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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Thou shalt worship False Idols

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Franklin Graham was in England over the weekend, to preach at Blackpool’s presumptuous ‘Festival of Hope’. There was considerable opposition to his presence from, amongst others, the town council and local churches. One objection in particular stood out: Nina Parker, a minister at Blackpool’s Liberty church said –

(Graham) seems committed to condemnation, discrimination, walls and prejudice in a way that Jesus never was.

‘In a way that Jesus never was?’ Has Nina read the gospels? I feel sure she must have done – and yet, she, along with many others, still sees a Jesus as a beautiful soul, full of love, kindness and forgiveness. Many Christians, like Nina, don’t let the evidence (such as it is) interfere with their own inaccurate construct(s) of him. Their reading is coloured by their preconceptions to such an extent they can’t see that, while he may occasionally pay lip-service to being nice, Jesus is, as we saw last time, actually a bit of a shit.

Should you doubt it, there’s his

advocacy of cruelty and self-harm –

If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Mattthew 18.6)

enthusiasm for destruction –

I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! (Luke 12.49)

disrespect for life and propensity for violence –

If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. (John 15.6)

disdain for non-Jews –

(Jesus said) “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Matt 15.24-26)

exclusion of those who would follow him –

And He told them, “The mystery of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those on the outside, everything is expressed in parables so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'” (Mark 4.11-12)

contempt for those who don’t subscribe to his ‘good news’ –

it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town (that isn’t interested in his message.) (Matthew 10.15)

contempt for those who do –

So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants (slaves); we have only done our duty.'” (Luke 17.10)

delusions of grandeur –

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Matthew 19.28)

Is this the Jesus Nina Parker speaks of, the one with no time for ‘condemnation, discrimination, walls and prejudice’?

Hardly.

Nor do Christians reserve such cherry-picking for their saviour. Many of them make the same allowances for Donald Trump, proclaiming him to be God’s choice for president because he’s anti-abortion, anti-LGBT and makes the right noises about Christians’ religious liberty (and no-one else’s). Trump’s corruption, dishonesty, pettiness, serial adulteries, misogyny and self-obsession, together with the absence of any behaviour that might reasonably be considered ‘Christian’, are ignored, excused and dismissed; he couldn’t be a Man of God with characteristics like these – and a Man of God of God he most definitely is: Franklin Graham says so.

Turning a blind eye to the many obvious faults of their heroes is something Christians have always been good at, making false idols of Trump and Jesus alike.

Pride & Prejudice

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Ken Ham took a swipe at Gay Prides recently on his crackpot Answers in Genesis. He didn’t, for once, harp on at length on about how sinful same-sex everything is (if it’s same sex, it’s sinful) but takes the perspective that because Prides involve the word ‘pride’ they are prideful – and that, my friends, is a sin too! This remarkable insight allows the Hamster to gay bash from a completely different angle, though predictably the result is the same. LGBTQ people are lost in sin, and it’s a double whammy; they don’t just wallow in their sexual sin but in pride too, and, my, how God hates both of those!

In the context of Gay Pride, ‘pride’ doesn’t quite mean what ol’ Kenny thinks it does. He takes his definition from some esoteric evangelical dictionary that defines pride as “both a disposition/attitude and a type of conduct,” which according to Ham boils down to that old chestnut, Rebellion Against God, which, he says epitomises gay people.

As usual, he’s wrong. What Gay Pride represents, in both its public and personal forms, is gay people’s rejection of any shame imposed by others about who they are and their refusal to remain hidden; not so much pride but joy, liberation and self-assertion. I’ve been to one or two Prides myself and these have been their predominant characteristics. They reflect the exhilaration gay people feel about being themselves and escaping from the constrictions of the closet. For many, this can be a long and difficult journey, as it was for me. Gay people have every reason to be pleased with who they are and what they’ve achieved and Gay Prides are a way of declaring this self-acceptance, self-esteem and, yes, love – to their communities, city and the world.

‘Pride’ of this sort is no sin (neither is any other, because there’s no such thing as ‘sin’) but other kinds of pride – say, Donald Trump’s arrogance and bluster – are particularly distasteful. Thank goodness Christians don’t suffer from that sorts of pride!

They don’t for example, think they’re superior to the unsaved and especially to LGBTQ people. if they did, they’d spend their time judging everyone else and finding them lacking. They’d lambast gay folks and suggest they should cured or silenced or even executed. They’d disparage atheists, sceptics and unbelievers at every turn. Thank God Christians don’t demonstrate this sort of pride!

