Round in Circles

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Being a religious believer means you can’t be a free thinker. Your conclusions are already determined for you – in the Bible or Qu’ran or some other holy book – and you are compelled, if you’re fundamentalist in your beliefs, to reach and affirm these conclusions. More than this, you are compelled to begin with them, which is why Ken Ham can say that where you start determines where you end up (though this only applies to those who think magic books have all the answers). So if you believe, because the Bible appears to say so, that the universe and all that is in it was created in six days about 6,000 year ago, then that is the premise from which you begin. You are then highly selective in the evidence you’ll consider, forcing it to support your predetermined conclusion. Christian argument is always this circular and heavily dependent on confirmation bias.

It can’t be anything else:

William Lane Craig ‘knows’ that the Holy Spirit is real because he feels it inwardly; the Bible tells him this kind of feeling is attributable to the Holy Spirit, so consequently the Holy Spirit must be real.

Pastor Mike Ratcliff understands that the Bible says everyone is a sinner; Mike’s confirmation bias means he sees sin and apostasy everywhere; therefore the Bible is right when it says everyone is a sinner.

Pastor Steven Anderson condones slavery. God approves of it in the Bible therefore slavery cannot be morally repugnant, and attempts to eradicate it are misguided. How does he know this? Because the Bible says slavery is okay.

Christians generally argue that God is good (because the Bible says he is) but have to disregard the horrors of his creation and the cruelties of life to reach the conclusion that, yes, God is good.

There really is no arguing with such arrested development, such intellectual dishonesty. Christian are not open to wherever reason and the evidence might take them; the end is always assumed at the beginning. Maybe that’s why comments are rarely allowed on Christian web-sites. You can’t argue with the Truth™ – another premise masquerading as a conclusion.

The Embarrassment that is the Old Testament

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When does the Old Testament count and when doesn’t it? When does what it says matter and when doesn’t it?

The answer to both questions is when Christians say so. It counts when something from it can be used to underline how wicked the rest of us are and when they think it’s pointing to the coming of Jesus, many years in its future. It doesn’t, of course, foretell of Jesus as such, despite its predictions of a coming Messiah and/or Son of Man. Jesus doesn’t fit its descriptions of either of these figures. Rather, Jesus’ story is read back into the older texts, their characters and events forced to serve typological and prophetic purposes for which they were never designed. The entire endeavour, which began very early in the development of Christianity, is entirely back to front, with the gospel writers, Paul and other New Testament authors pillaging older Jewish texts and forcing them to fit Jesus retrospectively (and often laughably.)

Regarding ancient Jewish texts as an Old Testament – that is, as representing a previous agreement/covenant between God and his people that has since been superseded – is a political, interpretive manoeuvre of the later religion. (While it’s true Jesus is made to speak of a new covenant, it is debatable how authentic his words are; rewriting the past is not only confined to the New Testament’s treatment of the Old.) This kind of slippery manoeuvring was also endorsed by those who later compiled the Bible as we now know it,* when they relegated the writings that Jesus and all the New Testament writers would have regarded as sacred Scripture to nothing more than a forerunner of the real thing.

Believers want to hang on, naturally, to Genesis, because that’s where it tells them God created everything using nothing but magic and breath from his holy lungs. It relates too how everything went pear-shaped after some mythical people ate some fruit. Noah’s ark is there too, which is a jolly good fantasy, apart from that weird bit at the end where Ken Ham gets an eyeful of his old man’s old man (Genesis 9.20-27). Christians are less keen on those Old Testament stories where God instructs the Israelites to massacre other tribes (1 Samuel 15.2-3; Deuteronomy 2.34 etc) and rape their women (Isaiah 13.15; Zechariah 14.1-2 etc) but nonetheless they’ll defend these unpleasant, barbaric stories just because they’re in the Bible. The Psalms are nicer, what with their words of comfort and paranoia, but best of all are the Old Testament pronouncements that can be used for clobbering sinners. Leviticus 20.13 – ‘If a man lies with a male as with a woman both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them’ – is a particular favourite, as is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah for much the same reason. But when it comes to other diktats, Christians are less interested; rules about not eating shellfish or wearing clothes of mixed fabrics, they are quick to point, are entirely negated by the new covenant; they don’t count any more, even though they’re in the same list of largely petty rules as the homophobic one (Leviticus 11.10 & 20.9.)

