Christianity: a failure from the very beginning

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Christianity just doesn’t deliver. Jesus doesn’t deliver. None of his promises that I outlined last time have ever produced the goods. Not surprising really when he’s been dead for the past two millennia. He’s no more likely to deliver than anyone else who’s been regarded as a god by misguided devotees (and there’s plenty of them).

Yet for those 2000 years Christians have insisted that he does, even when there isn’t a scrap of evidence he’s listened to a single word they’ve said, answered even one of their prayers, enabled them to heal the sick or helped them move mountains – any of the stuff he promised he’d do. So why do they insist he really does? Partly because many of them haven’t a clue that he even said these things. Discussing their faith with Christians online, they often tell me that Jesus never said, for example, that God would give them whatever they ask for or would make their lives better or give them the ability to do miracles greater than Jesus did himself (which of course he does, in Mark 11.24, Matthew 11.28 and John 14.12-14 respectively). In short, they are ignorant of what the bible actually says and all the preposterous magical promises it makes.

Those who do know of its promises have a range of excuses for why they never happen; they were only meant for the early church; today’s believers don’t have enough faith; they were only ever intended metaphorically; God is currently withholding his good will (usually because Christians are too tolerant of everyone else’s ‘sin’). The fact is the promises of Christianity have never delivered.

I’ve been reading Bart D. Ehrman’s The Triumph Of Christianity, where, for entirely different reasons, he lists the problems that beset the church in Corinth (p291) that Paul addresses in his first letter to them. Here’s a summary:

Serious divisions within the church, with different members following different leaders (1 Corinthians 1.12)

Various forms of sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5)

Men in the church visiting prostitutes and bragging about it (1 Corinthians 6)

Other men under the impression they shouldn’t have sex at all, not even with their wives (1 Corinthians 7)

Fractious arguments about whether Christians should eat meat from animals sacrificed to pagan gods (1 Corinthians 8 & 10)

Some women attending meetings without their heads covered (1 Corinthians 11)

The wealthy greedily eating the shared meals and leaving none for the less well-off (1 Corinthians 11)

Worship that was chaotic because those speaking in tongues were trying to show spiritual one-upmanship (1 Corinthians 12-14)

Members not using their spiritual gifts for the benefit of the community (1 Corinthians 12 & 13)

Some claiming they had already experienced ‘resurrection’ and so were more ‘saved’ than others (1 Corinthians 15)

Apart from one or two specifics, this could be the church of the 21st century! Paul, though, wrote his letter to the relatively small group of believers in Corinth around 54-55CE, a mere twenty or so years after Jesus’ death. Already by then, Christian communities were overcome with problems. There’s no indication they were experiencing the miracles Jesus promised, nor were they behaving like the ‘new creatures’ Paul’s says the Holy Spirit makes of believers:

If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5.17)

The behaviour of the Christians at Corinth was, by any standard, appalling; they seem to have no more understanding of morality, no more sense of charity, no more demonstration of brotherly love than the ‘heathens’ around them. And yet they were new creatures ‘in Christ’, believers in Jesus, vessels of the Holy Spirit. With all this supernatural support they really should have been doing better – much better – than they were.

I’ve often wondered why Paul didn’t just give up at this point, especially when other churches he wrote to had similar problems. Any rational person would have looked at how these new converts were behaving and would have concluded that the new religion simply wasn’t working. The promises Jesus made (if Paul was even aware of them) and the changes he himself said accompanied conversion simply weren’t happening. None of them had materialised, even at this early stage.

But instead, Paul soldiered doggedly on. He travelled far and wide drawing others into the cult and then had to write to them too, to tell them how to behave and what faith in his Christ actually entailed (see his letter to the Galatians, for example, and that to the church at Philippi). Didn’t Paul ask himself where the Holy Spirit was in all this? Where was the guidance and supernatural assistance promised by Jesus? Despite the airbrushed version of the early church presented in Acts, Paul’s letters tell us what it was really like: a complete disaster.

