Category Archives: Better explanations

A determinism meme

My cousin, a Christian, shared this on Facebook:


I found it an interesting expression of determinism, although the last phrase is kind of ambiguous and can be read as a contradiction of the rest of the statement.

The part that’s consistent with determinism is the part that acknowledges the vast, complex causal chain that lies behind a person’s every action, decision, thought, and emotion. “Something in the past created them” — or more accurately, everything in their past created them.

This view conflicts with the Christian tenet of individual accountability to God, especially with regard to ‘the big decision.’ Most Christians would say that a person’s eternal fate depends on whether he or she has chosen to believe one or more claims about Jesus. This position hinges on the ‘free will’ view: A person has a volition — a soul — that exists and makes decisions independent of the organism.

By contrast, determinism says that organisms simply process input and respond to it. How they process it is entirely dependent on genetic and environmental programming.  The organism is the person — there is no soul.

It’s the last line of the meme — “and sometimes it’s impossible to fix them” —  that may be inconsistent with determinism, depending on how it’s read.

  • The ‘free will’ interpretation is that if a person’s volition/soul (independent of the organism) is intent on being a certain way, no amount of input will have any effect.
  • The deterministic interpretation is more consistent with the rest of the meme: A person may have been programmed in such a way that overriding his or her programming would be very difficult — in practical terms, impossible.

By the way, the ‘free will’ view is hard-pressed to explain why beliefs correlate with  external factors like geography — for example, why more than 80 percent of people in Indonesia ‘choose’ to be Muslim while more than 80 percent of people in Croatia ‘choose’ to be Catholic. The deterministic view provides a satisfying explanation.


Miracles are not impressive

ImageA woman is walking with her young son on the beach when a tidal wave suddenly appears and sweeps the boy out to sea. The mother immediately falls to her knees and starts praying, “Oh Lord, please return my son to me. I will be so grateful!” A moment later, another wave brings the boy back and sets him down on the shore, completely unharmed. The mother looks up at the sky and says curtly, “He had a hat.”

This joke takes aim at those who fail to appreciate what they have received, no matter how grand or miraculous, and instead focus on what they have lost or never had.

But the mother in this joke has a valid point. If an all-powerful god would intervene to save a boy, why would he neglect to also recover the boy’s hat?

It would certainly be petty to begrudge a ‘mortal’ — such as a Coast Guard rescue swimmer — for only saving a child from drowning and failing to save his hat. But a presumably all-powerful god who does mediocre miracles deserves to be called out. And every miracle in the Bible that I can think of is mediocre — that is, much less impressive than it could be — especially when you think of it in the context of God’s supposed omnipotence.

Here are few biblical miracles that come to mind:

  • Jesus turning water into wine: Why did he need ingredients? Why not just create wine from nothing?
  • God turning Aaron’s staff into a snake to prove Moses and Aaron were speaking for God: Why didn’t God just appear to Pharaoh and speak for himself? And why did he use a ‘miracle’ that Pharaoh’s magicians were able to imitate without supernatural aid?
  • God making the sun stand still (never mind the physics) so the Israelites had more daylight hours to kill the Amorites : Why didn’t God just kill the Amorites (painlessly) and spare everyone the trauma of war?

Apologists would answer these challenges in the same way they answer the problem of evil in general — by invoking God’s ‘mysterious ways’ and his sovereignty: God could make life 100 percent pleasure, 0 percent pain, for everyone, but he opts not to do that for reasons that we cannot understand, and it is not our place to question him. (That sounds a little like what we kids used to say to each other on the playground about daredevil feats: “I can do that; I just don’t feel like it.”)

I regard the Bible as folklore and its miracle stories as fiction. So in my view, the problem of mediocre miracles has a simple and satisfying explanation: The Bible’s authors were not thinking big enough. They established ‘problem situations’ and then treated the key constraints of those situations as if they applied to God:

  • Given only water, Jesus makes wine.
  • Given only a staff, God makes a snake.
  • Given only a star and a planet, God makes a day last longer for people at certain longitudes.

Irreconcilable and not worth reconciling

ImageI challenge you to do a web search on “reconciling tragedy with God” and find one search result that adequately does that.