So how do Christians decide which Old Testament laws are applicable and which are now inessential? There is no shortage of know-alls Christian scholars who make it up as they go along and can tell them. It’s easy you see; the old ‘ceremonial’ rules of the old covenant are now redundant while the moral precepts still stand. Needless to say, the Bible itself suggests no such thing, with Jesus saying precisely the opposite in Matthew 5.17-18 and Luke 16.17; evidently another of his strange ideas that can safely be ignored.

So how do we know which of the Old Testament’s prescriptions are ceremonial and which moral? The same self-appointed experts can tell us this too, though it’s actually easy to work it out for oneself. As a general rule of thumb, verses that condemn other people are still applicable while those that Christians themselves don’t care for are not. So the shellfish and mixed fabrics directives can be disregarded, because obviously they’re ceremonial, while the anti-gay stuff isn’t – obviously. And there’ll be no public stoning of wayward teenagers (Deuteronomy 21.18-21) because that’s obviously ceremonial too – and don’t even think of having sex with the slaves, not even ceremonially. These days, thank God, it’s considered so uncivilised (even if, in Numbers 31.17-18, Yahweh says it’s okay. )

The Old Testament then; an embarrassment Christians are compelled to defend as part of their magic book but which they nevertheless feel free to use selectively, according to taste. Not unlike the New Testament really.

*There are, we should note, several variations of the Bible within Christendom; God can’t seem to decide which books are or are not part of his Holy Word.

What Does Atheism Have To Offer? (Part Two)

Think4. Atheism offers genuine morality
Having no magic book to tell them how to behave (not that Christians derive their morals from theirs) atheists work out their own morality. They don’t do this in a vacuum, however, recognising that morality is culturally derived, evolving as the means by which primates with complex social arrangements relate to one another. It’s likely they adhere to their moral codes imperfectly, as do believers of various stripes. Not having an ideology they feel compelled to impose on others, they don’t regard their fellow human beings as mere conversion fodder. The atheists’ world is big enough to embrace all, though they lament the damage wreaked on it by religion. Atheist terrorists are a much rarer breed than their religious counterparts, while secular societies are among the most peaceful and prosperous in the world today (with the more religious generally at the opposite end of the spectrum.) Nor do atheists attribute their behaviour to supernatural forces; neither god nor the devil inspires them to act. Rather they recognise and take personal responsibility for what they do.

5. Atheism offers authenticity
An atheist is free to be him or herself. There is no striving to maintain the imagined standards of an imaginary god, no need to represent the perspective of a ‘sacred’ book or to defend the indefensible. The atheist does not see themselves or other people as lost, worthless, sinners, suppressors of truth, goy, infidels or any of the other disparaging terms used of non-believers in so-called holy books. The atheist can be a free-spirit, possessed of self-respect, and true to themselves and their nature, whatever that may be. Here’s how pastor-turned-atheist Ryan Bell put it in a recent blog post:

I don’t have secrets anymore, which is a huge mental and moral relief. I also wrestle with less cognitive dissonance than ever. All of this means I’m more at peace and more comfortable in my own skin. I give far fewer fucks about what people think of me and my decisions. My ire is raised, from time to time, by unfair attacks, and I will probably always struggle with my tendency to be a people pleaser, but I am in recovery. I’m learning to tell the truth on a more regular basis and trust that people can handle the truth (whether they actually can or not). I’m learning to trust myself and what I know while remaining open to critique and able to say I was wrong.

