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 ‘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.

 

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How it is

God5

It all depends on the premise from which you begin. I’m tired of the arguments of Christians of all stripes that

   The bible is the inspired word of God

      Jesus died for me

          He really did rise from the dead

                Jesus was, in some sense, the son of God

                     God, or Jesus, loves us and wants to have relationship with us

                          God, or Jesus, will forgive our sins if only we ask him

                            He has supernaturally changed the lives of millions

               We are all, whether we realise it or not, involved in a spiritual battle

       Jesus is coming back soon to judge the world

Most people will go to Hell, a select few to Heaven

We can argue with Christians about these claims – and others you can probably think of yourself – pointing out how the Bible really can’t self-authenticate itself, that just because it appears to say it’s the Word of God doesn’t mean it is; arguing about who wrote the gospels and whether they can be trusted; disputing the resurrection when the bible’s own accounts are so inconsistent; challenging the theology behind Paul’s redemption formula… and so on.

But really, why bother? Take a step back.

All of these ideas are dependent on one thing: that there is a God.

Yet there is no evidence there is. Christians will tell us that that the absence of evidence doesn’t necessarily equate with evidence of absence, but in this case it does. The absence of evidence that I keep a pink unicorn in my garage is fairly conclusive evidence that I don’t – and so it is with God. The evidence for him is circumstantial and so remarkably thin that the probability he exists is virtually zero (I’ve discussed this previously; here, for example). What humans have imagined him to be is not evidence of his external reality; a book written by superstitious sheep-herders and first century fanatics certainly isn’t. And beyond that? Nothing.

It follows that if God doesn’t exist then

       the Bible can’t be his inspired word;

                    Jesus cannot be his son;

                       God cannot have sent Jesus to redeem us;

                            he cannot have raised Jesus from the dead;

                                  he cannot be offended by ‘sin’;

                                        it cannot be God who changes lives;

                                  heaven and hell are not real;

the whole panoply of supernatural beings that populate the bible don’t exist either.

Take away God (and he was never there in the first place) and Christianity with its claims of the supernatural, salvation and eternal life, crumbles to nothing. It is nothing.

So it all depends on your premise. If you’re prepared to believe, against the evidence, that God exists you’ll find substance in the claims of religion. If you recognise that he doesn’t, however, you will also recognise that religion’s claims are illusory, fallacious, deceptive. No need to get involved in fruitless arguments with believers about it; that’s how it is.

“Christian” Scare Quotes: A Response

JesusLaughs

Christian bloggers like their quotation marks – ‘scare quotes’ as they’re often known. The Righteous wear away the computer keys with them on when ranting writing about same-sex “marriage” in particular. This kind of marriage always receives them, even though marriage is marriage whether same-sex or not. Those who like to use and over-use them, however, intend to show that same-sex marriage isn’t marriage at all but a devilish, unbiblical substitute for the real thing.

The Christian Research Network (a misnomer if ever there was one: the site only ever features two contributors, involves no research and is distinctly unChristian) regularly adds speech marks to other terms and titles. The Pope, for example, becomes “Pope Francis”, and the fact Francis is not his real name is constantly highlighted. This is intended to show, presumably, that he lacks authenticity. The irony is that the figure whom Christians themselves worship and adore isn’t known by his real name either, a fact lost on “God’s chosen”. Yeshua Bar Yosef wouldn’t recognise “Jesus” and certainly not “Jesus Christ”.  Then there’s “Paul”, real name Saul. Christianity’s use of false names is nothing new.

My proposal, therefore, is that from now on, whenever we write “Christians”, we add quotation marks to the term to reflect the hypocrisy of so many of them, as well as the vacuity of the belief system itself. This can be done even when speaking of “Christians”, by wiggling the fingers as the word is said. It can, and should, be extended to all of the other fallacious ideas within Christianity: “God”, “Jesus”, “God’s Word”, “The Kingdom of God”, “Holy Spirit”, “Heaven” and “faith”.

We needn’t worry about running out of quotation marks with which to do this; we can always use those that “Christians” have previously attached to same-sex marriage.

What is forgiveness, anyway?

Forgive

I’ve been grappling with the nature of forgiveness lately in my personal. You might, as a result, find this post to be much more personal than usual, but I hope you’ll bear with me.

Recently, a close friend let me down in a particularly damaging way. This wasn’t just a careless action on his part, but a deliberate one that he knew would have significant impact on me. Indeed, it left me reeling, confused and deeply hurt. I won’t go into details as I’m still processing what happened and I’m sure, in any case, that my friend would not want what he did broadcast to the world (or at least, the small number of people who read this blog!)