And so it continued. As Ehrman shows, people converted to Christianity in part because of its promises that believers would avoid hell and live forever in heaven instead. Many convert for the same reason today. With the zero success rate of all of its other promises, it’s not difficult to predict how Christianity’s assurances of eternal life are going to pan out.

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Billy Graham’s in Heaven

He said he would be, once he died. He said he couldn’t wait to get there (but still hung on until he was 99). He said there’d be a fanfare of trumpets when he arrived, as there would be for all the Saved, and that Jesus would lead him by the hand into the presence of God himself.

I’ve no doubt that Graham was sincere in his beliefs. He was a brilliant orator and during a long public life managed to avoid too much controversy, though he could be anti-semitic and regularly voiced his opposition to LGBT equality. 

Sincere he might have been, but Billy Graham was deluded. Some Christian sites have said so in recent days principally because his doctrine was not quite in accord with theirs; he directed new converts to the Catholic church, for example, if that’s where their interest lay; he seemed to think non-Christians would go to heaven if in life they’d looked to the light and lived honourable lives; he relied on altar calls when they are alien to the bible’s idea of conversion.

But this isn’t why he’s not in Heaven today, nor why he won’t be there at any point in the future. He was deluded because he believed in supernatural beings, in gods and angels, and because he thought human beings could be ‘saved’ by a magical incantation devised by a psychologically damaged zealot two thousand years ago. At the same time he was happy to ignore the claims of the man he believed to be the Son of God when he said he would return in the first century so that God could establish his Kingdom over all the Earth. Graham was equally happy to disregard this same prophet’s insistence that his followers denounce all wealth; he amassed a fortune over his lifetime – around $25,000,000 at the time of his death.

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Billy Graham repackaged evangelical Christianity, imbuing it with great emotional appeal and proffered it to the masses. He was good at it too; he made the impossible and the fanciful seem plausible and appealing. But he misled people that what he was offering was something they needed. We can only be grateful that what little evidence there is suggests that most of those who went forward as a result of his altar calls did not remain believers for very long. Estimates suggest about 6% stayed the course, though given the numbers Graham preached to, this still means about 12 million people.

He leaves behind a son who seems intent on destroying his father’s legacy and reputation; who is bigoted and virulently homophobic. His daughter too has not inherited his diplomacy nor even common sense. Billy Graham’s life’s work, if not undone by his offspring, will soon be forgotten, like all the other ‘great’ oratory preachers of the past. We should not revere him nor mourn his passing. His only achievement was to mislead people, seducing them into a life of intolerant superstition.

The Myth of God’s Forgiving Love

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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.

 

Why God could not possibly have created the universe (pts 4 & 5)

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The final two reasons why it is altogether unreasonable to credit the God of the bible with the creation of all that there is.

4. YHWH is inadequate

Christians want us to believe that the God of the bible is the ‘First Cause’ who purposefully created the cosmos. He is, they tell us, powerful beyond imagining, capable of bringing into existence a universe of infinite proportions, with its billions of suns, trillions of planets, nebulae, dark matter, black holes and the rest.

But this vast complexity stands is incompatible with YHWH, who demonstrates all the limitations we might expect of a god devised by primitive nomadic herdsmen. He is anthropomorphic, restricted in knowledge and defeated by technology his creators didn’t possess; like other deities of the period, he is obsessed with bizarre ritual, requiring genital mutilation and the sacrificial burning of animals. He lives, alternately, at the top of a mountain or in a box, from where he is capable of smelling roasting meat, and spends his time issuing laws about sex and slavery. He is primarily a god of war, his acts almost entirely destructive, rarely creative, which is what we might expect from a people continually in conflict with their neighbours.

Whatever else such a being might be, he is not one capable of creating the universe. He is nothing more than a small and petty tribal deity – one of many recognised by the Israelites during their history – created and sustained by men who knew no better. This is the god Jesus believed in, though he relocated him in the sky (‘the heavens’) and tried to turn him into something more amenable.