Praise the Lord they don’t think they somehow merit living forever! What a relief they don’t think a magic trick of God’s is going to make that possible because, really, they don’t deserve to die; there’s something about them that is worth preserving forever. Thank goodness they can see that this life is all there is and the little bundle of hopes, fears, neuroses and prejudices that make up most of us, don’t really merit unlimited continuation. To think that really would be prideful!

Hallelujah that Christians don’t think the particular brand of mumbo-jumbo they subscribe to is the only one true religion. If they did, they’d spend their time disputing with one another about who’s right and who’s apostate, misguided and deceived by the devil. Praise Lucifer we don’t see pride like this emanating from Christians everywhere!

So, one last message for Kenny and those who put down others, or call them out on their ‘pride’:

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye (Matthew 7.1-5).

And if you think you have removed that log from your own eye – isn’t that just another manifestation of, well… pride?

Christianity: a failure from the very beginning

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Christianity just doesn’t deliver. Jesus doesn’t deliver. None of his promises that I outlined last time have ever produced the goods. Not surprising really when he’s been dead for the past two millennia. He’s no more likely to deliver than anyone else who’s been regarded as a god by misguided devotees (and there’s plenty of them).

Yet for those 2000 years Christians have insisted that he does, even when there isn’t a scrap of evidence he’s listened to a single word they’ve said, answered even one of their prayers, enabled them to heal the sick or helped them move mountains – any of the stuff he promised he’d do. So why do they insist he really does? Partly because many of them haven’t a clue that he even said these things. Discussing their faith with Christians online, they often tell me that Jesus never said, for example, that God would give them whatever they ask for or would make their lives better or give them the ability to do miracles greater than Jesus did himself (which of course he does, in Mark 11.24, Matthew 11.28 and John 14.12-14 respectively). In short, they are ignorant of what the bible actually says and all the preposterous magical promises it makes.

Those who do know of its promises have a range of excuses for why they never happen; they were only meant for the early church; today’s believers don’t have enough faith; they were only ever intended metaphorically; God is currently withholding his good will (usually because Christians are too tolerant of everyone else’s ‘sin’). The fact is the promises of Christianity have never delivered.

I’ve been reading Bart D. Ehrman’s The Triumph Of Christianity, where, for entirely different reasons, he lists the problems that beset the church in Corinth (p291) that Paul addresses in his first letter to them. Here’s a summary:

Serious divisions within the church, with different members following different leaders (1 Corinthians 1.12)

Various forms of sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5)

Men in the church visiting prostitutes and bragging about it (1 Corinthians 6)

Other men under the impression they shouldn’t have sex at all, not even with their wives (1 Corinthians 7)

Fractious arguments about whether Christians should eat meat from animals sacrificed to pagan gods (1 Corinthians 8 & 10)

Some women attending meetings without their heads covered (1 Corinthians 11)

The wealthy greedily eating the shared meals and leaving none for the less well-off (1 Corinthians 11)

Worship that was chaotic because those speaking in tongues were trying to show spiritual one-upmanship (1 Corinthians 12-14)

Members not using their spiritual gifts for the benefit of the community (1 Corinthians 12 & 13)

Some claiming they had already experienced ‘resurrection’ and so were more ‘saved’ than others (1 Corinthians 15)

Apart from one or two specifics, this could be the church of the 21st century! Paul, though, wrote his letter to the relatively small group of believers in Corinth around 54-55CE, a mere twenty or so years after Jesus’ death. Already by then, Christian communities were overcome with problems. There’s no indication they were experiencing the miracles Jesus promised, nor were they behaving like the ‘new creatures’ Paul’s says the Holy Spirit makes of believers:

If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5.17)

The behaviour of the Christians at Corinth was, by any standard, appalling; they seem to have no more understanding of morality, no more sense of charity, no more demonstration of brotherly love than the ‘heathens’ around them. And yet they were new creatures ‘in Christ’, believers in Jesus, vessels of the Holy Spirit. With all this supernatural support they really should have been doing better – much better – than they were.

I’ve often wondered why Paul didn’t just give up at this point, especially when other churches he wrote to had similar problems. Any rational person would have looked at how these new converts were behaving and would have concluded that the new religion simply wasn’t working. The promises Jesus made (if Paul was even aware of them) and the changes he himself said accompanied conversion simply weren’t happening. None of them had materialised, even at this early stage.