He has asked for my forgiveness. He has not said he is sorry for what he did, rather he has apologised for the effect it had on me, which is not the same thing. I’ve told him I can, and do, forgive him, but having done so, I realise I don’t know, in practical terms, what forgiveness means. What does it entail? What does it feel like? What actions does it require on the part of the forgiver? Sixty+ years into life, twenty-five as a Christian, and I find I really don’t know. The bible, as I suggested last time, is of no help. For all its advocates blather on about how it, and the Christian faith generally, are all about forgiveness, it hasn’t anything substantial to say about how forgiveness actually ‘works’.

Does forgiveness mean I have to somehow forget what my friend has done? Popular songs seem to suggest that’s what it’s about; ‘let’s forgive and forget’; ‘a time for forgiving and for forgetting’ and so on. But how do I do that? I can’t delete the part of my memory that knows what happened and seems determined to bring it into my conscious mind at every opportunity (usually in the middle of the night). I can suppress it to an extent, think of other things, make myself busy ‘to take my mind off things’, but that’s not really forgetting. I suppose I can resist the temptation to muster up a grudge but that, I think, would be for my benefit, not his.

Does forgiveness mean then that I allow things to continue as normal? I’m not sure that’s possible when I can’t now trust my friend. He could do the same thing again and I’m not prepared to leave myself open to that possibility. Forgiveness doesn’t, I’ve discovered, restore trust; but does this mean I’ve not really forgiven him? We could renegotiate our relationship, put it on a different footing perhaps, but wouldn’t such caution and readjusting also suggest I’ve not been able to forgive him?

Does forgiveness simply mean I won’t seek out some form of retribution or revenge? Possibly, but as I’m not inclined to do these things anyway – I’ve never believed that two wrongs can somehow make a right – I’m not sure I’d actually be (for)giving much with such a semblance of magnanimity. Perhaps, then, I might quietly let the friendship he and I once enjoyed drift quietly away into oblivion. I have, after all, to protect myself from the effect of his doing something similar in the future. I could let time take care of the problem, its passage allowing the pain, along with the friendship, to pass.

This is, in fact, the course I’m taking, and I’ve told my friend as much, but he doesn’t see this as the forgiveness I promised him. In truth, neither do I, but it’s the best I can do.

According to some parts of the bible (but not others), God forgives us our sins. He does this by magically covering them up with the blood of his sacrificed Son. It’s mumbo-jumbo, of course, but perhaps those who invented it had the same problems I have with forgiveness. In the end they realised that the only way they could ‘explain’ it was with wishy-washy hocus-pocus. It’s not much use in the real world though. Anybody out there got any better suggestions?

 

Forgiven

Boy

In the UK, as in the States, there has been a spate of sexual predators who, although admitting to their crimes, have claimed that God has already forgiven them their misdemeanours (the links provide only a couple of examples; there are many more out there). Naturally the abusers expect this to carry weight in any trial they face or in their rehabilitation into society, but it seems to me that such claims are, every one of them, bogus and fraudulent.

Overlooking the fact that God’s forgiveness is an impossibility – on account of there being no God – the idea is incompatible with the brand of Christianity, drawn from Paul’s theology, practised today. According to Paul’s reasoning – I use the term loosely – God doesn’t offer forgiveness. He provides the means to have one’s sins overlooked, covered by the blood of Christ. They are not forgiven, rather Jesus’ death serves as an atonement for sin. In those letters that are genuinely his (1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians and Philemon), Paul doesn’t mention divine forgiveness once.

On the other hand, Jesus, whose teaching is largely ignored by those who claim to follow him, does have plenty to say about forgiveness. This isn’t, however, the easy ‘get out of jail free’ card proffered by today’s offenders and populist preachers. Like all of Jesus’ morality, this forgiveness is hard to come by. If you want God’s forgiveness, Jesus says, it has to be earned; it is dependent on whether we ourselves forgive. Here’s how he puts it:

If you forgive others the wrongs they have done to you, your Father in heaven will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive the wrongs you have done. (Matthew 6:14-15)

The same idea is preserved in the so-called Lord’s prayer: ‘forgive us our sins in direct proportion to the sins we have forgiven’ (Matthew 6:12). This measure-for-measure approach is central to Jesus’ teaching.

So are those who’ve hurt or abused others claiming they’ve forgiven everyone else for offences that they’ve been subject to and have so earned God’s forgiveness? Even so, is this good enough? ‘I have God’s forgiveness because I’ve forgiven those who’ve hurt me,’ doesn’t begin to cover the hurt I may have caused others. What about them? As usual Jesus’ morality here is inadequate in the real world.

