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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The Myth of Intellectual Faith

Celia4

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

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

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

As does Paul in 1 Corinthians 1.26-29:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Myth of God’s Forgiving Love

homosexualdemons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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.

 

On being free

chains

Commenter Rebecca responded at length recently to my post ‘Why God Could Not Possibly Have Created The Universe (pts 4 & 5)’. There was so much in her response, that I thought it best to reply to her in a full length post rather than with a brief comment:

Hi Rebecca,

I won’t be able to respond to all of your points as there are so many, but will attempt a few.

I’m glad you find your faith beneficial. You’ve obviously thought about the whole incarnation/sacrifice/reconciliation issue, but I wonder whether you’ve ever asked yourself what it is you need saving from and reconciled with? What is it that means you personally need to avail yourself of the sacrifice Jesus supposedly made (however you interpret that)? I guess evangelicals, of which you seem to say you are not one, would claim it’s because of sin; the alienation from God that our very existence seems to cause.

Is that really the case though? Isn’t it rather that ancient superstitious peoples needed some explanation for why life was so difficult, short and brutish? They reasoned that surely it couldn’t be the fault of the creator God, so his tendency to treat them badly must be entirely their fault. Consequently, they had to do something to appease this god, to make him smile upon them again as they felt he must once have done. They thought the way to do this was, variously, through sacrifice and/or righteous living, by murdering those they felt offended him the most, and through praise and supplication.

There is no getting away from the fact, however, that the primary way they sought to reconcile themselves with their deity was through blood sacrifice. The New Testament’s interpretation of the death of Jesus is expressed in just such terms:

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of His grace (Ephesians 1.7).

This is not just an evangelical perspective; it is the major theme of much of the New Testament.

I’d like to ask you, Rebecca: are you really so steeped in sin that you need to avail yourself of a bloody human sacrifice in order to be reconciled with God? I have to say it seems extremely unlikely.

I didn’t leave faith behind because of how repugnant this idea is, however. I experienced an epiphany while walking one day, after many years of thinking about such things, and realised with conviction that there was no god: no god to appease, be reconciled with or commune with. He simply didn’t and doesn’t exist (see here for why I think this is the case). Of course, there being no god means there’s no son of god either.

I then started living my life on the basis of the fact there is no god, and I have to tell you it became a whole lot better. I didn’t have the constant feeling I had to come up to some impossible standard; I didn’t feel guilt for the most trivial of ‘sins’; I no longer worried that not getting my beliefs quite right would result in the loss of my eternal life; I stopped worrying about eternal life because it was obvious there was no such thing; I stopped thinking hell and heaven were real; I started living in the here and now; I stopped thinking I had to respond to others’ needs by telling them about Jesus (and started relating to them as people); I no longer had to subjugate whatever intellect I have to force myself to believe things that were clearly nonsense; the self-loathing I felt about my sexuality began to slip away. I could be me, and what a massive relief that was. I think I became a better person as a result. I certainly became a happier one.

You say the bible contains many deep truths – perhaps – but it also includes much that is cruel, spiteful, damaging and just plain wrong. I lost interest in sifting the wheat from the chaff because there was just too much chaff (a free biblical analogy for you there.)

The secrets of life, whatever they may be, Rebecca, are not in the bible, nor in any convoluted explanation of what Jesus stood for (he was just another failed apocalyptic preacher). They do not lie in Christianity or in any religion. Life is more than any of these ultimately dead things.

Thank you for writing. It can only be a good thing that you’re thinking about these issues. You will I’m sure find your way out into the light. I hope what I post here can help you with that.