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

Blog337Crap

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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Give me some of that ol’… New Testament scholarship?

Blog336JC&Kids

Roger E. Olson has deigned to reply to me! He says that every fule know there are multiple Jesuses in the New Testament. All the same, Rog is sure he has a pretty clear picture of the real one, even if this is only in his own head. Then I hit the jackpot! Rog treats me to one of the Christian apologist’s top retorts: those with dissenting views know nothing about New Testament scholarship.

Here’s his response in all its glory:

I hear your suggestion, but I’m not sure what it has to do with atheism. All serious New Testament scholars–including the most conservative Christian ones–already know and admit that the gospel portraits of Jesus differ somewhat from each other. But very early in Christian history all attempts to reduce them to one portrait (one united gospel stitched together from the four in our New Testament) were rejected as heretical. We Christians already know what you say and it doesn’t bother us. I have read numerous biographies of Abraham Lincoln, for example, and the “man himself” stands out in spite of differences of description from different points of view. Your point is simplistic and displays that you know little or nothing about New Testament scholarship.

My reply to this, which Roger hasn’t seen fit to post:

So you think one has to be fully cognizant with New Testament scholarship to be a Christian? Funny, I don’t find any of the Jesuses in the bible saying that. Doesn’t one of them suggest we ‘become as little children’? Still, I expect you’re right: if you need a level of understanding that’s the equivalent of a doctorate to follow Jesus, then I guess I don’t qualify.

As for what my comment has to do with atheism, you were the one who said we see God most clearly in Jesus. I responded by saying I don’t see God in any of the interpretations. If Jesus is the best reflection we have of God, as you suggest, then his failed prophecies, false promises and general ignorance make it probable that the God he, and you, promote doesn’t exist.

If you can cherry-pick which bits of the bible are relevant to your understanding of the divine, Roger (you dismiss, for example, the barbarity of the Old Testament), then it is not unreasonable for others to do the same, even if we aren’t as well versed in Christian mumbo-jumbo theology as you.

God is revealed in Jesus… or not

 

Blog335CompositeOn his blog-site, humbly named after himself, Roger E. Olson trots out the tired old cliche that there’s no such thing as atheism. Atheists, Rog tells us, know in their hearts that God exists, they just choose to ignore him. As a result, Rog has little time for atheism. (I discovered Roger’s wonderfully smug site through Bruce Gerenscer’s excellent one.)

Rog says that if we want to see what this heart-implanted God looks like, then we shouldn’t look to the Old Testament and the tribal warlord we find there – goodness me, no; we can safely discard him! That God just doesn’t match up to our twenty-first century sensibilities. No, if we want to see God then what we must do is look at Jesus, for in Jesus we see what God is really like.

Oops! We’re right back at the problem I’ve been discussing these last few posts: just which Jesus are we talking about? There are so many. There’s the Jesus of the synoptic gospels (though he’s neither consistent nor pleasant), who is nothing like the self-obsessed Jesus of John’s gospel. Paul’s Christ is different again; he’s a complete invention, much like the Jesus of Hebrews who has morphed into a Jewish High Priest. The Jesus of Revelation meanwhile is an Evil Mutant straight out of the Marvel Universe, what with swords coming out of his mouth and all. So which Jesus has Rog got in mind? I think we should be told.

There are so many discrepancies in the various interpretations of Jesus in the New Testament, that it’s hard to see a clear, consistent picture of anything, let alone God, in such a shifting kaleidoscope of images. I’ve recommend that Rog should take atheism a little more seriously; the often incompatible Jesuses of the bible don’t reveal ‘the true nature of God’ anywhere as clearly as he claims. I’d go further: none of them show – can possibly show – what the non-existent is ‘really’ like. What they reveal instead are ideas about a God and a saviour made entirely in the image of the men who tasked themselves with creating them.

Hearing things

Blog332Pray

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

Child

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,

Scarborough

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.

