Category Archives: Logic

Preacher: ‘Duh! God doesn’t talk to you!’

One of my friends from high school shared a link to this sermon via Facebook.

Pastor Phil Johnson

Pastor Phil Johnson

I’ve never heard a sermon quite like this. The speaker, pastor Phil Johnson, spends the first 15 minutes asserting that God does not communicate with individuals by putting words or thoughts in their heads, and ridiculing people (generally and specifically) who believe that God communicates this way.

At the 15:54 mark, Johnson says, “The very same superstition that allows Oral Roberts to believe he got a message from a giant Jesus is the same kind of belief that makes a Southern Baptist reader of [Blackaby and King’s popular Bible study series] ‘Experiencing God’ think that God is speaking directly to him.”

So yeah, anyone can see how absurd that is, right?

Then he explains (starting at the 16:16 mark, and invoking 2 Timothy 3:16-17) his view of how God does communicate: Verbally, God communicates through scripture only — “sola scriptura.” This means that God definitely communicated directly with characters in the Bible and with the writers of the Bible but definitely has not communicated directly to anyone since.

After drawing the arbitrary line of “sola scriptura,” Johnson immediately blurs it by saying (at the 17:21 mark), “beyond that, we just trust the providence of God to order our steps.” This seems to mean that God sets conditions in a way that nudges or entices people in the right direction, placing an obstacle here, clearing a path there. Well, I can still recall being a believer and puzzling over the meaning of each setback (was God telling me to stop or testing my perseverance, or was the devil or ‘the world’ persecuting me?) and each golden opportunity (was it a gift from God, temptation from Satan, or something else?).

One reason it’s tough to determine whether (and how) one’s steps are being ‘ordered’ is that the Bible cautions people against exercising their own judgment. Johnson affirms this principle: At the 19:11 mark, alluding to Proverbs 3:5, he says, “The Bible is God’s message to us. Trust it, and lean on it, and lean not to your own understanding, and especially not to whatever subjective impressions you might feel.”

Now try to follow Johnson as he ‘clarifies’ how God does and does not communicate (starting at the 19:52 mark): “Those urges and sensations that we feel are not revelation. But to whatever degree they are true at all, they are the result, the effect, of illumination — when the Holy Spirit applies the word of God to our hearts and opens our spiritual eyes to its truths. And then we need to guard carefully beyond that, against allowing our own experience or our own subjective thoughts to eclipse the authority and the certainty of the more sure word of prophecy.”

That’s right. Johnson even says the “word of prophecy” is “more sure” than “our own experience.” He reiterates this a while later (starting at the 40:44 mark): He reads 2 Peter 1:16-18, and then interjects, “Peter goes on to say that even what he heard with his own ears and what he saw with his own eyes was not as authoritative as the eternal word of God contained in scripture.” Johnson continues to verse 19, using a translation that includes the phrase “We also have a more sure word of prophecy … .”

Let that sink in. He’s saying that a person who reads in the Bible that the transfiguration of Jesus occurred has better proof of that event than the disciples who allegedly saw and heard it.

We end up with an implied hierarchy of influences, ranked as follows from most reliable to least reliable:

  1. Scripture.
  2. Personal experience (including seeing God ‘in person’ and hearing him speak ‘out loud’).
  3. The ordering of one’s steps, “illuminated” by scripture and the Holy Spirit.
  4. Personal judgment.
  5. Perceived direct communications from God.

This hierarchy is utterly illogical. For example, Johnson treats it as indisputable that God spoke directly to (or through) certain people thousands of years ago, but inconceivable that God speaks directly to (or through) anyone today.

He explains his stance (starting back at the 16:20 mark) by invoking scripture, and it really could not be explained any other way. His argument is structured as follows:

  1. The Bible, according to itself, is sufficient for instructing people on how to live.
  2. If God were to give revelations other than the Bible, it would mean the Bible is not sufficient.
  3. Therefore, God has given no revelations other than the Bible.

A classic example of “It’s true because our faith requires it to be true.”

By contrast, the two influences that are considered most reliable in the real world — personal judgment and personal experience — are treated as vastly inferior to the Bible.

It depresses me to know that Johnson has followers who embrace this hierarchy in the name of faith — rejecting empirical data and logic in favor of a recklessly assembled (and therefore disjointed and inconsistent) anthology of ancient, mostly unattributed writings.

Thanks for praying for me

… More specifically, thanks for letting me know that you are praying for me to abandon my skepticism and go back to believing in your god.

I know you are praying because you care, but the reason I’m so glad you’re doing it is because it so beautifully illustrates what is wrong with the concept of spiritual accountability to God.

