preaching ‘a different gospel’. Different from his, certainly, but the same as the ‘good news’ Jesus proclaimed: Jewish people should prepare for the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom on Earth (Mathew 9.35; 15.24), when, as Jesus himself had promised them, the disciples would judge the restored tribes of Israel and rule over them. It is, as we have seen, out of the question that they would jettison this aspect of the ‘good news’, given to them by Jesus himself.

9. Because the disciples – and Jesus’ brother James – saw the new Kingdom as intended for Jews only, as Jesus had before them (Matthew 10.23), they insisted that any Gentile converts must be circumcised; must become Jewish (Galatians 2.7). Paul, of course, objected to this requirement and throws tantrums about it in his letters (Galatians 5.1-12; Philippians 3.3). But like Jesus, the disciples saw no place for Gentiles, the unrighteous, in the new age; those who didn’t convert would, of necessity, be dispatched to eternal punishment (Matthew 25.31-46).

10. As far as the disciples were concerned, therefore, it was entirely for their own good that converted Gentiles be circumcised (Galatians 6.12-13) as this was their only guarantee of a place in the new Kingdom. What this tells us is that a salvation formula, such as that dreamt up by Paul, had no part in the disciples’ ‘good news’.

11. Wherever they appear – in Paul’s writing, the gospels, Acts – the disciples are portrayed as being at odds with an incantational, faith-based Christianity. The Bible attests, even with Paul’s new religion superimposed, that they held to a different gospel, a different sense of what Jesus’ life meant and a different notion of their place in the coming Kingdom. And wouldn’t they be the ones to know? They knew Jesus, spent time with him, listened to his teaching, bought into his misguided mission and had sufficient understanding of it to spread his ‘good news’ to fellow Jews, both while he was still alive and afterwards (Matthew 10.23; Luke 9.1-2).

12. The New Testament is testimony to the failure of everything Jesus and the disciples stood for; their ‘news’ that God was soon to turn the Earth over to the meek and that they would then rule the only people who mattered, the twelve tribes of Israel, with everyone else thrown into outer darkness (Luke 13:28). Jesus himself, of course, would return at some point to be top dog, God’s representative on Earth – his anointed one. None of this happened.

If only it had been allowed to rest there, we might not know today of Jesus and his mad ideas. Instead, Paul stepped in, reinterpreted the whole ridiculous enterprise and bequeathed the world a set of different but equally absurd beliefs. And the rest is history: religious wars, pogroms, inquisitions, suppression, superstition, clerical child abuse, Pat Roberston. Is this the Kingdom that Jesus and his closest associates foresaw? Decidedly not. But it is their legacy.