Despite this partial make-over, the New Testament version of God retains the attributes and limitations of his older self. He is, if Paul is to be believed, still pre-occupied with blood sacrifice, in dictating sexual behaviour and wreaking destruction on his supposed creation. He is no more capable of creating the cosmos than his predecessor. The God that modern Christians insist brought everything into being isn’t this limited, feeble, unsavoury figure. That God is another construct altogether, a far cry from the paltry god of the bible, and one they have devised themselves, that they make appear capable of creating the universe as we now know it to be.

5. The supernatural has no independent existence.

This is the bottom line: outside the human imagination, there is no evidence the supernatural exists. Even if we do take the human imagination into account, there is no evidence of an independent supernatural realm. No-one has ever seen a god, demon or angel, in exactly the same way they’ve never seen a fairy, goblin or unicorn. They may think they’ve experienced spiritual beings ‘within’ or felt them emotionally or hallucinated about them, but this does not mean they have independent existence. Despite millennia of religious belief no supernatural beings have ever manifested themselves, been witnessed, demonstrated or measured. Gods, like angels and spirits, do not exist. It follows, therefore, that the cosmos cannot have been created by them.

Thank you for bearing with me on my exploration of why god could not possibly have created the universe. I don’t know, of course – none of us do (yet) – how it came about, but the notion that it must have been god, the Christian god no less, simply isn’t feasible:

He would have had to create something from nothing, when the supernatural and immaterial are incapable of creating the natural and material.

The bible’s YHWH is too feeble to have been responsible and God-as-creator leads, in any case, only to an infinite regress.

The supernatural is a product of the human imagination; it has no independent existence.

However the universe came to be, we can be certain no gods, including the Christian one, were involved.

 

 

 

 

 

More fairly random, half-formed thoughts on Evolution

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(Note to self: check the captions to this and last time’s pictures are the right way round.)

 

3. On God in Nature

God is revealed in nature! The bible says so (Romans 1.20) and you don’t even have to be a Creationist to see it – the evidence is there in plain sight.

But to suggest that, because aspects of nature are beautiful (or stunning or endearing) from a human perspective, the natural world can only have come from the hand of a loving Creator is merely to argue from a position of incredulity: “I can’t conceive how such beauty came to be; it must have been God.”

I live close to the countryside and although there is much that is impressively beautiful, the mercilessly cruel working of nature is also apparent: ruthless competition, even between plants and certainly among animal wildlife; waste on a vast scale; predation – young blue-tit (chickadee) chicks in my garden eaten a few weeks ago by magpies – death and sex.

The incredulous believer who refuses to see these aspects of nature and sees only beauty – and much of it is undeniably beautiful – is being disingenuous in their selection of evidence (confirmation bias in action). If God reveals himself in nature, then just as it is, he has to be callous, cruel and indifferent to suffering too.

“Ah, yes,” says the Christian, “but that’s because we live in a fallen world,” which is having it both ways: God is apparent in nature, except when he isn’t… because then it’s a fallen world.

Speaking of which –


4. On This Being a Fallen World

Creationists, such as those at Answers In Genesis, like to argue that genetic mutations in humans and animals fail to ‘increase the information’ and, further, that such errors would only lead to malfunction and the death of the organism. They’re right about the latter; significant mutation is almost always detrimental. However, according to Nature, ‘others have little or no detrimental effect. And sometimes, although very rarely, the change in DNA sequence may even turn out to be beneficial to the organism.’ A mutation that increases the chances an animal will survive and reproduce ensures that the particular mutation is passed on to its offspring.

The constant shuffling and recombining of genes in sexual reproduction also changes and ‘increases the information’ within the genome with the consequent effect on the phenotype (the genome’s physical expression). This is analogous with the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet producing new, unique sentences, paragraphs and texts every time they are recombined.

