Believe what you want to believe

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I’ve been responding to some comments of Don Camp’s over on Cross Examined.  First off, Don objected to the claim someone made that the Bible is ‘full of errors’. He went on to make a number of assertions that I felt compelled to challenge. I’ve also added here a number of other points in italics, where, it seems to me, Don is trying to bluff with guff.

Don: “Full of errors” is an overstatement. There are errors, which is obvious when one looks at the critical apparatus of the USB Greek text. (What is this ‘apparatus’ of which Don speaks? Critical scholarship? Can’t see Don bothering much with that. Magic seer stones, then?) But if you know how to read the apparatus (ah, we must have insider knowledge to know how to read the manuscripts [which ‘manuscripts?] the way Don does) you will notice that the differences between manuscripts is minor and do not impact the message (we will? How?) The doctrine of “inerrancy” speaks to the original manuscripts (autographs). (We don’t have the original manuscripts so we can’t verify their accuracy or otherwise. Even if we did have access to them, how would we know they said what God wanted them to say? How would we know if what they said was true? We wouldn’t. They’re both hypothetical and irrelevant, and this is all meaningless theobabble.)

Don: I don’t subscribe to a strong inerrancy… (The examples you cite are) nitpicking and, I suspect, avoidance. (What is ‘strong inerrancy’? I’d have thought something was either inerrant or it wasn’t. The presence of one error in a document means it isn’t inerrant. If Don doesn’t subscribe to ‘strong inerrancy’ there’s nothing else – only the presence of error.) 

And then we’re off on a tangent – call it ‘sleight of hand’ – about how marvellous the Bible is:

The Bible is a remarkable book. There is none like it in all of literary history. It is the story of man and God and explains not only why things are the way they are but how God acted to reconcile man to himself. That message throughout the Bible is the same. In that sense, the Bible is unified.

And then another unfounded assertion, to which I sent the reply that follows:

Don: The Bible is also coherent. The message is logical and consistent. The third chapter of Genesis contains the message in brief as a narrative. It is sometimes called the proto-evangel. The rest of the Bible unfolds that message and explains how God accomplished his purpose and how we can respond to his mercy and grace […]

Me: Okay, let’s disregard the numerous ‘minor’ inconsistencies and contradictions. There’s insurmountable disunity between the old and new covenants: God in the Old Testament (OT) promises Abraham his contract with him and his seed is ‘always and forever’ (Genesis 12). He negates this completely in the New Testament (NT) when he declares, or so Paul would have us believe, that the only way to find favour with him is through faith in his saviour. Yes, the Bible’s unchanging God changes his mind and presents two irreconcilable ways to be reconciled with him.

Or how about the differences between Paul’s theology – salvation through faith alone – and Matthew’s Jesus who says salvation is through personal righteousness achieved by doing good works (Matthew 25)? For God’s sake, Don, there’s only about forty years distance between these two schemes and yet they don’t agree on what God’s plan is for mankind.

You want more? How about the differences between the OT and NT perspectives of the afterlife? Jesus’ (and Paul’s) conviction about the imminence of the End of the Age and that of later NT writers? The views of Heaven in earlier and later writing?

You’re deluding yourself, Don, if you think there’s a unity to these central doctrines in the Bible. There evidentially isn’t. Please don’t take us for fools with your attempts to delude us too.

To which I’d add that Christians’ dishonest attempts to prop up that book of  suspicion and make-believe, the Bible, as something it isn’t are tiresome in the extreme. Words like ‘apparatus’ and ‘original manuscripts/autographs’, are meaningless, while ‘inerrancy’, ‘coherence’ and ‘consistent’ are used in ways that strip them of any of their meaning. There is no ‘apparatus’ that magically removes the serious discrepancies in the Bible, no pristine, error-free original manuscripts to which we can refer. As in many of its minor details, the Bible’s central messages lack unity, coherence, consistency – and anything approaching sense. The American Bible Society reported recently that through lockdown, Christians haven’t – shock! horror! – been reading their Bibles with any regularity. Given they don’t read them much anyway, this can only be a good thing.