Why I can’t believe in ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ (one of many reasons)

Jesus10

Over on the very smug Christian web-site, Triablogue, which I discovered via Gary’s Escaping Christian Fundamentalism blog, a commenter poses the question, ‘What evidence would it take to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?’ This is the answer I left:

If the Son of Man came back through the clouds with a heavenly host of angels in full view of the tribes of the Earth to judge the nations and separate the righteous from the unrighteous; if this Son of Man then established God’s Kingdom on the Earth for the meek and righteous while consigning the unrighteous to eternal punishment; if he and those he appointed to rule alongside him then reigned over this Kingdom for ever and ever, and if all of this happened within the lifetime of Jesus’ original followers, as he promised and predicted it would, then, and only then, would I be able to believe in him.

After all, this was Jesus’ good news (Luke 4.43). When none of his predictions/prophesies/promises came to pass then, as always happens with failed cults and failed cult leaders, those who followed came up with alternative explanations. They hoped, and no doubt believed, that these would do instead of the original ‘good news’. In many ways they weren’t wrong, given the later success of these interpretations, but these were not the cult’s original message and were no more true than Jesus’ Son of Man/Kingdom of God fantasy.

* * * * * *

Just in case you don’t think Jesus promised all these things here’s a mere sampling of where he does:

The Son of Man coming through the clouds: Mark 13.26

with a heavenly host of angels: Matthew 16.27

in full view of the tribes of the Earth: Matthew 24:30

to judge the nations: Matthew 16.27

and separate the righteous from the unrighteous: Matthew 25.32

The Son of Man establishing God’s Kingdom on the Earth: Matthew 19.28, 25.34

for the meek and righteous: Matthew 5.3

while consigning the unrighteous to eternal punishment: Matthew 25.46

Those he appointed ruling alongside him: Matthew 19.28, Luke 22.30

and reigning over this Kingdom for ever and ever: Matthew 6.13, Revelation 11.15

all of this to happen within the lifetime of Jesus’ original followers, as he promised and predicted it would: Mark 1.15, 9.1, Matthew 10.23, 16.28; 24.34, Luke 9.27 etc

I apologise for the strong language in the picture above, but c’mon, how can Christians reasonably explain the out-and-out failure of all of Jesus’ promises and predictions, while still maintaining he was somehow a manifestation of the God of the Universe?

Abandon Reason all ye who enter the Faith

Descartes

The question of whether religious believers are less intelligent than non-believers surfaces every now and again. The atheist blogs I read are usually courteous enough to say that of course believers are not less intelligent, and there are no studies that I can find that have considered the matter.

Evidently there have been intelligent Christians; C. S. Lewis comes to mind, Francis Collins of the Human Genome project and William Lane Craig are evidently intelligent men. (I can’t think of any obviously intelligent women who subscribe to religion; I suspect intelligent women are intelligent enough to avoid superstition altogether.) It seems to me though that what those who profess religious belief are prepared to do, is sublimate whatever intelligence they have and sacrifice intellect in the service of faith. They suppress their critical faculties, usually through a form of cognitive dissonance, and press rationality into the servitude of beliefs that have been arrived at irrationally. I might be wrong of course, but this what the evidence suggests to me.

A recent commenter on this blog by name of tides99, does seem to support to this hypothesis. tides99 originally wrote to say how his chosen superstition, Catholicism, is the one true way (aren’t they all) and that while I’m right to criticise Protestantism, I really should investigate Catholicism for myself. When I declined his very generous offer, tides99 responded – you’ll find his comments in ‘the author’ section above – with a number of points about the limits of human reason. It is these I take apart respond to here.

tides99: I have a PhD in philosophy, so I certainly would not believe in anything that goes against reason or requires one to repress or contradict one’s critical faculties.
For one who professes a PhD in philosophy, tides99, there is some very sloppy reasoning here and throughout your argument. Already in this first sentence we see the contradiction between belief and reason; they are not the same and can’t ever be; belief doesn’t require reason. That is why it is often called ‘faith’.