Presumably, your doctrinal stance is that if I believe certain things about Jesus, I will go to heaven, and if I don’t believe those things, I will go to hell. This implies that I have inviolable control over what I believe — that I can simply will to believe something, independent of what I understand to be factually true and independent of external pressures. This is the only way that a god would be justified in holding me personally accountable for my belief or lack of belief.

If you are praying that I will believe in God again, that means that you think God can cause me to believe in him, or at least remove other external factors that prevent me from believing in him. In other words, you admit that what a person believes can be influenced by external factors — including, in some cases, divine manipulation.

If your prayer could even possibly make the difference between my believing and my not believing, then your prayer might be the deciding factor in where I spend eternity. If so, how fair is that — that my fate depends on whether you bother to pray for me?

Either external factors can influence a person’s belief in a god or they can’t. If they can, then personal spiritual accountability is out the window. If they can’t, then praying for unbelievers to become believers is futile, as are all other actions aimed at ‘converting’ them.

Thank God I’m wrong?

On my commute, I see a billboard identical to this one.

I’m not wrong, but if I were wrong and Answers in Genesis were right — that is, if the biblical god existed — how would that be good news to me?

I’m a big fan of the ‘mob mix-up’ movie plot. You know how it goes: An innocent doofus does something foolish and ends up owing money to a mob boss, and he spends the rest of the film trying to do a seemingly impossible task in order to get off the hit list.

Well, to me, the god of the Bible is like the mob boss in those movies. Before you met him, you were just living your life. But he decided you owe him something, and he’s powerful, so unless your debt is cleared somehow, you are in big trouble.

It’s considered a happy outcome — in the movie scenario or the God scenario — if the debt is simply cleared, if the protagonist merely gets back to where he was before he met the powerful being. Ah, what a relief! In a way, that’s something to be thankful for. But it’s not the powerful being who deserves the thanks, even if he lets the protagonist off the hook, because he arbitrarily imposed the debt in the first place.

Guy P. Harrison, on a recent episode of Freethought Radio, expressed the salvation paradox as follows:

What are we being saved from? We’re being saved from the god who’s also saying that he’s going to save us. … Jesus is knocking on your door, saying “I’m here to save you,” and you say “Save me from what?” and he says “From me.” Because we’re not under any threat apart from him.

The author and enforcer of morality?

I’ve been listening to a lot of debates (in podcasts), mostly about whether the Christian god (or any personal god) exists.

Here is one of the most common challenges to the atheist position: “If there is no god, where does morality come from? Who or what has the moral authority to decide what is right and what is wrong?”

And here is another common challenge: “Without God to answer to, what motivates you to be good?”

I know these challenge have been answered eloquently and convincingly by many others, but I’d still like to offer a multi-point response of my own.

1. These challenges pose a false problem, produced by sleight of hand:

Step 1: Assume the existence of a god with traits only a god can have — in this case, absolute moral authority.

Step 2: Hypothetically remove that god from existence.

Step 3: Put the burden on atheists to fill the vacancy with something else that has the same trait.

(The same technique is represented in the question: “If there is no God, what is the meaning of life?” The speaker generally has a narrow definition of “meaning” in mind — the implication is “God assigns my transcendent, sacred missions to me. Who assigns yours to you?”)

It has not even been established that we humans have or need an absolute moral authority, so questions about where it comes from are premature.

2. There is a common set of good and bad behaviors that theists and atheists acknowledge.

Giving, telling the truth, and protecting people from harm are good. Stealing, lying, and physical assault are bad. Enhancing people’s self-esteem is good; degrading it is bad. There are trade-offs, but we all have a very similar sense of what is right and wrong.

When people deviate from the common moral code, it’s often because they have adopted uniquely religious ‘moral’ hierarchies — usually entailing requirements or constraints on speech, thought, food, and sexual behavior that do not promote anyone’s well-being in any tangible way and that often work against it.

In the debates I’ve heard, when the atheist opponent points out that nonbelievers also know good from evil , the theist concedes but explains that “the law is written on everyone’s heart,” invoking Romans 2:15. In other words, we are indeed all born with an innate sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, but God put it there. At first glance, this seems no more testable than a claim that God engineered the Big Bang. However, the “written on our hearts” claim has a flaw: only the common moral code is in everyone’s heart. Everybody knows that stealing, lying, and physical assault are wrong; everybody does not ‘know’ that homosexuality, eating shellfish, and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit are wrong.