Find one blog post or book excerpt that explains, to your satisfaction (not its author’s satisfaction), why the suffering that humans experience every day — not just in Connecticut last Friday but everywhere all the time — is a necessary part of the “perfect will” of a god who “is love.”

Looking on the bright side is not enough. The challenge is to explain why there has to be a dark side in the first place.

The best anyone can do in this regard is to say “We can’t know God’s purpose in allowing [or, rather, designing!]  this kind of suffering.” This is a non-explanation. If a god is so sovereign and mysterious that nothing he does ever has to make sense to us, then “reconciling tragedy with God” is a pointless exercise.

Bizarrely, belief in this kind of god is no more consoling than believing in no god. Either way, there is no guarantee that you or someone you care about won’t be the next to experience unspeakable fear or pain. So what does it mean when you assert that God is “good” and “in control” and “merciful” and “never gives you more than you can handle” and “answers prayer” and “cares about his children”? The only way for these things to be true of God is for us to strip them of the meanings that they have for everyone else.

Please, for your own peace of mind, admit (or at least consider the possibility) that all the senseless anguish in the world is really senseless, that there is no divine plan that it all ties into, and that it really is completely on us to watch out for each other.

Stories of Jesus evolved!

The episodes of the Reasonable Doubts podcast aren’t being produced fast enough, so now I’m listening to ‘back issues.’

This one, titled “Which Jesus?” presents straightforward “redaction criticism” with respect to the gospels in the modern New Testament canon.

As the speaker, Jeremy Beahan, explains, the gospels are not merely inconsistent with each other. Each gospel is unique in terms of how it depicts Jesus.

  • The gospel of Mark has unique content that depicts Jesus as a misunderstood messiah.
  • The gospel of Matthew has unique content that depicts Jesus as the son of God.
  • The gospel of Luke has unique content that depicts Jesus as a rejected prophet and the savior of the world.

(Mark, Matthew and Luke are known as the synoptic gospels. There is strong evidence that Matthew is derived from Mark, and that Luke is derived from Matthew, with gaps of approximately 15 years between  editions. )

  • The gospel of John, which developed separately from the synoptic gospels, has unique content that depicts Jesus as God incarnate, “the Word of God,” “the Lamb of God,” etc.

Such discrepancies are typically shrugged off as just showing different facets of a complex person. But an objective study reveals the extent to which these depictions conflict with one another, as well as patterns in the ways that they conflict. For example, Mark shows Jesus as continually striving to keep his identity a secret, but Mark shows him as  freely declaring his identity and shows others (Jesus’ family, his disciples and even the wise men)  as acknowledging it. A person may have a ‘private side’ and a ‘public side,’ but it seems far-fetched that the same person would seek to be as famous as a governor and as anonymous as a government-protected witness.

If Mark came first and Matthew and Luke show signs of being knockoffs, then it would be reasonable to conclude that Mark is closest to the truth — however close or far that may be.

More important, the mere possibility that any of the gospels is a rewrite of an earlier gospel calls into question whether the modern Bible really must either be accepted in its entirety or be rejected in its entirety.  Does the whole Christian belief system really fall apart if one allows that some (or even all) books of the Bible may have been selected in error? If so, then I’d really like to know how the church (or, rather, the churches) got by for the first 330 years!

Hell, continued

My post early this morning may have been a little cryptic. Lemme explain. No, there is too much. Lemme sum up.

The link in that post is to an essay that explains (or, rather, demonstrates) that the popular concept of hell — as a place of eternal torment for those who reject Jesus — is not supported by the Bible.  I won’t try to boil down the essay. You should read it.

You may be asking, “Dave, if you don’t believe the Bible, why do you care what the Bible says about hell?”

Well, because some of my dearest friends and relatives do care what the Bible says. I want to spare them the grief that comes from believing that someone they love is on a path to eternal torture. If you are one of those dear Christians, you’ve seriously got to read this essay. You will sleep better for the rest of your life.



Everything you ‘know’ about hell is wrong

You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means.


Compassionate debunking

This thoughtful post from SkepticBlog praises an author/researcher for her sensitivity in helping people who claim to have encountered aliens by presenting them with a valid alternative explanation for what their senses have experienced.

It is encouraging to know that many of these people welcome the alternative explanations — they are not hell-bent on believing in aliens but have merely been unaware of any natural phenomena that could explain their experiences.