How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

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Back when I was a teacher, in a distant, previous life, there were kids who couldn’t grasp the concept that multiplying a number by zero always results in zero. No matter how often I told them, ‘it doesn’t matter how much nothing you have, it’s still nothing,’ some of them just couldn’t see it.

Those who did understand regarded it as almost magical – they were young children – and would challenge each other with the likes of, ‘What’s 47 trillion, 56 billion, 95 million, 34 thousand, 8 hundred and 22 multiplied by zero?… Zero!’

I imagine these smart kids now say things like, ‘What’s Superstition mutiplied by New Testament scholarship, theology and the intellectualised analysis of doctrine?… Superstition!’

It is immaterial how rigorous the scrutiny of the non-existent is, the non-existent will only ever be non-existent.

No matter how much nothing you have, it’s still nothing.

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So it begins…

Jesus Lazes

A true story:

They didn’t see it coming. No-one did. It couldn’t have been predicted. He came into their lives unexpectedly one summer evening and none of them would ever be the same again.

He met Maddy first, then Andrew and soon after that the rest of the group. He was quiet, diffident even, but from the start his personality shone, his smile captivating them all. Some fell in love with him immediately, others later but either way, there was no escape. His zest for life was infectious, his gentle, thoughtful ways drew in all who encountered him. He didn’t demand change or presume to tell them how they should live, but his unaffected presence changed them all and added immeasurably to each of their lives.

And so the cult of Salvatore began, in the way that all cults begin, with a charismatic personality. When that individual seeks to manipulate and control others, particularly if he or she has Messianic aspirations, then before long an agenda emerges: unquestioning obedience; the belief that only this leader has the Truth; the demand that acolytes abandon family, friends and society for the cause; the proselytising to increase followers; the expectation that others acknowledge the leader’s power and glory; the rejection of those who fail to do so. This is how it was with Jesus, Muhammed, the Buddha, Joseph Smith, Mary Eddy Baker and so many others

The Salvatore cult won’t come to this; the man himself is neither controlling nor manipulative, though there are those who would do anything for him. Myself included.

Jesus’ Final Solution

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Jesus is beautiful. That’s what they were singing on TBN last night – thousands of Christians telling their false-idol Jesus just how lovely he is.

I’m fortunate in life to know some truly genuine and beautiful people and one of the things that qualifies them as beautiful is that they don’t advocate violence, cruelty or self-harm. I don’t know about you, but for me that’s something that marks out a good person. I can’t see folks who promote violence and cruelty as either good or lovely or beautiful. They’re just incompatible.

Unless of course you’re Jesus. Because, as ever, Jesus gets a free pass. He revels in violence and unpleasantness and his followers are always prepared to overlook it, because, well, he’s Jesus. Beginning with Paul he’s been remodelled from the rough itinerant preacher he clearly was to the epitome of all things bright and beautiful.

Here are some of his pronouncements, all hiding in plain sight in the gospels that tell us he was nothing of the sort –

Matthew 13.41-42 (and John 15.6):

The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The fate of those who are not convinced by Jesus’ ‘good news’ is to be thrown into a blazing furnace. He’s not talking about after death here; he’s talking about when God’s Kingdom arrives on the Earth. He wants sinners and those he considers evil to be burnt alive. Jesus, who in Matthew’s gospel sees himself as the Son of Man, sounds more like Hitler than any ‘Prince of Peace.’ Burning people in giant ovens is Jesus’ final solution.

Then there’s Matthew 7.19-23:

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire… Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that (judgement) day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

Jesus makes clear here he’s talking about believers here – his own followers! If you don’t do all he says, Christians, you too are heading for the flames. What is it with this pyromaniac?

Luke 19.26-27:

I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away. But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.

This is the conclusion of the so-called Parable of the Talents where Jesus emphasises the point of the story. With himself as the King of the World (Matthew 19.27-28) he wants those who don’t appreciate his megalomania to be executed in front of him. What’s not to like about this guy?