6. Atheism offers free thought
Having no dogma to represent or promulgate, no myths to restrict them and no cult leaders, shaman or gurus dictating to them, atheists are free to think for themselves. Religion demands that its adherents begin with myth or dogma, which the facts are then forced to fit. When they don’t, which is invariably the case, the believer is compelled to dismiss the facts to preserve the fantasy (if you think not, you’ve never visited Answers In Genesis). The atheist, on the other hand, can begin with the evidence and reason from it to make up their own mind about ethics, the issues of the day and the human condition.

to be continued…

Is there anybody out there?

KenAnyone searching for extra-terrestrial life – NASA, SETI and so on – can stop now. We know definitively that there isn’t any out there. How do we know? Because Ken Ham says so. The Bible – Genesis specifically – doesn’t mention life on other planets so that means there isn’t:

(T)he notion of alien life does not square well with Scripture. The earth is unique. God designed the earth for life. The other planets have an entirely different purpose than does the earth, and thus, they are designed differently… where does the Bible discuss the creation of life on the “lights in the expanse of the heavens”? There is no such description because the lights in the expanse were not designed to accommodate life [this is utter gibberish; life within stars? Who has ever suggested that?] God gave care of the earth to man, but the heavens are the Lord’s. From a biblical perspective, extraterrestrial life does not seem reasonable.

But hang on a minute! The Bible doesn’t mention other planets, never mind whether there’s life on them. It doesn’t tell us anything about cultures outside of a small area in the Middle East, doesn’t mention the Americas or Australasia, doesn’t have anything to say about microbes, anti-biotics, computers or technology in general. It must follow, therefore – to use Ken’s logic – that none of these things exist either.

The reason the Bible doesn’t mention any of them, and a myriad of other things, is not because they don’t exist but because the primitive priests and ignorant scribes who wrote Genesis and the rest of Ken’s magic book didn’t know that they did. They had no concept that the Earth is a planet, let alone that there are others; they had no idea that the sun is a star, nor that other stars, which they thought were attached to the inner surface of a canopy surrounding the Earth, are suns. With such a limited cosmology, the possibility that there might be life on other planets was as alien to them as, well, aliens themselves.

Whether there is extra-terrestrial life, and whether any of it is intelligent, we may never know. But either way, Ham’s deity will have no bearing on it, nor it on the Christian God. The existence of aliens, like their absence, won’t breathe life into an already discredited idea.

The Seventeen Commandments

mosesQuick – can you name the sixth of the ten commandments? That was the question in a quiz I went to last night. We got it wrong, but I have to to tell you, so did the quiz-master. If you Google ‘the Ten Commandments’ – which I can assure you we didn’t during the quiz – what you get is the list of injunctions from Exodus 20. You know the ones: thou shalt not kill, steal, commit adultery or covet thy neighbour’s ass. Read them all here if you feel inclined.

When, in a fit of pique, Moses destroyed the stone slabs on which these ‘commandments’ were written, God generously offered to provide him with a replacement set. The Almighty even made a point of saying, in Exodus 34.1, that the two sets would be identical. But they’re not. Here’s the lot from Exodus 34:

1. You shall worship no other god, because the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.
2. Do not make any molten gods (idols).
3. Keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
4. The first born of every creature shall belong to me.
5. Work for six days and rest on the seventh.
6. Observe the Feast of Weeks.
7. Present all your male children to the Lord God three times a year.
8. Do not offer the blood of sacrifices to God with leaven and don’t leave the sacrifice of the Feast of the Passover until the morning.
9. Give the first of the first-fruits of the land to the house of the Lord thy God.
10. Do not boil a kid in his mother’s milk.

Far from being identical, only three commandments are the same in the two sets; missing from the Exodus 34 group are those about adultery, theft and killing, replaced with stipulations about ancient Jewish festivals and boiling baby goats (of great eternal significance, that one.) Just to complicate matters, this second lot is the only one referred to in the Bible as ‘The Ten Commandments’ (Exodus 34.28). The more familiar injunctions from Exodus 20 – the ones Google brings up – are not.