Creationists are wrong therefore to insist that mechanisms do not exist to change or add to genetic ‘information’. They are wrong too that variations caused by mutation cannot contribute to the evolution of an organism; while most born with such variance are likely to die before they can reproduce (natural selection in action) a minority are able to pass on the changes. Mutation and sexual recombination of genes are integral to evolution and the development of the organism.

I mention this because the bible presents quite a different scenario. In Genesis, the world and everything in it is created in a state of perfection. Then, because of human disobedience and sin, God feels compelled to curse his entire creation and the sudden or gradual – Christians are none to clear about which it is – transition to degradation, entropy and death begins.

It’s here that creationists’ objection to the role of mutation in evolution proves a stumbling block for their own scenario: a system designed to function in a particular way cannot continue to operate effectively after undergoing such a radical, brutal overhaul. We know of no other system that, having undergone such demolition, can continue to work in the way it was intended to, and certainly not as effectively as the ecosystem has for millennia. Look, for example, at how human activity has contributed recently to radical changes in climate.

Nature relies on those things that Christians say arose because of God’s curse on it: death, disease, waste, competition, cruelty. A system with such inherent ‘faults’, so far removed from how it was ‘designed’ to operate, would have failed long ago.

From this we can conclude that:

Nature/ecosystems/life were not ‘designed’ at all.

     They were never part of a ‘perfect’ creation.

         They were not cursed and are not now faulty components of a fallen,     malfunctioning world – nor could they be.

                       They could not operate any differently from the way they do.

                             They will not, despite what the bible says (Romans 8.20-21), be restored one day to a state of perfection they didn’t have in the first place.

 

Some fairly random, half-formed thoughts on Evolution

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1. On Sex

‘Evolution is a Lie’ read the placard in the town centre the other day as Christian preachers took to ranting, again, about how everyone’s a sinner in need of Jesus.

I thought, if evolution is a lie then why is there sex? What would be the point of it in a world created by God?

While sex makes abundant sense in the context of evolution, it is difficult to explain in terms of Creationism. Why? Because sexual reproduction (as opposed of any other sort) exists specifically to ensure the shuffling and recombining of genes to produce variation in offspring. Why would a Creator (say the God of the bible, so beloved of Ken Ham and every other Christian) create the very mechanism that makes natural selection, and therefore evolution, possible? Why would he introduce a process that has no purpose but to serve as the engine of evolution? There wouldn’t be any need to, unless this deity specifically planned to develop life through evolution, or a process very like it.

But Christians like those street preachers and Answers in Genesis and its sycophants, reject the Darwinian model of evolution. So how do they explain sexual reproduction when it’s not only incongruous in a creationist scenario, but completely unnecessary? If not to drive evolution, why does sexual reproduction exist at all? It’s not, if I might pre-empt one possible response, because God thought we’d enjoy it; most living creatures reproduce sexually and ‘enjoyment’ is not part of their perfunctory copulation. Not to mention the fact that the Creator God of the bible spends most of his time objecting to and condemning sex.


2. On Life from Non-life

I’ve been told many times by Christians that, without God, life could not have got underway and subsequently evolved. Their argument goes like this: ‘inanimate chemicals are incapable of organising themselves into complex, self-replicating organisms,’ which makes me think, not of sex, but of viruses; non-living groups of chemicals that are highly organised self-replicators.

I’m not saying life necessarily developed from viruses, but they are evidence that inanimate chemicals are capable of acting as if alive, organising themselves to serve a collective purpose, namely self-perpetuation. The earliest viruses would not of course have been as complex as those today (viruses evolve too), but next time you have a viral infection, consider whether the difference between non-life and life is as great as it might seem. From what we do know, it wouldn’t need much, and certainly not a god, to turn one into the other.


More random thoughts on Evolution next time.