3. God, as portrayed in the Bible, acts — and commands people to act — in ways that are inconsistent with what ‘we all know’ is right. His moral expectations are not only subjective but also incoherent.

By comparison to the common moral code among humans, the biblical god’s moral code is completely without rhyme or reason — especially in the Old Testament.

  • In multiple instances, God commands his chosen people to commit genocide and take slaves, including sex slaves. (Viewed another way, he punishes the non-chosen people just for being non-chosen — something completely beyond their control and completely within God’s control.)
  • God commands Abraham to murder his son.
  • God executes one of his own Levites, Uzzah, for daring to touch the Ark of the Covenant in order to steady it.

4. Everyone is motivated by fear of repercussions.

Whether there are gods to answer to or not, people still have to deal with the natural, legal, economic and social repercussions of their actions.

5. Vicarious redemption negates fear of repercussions from God. 

If a person believes he can have any and all of his sins absolved by ‘accepting’ Jesus’s vicarious sacrifice, then he has no greater motive to be moral than a person who believes there are no gods to answer to. Once he’s been ‘saved,’ his fear of hell is dissolved. So what motivates him to be good?

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.

Berkeley’s parking racket

This is a parable in real life about the often-misplaced burden of proof concerning the existence of gods.

A few years ago, I got a parking citation notice from the City of Berkeley. It said my car had been parked on a residential street in Berkeley on a Tuesday morning during street sweeping hours. I had never parked my car on any street in Berkeley, ever. Clearly, there had been some kind of mistake.

I contested the citation in writing, saying that my car had never been parked in Berkeley, and further volunteering where it had been at the time the citation was written. My “request” was “denied” on the basis of insufficient evidence. This felt wrong to me, but I couldn’t articulate exactly why.

A short while later, I had an in-person hearing at the city’s offices. I asked my hearing officer, “How do I produce evidence that my car wasn’t in a given place at a given time?”

Missing the rhetorical nature of my question, she said, sympathetically, “Just do the best you can.” She then started suggesting ways that I might be able to show that my car had been somewhere else at the time the citation was written. I explained that I would not be able to recall, let alone prove, where my car had been at the time in question. Sometimes I drove to work; sometimes I parked at my son’s preschool, rode my kick scooter to the BART station, and took the train to work.

Eventually, I got a few preschool parents and staff members to provide written statements to the effect that they were accustomed to seeing my car in the preschool parking lot during work hours. That, apparently, was good enough for the hearing officer, and my citation was dismissed.

Happy ending, right? Wrong. To this day, I regret not insisting on a court hearing. Why? Because the city never met its burden of proof in the first place, and I missed my chance to call attention to that publicly. As I discovered after the dismissal of my citation, the notice had lacked two items of identifying information that the state vehicle code requires to confirm that the citing officer actually saw the vehicle in question.

I allowed a random city to make a random accusation against me with inadequate proof and then shift the burden of proof to me. I jumped through hoops to produce evidence to refute the accusation when I really should have forced the city to show its evidence first.

Higher standards for the omnipotent!

But what about the second assumption, that if God is omnibenevolent, then He prefers a world without evil over a world with evil? Again, such an assumption is not necessarily true. The fact is that in many cases we allow pain and suffering to occur in a person’s life in order to bring about some greater good or because we have some sufficient reason for allowing it. Every parent knows this fact. There comes a point at which a parent can no longer protect his child from every mishap; and there are other times when discipline must be inflicted on the child in order to teach him to become a mature, responsible, adult. Similarly, God may permit suffering in our lives in order to build us or to test us, or to build and test others, or to achieve some other overriding end. Thus, even though God is omnibenevolent, He might well have morally sufficient reasons for permitting pain and suffering in the world. 

— Wiiliam Lane Craig, writing on the problem of evil

Craig’s parenting analogy is seriously flawed because it suggests that God and human parents are under the same constraints.

As humans, we may be justified in sometimes allowing or causing others to suffer, but only to the extent that it is necessary to achieve a greater good — for example, to spare them (or others) worse suffering or, in some cases, to bring them (or others) some kind of reward.

For example, we allow our children to endure the pain of vaccinations in order to protect them against diseases, which can bring misery, debilitation or death.

Similarly, military recruits are subjected to mental, physical and emotional stresses in order to help them succeed and survive in combat. “More sweat in training, less blood in battle.”

As we mature, we learn to accept trade-offs as part of life — as long as they are truly necessary. We don’t get shots for diseases that don’t exist, and if there were no such thing as war, there would be no boot camps to persevere through.

Human parents can honestly tell their kids, “I wish this trade-off did not exist, but it does.”