What is going on here? It’s as if ‘The Ten Commandments’ are not as immutable as Christians claim. What are they to do? Should they pick and mix between the two sets? Should they reject one and use only the other? Obey both lots – The Seventeen Commandments? It’s far from clear and yet, according to Jesus, their eternal existence depends on getting it right (Matthew 19:17).

All of which makes me think how a single seamless garment has been created out of a ragbag of scraps and patches. The church and believers in general have told us that the shambolic writings stitched together as the Bible tell a consistent story. This deceit is a major accomplishment of the Christian faith because the seamless garment is an illusion, created by pretending there are no discrepancies or inconsistencies and by glossing over all the significant differences within God’s Word™.

This is why we never hear of the second set of commandments – they’re put away like a mad woman in the attic. The church doesn’t want people seeing them or hearing about them. Best to shut them away and make out they don’t exist. Same with the second account of creation in Genesis 2. It’s different from that in Genesis 1, though both are embarrassingly wrong about the means and order of creation. When Christians do acknowledge that there are two accounts (as Ken Ham does) they insist, that, of course, there are no real differences and they can all be explained (away). If there are no differences, why then do they need explaining?

Then there are the disparate accounts of Jesus’ life. Even where they share the same material each gospel presents it differently or gives it a spin that frequently contradicts the other gospels’ versions of the same events. Every one of the stories about the resurrection, for example, is radically different in both detail and significance from all the others.

There are even greater problems for Christians in explaining how Jesus’ supposed sacrifice on the cross brings about salvation. The writers of the New Testament aren’t clear themselves, suggesting at least a dozen largely incompatible ways between them. The four gospels alone have conflicting ideas about how it works (more on this next time), all of which differ from Paul’s salvation formula.

I suppose if Christians want to deceive themselves about their faith and their magic book, it’s up to them. But, please, righteous ones, don’t try and tell the rest of us it has a clear consistent message when it doesn’t. Don’t tell us it’s a seamless garment when it has tangles of loose threads and you’ve had to throw away all the material that doesn’t fit the pattern you pretend you can see.

 

Oh, and that sixth commandment? ‘Observe the Feast of Weeks’. But of course you knew that.

Primordial Soup for the Soul

CellsA commenter on this here blog thingie, Mike, has challenged me to present him with the evidence for evolution. Mike evidently sees me as something of an expert on the theory because I’m convinced of its validity. I’m no expert, of course – I’m not even a scientist – but having read widely about evolution over the years, I’ve attempted a response. Having spent time creating and evolving it, I thought I’d add it as a post rather than tuck it away in the comments.

Mike wrote: When it comes to the hoax of Darwin’s evolution, I’ve read and observed his tree of evolution. It is TOTALLY and complete without evidence. It is a false theory that humanist ” scientist ” have brainwashed the public with.
If you think it’s hoax then you won’t, I take it, have shots that immunise you against the latest strains of viruses? And you’re not concerned that some microbes have evolved to become resistant to antibiotics? Modern medicine is predicated on the fact that organisms evolve but at least, Mike, you’re consistent and avoid it all, knowing as you do that evolution is a hoax. God keeps you well and heals you when he doesn’t. Doesn’t he?

I have debated and studied how his theory is genetically impossible. DNA cannot gain nor contain information necessary for Darwin to be true.
You’ve studied this have you? On Answers in Genesis? How about what real scientists actually say? Try this New Scientist article which explains how mutations in DNA produce new information and new species. As it concludes, ‘the claim that mutations destroy information but cannot create it not only defies the evidence, it also defies logic.’