The God Who Never Was

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I’m considering reasons why God is unlikely to exist. The sixth, though by no means final reason is (drumroll): Christians.

If God existed and if he did the things the Bible, and Jesus in particular, claimed for him, then Christians would be very different creatures. They wouldn’t be beligerent and self-righteous, desperately trying to draw others into their cult, callously condemning everyone outside it while claiming they themselves are the persecuted (a caricature, I concede, but not without truth).

Instead, and according to Jesus and Paul, they would be brand new creations (2 Corinthians 5.17), infused with supernatural power: the Spirit of God no less (John 14.26; Romans 8.7-9). They would, moreover, have abandoned their families (Luke 14.26) and sold all they own to give to the poor (Matthew 19.21), relying solely on God for their needs (Mark 11.24; Matthew 21.22). They’d spend all their time as his slaves (Matthew 25.21; Romans 6.22), helping the sick, the destitute and the imprisoned (Matthew 25.35-40) and in return God would have endowed them with the ability to heal all disease (Mark 16:15), raise the dead (Matthew 10.7-8) and do miracles even greater than Jesus’ own (Mark 16.17-18; John 14.12).

If Christians were like this, as Jesus and Paul promised, the world would be a much more remarkable and better place. What does it tell us that it isn’t? When Christians don’t constantly demonstrate compassion and miraculous powers but instead spend their time demeaning gay people, ranting about abortion and proselytising (the latter a redundant activity when, if they were the new creatures the Bible promises they’d be, we would all see God in and through their actions and superpowers.) That Christians are not like this tells us Jesus got it entirely wrong; that his God had no interest in him and has none in us; that faith in God, as Jesus and his early followers envisaged it, does not deliver.

Christians actually know this, which is why they ignore what the Bible says they should be like, or explain it away with convoluted exegesis. They’re focused on their own ‘spiritual growth’, ‘worship’ and on how they’ll be going to heaven when they die – an offer the Bible never makes. Whichever avoidance strategy they resort to, the Bible says what it says: that God will enable his followers to do great miracles, like healing the sick and raising the dead; ‘all things’, in fact, though Christ who strengthens them (Philippians 4.1). The evidence demonstrates conclusively, despite the disingenuous claims of some loopier evangelicals, that God does nothing of the sort. He fails, yet again, to come through. The only reasonable conclusion is that this is because he’s not real.

So those are six major reasons why it is highly unlikely God exists. There are others, some of which I’ve touched on in other posts: how, despite Jesus’ promises he will, God looks after his devotees no better than caged sparrows (Matthew 10.28-31); how there’s no evidence the supernatural exists; how the spiritual realm and the gods that go with it are products of the human imagination. Collectively – and even separately – these convince me there’s no God, and certainly not that sorry excuse for one, Yahweh.

Can you be a Christian and… a rational thinker?

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This is the first in a series of posts that pose the question, ‘Can you be a Christian and..?’ It seems to me that certain ways of being are incompatible with religious belief. Any religious belief, that is, though here I’ll limit myself to the Christian faith as that’s the belief system I know best and the one on which I wasted a great deal of my life.

Conversion is, I’ve become convinced, an emotional response to being told God loves you (who doesn’t want to be loved?) and that Jesus sacrificed himself so that you – yes, you – can enter into a full and meaningful relationship with God. It’s an intuitive, gut-reaction to the ‘promise’ that once you’ve accepted Jesus as Lord and Saviour, he will  be with you always, guiding you through life and guaranting you’ll survive death.

What is rational about this? Nothing; it’s muddled supernaturalism, magic based on others’ dreams and visions, that appeals to your need to be wanted, to matter and your hope that your life means something and will go on beyond death.

The rationalisation comes after you’ve made this response and after your commitment. It’s rather like buying something incredibly expensive you’re not sure you actually need but which makes you feel good momentarily as you hand over your cash. On the way home, as doubts start to assail you, you start trying convince yourself that you were right to buy it, on the basis you deserve it, so that by the time you’re home you feel completely justified. Psychologists tell us we do this often: act first and then come up with the rationalisation for why we’ve behaved the way we have.