He has another go at it in Matthew 18:21-22 where he commands his disciples to forgive others innumerable times. But again this covers only those who have offended me; it doesn’t do anything for those whom I might have offended. It’s not good enough. His parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35) has the same problem.

If I’ve caused the hurt, have I the right to expect my victims to forgive me so that they in turn can earn God’s forgiveness for their sins? This seems to be the implication. And the answer is ‘no’, I can’t expect those I’ve hurt to forgive me just so they can be forgiven; it’s unrealistic. It doesn’t work.

Rather, when we have hurt or offended others the onus is on us to ask for forgiveness and to make reparation. This is how seeking forgiveness really works. You want forgiveness from others, you earn it. I need forgiveness from others, I earn it.

Jesus makes brief mention of this in Matthew 5:23-24:

So if you are about to offer your gift to God at the altar and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, go at once and make peace with your brother, and then come back and offer your gift to God.

‘Make peace with your brother’: it’s not enough, is it? Jesus doesn’t say how to ‘make peace’ and what sort of reparation he has in mind; his teaching is strictly ‘in-house’: believers are not being called upon to forgive those outside the fold at all, nor do women appear to be covered by his edict. This is a paltry, poorly thought-through version of how to seek and earn forgiveness.

The easy claims of abusers, rapists and other offenders, that God has forgiven them simply because they’ve asked him to, is cynical, insulting and cheap beside the sorrow and effort that is really needed to merit others’ forgiveness; not just cheap – worthless.

 

What has God ever done for us?

Noah

Back in my Christian days, I used to sing a hymn with a line that went ‘give and give and give again what God has given thee’. It was a fine if largely ignored sentiment – like those of similar nature demanded by Jesus – but I was reminded of it recently on hearing for the umpteenth time of just how much God has given us.

Join me in taking a look around to see.

Everything around me here in the room is… well, not to put too fine a point on it, man-made, that is devised, created, crafted and manufactured by human beings. No supernatural intervention appears to be have been required in the creation of the technology you and I are currently using, nor in the creature comforts that surround me: the chair I’m sitting on, the cushions, the clothes that are keeping me warm this cold winter’s day, the glasses I’m wearing that enable me to see properly (and have done since I was a young child), the carpet that keeps my feet from bare boards, the boards themselves, the house that they’re part of. No god was involved in the making of these things and the many more conveniences that make life in the Western world as comfortable as it is. You name it, humans made it.

It’s true that many of these items utilise natural resources – wood, cotton and so on – but the cultivation of these is again the result of human effort. There’s a clue too in the name of such materials – ‘natural’. Nature produces them, which as Darwin made plain 150 years ago, does not require any god pulling any strings behind the scenes.

The same applies to our bodies; they are the product of natural processes. I was created by my parents who in turn were created by theirs and so back to a time before any of us were human; no god was steering the direction of evolution, nor, despite what Ken Ham thinks were we created as we are today in six days. And when our bodies let us down, as they inevitably do? Even the most ardent among us do not depend on god’s willingness to heal us – he is, as in so many other respects, notoriously unreliable – we go instead to the physician and the surgeon, to medicine and technologies; in short we turn to other human beings and the creations of human beings; we turn to science. The vast majority of Christians do this too, which says much about their faith in an Almighty who can work wonders (but doesn’t). When the chips are down they don’t, as Ham puts it, reject the ‘foolish ways of man’, but turn to the skills and provision of their fellow men and women. They help far more than – infinitely more than – any imaginary god.

So it is with ideologies, philosophies and religions; they too are human inventions, everyone of them. In the West we enjoy the benefits of living in capitalist democracies with their attendant conveniences and freedoms. No god-on-high handed down such systems. Jesus was rabidly opposed to riches and wealth and there was nothing democratic about his intention to be king of the world.

Everything we have, from our ideologies and morality to science and technologies we  created ourselves; no god was involved. The messes we’ve made too; these are our responsibility, from the damage we’ve inflicted on the environment and the climate to the wars we seem endlessly to engage in and the often often appallling way we treat each other. We are culpable. No god is going to come down from heaven to right these wrongs. No god ever has; we have to sort things out ourselves. That has always been the case and always will be.

If it’s not, then those who of you who promote a god need to show him to the rest of us. Show us your god – not through the actions of human beings because those are just that, the actions of human beings. Show us something your god made that is not better explained as a product of nature or of human beings themselves. Provide evidence of your Christ, his angels and his heaven that is more than the delusion shard by you and your co-religionists; show us that they are beings with an existence independent of the human mind.

You can’t, you say, because that’s not the way of spirituality, not the way of a transcendent god.

How very convenient.