I suggest YOU… who claim Darwin is true, produce some evidence to confirm his theory. It should be easy. Certainly the truth would be in the fossils. That is why I requested some transitional fossils that would back up his theory. Why is it up to me to provide you with the evidence you so resolutely refuse to look up yourself? Your original comments were a response to my post about Jesus and Paul’s gospels, so I can’t see why I’m under obligation to enlighten you about evolution. However, I have attempted to do so by directing you to material you might read. Of course I’m betting that even if you do, you’ll conclude it’s wrong, because… you know, God and stuff.

There should be millions (of transitional fossils). Should there be? Why? Because you say so? You do realise that not every creature who ever lived became a fossil? Very few did, only where the conditions were right, and of all the fossils we have, only 1% are of land animals. However, this still leaves us with plenty of examples of transitional forms. Take a look here, here and here.

There is however a problem with presenting the fossil record to creationists: say, for example, there are two related creatures, which we’ll call A and C, that lived a few million year apart. There appears to be a gap between them – a missing link if you like. One day a fossil is discovered which provides the link between A and C – let’s call it B – and the link is missing no longer. ‘Ah, but hold on,’ says the creationist, ‘where previously we had one gap, now we have two; the one between A and B and the one between B and C. Darwin disproved!’ The scientist cannot win when the more gaps the fossil record fills the more gaps the creationist thinks he can see.

Certainly if every living creature came from ONE swamp of micro organisms billions of years ago…. we should have SOME evidence that a single cell can eventually divide into ALL and every creature on earth. Overlooking your strange idea that it was just ‘a single cell’ that ‘divided’, we do know that all life evolved from those original formations, as presented in the article above as well as here and here.

I’m sure science can take a swamp of micro organisms, and produce… Yes, it can. It did so first in1953! And it didn’t even begin with micro-organisms, just chemicals and electricity.

…and show us different creatures coming out of the slop. As I’ve already explained, this is not how it works. Giraffes, peacocks and lizards did not clamber out of primordial soup fully formed. Millions of years were needed for very elementary lifeforms to evolve in the ‘slop’. These eventually migrated to the oceans and eventually onto land. Millions of years and still no giraffes or peacocks and certainly no humans. Billions more years were need before those appeared. To look at it another way, today’s life forms did not come directly from the single-celled creatures that first emerged in the chemical mix. They evolved from creatures not too dissimilar from themselves, which in turn evolved from creatures not too dissimilar from themselves, ad infinitum back through billions of years. Try Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale for a clearer picture of the long, painstaking process.

But first explain how life can come from nothing? I’ve already explained life didn’t come from nothing. It’s likely it emerged from groups of organised chemicals, which eventually evolved into RNA, then DNA, then, as this video explains, amino acids – the building blocks of organic life. A number of other scientific possibilities are explored here. Just because we don’t yet know precisely how the process worked, doesn’t mean everything we do know about the origin of life is rendered invalid. And it certainly doesn’t mean that a god must’ve done it.

Let’s say though that evolution is completely wrong. Does that make creationism – God creating life as we know it in six days, 6,000 years ago – the only alternative explanation? Of course not. The writers of the two creation myths in Genesis had no idea how life appeared on the Earth, suggesting as they do that humans had been around since a few days after its start. They may not even have regarded their stories as factual when what they were trying to explain was man’s apparent isolation from God. Science was as alien to them as the modern medicine I mentioned at the start of this post. I regret to tell you, but Genesis is not a scientific treatise.

You’re right about one thing – there’s no evidence for evolution as you perceive it. You condemn your own very limited understanding, not the theory itself. There is far more evidence for evolution than there is for a supernatural creator. There is no anti-God agenda to science or the theory of evolution. There is instead an attempt to discover how everything works, to get at the truth wherever the pursuit leads. That this has led away from gods and God is because of the nature of that truth, not to mention the nature of gods themselves.

Christians’ Favourite Delusions 34: Atheism is a Religion

NoGodChristians like to claim atheism is a religion. It’s their way of saying, ‘look – atheists are as daft as we are. They believe in bullshit just like we do, except, of course, they’re wrong and we’re right.’ You can see them saying just this here and here and here.