But instead, Paul soldiered doggedly on. He travelled far and wide drawing others into the cult and then had to write to them too, to tell them how to behave and what faith in his Christ actually entailed (see his letter to the Galatians, for example, and that to the church at Philippi). Didn’t Paul ask himself where the Holy Spirit was in all this? Where was the guidance and supernatural assistance promised by Jesus? Despite the airbrushed version of the early church presented in Acts, Paul’s letters tell us what it was really like: a complete disaster.

And so it continued. As Ehrman shows, people converted to Christianity in part because of its promises that believers would avoid hell and live forever in heaven instead. Many convert for the same reason today. With the zero success rate of all of its other promises, it’s not difficult to predict how Christianity’s assurances of eternal life are going to pan out.

The Myth of Intellectual Faith

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Reading other sceptics’ blogs, I am struck by how often Christians dismiss what they say on the basis they’re not well read enough, or don’t appreciate the subtlety of the cognoscenti’s cerebral faith. ‘If you knew Faith as I do, if you’d read about it as much as I have,’ they say, ‘and approached it with the intellectual rigour I do, you wouldn’t make such juvenile criticisms of it.’

But isn’t the Christian faith meant to be simple? Simple enough for the uneducated and the childlike to understand it? Jesus himself says so in Matthew 11.25:

I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.

As does Paul in 1 Corinthians 1.26-29:

Consider your calling, brethren; there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.

And isn’t the Bible sufficient in itself for ‘teaching, correction and training in righteousness’? 2 Timothy 3:16-17 seems to says so. Why then is an entire library of additional books required to make the bible comprehensible? Isn’t that tough on the ‘unintelligent’, ‘weak’ and ‘foolish’?

But I dispute that there’s an intellectual form of Christianity, one that is the result of reading widely and extensively, and comes from thinking through the nuances of a deep and complex theology.

There is no subtlety to a belief-system built on the presumption of supernatural beings. There is nothing intellectual about a philosophy dependent on the irrational interpretations of ‘visions’, dreams and hallucinations. Those who impose intellectualism on such things do just that – impose their own intelligence on something that has none of its own.

So argue all you want that there are subtleties to a transcendent God that those of us (deemed to be) of limited intelligence can’t begin to comprehend and I will show you how those nuances derive from your own mind – you are unable to demonstrate that there is a god, let alone one of almost incomprehensible complexity. Similarly, when you talk about the Trinity, I will show you an idea that is ‘mysterious’ only in the sense it defies all rationality. When you insist on the true meaning of salvation – whether it’s the role of blood sacrifice, forgiveness, works, substitutionary atonement or some other magic that only the initiated can understand – I will show you a book so muddled it presents all of these as incompatible explanations of redemption.

Impose it all you like, denigrate those who dispute it, there is no intellectual element to Christianity (or any religion). Intellectual faith is an oxymoron, comparable with discussions about whether the tooth fairy wears a green dress or a pink one.

Billy Graham’s in Heaven

He said he would be, once he died. He said he couldn’t wait to get there (but still hung on until he was 99). He said there’d be a fanfare of trumpets when he arrived, as there would be for all the Saved, and that Jesus would lead him by the hand into the presence of God himself.

I’ve no doubt that Graham was sincere in his beliefs. He was a brilliant orator and during a long public life managed to avoid too much controversy, though he could be anti-semitic and regularly voiced his opposition to LGBT equality. 

Sincere he might have been, but Billy Graham was deluded. Some Christian sites have said so in recent days principally because his doctrine was not quite in accord with theirs; he directed new converts to the Catholic church, for example, if that’s where their interest lay; he seemed to think non-Christians would go to heaven if in life they’d looked to the light and lived honourable lives; he relied on altar calls when they are alien to the bible’s idea of conversion.

But this isn’t why he’s not in Heaven today, nor why he won’t be there at any point in the future. He was deluded because he believed in supernatural beings, in gods and angels, and because he thought human beings could be ‘saved’ by a magical incantation devised by a psychologically damaged zealot two thousand years ago. At the same time he was happy to ignore the claims of the man he believed to be the Son of God when he said he would return in the first century so that God could establish his Kingdom over all the Earth. Graham was equally happy to disregard this same prophet’s insistence that his followers denounce all wealth; he amassed a fortune over his lifetime – around $25,000,000 at the time of his death.