So it is that once you’ve made the emotional response to what Christianity purports to offer, you start justifying your decision to yourself. You know there’s really no evidence for what you’ve started to believe. All there is is the bible and other people’s enthusiasm for what it teaches, but still, there must be some sort of justification for it; all those others, including the guys who wrote the bible, can’t all be wrong. You’re helped in your rationalisation of the irrational by sermons in which a respected pastor explains what certain teachings mean, the warm and fuzzy feelings you get from fellowship with other Christians and from reading the bible with the aid of a study guide that smooths out its many inconsistencies and contradictions. You start reading too those devotional books that have been recommended to you, which give your new-found faith a respectable gloss. All after the event.

And before you know it you are fully invested in an entirely new belief system. Not only have you accepted the central mystery (magic) of salvation but you find yourself entertaining the notion that there exist all manner of supernatural beings; angels, demons, devils, spirits all engaged in spiritual warfare in higher places. You convince yourself, even when your intellect is telling you to exercise caution, of the existence of Heaven and Hell. You become persuaded that talking to yourself inside your head is communicating with the God of the Universe and that your very thoughts can change his mind. You assume what you are told is biblical morality and alter your world view so that it conforms to the bible’s: sin everywhere, yet miracles happen; God creating humans and not just (or even) evolution; Jesus returning at any time soon to change the word so it is more to your liking.

Yet there is no evidence for any of this. A book written by Iron Age tribesmen and first century religious zealots is not evidence. Nor is any of it rational. You know this, but you hold fast to your belief that God’s ways are not our ways. He likes, it says somewhere in the bible, to conceal his plans from the worldly wise. Like many other believers you are not stupid but you’ve happily sublimated your intellect to assume irrational, unsupported beliefs. You’ve subjugated your capacity for rationalisation in deference to these beliefs. If and when a rational objection forms itself in your mind, you dismiss it as a doubt, or worse still, a Satanic attempt to snatch you away from your salvation.

How do I know? Because I did so myself.

So, can you be a Christian and rational thinker? No. Because once you’ve tethered your intellect to ancient superstition you’ve denied yourself the possibility of independent thought. Rational thinking can go then in only one direction, towards the conclusions already established by the Faith. It isn’t possible to be an independent thinker and to adopt a worldview based on others’ emotions, dreams and visions. It isn’t possible to believe irrational things and be a rational thinker.

Crawling from the Wreckage

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I’m occasionally accused of criticising only evangelical Christianity. It’s an easy target, I’m told, and I should spend some time investigating the more sophisticated and respectable version of Faith: intellectual, liberal Christianity. In fact I already have, and have written about it before. This ‘respectable’ version of the Faith is every bit as dishonest and intellectually lazy as its more excitable counterpart.

It has always seemed to me that evangelicalism and fundamentalism do at least take the most indefensible parts of the bible seriously. They may ignore them when it comes to applying them (loving enemies and giving to all who ask, for example) but at least they accept them, if only metaphorically, as part of ‘God’s inerrant and infallible Word’. Intellectual Christians on the other hand sidestep what they find uncomfortable, selecting only that which fits with what they think the Faith should be:

A Loving Father? Then we’ll disregard the parts where God is clearly anything but.

A wise and compassionate Jesus? We’ll pretend the bits where he’s cruel, ignorant and just plain wrong aren’t really there (or are later additions to the gospels; the mistaken beliefs of the early church.)

Church as inclusive community? We’ll have some of that and ignore all the unhelpful nonsense about most of humankind being destined for eternal torture. (That, after all, is just Paul, or whoever, getting carried away.)

I know they do this, because when my own faith was in its death throes, I did too.

Back in the early ’90s. I’d given up on evangelicalism but desperately wanted to salvage something of the Faith that had once meant so much to me (even as it completely messed up my life.) I wanted a God of Love, so persuaded myself there was one – disregarding what I knew of the hateful, unsavoury aspects of the God of the bible. I also really wanted Jesus to have some meaning; if not as personal saviour then as one who exemplified a purposeful and compassionate life. To do this I had to overlook Paul’s theology of a vengeful God, hell bent on punishing everyone.