But atheism isn’t a religion, any more than not collecting stamps is a hobby, as Penn Jillette puts it. It isn’t a religion because it is the absence of belief – primarily in a god, but also in any other kind of supernatural being. The atheist knows there are no saviours, angels, devils, demons, ethereal saints or eternal prophets, and no heaven and hell to house them either. Atheism is devoid of any sort of worship of imagined supernatural beings; nor does it address them, commune with them or otherwise revere them. It does not recognise the authority of ‘holy’ books nor that of self-appointed spiritual authorities, including popes, pastors, preachers, imams, mullahs and rabbis. It doesn’t regard anything as sacred, including its own experts; neither Darwin nor the so-called New Atheists are above criticism. (Try that with those who think they represent God’s Truth™!)

Where religionists build their belief systems on the insubstantial foundation of faith, atheists accept nothing on trust. Instead, they look for evidence to support their knowledge and value reason, not dogma – things that are anathema to religion.

Given, then, that atheism is the antithesis of religion and that atheists don’t do what religion demands, it is intellectual dishonesty to insist that atheism is a religion. Those who do so are false witnesses; mistaken at best, liars for sure.

Christians’ Favourite Delusions 33: Atheists know in their hearts that God exists

DenyTwo tried cliches trotted out by evangelising (i.e. aggressive) Christians are that ‘atheism is a religion‘ and that in their ‘heart of hearts atheists know there really is a god’. Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis is fond of both assertions, as are other equally desperate promoters of unsupportable beliefs. We’ll come to the first in a later post, but here’s how Ham expresses the second:

They (atheists) know in their hearts that God exists, but they are actively suppressing this belief in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). They fight so hard against a God that they claim doesn’t even exist because they know that He really does! We need to pray that, instead of fighting against God, these lost individuals will repent and put their faith and trust in Christ and in what He did for them.

Romans 1.18 that he cites says: For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.

Assuming Paul is saying here what Ham claims he is (it’s doubtful from this verse alone) both he and his hero are demonstrably wrong – as they are about so much. The evidence suggests that while young children look for meaning and assume agency, they do not necessarily attribute these to a god until they are taught to do so by others. The god they then come to acknowledge is the one already prevalent in their social environment. In a predominantly Christian context, they will come to be acquainted with – and may go on to develop a full-blown belief in – the interpretation of the Christian God common within their particular culture.

It is the same for conversion generally. You are more likely to be a Mormon in Salt Lake City, a Roman Catholic in East Timor. If raised in a Jewish environment, it’s more likely you’ll subscribe to YHWH; in an Islamic one, an interpretation of Allah; Buddha – not strictly speaking a god – in a Buddhist one. Statistically, those who adopt a religion and a belief in a god, almost always opt for that which is prevalent in the society into which they are born. This is not god ‘writing a knowledge of himself’ in their hearts, it is a cultural, human phenomenon.

Ham and others see this as evidence for their belief that we all have some sort of ‘god-shaped hole‘ in our psyche that we can just as easily fill with false gods as with the real one (theirs). But this is a shift in the argument; it’s not now that God makes himself known to everyone but that we all find a need for a god. This is not the same thing, nor is it true. Certainly humans have a history of creating gods to explain the strange, magnificent and sometimes hostile universe in which we find ourselves; but this does not mean these many gods exist, as Ham would be the first to admit (c’mon, there’s only one real God – his.) It means only that the human brain seeks pattern and meaning, and has often drawn the wrong conclusions in its quest for them. The gods – and God – are part of these wrong conclusions.