Criticsl (sic) reason is only one way of encountering and assessing reality… You’re right, tides99, but not for the reason you think. Critical reasoning is one way of assessing reality, but is insufficient on its own. It needs the support of evidence. Evidence is supplied by science and the methods used in scientific enquiry that seek to eliminate, as far as possible, human bias and presupposed conclusions.

and there are aspects of reality that reason cannot adjudicate because it cannot access them. If there are aspects of reality that reason cannot ‘adjudicate’ (whatever that means) and that science cannot access, then how do you know these supernatural aspects exist? You feel them? Your church says they do? You’d like them to? Maybe so, but none of these mean that these mysterious ‘aspects’ really do exist. You’re sneaking supernaturalism in through the back door here, tides.

Rationalism is itself based Upon faith, of faith… Oh dear, this old chestnut.

in the ultimate intelligibility of the universe, and its perfect transparency to human reason. Is rationality really based on these things? Scientists concede there may be aspects of the universe which, while we might observe them or extrapolate mathematically, we might never properly understand or be able to explain. This doesn’t, to my knowledge, prevent the exercise of rationality.

This of course cannot be proven, yet you believe it anyway. Scientists and free-thinkers rarely go in for ‘proof’. Your use of the word makes me suspicious of your claims about your credentials. Things can be proven mathematically, it’s true, as can matters in a court of law (beyond reasonable doubt) but by and large science is more interested in theories, working models and demonstration. So, no-one is looking to ‘prove’ that the universe is ultimately intelligible and no-one ‘believes’ it is perfectly transparent to human reason. This is a strawman argument, tides.

It’s quite superstitious to have such faith, but yet have nothing really to ground it on. Whatever reason and rationality are based on, it is not faith in the universe’s intleligibility or transparency. The use of reason and the application of the scientific method are nothing like ‘faith’. Both are tools, and they are the best we have.

The truth is that the reason why reason exists is because the universe is ordered… Beware any statement that starts ‘the truth is’! Reasoning is a manifestation of the human brain. It is not something that has discreet, independent existence. It has not been floating around for aeons, out there somewhere, waiting for advanced apes finally to discover it and make it their own. The only reason reason exists is because the human brain evolved to the extent it became capable of reasoning. All the same, the brain did not leave behind its capacity for irrationality, unreasonableness and disorderly impulse. Might we not then claim, this being an equally viable proposition, that because these are human traits of even longer standing than our capacity for reason, that the universe must therefore also be irrational, unreasonable and disordered? Of course not, because the universe’s characteristics are not a reflection of the human brain’s abilities, and vice versa. The inclination to project human behaviour onto an impersonal, indifferent environment – to anthropomorphise the universe – exemplifies our irrationality, not rationality.

But, just a minute, we have another contradiction here, tides99. You have already speculated that there are aspects of reality beyond our grasp – and yet here you are telling us that, along with the rest of the universe, these supernatural aspects are ordered. How do you know this? How do you know anything about parts of reality which reason cannot ‘adjudicate’ and science cannot access?

and the reason why it’s ordered is, of course, because there is an orderer, namely God. And there we have it. It’s God. Of course it is. Far from demonstrating that the universe is ordered, you now conjecture that the order you claim for it has an orderer behind it. Yes, it’s another leap of faith, reason be damned. Anthropomorphising the universe leads inevitably to deities and, ultimately, the Christian god, who is merely ourselves writ large.

Speaking for myself, anyway, I can say this much. When I was an undergrad I came across the saying that learning a little philosophy leads you away from God, but learning a lot of philosophy leads you back. As a young man who had learned a little philosophy, I scoffed. But in later years and at least in my own case, I would come to see that it’s true.

It’s no good blaming a surfeit of philosophy, tides99. If what you say were true, all philosophers with PhDs would have reached conclusions similar to your own. The majority haven’t.

To summarise your argument, you claim – without evidence – that there are supernatural aspects to the universe/reality which reason and science can’t detect. You assert that nevertheless the universe as a whole is ordered and it follows therefore that there must be an orderer. This orderer, you then go on to assume, is the very God you’ve chosen, for entirely irrational reasons, to worship.

Science and reason tell us that every one of these assertions is wrong. You are projecting your beliefs onto the universe as you perceive it, tides99. Project away, by all means, but remember, these beliefs and your version of reality are only in your head. The real universe as science, and, I’d venture to say, reason demonstrate, is busy doing something else entirely.