In the end, however, I had to be honest with myself and accept that the nice God I was trying to believe in was no more real than the nasty one. What I wanted had no bearing on the nature of God, nor on whether he existed. Similarly with the nice Jesus, who could be unpleasant and unreasonably demanding as well. I was being entirely selective, as most Christians are, about how I constructed my own personal Jesus.

Hanging on to fragments of faith was futile. I could no longer sustain the cognitive dissonance required to embrace the parts of Christianity that made me feel good, inspired me or made me kinder, while ignoring the downright nasty bits. If I was experiencing the good things (and I was) I had to accept they were coming from somewhere other than Christianity; if I was to go on experiencing them I had to acknowledge that and cultivate them by other means.

It seemed at first that this would be difficult outside of a church but in fact there are numerous groups committed to helping and inspiring others, without the superfluous and irrelevant presence of religion. It simply isn’t necessary to hang on to selected scraps from a discredited belief system; life lies, in abundance, elsewhere.

This is why I have no more respect for intellectualised, liberal Christianity than I have for evangelicalism. There is nothing intellectual about the cognitive dissonance needed to be an ‘intellectual’ Christian. It is, in the end, a largely content free version of Faith, the spiritual equivalent of a homeopathic remedy. I mean, really: why bother?

Interlude: A word from God

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While nothing like Cyclone Idai that hit southern Africa recently, we had some terrible storms here in the north of England last weekend. The thunder woke me just after 2 a.m., each peal shaking the house, and with the flashes of lightning, it felt frighteningly apocalyptic.

And then it hit me: the Lord was sending a sign! He was angry about something we’d done! Maybe same-sex marriage, though as we’ve had that for a while now in the UK, I’d have thought he’d be used to that particular idea by now. So, maybe he was upset about abortion again. That could be it, though again, a bit late in the day. Still, with God a day is as a thousand years (and vice versa), so you never know. Maybe it’s Brexit. Perhaps the Lord’s angry we’re coming out of Europe. Or, perhaps he’s angry we aren’t coming out fast enough. Back in the 1970s, when Britain first joined the European Economic Community (as it was called then), he told his representatives here on Earth it was a Very Bad Thing, because it was like a recreation of the old Roman Empire and a sure sign of the End Times. He disapproved, but told only a few of his Chosen Ones how he felt and completely forgot to mention it to anyone else.

Christ! Don’t you just get fed up with religiously fixated nutjobs coming up with this sort of crap every time there’s a storm or a tsunami or an eclipse? Every natural disaster, every human catastrophe, every phenomenon in the night sky has to be interpreted as a message or warning from a deity who is otherwise as dumb as a rock. Only when weather does what weather is prone to do does he start communicating with us – incoherently and in code. Only a special few, those who’ve appointed themselves as his prophets and mouthpieces, are capable of telling us what he’s really saying. It’s a miracle if two or three of them ever agree about what that is.

If you need evidence there’s no God, then this is it. If he were real, we would have independent knowledge of him; knowledge that isn’t filtered through human messengers or delivered, garbled, by the weather or by a seriously flawed and obviously human book. He would be apparent; he wouldn’t need to be interpreted, explained and represented by people who give every impression of making stuff up as they go along.

What we have instead is a God who is very evidently human. It’s humans who interpret weather conditions, claim to know what God’s saying and declaim his messages and warnings. It is impossible to know anything, either about or from him, other than what humans – very often ones with very little brain and a penchant for self-promotion – tell us.

If there really were a God, I’d ask him to stop communicating with us through extreme weather, disasters and massacres, and instead to miraculously lift the curse of religion from the 7.7 billion of us here on Planet Earth. But there isn’t, so we’re stuck with it – with religion and those who have a vested interest in perpetuating its nonsense.

Pearl of Great Price

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Once Born Again™, I became involved with a local church, where my friend Simon took it upon himself to play Cupid, fixing me up with Jane. I was more than a little surprised a girl could be interested in me, but figured, in my flight from myself, that as she was interested, I should make the most of it. Sex wasn’t much of a problem: as good Christians we may’ve played about a little, but we stayed away from what the church liked to call ‘pre-marital intercourse’.