And what of Ham’s assertion that atheists deny their awareness of God because of ‘unrighteousness’ – because, he implies, we just want to live a life of rampant ‘sin’? Well, I admit, I like a bit of a sin as much as the next man, but that’s not why I’m an atheist. I’m an atheist because, like most others, I find no evidence for gods or God either in my ‘heart’, nor in the way the world works nor in collections of iron age stories. Morality doesn’t come into making this assessment. In any case, those who buy into a god don’t have a monopoly on ‘righteousness’, as their weak morals, judgemental attitudes and destructive behaviour regularly demonstrate. More than this, and as Ham admits, Christians are only concerned about others because the Bible says they should be: ‘The reason I care about poverty,’ he says, ‘is because God’s Word instructs me to care, and all humans are made in the image of God as God’s Word tells me.’ This is not righteousness, nor a morality that comes from any real concern for fellow human beings.

Finally, atheists don’t, as Ham claims, ‘fight so hard against’ a non-existent God that we secretly believe in. We oppose Christians and other purveyors of supernatural nonsense when they try to impose their irrational beliefs on others, when they condemn fellow human beings, seek to control them and try to limit their rights in the name of God and the cause of ‘righteousness’.

So, no, don’t condescend, Christians, to tell us we all know that there’s a God that we wilfully ignore. You’re wrong, and I’ll show you even more reasons why you are, next time.

A new creation? Or same old same old?

Preaches3Over at Answers In Genesis, John C. P. Smith (who?) argues that Christianity must be true because of ‘the testimony of countless Christians to the efficacy and potency of the gospel to radically change people’s lives for the better.’ Supposedly, this change is the result of a radical take-over of the individual by the Holy Spirit. As Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 5.17:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

Even as we speak, Christian Voice’s Stephen Green is proposing, in one of his more spiteful and petty blog posts, that this is only way a young activist can be saved from a selfish, insensitive and deluded – talk about the pot impugning the kettle! – ‘gay lifestyle’, whatever that is. But do such changes really happen and are they ‘for the better’?

Speaking from personal experience and observation, I’d have to say they do. Sometimes they entail an apparent overhaul of the convert’s view of life, mindset and values. It’s as if the possibility of a spiritual aspect to life takes them by surprise and everything in their psychology shifts to accommodate new ideas. For others, the change is superficial and merely accentuates characteristics they already possess.

Having said that, many people have life-changing experiences without a religious catalyst; when they survive a bad accident or a potentially fatal illness, for example, or win lots of money; when they come to a full realisation of who they are or ‘come out’; when they first have sex or a baby; when they lose a loved one or experience an out-of-body experience or start a new job or move to a new area… and on and on.

None of these transformations involves Jesus, his Holy Spirit or ‘the gospel’. Humans are capable of the most drastic and radical of psychological change all on their own. How many times have you heard it said that someone isn’t themselves? Or that no-one knows what’s got into them? Or they’re acting out of character? Some even transform themselves without any external event playing a part. You may have done so yourself.

I would suggest that religious conversion is like that. The change can be real, but it has nothing to do with an external, supernatural agent. The human personality or psyche, whatever you want to call it, is much more fluid and pliable than we care to admit. Your self, values and thought patterns are in fact undergoing constant change, sometimes radically and rapidly so. The consistency you feel you maintain, the unchanging ‘you’, is an illusion. You are regularly updated, like the operating system on your computer. You’re not the same ‘you’ that you were last year and are certainly not the same as a decade ago or when you were a child. What you regard as ‘you’ is constructed from constant change.

The change that comes from religious conversion is no different. More, it doesn’t necessarily change you for the better; it can harden attitudes and make you less sympathetic towards others by transplanting values that are not conducive to empathy and generosity. You become one of ‘us’ and no longer one of ‘them’ as your chosen place of worship and the collective influence of fellow believers make a significant contribution to the process. This is why evangelists and those who are driven to convert others always insist you become part of a church (mosque or synagogue) afterwards – provided, of course, it’s one with the right sort of teaching (theirs). Your new attitudes and values are then reinforced by those who already have them, entrenching them further and convincing you that they, and now you, are ‘right’. This is how the ‘new creation’ you’re becoming is constructed and moulded.