But God designed the whole scheme, so he willed that there would be trade-offs. How could he then wish things were different?

We take it as a given that we can’t eat and drink whatever we want and still have healthy bodies. But if our bodies had been designed differently, there would be no such trade-off.

Christian apologists may claim that God withholds some pleasures from us and subjects us to some suffering now so we have the opportunity for an afterlife of extreme pleasure and absolutely no suffering. In other words, our complete happiness and our complete lack of suffering is God’s goal. However, God imposes a restriction on how we can get to that state: That extreme pleasure without suffering is only possible for those who are in a ‘consensual’ love relationship with God. If this is true, it isn’t just ‘the way it is’ — it is a condition of our existence that was imposed by God. So why does this trade-off exist? Either God needs a relationship with us — in which case our pain is for his gain — or God designed us to need a relationship with him. No matter which is the case, God willingly imposes a trade-off that should not have been necessary.

Actually, it is impossible to be human and not suffer, because suffering is simply experiencing something we don’t like. We suffer continually just by virtue of not being able to do everything that is pleasurable and not being able to avoid everything that is unpleasant. The difference between what we normally call ‘discomfort’ and what we normally call ‘suffering’ is one of degree. So basically, if God created us, he willed for us to suffer simply by making us as natural beings.

Parents and drill sergeants can’t control the external forces that make it necessary to train and ‘discipline’ those in their care. But for an omnipotent god, there are no external forces. It’s time to stop letting God off the hook and pretending his hands are tied. Is our pain for his benefit or for ours? If it’s for his benefit, then yeah, it makes sense: He is sadistic. But if it’s for our benefit, what exactly is the reward that is worth whatever kind and amount of pain we might experience?

On inerrancy of the scriptures

ScreenHunter_01 Dec. 24 08.06If those to whom the narratives of the Bible are so sacred that they are not to be handled freely as other narratives are handled, could for just one moment stand aside from their own point of view, and could realize that criticism, if it is honest criticism, must begin by looking upon the Bible just as they themselves look upon other sacred books, as something to be tested just as other books are tested, at least some of the bitterness of controversy would be done away.

There is the more need to speak plainly and sharply in this matter, because many of our religious leaders are disposed to admit the principle, while they are not willing to apply it. The Bible, they say, may contain errors. But that any particular statement is an error, they will not admit so long as there is any way, probable or improbable, in which it may be explained. Now this is not consistent, and it is not quite honest; it is pretending to treat the Bible in an impartial way, without treating it in a way that is actually impartial. When we are dealing with any other book we do not assume that its statements are true so long as there is any conceivable way in which they might be true; we balance the evidence, and then we decide for the more probable view. And we must insist that the statements of the Bible are to be accepted or rejected on just the same degree of probability or improbability which would govern us anywhere else.

— Arthur Kenyon Rogers, The Life and Teachings of Jesus: A Critical Analysis of the Sources of the Gospels, Together With a Study of the Sayings of Jesus, 1894

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.

‘Without sin’ – wait, what?

Christian salvation doctrine depends on the premise that Jesus was without sin (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22 (citing Isaiah 53:9). He is figuratively called a ‘spotless lamb’ to make the point that his death was an acceptable sacrifice.

But what does ‘without sin’ mean?

  • That he never violated the will of God? If so, it’s kind of an empty claim. Whatever God told him to do was automatically ‘not sin.’
  • That he never caused harm to anyone? It can’t mean that, because he did some harm to some people. He called the Pharisees bad names, wrecked moneychangers’ property, commandeered someone’s donkey colt, and sent a demon into someone’s herd of pigs (presumably ruining his livelihood).
  • That he was never selfish, always altruistic, in everything he did? Kind of impossible. He ate and slept when he could have been healing people, raising the dead, etc. He praised a woman for pouring perfume on him as a tribute when, to Judas’s point, it could have been sold and the money used to alleviate someone’s suffering.
  • That he always made the right moral choices? That’s problematic. Is there always exactly one right choice?

The reality is that every act, however altruistic it might be, has an opportunity cost. It’s possible to always do things that have desirable effects, but there is no act that has only desirable effects.

In the very best cases, you have to choose between one good thing and another. There are trade-offs.

Put another way, every action has a moral downside. Being more generous toward one person means being less generous toward another.

No action is inherently good, so it is logically impossible for Jesus — or anyone else — to only do things that are good, things that have no downside.

It’s possible to be ‘without sin’ only if you treat ‘sin’ as a narrow list of don’ts. This is akin to saying a TV show is ‘wholesome’ as long as it breaks no FCC rules.