 

 

How not to love your neighbour

preachersImagine: a group of health-fascists set themselves up on a soap box in the city centre from where they lambaste everyone going past, with language that is abusive and demeaning, about the poor state of their health, their out-of-condition bodies and that many of them are  significantly over-weight. But, the speakers insist, a bottle of a magic potion they just happen to be selling will solve all their health problems overnight! All anyone has to do is commit to swallowing some every day for the rest of their lives.

Unsurprisingly, people are upset about this; they’ve come to town for all sorts of reasons, but not to be lectured about their health and size, which, for most of them are both perfectly fine. Some of these folk challenge the snake-oil salesmen, shouting back at them (not having the benefit of a tannoy system) and demanding to know what gives them the right to harass passers-by. In response, one of the salesmen pulls out a copy of last Tuesday’s Daily Mail; ‘it’s all in here,’ he declares, ‘all in black and white, and we believe it. The Daily Mail wouldn’t lie to us. Its Word is Truth. So get your magic potion now before it’s too late, ya depraved, ignorant slobs!’

Acceptable or not?

While you think about – if you even need to – the picture above was intended to accompany the previous post. It shows street preachers Michael Overd, Michael Stockwell and Adrian Clark before their trial for ‘public order offences’, which started last week and concluded on Tuesday this week. I felt it couldn’t be used while the trial was ongoing (contempt of court and all that) and so had it replaced with one of rabid American nutcase Franklin Graham.

Two of the three preachers, Overd and Stockwell, were found guilty and fined. Naturally, there’s an outcry from Christians and assorted fruitcakes everywhere about how the two have been denied their freedom of speech (though there is no protection of free speech under UK law) and how – oh calamity! – it’s no longer possible to ‘preach the gospel’ in the Britain. Absolute nonsense, of course, and while some more liberal commentators feel the case should never have reached the courts (let the nutjobs condemn themselves by spouting in the streets, suggests one) an example has been made of people who think the way to show love for your neighbour is setting out, in the judge’s words, to ‘insult, humiliate, demean (and) belittle’ them in public using a loud speaker in a shopping centre.

As Andrew Calibre pointed out in the previous post, haranguing and provoking people like this has nothing to do with love, nor is it ‘the gospel’. Shouting, as Overd did, about how your neighbour is ‘depraved and ignorant’ and how those who have sex outside marriage and gay people (of course) are ‘filthy, depraved and perverted’ is not, by any stretch of the imagination, ‘the good news’.

Perhaps the confusion is understandable when the Bible and God’s people™ are so muddled themselves about what ‘the good news’ actually is; God’s Kingdom arriving on Earth, as Jesus seems to have thought? Paul’s magical salvation formula? Or maybe it’s that there’s a free pass to heaven? One thing’s for sure, verbally abusing your neighbours and other strangers it isn’t. Even if street preachers justify their arrogance and rudeness by claiming they’re only conveying what (they think) the Bible says – so what? Their tawdry little book has no more authority than any other collection of ancient (or modern) fantasy, prejudice and supposition.

So, no, it’s not acceptable that hypothetical, self-appointed health experts verbally abuse strangers in the street. And as the court ruled this week, nor is it when religious zealots do the same. Passers-by and by-standers have every right to feel irritated, annoyed and offended, just as Christians would be if a group of Muslims propounded their beliefs with the same aggression, informing all and sundry how wicked they are and how they are destined to spend eternity in whatever hell Islam envisages. Nor would ‘we’re only preaching what the Qu’ran teaches’ be any justification.

But the issue isn’t only the irritation that people feel when religious extremists abuse them. It’s the one in a hundred, or whatever the percentage is, who takes them seriously, accepts the confederate’s tract, shows interest and is ultimately sucked into one of the many versions of the mind-numbing Jesus cult. Far worse than selling people magic potions, or insurance they don’t need, there is something obscene about cranks taking to the streets to recruit the gullible and unsuspecting to their (lost) cause. We wouldn’t tolerate it if it were anything other than religion, why should we accept it when it is? The prosecution of presumptuous con-artists does us all a service.