It wasn’t long, though, before Jane wanted to marry – she really wanted to get married. I wasn’t so sure and told her about my escapades with Sam, adding of course that I had since renounced such sin. She said that as long as it never happened again, she had no problem with my past transgressions. I felt pretty sure it wouldn’t happen again. After all, Jesus and his Holy Spirit were taking care of my old nature.

So Jane and I married and over time had three children. While I was very much involved with their upbringing, I would often feel I was ‘letting the Lord down’. When, as happened on holiday once, a group of younger men came round a corner minus their shirts, I found myself instinctually admiring them. What self-crucifying shame I would feel after occasions like these. I would even confess such ‘sins’ to a senior work colleague, a devout and very genuine older lady. I’d spare her the details of how exactly I’d ‘let the Lord down’, of course; I could never have brought myself to say I’d been turned on by naked male torsos. But somewhere deep within me I longed for intimacy and closeness with another man. I knew this was strictly forbidden so buried my desires deeper and deeper, suppressing and subjugating something vital about myself. I was on course, though I didn’t recognise it, to making myself ill. I was convinced that I was doing the right thing – for myself, for my marriage and for God.

My marriage, however, was in trouble. Jane seemed to have lost interest in our children, which hurt me greatly (and didn’t do them a lot of good either.) This and pressures at work, where my boss’ affair with a female colleague was creating some serious problems, made me question whether God really cared. When I needed him most, petitioning him for the wisdom to deal with these problems, the heavens, as the scripture almost says, were as brass. God, it seemed, just wasn’t interested. Perhaps, I started to wonder, he wasn’t even there. Added to this was the internal pressure I was still subjecting myself to; the tension and stress of sublimating my true nature. I was deeply unhappy. While the situation at work was eventually ‘resolved’ (by my finding a better job) I had become chronically depressed and remained so for several years.

Ultimately, once I had reached my fifties and the children were grown, Jane and I separated. I knew I couldn’t go on suffocating my feelings; the mind is not designed to be a pressure cooker – something has to give. I started to accept, though not yet embrace, my innermost nature. The relief was immediate and tremendous. I felt I had found myself and I didn’t care that society might not particularly like what I had I found. I had to be me, and not the uptight, miserable person I had become by denying my essential self. I squared up to the exciting yet daunting prospect of starting over, and acknowledged that if I were to have a new relationship it would be with another man. And so it was.

Over time I came to like myself – imagine that! All I’d felt for most of my life, since the time at the YMCA, was self-hatred. That was what Christianity, what Jesus, had done for me. Arguably, it had also ensured, by keeping me firmly in the closet, that I hadn’t died prematurely during the AIDs crisis of the 1980s. Perhaps though I’m giving it too much credit.

I’m ‘out’ now, in every sense: to my wonderfully supportive children, to you who read this blog (obviously) and to friends. Match-maker Simon, he who suggested going to the YMCA all those years ago, cut me off about a decade ago. As a born-again Christian, he regarded homosexuality as beyond the pale. His ‘principles’ meant more to him than our long-standing friendship. I still miss him, very much.

I don’t miss God. He has gone entirely and I’ve long recognise that he was never there to begin with. Instead, I have a sense of authenticity and my energy goes into living, not denial. I’ve become involved with the local LGBT Centre and I’m seeing a very nice man who I’m going to call Thomas, to spare his blushes. I’m very happy and feel, at long last, I really know what life’s about.

If you can stand it, I’ll tell you more next time.

Get your false Messiahs here…

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There was this guy who said he was the Son of God and the Messiah of his people. God appeared to him in a vision that enveloped him and changed him completely. Afterwards he discovered he had a knowledge of scripture that he previously hadn’t possessed and a invigorated sense of mission: God had appointed him to redeem his people. He changed his name and began to teach his people with power and a knowledge that all of them testified they had never experienced before. He brought them close to God and showed them how the world was coming to an end and how God would soon establish his Kingdom on Earth. He prophesied too, however, that he himself would die at the hands of the authorities, but that his followers should have no fear, because God would not forsake them: they would be part of the coming Kingdom.

