UU diary, part 4: closing the loop

This follow-up post is long overdue. It’s been almost a year since I attended a delightful pot-luck dinner hosted by a very nice couple who are active members of the Unitarian-Universalist church I tried out in 2012 (and wrote about here, here, and here).

Eventually, most of the dinner guests left, and I was free to talk candidly with the church’s pastor, my hosts, and a few others. I told the pastor I would probably not be attending the UU church regularly. My explanation went something like this:

The UU church seems to be made up of two types: People who ‘still’ have some kind of supernatural belief and people who have lost all supernatural belief. The sermons, songs, and literature use some religious language, but it feels like lip service — like no one really thinks (for example) that a personal god is listening to the prayers that are said there.

It seems clear that people go to UU churches to shed or moderate whatever supernatural beliefs they grew up with, not to maintain supernatural beliefs and certainly not to acquire more of them. So religious terms and symbols seem disingenuous and even counterproductive for the typical UU church member’s journey.

Expanding now on what I said that day:

The UU church seems to use ‘holy stuff’ to draw believers the way Christian churches since the ’70s have been using ‘worldly stuff’ (e.g., religious pop music) to draw in unbelievers. In both cases, the church seems to expect new members to eventually outgrow their affinity for whatever bait drew them in.

Seemingly inclusive statements like “Unitarian Universalism offers diverse and meaningful ways of connecting with the sacred” may not be intentionally misleading, but they are still ambiguous. The word “sacred” has a starkly different meaning for a Baptist than for an atheist; thus, as used, it’s meaningless.

In the services I attended, prayers were addressed to “God of many names.” As an unbeliever, I objected to having a prayer in the first place. And I imagined that theists in the room objected (or should have) to language that left room for “God” to mean abstractions like “moral principles” or “the Cosmos” rather than a personal being like the creator/judge/redeemer of the New Testament. To try to please everyone in such a situation is naive.

I had hoped that the UU environment would be a good place for me, my wife, and my youngest son to explore what we believe and why, but the church’s rituals and artifacts indulge traditional belief in a way that feels condescending, and I found that too distracting.  (No personal gripe with any UU church leaders or members — on the contrary, I found everyone to be very kind.)

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‘Teaching things’ in science class

In the places where intelligent design ‘theory’ is allowed to be ‘taught’ in science classes, how is it going?

I’d like to see how it really plays out. What do teachers say about ID? What can even be said about it? This is all I can come up with: “At some point, some people give up on seeking knowledge methodically and decide to content themselves with the idea that some intelligent designer ‘just did it.’ Meanwhile, there are some scientific theories about …”

People who are campaigning to have ID ‘taught’ in schools, or to ‘prevent evolution from being taught as fact,’ convey a shamefully simplistic view of what it means to teach something, and total ignorance of the active process by which real students learn. This insults students and the education profession.

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.

My quadrilemma

Here is just one simple example of the problem of evil:

On Sunday, parents and kids from my son’s Cub Scout den packed food at a place called Kids Against Hunger. Before we started work, the staff showed us a video about the cause. One statistic cited in the video was that more than half of children in Haiti die of malnutrition before the age of 15. Whether that statistic is completely accurate or not, it’s safe to say that many children die of malnutrition in Haiti through no fault of their own.

Children eating food provided via Kids Against HungerAre we supposed to believe (and tell our children!) that there is a god who cares about children in Haiti and could prevent their suffering but (for good but mysterious reasons) allows many of them to starve to death?

Clearly there is no god who cares about children in Haiti and could prevent their suffering. So here’s the quadrilemma: Is there a powerless god, an apathetic god, a powerless and apathetic god, or no god? (Answer: It doesn’t matter which. As the A-Unicornist writes, “the only thing worse than a God who does not exist is a God who might as well not exist.”)

This isn’t a recreational mental exercise. How we think about this stuff has very real consequences. For example, if we believe in a God who *could* alleviate suffering anywhere and everywhere if he really wanted to, then we must conclude that he doesn’t really want to, because the suffering is there (and always has been, in abundance). And if God himself thinks there is a good reason for people to suffer, why should we bother to help them?

Now I know what you, my dear apologist, are thinking: “People suffer *so* we can help them.” Well, that’s a shitty reason. Do you really think a benevolent god operates that way, that it’s ‘all-loving’ to allow (or cause) many people to suffer and die because *some* good will come from *some* people helping *some* of them?

“Life isn’t fair, but God is good” — this is true only if “good” means “less cruel than he could have been.”

A determinism meme

My cousin, a Christian, shared this on Facebook:

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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.

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.

What’s worse than blind faith?

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. — Hebrews 1:1 (KJV)

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Imagine that you’ve just bought a used car from a stranger. You paid the full asking price, in part because you were confident that the car had never been in an accident.

  • If, before making the deal, you checked the car’s CarFax report and found no reports of accidents, your faith in the seller was a ‘seeing faith.’ (Most accidents are reported, but not all are.)
  • If you didn’t even bother examining the CarFax report, your faith in the seller was a blind faith.
  • If you checked the CarFax report, found reports of accidents, and concluded that the reports must have been erroneous, your faith in the seller was worse than blind faith; it was a ‘seeing denial.’

The Christian Bible is full of extraordinary claims that are inconsistent with what is known through secular history, archaeology, biology, physics and other sciences. I’m not saying the claims of the Bible are not logically possible. I am saying that believing those claims amounts to a ‘seeing denial.’

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?

‘When I found you …’

In my work, I make SharePoint sites. But I’m a self-taught developer, so things break once in a while.

When something does break, I work really hard to resolve the issue. And after I’ve fixed it, the user invariably thanks me. I want to say “You’re welcome,” but that is not enough; I feel weird accepting thanks for solving a problem that I caused. So my standard reply is: “It’s always my pleasure to fix what I broke, or designed poorly to begin with.” 

In Christianity, there is this notion that God finds people in a miserable condition — depraved and doomed — and then cures and pardons them. That is the connotation of Colossians 2:13: “And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses … .”

I call that verse the “when I found you” verse because it always makes me think of the scene from The Princess Bride (1987) where Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) is dressing down his two hired thugs. To Inigo (Mandy Patinkin), he says, “When I found you, you were so slobbering drunk, you couldn’t buy brandy!”

It is ludicrous to frame the god of Christianity — the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of everything — as making his initial acquaintance with a person only after that person has sunk to a point of utter depravity all on his or her own. The Christian God doesn’t find people in a sinful and helpless state; he puts them there! He is like me in my tech support role: the problem’s creator as well as its solver.