Grahams

Billy Graham repackaged evangelical Christianity, imbuing it with great emotional appeal and proffered it to the masses. He was good at it too; he made the impossible and the fanciful seem plausible and appealing. But he misled people that what he was offering was something they needed. We can only be grateful that what little evidence there is suggests that most of those who went forward as a result of his altar calls did not remain believers for very long. Estimates suggest about 6% stayed the course, though given the numbers Graham preached to, this still means about 12 million people.

He leaves behind a son who seems intent on destroying his father’s legacy and reputation; who is bigoted and virulently homophobic. His daughter too has not inherited his diplomacy nor even common sense. Billy Graham’s life’s work, if not undone by his offspring, will soon be forgotten, like all the other ‘great’ oratory preachers of the past. We should not revere him nor mourn his passing. His only achievement was to mislead people, seducing them into a life of intolerant superstition.

The Myth of God’s Forgiving Love

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God loves you, he really does. His love for you is so wide you can’t get round it. So high you can’t get over it, blah, blah, blah. We know this because Christian preachers are forever telling us. I saw Joel Osteen saying so the other evening on TBN, God’s very own TV station.

Don’t you think it’s strange that God needs TV stations and evangelists and preachers to tell you about his love, and everything else about him? An alien looking at religion without any foreknowledge would think it and its gods were entirely a human creation. He or she would ask why God doesn’t show himself, reveal his nature and demonstrate first-hand how much love he has for us. To which our Christian friends, if they’re not squabbling between themselves or blaming the world’s (i.e. America’s) problems on gay people, abortion or the absence of prayer in school (where, in fact, anyone is free to pray), would tell our alien that God did just that, once upon a time, when he sent Jesus. And they might then tell him how Jesus died so we might all be forgiven our sins and live with God, once we’re dead, happily ever after in Heaven. Grace they’ll call it, the free gift of God.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time – I admire your stamina! – you’ll know that very little of this is what the Bible offers and that Jesus’ idea of getting right with God is very different from this perversion of Paul’s magical salvation plan.

In Matthew 18.21-35, Jesus tells a particularly unpleasant parable about God’s love and patience. It turns out it’s at odds with Joel Osteen’s view of the same things (still, I expect Osteen’s right; he’s got a congregation far in excess of the rabble who followed Jesus.)

The story concerns a king who cancels (forgives) the substantial debt one of his servants owes him. This king, who represents God (or maybe even Jesus himself in one of his more egotistical moments) is indeed forgiving at this stage of the story. However, the servant – let’s call him Franklin – then comes across a fellow-servant (Jason) who asks Franklin to overlook the much smaller debt he owes him. Franklin responds by telling Jason that he must pay his debt immediately or else he’ll have him thrown in jail. Unfortunately for Franklin, the king hears of his lack of compassion and in light of the fact he himself has forgiven Franklin much, is enraged at his attitude towards Jason. He rescinds the forgiveness he extended towards him and has Franklin thrown in jail instead. Having told the story, Jesus hammers the moral home, as he does here in Matthew 6.14-15:

If you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.

We learn three things from the parable about how Jesus (or his scriptwriters) viewed forgiveness:

1) Far from being an unmerited free gift, God’s forgiveness is entirely conditional. It is conditional on how much we ourselves are forgiving. Matthew 5.23-26 and the Lord’s prayer both take the idea further: we can’t even expect God to forgive us unless we’ve forgiven others: ‘Father, forgive our sins,’ says the prayer, ‘to the extent we forgive those who sin against us.’

2) God’s forgiveness is not once-and-for-all; it can be withdrawn if and when we fail to forgive others.

3) There is no mention in this story, nor in the prayer, nor in Jesus’ other teaching about forgiveness, of unmerited grace or a salvation formula, even though the gospels were recorded long after Paul devised his magical incantation. God’s forgiveness, therefore is not the result of Jesus’ dying for us, nor is it unmerited, as ‘grace’ would suggest; it has to be earned. And how is it earned? By forgiving others.

4) God is no God of Love. He’s a bastard who can’t be trusted; one slip and you’re out on your ear.

So what does any of this matter when there’s no God and Jesus was something of a deluded charlatan, anyway? Well, you won’t hear this version of forgiveness preached in church or promoted by evangelists, or even practised by Christians. This perspective on forgiveness is so far removed from Paul’s ‘gospel of grace’ and modern day Christianity that it has to be ignored, disregarded, forgotten about. After all, Christian leaders don’t want their flocks to know that forgiveness needs to be earned. And they certainly don’t want the rest of us to know that they’re really not up to the task. Besides, squabbling about doctrine and blaming gays for everything is much more satisfying.