And so it came to pass. At the age of 33, the Messiah died at the hands of the state.

And the name of this guy? Jesus, maybe? Well, it could be, but it wasn’t. Saul/Paul perhaps? Again, possibly… but no.

This guy’s name was David Koresh (real name Vernon Howell), leader of a Christian sect called the Branch Davidians. You may remember him from such massacres as the 1993 seige at Waco, where his church was based. He made all the claims above, just like Jesus and, to a lesser extent, Paul before him. None of his followers, it’s true, claimed to see him after his death, but some of those who survived the seige believe still that he will be resurrected and will return to lead them personally into the Kingdom of God.

I was watching a programme about him recently, a Storyville documentary originally broadcast in the States last year, which showed how easily we create our Messiahs and Saviours. The recipe, it turns out, is easy:

Take one charismatic individual who thinks he’s speaking for God;

Mix in an obsession with scripture;

Add some absurd self-promotion, and

Bake for a few years in the over-heated adulation of some desperate sycophants.

So – Jesus, Paul, Koresh. What’s the difference?

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*Actually, the quote in the picture up top is not Jesus at all; its Koresh, from an interview with the FBI (see first link above.) John 14.6 says ‘No-one comes to the Father except by me,’ which is much the same.

Love and Kindness

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I’m sometimes I asked what, given I don’t believe in Jesus, I do believe in. I always find this an odd question, presuming as it does that Christianity is really the only thing worth believing in. Implicit in it too is an acknowledgement that faith in the supernatural is irrational, and that sceptics are just as prone to irrationality as believers themselves: ‘you too have faith in any number of unprovable propositions, just like us misguided Christians!’ The question is often an attempt to show that sceptics are just as gullible as Christians.

Recently, Jimoeba said on his blog, The Common Atheist, ‘I believe passionately in nothing,’ meaning, I think, he doesn’t believe in any sort of supernatural nonsense. It set me thinking about what, in fact, I believe in. Do I still have some irrational, unfounded beliefs? Certainly I don’t believe – can’t believe – in Jesus and his support cast of mythical entities, who live in Heaven or just out of sight or wherever they’re meant to be. The same applies to their counterparts in other religions. It’s not that I hold this as a matter of faith; there simply isn’t the evidence to support the existence of gods, angels, demons, eternal beings, heaven and hell (as I discuss here and here.)

In any case, I prefer to know things rather than believe in them. Where there is evidence, there is no need for ‘belief’ or ‘faith’. Yet I still have a suspicion I believe in some things; things that seem intuitively right (never a good measure, I know, of what actually is true) but for which the evidence isn’t as substantial as I’d like. Things like love and kindness. I do believe in these, however cliched it may be to say, ‘I believe in love’. I do. I feel and, I hope, demonstrate love for my family, specially my children and grandchildren. Also to my friends and partners. It seems to me love matters a great deal. There are no doubt good evolutionary reason why we feel particularly strong affection for our offspring; taking care of them increases their – and the genes we share – chances of survival. But subjectively it is more than that. I believe it’s more than that anyway.

I find , try as I might, however, that I can’t extend that love to people I don’t know. Jesus’ command (not that I’m under any obligation to follow it) to love one’s neighbours and enemies is an impossibility, another example of his not knowing what he was talking about. It’s possible to feel compassion for those who suffer, or pity or sympathy, but these, while they’re perhaps components of love, are not completely love in any of its forms. So that’s why I believe in kindness too. ‘Be kind to your neighbour, to strangers and to those you encounter in daily life’ would have been, and is, a far more realistic expectation.

There are other things I believe in too – trying to steer people away from irrational belief in deities, saviours and magic books, obviously – and I’m not always consistent in my application of love and kindness. But I do try to be. I know they’re not absolutes, nor even universal values; they’re not delivered from on high because no values are, being entirely humanly derived, and they’re not practised by everyone either, not even aspired to by some. There’s no need to go around preaching about love and kindness, nor do they need a mythology created around them. Nevertheless, they’re what matter – to me, anyway.

I believe in them.

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.

Abandon Reason all ye who enter the Faith

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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.