As I’ve argued before, conversion can often reinforce behaviours that have already become habitual for individuals. Every church and Christian movement has adherents who are petty and spiteful, as well as those who are generous and considerate. But what becoming a new creation never entails, is making converts more intelligent, rational or stable. Why not? If it’s a miracle we’re talking about – and undoubtedly we are if God’s spirit suddenly or gradually takes up residence within a person – then surely it would result in a little cognitive rewiring so that the new Christian reaches their full intellectual potential. The fact it doesn’t bring about the ‘renewal of the mind’ (Romans 12.2) in anything like this sort of substantive way is the equivalent of the missing limb that no amount of prayer and laying on of hands can regenerate.

All of which suggests – no, more than suggests; demonstrates – that neither God nor his ‘Holy Spirit’ nor a dead Jewish preacher, nor ‘the gospel’, has anything to do with it. And perhaps that’s because an increase in intelligence, rationality or stability would run counter to the process which depends on blind faith and a submission to the very social forces that reshape the self.

Christians’ Favourite Delusions 28: Evolution says we are no more than animals

AngryHere we go again. Christians claiming that evolution reduces human beings to being ‘just’ or ‘no more than’ animals.

Does it? Where? The ‘just’ and ‘no more than’ are unnecessary and invalid value judgements. They’re not there in Darwin, who goes out of his way to avoid making any such statement, while Richard Dawkins explicitly rejects the idea that we are ‘just’ gene carriers.

Evolutionary theory recognises that humans are indeed animals – with no ‘just’ or ‘no more than’ to qualify the fact. How can we not be animals? We do everything they do; like them, we have – indeed are – physical bodies that breath, eat, sleep, excrete, bond, mate, experience pain and pleasure and fight; we are, like most other animals, territorial and also like them, we put a great deal of effort into ensuring our own survival and that of our offspring. Even Christians who deny the body and its demands engage in these kinds of animal behaviour.

Of course, we also do things other animals don’t, or don’t to the same extent; we have remarkably complex social arrangements, which have resulted in our developing systems of morality and sophisticated ways of dealing with each other (though our morality is remarkably flawed); we have achieved much in the fields of culture, technology and in our understanding of the world and the universe beyond our tiny planet. We have also made a mess of our environment.

Our intelligence, our self-awareness, is the evolutionary equivalent of adaptations developed in other species. Our characteristics may seem to us to be somehow superior to those of other animals, but really they’re not. They have enabled our continued survival and allowed us to achieve all that we have, both good and bad. But in evolutionary terms, they are no different from the refinements that have enabled other animals to do the equivalent in their environments. This doesn’t mean, however, we are ‘just’ or ‘no more than’ animals. No creature is ‘just’ an animal and human achievements are all the more remarkable because we’re animals.

What Christians usually mean by their ‘just’ and ‘no more than’ is that as animals we are not extra-special to God, not ‘made in his image’. And of course, we’re not; there’s no God to be extra special to or made in the likeness of. Even if there were, he doesn’t seem to be particularly pre-disposed towards us; we exist as physical bodies that are as susceptible to the same hunger, disease, illness, injury, weakness, infirmity and death as any other animal. We are not immaterial, spiritual beings – though presumably the Christian God could have made us that way if he’d wanted to. To say, as some Christians do, that we are spiritual beings temporarily trapped in material bodies, or that we must deny the body and its demands to become spiritually perfect, is the grand perversion that is the Christian faith. It denies the reality of this physical, material world and our own natures. Any spirituality we might claim for ourselves is a projection of our intelligence and self-awareness; any morality the result of those complex social arrangements.

So, we are not ‘just’ animals, nor are we ‘no more than’ animals in any way that makes sense biologically. We are animals, remarkable perhaps in rising above our biology from time to time, but animals nonetheless, whether Christians want to believe it or not. ‘Just’ and ‘no more than’ don’t come into it.