Matthew 5.29:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 

Don Camp tells me (see the previous post) that this is meant metaphorically; metaphorically for what, Don? There is no reason to interpret this in any way other than literally. Look at the context: Jesus makes clear in the previous verse he’s talking about how to deal with lusting after women. He thinks the only way to stop yourself from doing this is to gouge out your eye (just the one?) According to Jesus, lust is such a terrible sin, it can only be properly dealt with by blinding yourself.

Matthew 5.30:

And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

If you think you’re going to manage your lust any other way – by masturbating, for example – then you can forget that too; Jesus wants you to cut off the hand you do it with (or is he using ‘member’ in the modern euphemistic sense of ‘penis’?). The context of this verse is, like the previous one, sexual, and we know how much Christians like context. In case you’re tempted to dismiss this gruesome nonsense as an irrelevant part of Jesus’ message, he repeats it in Matthew 18.8-9.

Matthew 19.12:

For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.

Jesus advocates castration. Or, if you want to insist he’s speaking metaphorically, then he’s suggesting his most avid followers live a life without sex. And we know how well that worked out for the Catholic church. How do we know, though, when he’s being metaphorical and when literal? He hardly makes it clear. I suspect he’s only being metaphorical when Christians don’t like what he’s saying. If this is a metaphor here, it’s a particularly unpleasant one; Christian extremists have castrated themselves on the strength of these words and some have used them to justify castrating others. At the very least we might expect Jesus to have foreseen the consequences of such stupid remarks.

Luke 22.36:

He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one… The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That is enough,” he replied.

Buy swords? What for? There’s only one purpose for swords – to run other people through. Now why would Jesus be suggesting his pals do that? To put up some resistance when he was arrested? What other purpose could they have in the context? Two swords, it turns out, are enough; though when Peter (according to John) uses his, Jesus castigates him. Talk about mixed messages!

Matthew 10.34-36:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Jesus predicts his own disruptiveness. Despite the prediction of the Christmas angels, his message was not one of peace but of division and bloodshed, as his later followers found out (and put these words in his mouth retrospectively.) Is it any wonder when he promised that those who weren’t a part of his cult (and some who were) would be thrown into the flames or put to the sword?

Mark 7.10-14:

Jesus said to the Pharisees: For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death’… But you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.’

Complicated this one, but essentially Jesus takes the Pharisees to task for not having troublesome youths executed as Moses commanded. In fact, he upholds all the barbaric practices of the Mosaic Law (Matthew 5.17).

Still think he’s a nice guy? Lovely and beautiful? Well of course, because the Jesus worshipped by Christians today – and even by Paul – was not this guy. The beautiful version is a construct that bears no resemblance to the bloodthirsty, furnace-building advocate of self-mutilation who haunts the pages of the gospels. Lovely he was not.

 

Hearing things

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Don Camp has responded to my previous post, Voices In The Head, with a longish essay that he posted on Debunking Christianity. I want to use what he says to debunk the foolish notion that God speaks directly to people via their own  thoughts.

Those of us who do not believe in a God have, Don says, no ‘philosophical context’ for his speaking and are bound to ‘have trouble’ with the idea. I have to say, in fact, that I have no trouble at all with it. It’s easy: no God = no God speaking.

The rational thing to do, Don goes on, is for skeptics to fit those reports of God speaking into a context we do have, such as self-talk or schizophrenic delusions. This is another statement of the obvious; with no supernatural to account for such voices there can only be a rational explanation for this most irrational of phenomena.

Don then tries an analogy: ‘trying to explain God speaking to those who have no way to make sense of it is like explaining the color and beauty of a sunset to someone with no eyes.’ This is less than convincing. Those who are sceptical about God speaking (or doing anything) do have ‘eyes’: their rationality and critical faculties. A more accurate parallel for trying to persuade others the Almighty sends messages into his followers’ heads would be claiming that the events of a dream you had last night really happened in the world as we know it. ( I’ll have more to say about dreams later.)

‘I’ve said clearly,’ says Don, ‘what God speaking to people is not. It is not self-talk.’ Alas, Don does not tell us how he knows this.