 

“When (a worldview) doesn’t include God, there is no basis for morality.” Roy Moore, 2008

Ravi3

I planned to dissect Ravi Zacharias’ morality argument even before recent revelations that he lied about his credentials. I’m sure that, despite his fraudulent claims, he’s still a good Christian™, perfectly entitled to tell the rest of us what terrible sinners we are. If you’ve ever seen his grandiose sermonising, you’ll know he likes to pretend that Faith is something deeply intellectual, despite Paul’s contention in 1 Corinthians 1. 26-27 that it isn’t. Zacharias’ pseudo-intellectual Christianity is, like many of his qualifications, fake.

In common with other Christians desperate to prove their God, he relies too on circular reasoning. He tells us that our morality derives from God (you listening TC Howitt?) and then uses this to argue that, because of we have morality, God must exist. His unproven conclusion is his premise, with nothing in between to justify either.

Here’s his ‘argument’ in full:

Ravi3

Let’s take a closer look:

‘When you say “There’s too much evil in the world”, you assume there’s “good”. Who says this? How much evil is ‘too much’? Do people other than Christians see the world in terms of good and evil? Does acknowledging evil mean one also assumes there is good? How is this ‘good’ defined? So many unanswered questions in this first muddled statement.

‘When you assume there’s good, you assume there’s such a thing as a “moral law” on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil.’ The only one making assumptions here is Ravi himself. The considerate treatment of others, which is how we might reasonably define morality, is easily recognisable when it occurs. This presumably, given he fails to define any of his terms, is what Ravi means by ‘good’ (and conversely, inconsiderate or malicious treatment of others is his ‘evil’). There’s no reason to suppose, however, that the demonstration of good is a component of an objective ‘moral law’ that exists somehow independent of human interaction. Morality and any resulting goodness (or ‘evil’), is human interaction.

‘But if you assume a moral law you must posit a “Moral-Law Giver.” Well, of course we’re not assuming a moral law, not in the magical way Ravi is assuming we’re assuming. And how about that imperative: ‘You must posit a “Moral-Law Giver”‘! Must we? Morality is socially determined by human beings themselves; we see this is in the different moralities that have emerged in cultures with shared heritage; we see it in the changing attitudes over the last fifty years to the treatment of women and gay people. Morality is fluid; it evolves. The ‘Moral-Law Giver’ then, if we must have such a term, is we ourselves.

‘But that’s Who you’re trying to disprove and not prove.’ Erm no. Ravi’s being disingenuous here. ‘We’ were not trying to disprove a Moral-Law Giver at all; he was trying to prove it (him? – note the capital sneakily added to ‘Who’). Let’s though, for the sake of argument say Ravi is right; let’s say there is a Moral-Law Giver out there somewhere. Why has he, over the expanse of human existence, issued such varying and often conflicting moral codes? Compare, for example, today’s moral standards with the harsh, brutal morality of the ancient Israelites, which demanded the death penalty for almost any infringement of the law. Compare that with the morality Christians today claim they derive from New Testament. Then compare Jesus’ impossible demands with how Christians actually behave. By and large, they’re happy to ignore him and, with the exception of one or two areas they get hot under the collar about (abortion, same-sex relationships), they go along with the consensus of the culture in which they live.

‘Because if there’s no Moral-Law Giver, there is no moral law.’ There is a ‘moral-law giver’: it is us. That is why moral laws vary according to culture and through time. Zacharias wants us to conclude that this capitalised ‘Moral-Law Giver’ is his God, yet he has neither demonstrated that a deity (any deity) decrees moral codes from on high, nor has he ‘proved’ (his word) that this cosmic law giver is his god, the barbaric and inconsistent YHWH. Rather, he ‘assumes’ this to be the case and hopes that his audience, failing to notice his assumptions, presuppositions and sleight of hand, will too. Given that most of them are Christian sheep  (Jesus’ term, not mine) they will no doubt do just that.

‘If there’s no moral law, then there’s no good. If there’s no good, there’s no evil.’ This is where the argument, such as it is, turns back on itself. Zacharias thinks he’s being very clever (he always thinks he’s being clever) but all he’s doing is declaring his premise over again.

Of course there are moral standards; humans have devised them throughout their existence. The ‘Golden Rule’ promoted by Jesus, for example, is first recorded thousands of years before him. We determine for ourselves what is good and therefore what is ‘evil’; these defintions are not delivered to us ready made from a “Moral-Law Giver” in the sky.

(While Zacharias doesn’t use the argument, there are those who like to say, on the basis of Romans 2.15, that God has written his (ever-changing) rules in our hearts, a fallacy I’ll address in the next post.)

‘What is your question?’ clever Ravi finally asks. We didn’t have a question. Here’s one for him anyway: how has he got away with such fraudulent drivel for so long?