‘Those who hear God speaking do not mistake it for self-talk,’ which is a pity because that’s what it is; Christians might choose to relabel it ‘God’ but that doesn’t mean it is. ‘It is also not schizophrenic delusions.’ It is a delusion though; I haven’t actually said that Don’s inner voice represents schizophrenia (he brought up the term) but I can’t see any difference between the voice he hears and those experienced, perhaps in more severe form, by schizophrenics.

‘Schizophrenic delusions, in which the sufferer either sees things that aren’t there or hears voices no one else hears, are characterized by self-isolation behavior, delusions, disorganized speech, bizarre behaviors, and flat affect. (see https://medical-dictionary…. )’ Whereas those hearing God’s voice gather together in self-contained enclaves separated, by choice, from ‘the World’. At other times they withdraw to talk to an imaginary super-being on their own and, according to Don, have him speak to them. If they’re really lucky, they’ll even get to see things that aren’t there. Obviously this kind of bizarre behaviour bears no resemblance to the true schizophrenic.

Don again: ‘Schizophrenic behaviors are very self-focused and their delusions are sometimes fearful or hateful and sometimes violent. It is the last that we see when people afflicted with schizophrenia pick up a gun and shoot up a school or a church or behead a girlfriend, as in the case you’ve noted in Mt. Vernon, Washington.’ Of course, schizophrenia is the same as most human behaviours; it exists on a spectrum. The Christian’s inner voice may not be as extreme or anti-social as that of the schizophrenic, but hearing it is on the same spectrum, perhaps at the safe end. Until it’s not, of course, as in the examples Don refers to.

‘But what about the person who hears God speak telling him that he should build a hospital in the Congo for AIDS patients or reach out to help the homeless? That is not the behavior of someone who suffers from mental illness. But that is the sort of thing that characterizes the lives of those ordinary Christians who report hearing God speak. So inner voices sometimes tell Christians to do good things. So what? This isn’t evidence they’re from God. What Don’s really arguing here, is that a ‘good’ message proves the Christian’s inner voice is God. And how do they know it’s God and not just self-talk? Because the message is ‘good’. This is circular and self-fulfilling, and doesn’t take into account all those instances when ‘God’ commands people to do bad things. According to the Old Testament it was the Lord himself who commanded Moses, Joshua and Samuel to massacre neighbouring tribes, the Lord who told Abraham to execute his own son in an especially cruel ‘test’. Doesn’t God do this any more? Has the unchanging God changed in this respect? Believers don’t just hear God telling them to do good things; the evidence is right there in the bible that (they imagine) he tells them to do wicked things too.

‘Does that kind of selfless compassion and determined service to mankind come from schizophrenic delusion or a disordered mind disconnected from reality? I do not think so. But that and many, many similar things are the result people having truly heard God speak.’ No, it’s the result of people interpreting an inner prompting as God. Interpreting it as such does not mean it is.

‘No physician would diagnose the many millions of ordinary Christians who report God speaking to them as schizophrenic.’ As I’ve already suggested, Don is creating a false dichotomy here: it isn’t necessary to be a diagnosed schizophrenic. It’s possible those hearing ‘helpful’ voices are much lower down on the delusional spectrum. They may never be schizophrenic in the medical sense, but this does not mean their voices are not self-generated.

‘But if God speaking is NOT self-talk or delusional, what is it?’ It is both of these things and Don hasn’t demonstrated otherwise. Still, let’s humour him and press on:

‘I think that J. Warner Wallace has as good an explanation as any. It is far more than voices in our heads. You can read his article here http://www.foxnews.com/opin…Fox News? Don really is in trouble.

‘What is significant for those who are convinced that there is no God out there to speak is that their conclusion contrasts with the experience (of) many billions of people over a very long time. It was the experience of those who wrote the Bible and many of those they wrote about. It has been the experience of billions since.’ Aah, now we’re playing the numbers game: ‘lots of people think this so it must be true.’ Well, okay, but many more billions dream while they’re asleep, and those dreams must come from somewhere; they can only be from God – there’s even biblical support for the idea that they are. So, if numbers of people demonstrate God’s involvement in our psyches then dreams are far more numerous than God merely speaking directly. However, God doesn’t create or speak through dreams, even though the bible suggests in places that he does. People may interpret them as God speaking but, as I’ve already said, interpretation is not evidence – and numbers prove nothing.

And now, having failed to present any sort of persuasive evidence that his inner voices are from God, Don leaps to this conclusion: ‘it is not really helpful for skeptics, who consider themselves in some way more grounded in reality than the rest of mankind, to Wave off this God speaking thing as delusional.’ Do we skeptics consider ourselves more grounded in reality – yes, I think perhaps we do. We look at evidence, not at what people believe they’re experiencing nor the numbers who believe, nor to the supernatural as an explanation for human phenomena. Voices in the head are generated by the brain; as Don concedes the mind commonly does this when we create a dialogue with ourselves. The nature of this dialogue is influenced and altered in those whose minds are saturated with religious ideas and mythology to the extent it is (mis)interpreted as the voice of God. This is the reality. I know, I’ve been there.

‘You need to consider,’ says Don in his coup de grace, ‘if there is not more to reality than you believe’? Do we? Do I? When a perfectly adequate explanation exists for voices in the head, why should any of us consider an alternative that relies on the supernatural? Actually though, I’ve done that too; for a long time I believed there must be ‘more to reality’ than we humans could conceive of or comprehend. So far, however, there is absolutely no evidence – zero, zilch – that what we don’t understand is Supernatural. Whether I ‘believe’ this or not is immaterial; it is a demonstrable fact. The Creator of everything-there-is cannot therefore be the source of voices in the head, dreams, visions or any other damn thing.

So, Don, a final point: if you stick, as I’m sure you will, with your belief that the voices you and other Christians hear are from God, then perhaps you could tell us why he says different things to different Christians – completely contradictory things (as I’ve written about here)? How do you account for God whispering one thing to you and the opposite to a fellow-believer? Do you dismiss as schizophrenic those who say God tells them not to commit massacres, but to shun gay people, control the weather, take possession of a new jet or prepare for the ‘great persecution‘ to come? Are these fellow Christians deluded? Maybe misinterpreting the voices in their head? If you dismiss them as deluded, muddle-headed or schizophrenic then you can perhaps see how we skeptics view you.

Atheists and Agnostics

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This is how a god-botherer managed to make a fool of himself recently in the i, a national UK newspaper.

Agnostics and Atheists

It is misleading for Gwilyn Hughes to put atheism and agnosticism together as if they are the same two varieties of the same genre: they are worlds apart.

‘The fool has said in his heart, there is no God’ – the old psalm is right, for the atheist is a fool.

He ignores the thousands of centuries of human thought and experience to put all his trust in the tiny fragment of the present, embracing the myth of inevitable human progress.

The agnostic, on the other contrary, is wise: he considers everything including the present and concludes that, with the believer, its existence is unproven as its non-existence.

John Toy,

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I sent the following reply:

As an atheist, I was interested to read that, according to Mr Toy, I ignore ‘all the thousands of centuries of human thought’ and embrace ‘the myth of inevitable human progress.’ Clearly, I’m failing as an atheist as I do neither and nor do most other atheists. Nonetheless, I’m grateful to be set on the right track by Mr Toy, who, I’m guessing from his quoting one of the bible’s most ignorant verses (oh, what choice there is!) is a Christian.

In fact, I regard myself as both an atheist, which means I see no evidence of a personal loving god and therefore ‘believe’ accordingly, and an agnostic. I do not know if there is some sort of deity ‘out there’ that gets on with his/her/its life with neither interest in, nor involvement with, the inhabitants of this planet. I doubt it, but as the possibility exists, I can only be agnostic on the subject.

I have to say I’m surprised that a national newspaper in a largely secular country allows those promoting belief in a god, however tenuously, to do so in its pages. I do hope it won’t happen again.

Theology: Much Ado About Nothing

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I heard Richard Dawkins speak at the Edinburgh Book Festival recently. He suggested that the best way to understand views that are the opposite of one’s own is to study them for oneself. He was then asked by a smart-alec in the audience, that if this was so, how many works of theology he had read. Dawkins responded by saying he wouldn’t waste his time reading ‘pure theology’ because, in discussing the nature of God or the Trinity or the mechanics of the Resurrection, theology presupposes that the supernatural is real. As there is no evidence it is, there is no point in reading books the sole purpose of which is to discuss the nuances of the non-existent.

It was a good answer. There is no such thing as intellectual Christianity (or Judaism or Islam, or any religion.) No matter how complex the arguments become, they are essentially ones about nothing. Debates about theological matters, within and between the many versions of Christianity, are, as I’ve said before, as relevant as arguments about the colour of the tooth fairy’s dress.*

*Actually she wears a white dress to symbolise healthy teeth. I know this because of my deeply held faith and personal experience of tooth fairies.

Why I Can’t Believe in the ‘Lord Jesus Christ’: 2. Demons, demons everywhere

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They tell you all you need to do is accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour. But it’s not true. You also have to accept on faith all sorts of peripheral nonsense. Nonsense like demons. And the ever-present malevolent Force that will pressurise you into misbehaving and compromising your commitment to the Lord. This Force is ‘The Enemy’, a.k.a. Satan or the Devil, and leading Christians astray is its/his principal occupation. The Enemy and his minions, the demons, are everywhere! All over the internet for a start, mainly on Christian sites. While the Church of Lucifer has an online presence, it’s Christians who love the bad guys the most.

According to some, Satan and his demons are in charge of this reality (though it could be God who’s got the whole world in his hands.) When they’re not attacking true believers, demons are doing their damnedest to bring America to its knees, mainly through ‘The Homosexual Agenda‘™ and abortion rights.

Perhaps it’s possible to ignore this aspect of the faith and still be a Christian, but to do so is to disregard the significant presence the devil and his demons have in the New Testament. Jesus himself has a cosy chat with Satan during his time in the wilderness, or so Matthew 4.1-11 would have us believe. Throughout the synoptic gospels, Jesus speaks very much as if he believes Satan to be an actual being, not merely a metaphorical personification of evil (eg: Luke 11:14-26). He also exorcises a significant number of individuals possessed by demons.

Steve Hayes on Triablogue blithely suggests that ‘when friends and relatives brought people to Jesus to be exorcized, that reflects their diagnosis, not his. They think the individual is possessed – which doesn’t imply that Jesus always shared their suspicions.’ But of course it does; to imply he was God and therefore would have known better is to impose a perspective that had yet to develop when the synoptic gospels were written – that, and a modern sensibility onto a first-century conditioned mind. If Jesus didn’t regard those brought to him to be possessed by demons, he would have said so. He is quick enough to correct his disciples elsewhere when they ascribe the wrong reasons to the causes of illness (John 9.1-3). Inventing ways to excuse Jesus’ ignorance is to avoid what the text clearly indicates; Jesus believed in demons. When he diagnoses a disturbed mind himself he doesn’t hesitate to conclude they are involved; he even engages in conversation with them (Luke 8.30-35).

We know now, and have known for some time, that illness and mental conditions are not caused by demons. We know too that same-sex relationships are not Satanic. There are no supernatural forces trying to debase America. There are no supernatural forces, full stop. It follows that Jesus’ mission couldn’t have been to magically defeat the devil by dying on the cross (Hebrew 2.14); his supposed sacrifice couldn’t have been the beginning of the end of the devil’s reign (Romans 16.20). Neither can there be any of the spiritual warfare against ‘powers and principalities’ of the air that dimwitted Christians imagine themselves to be engaged in (Ephesians 6.12).

Christianity is nothing without its imagined adversaries. With them it is nothing more than a superstition, which its founders ignorantly subscribed to and worked hard to perpetuate. Christians are about the same business today.

As for me, I cannot believe in a ‘Lord Jesus Christ’ who was so primitive, so uneducated and so ignorant he regarded Satan and his demonic forces to be real.