Day Two After The Fall

There was evening, and there was morning. It was the second day after Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge. The disgraced man and woman have left the garden, but the repercussion of their sin still remains.

Wolves, lions, bears, sharks, and tyrannosaurs convulse in pain. Their teeth are morphing from flat to sharp. Their intestines are spontaneously shrinking, and their stomaches have suddenly begun secreting more acidic enzymes to help digest their new diet.

A bee flies to its favorite flower, which now closes down upon it with brand new jaws. A rabbit eats its favorite berry, which now poisons it. All through out the animal kingdom, once-benign bacteria and viruses are now causing a previously-unknown phenomenon called “disease”.

The very Earth itself is changing. The surface cracks, and regions along the edges will now be subject to earthquakes. The water cycle, which previously only wrought gentle, sustaining rains, will now generate hurricanes and tornadoes.

These worldwide effects are all supposedly caused by one man and one woman eating the wrong fruit. This single sin is said to impact all of creation, and yet the Bible does not describe a mechanism for how sin would interact with the world to create these changes. We have a cause, and we have an effect, but we have no connection between them.

Moreover, the Bible does not indicate why these changes would even follow from the first sin. Why doesn’t the fall of man only affect man? Paul says in Romans that “creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it” (8:20), but why was creation as a whole subjected to any consequences? Did the wolves sin? Did the bee disobey? Did the rabbit offend God’s honor?

God set this system up. If the rule is that sin affects all of creation, that’s his rule. If “creation was subjected to futility,” God appears to be “him who subjected it.” We’re left with a Genesis account that appears nonsensical enough that you should doubt it, but casts doubt on God’s goodness even if you believe.

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God the Delinquent Dad

The Bible frequently refers to God by using human titles: King of Kings, the Good Shepherd, and so forth. No title is more ubiquitous, however, than God the Father. According to the Bible, we are the children of a loving Heavenly Father, but how does God compare to a responsible human parent?

Sometimes parents need to discipline their children to train them in proper behavior and help them grow in moral character. However, the discipline must be proportional to the offense, and a disproportionate response crosses the line from discipline to child abuse. If your child calls their sibling a nasty name, do you give them a time out, or do you exile them from your house for the rest of their lives? Which one sounds more like what God does with us? No parent worth emulating would torture their child for the remainder of their earthly life, after the opportunity to grow has long passed, for a first offense.

Discipline can be seen as a temporary suffering for a greater good, and indeed most Christians view suffering as a whole in these terms. What if our pain is momentary, and God’s higher perspective allows him to see the good which will come out of it? Bringing in the father analogy, I’ve encountered multiple writers who compare it to a child getting a vaccine. They may scream and cry when the needle goes in, but as a parent, you know the fleeting pain is worth preventing a debilitating illness.

But what if you could accomplish the same goal with no pain at all? What if you were all-powerful, and instead of taking your child in for a shot, you could cast a ward over them to inoculate them from all disease? Why would you not take this option? At that point, if you still have your child vaccinated, you are actually the one introducing undue suffering into their life.

How then is God not a monster for allowing so much suffering in the world when he has the power to prevent all of it? It’s problematic enough to introduce unnecessary suffering into our finite lives on Earth, but what about our eternal fates? How many would be going to hell since the incomprehensibility of suffering has caused them to reject God? Why would God introduce an arbitrary impediment to belief?

“But God wants us to come to him freely! It’s not a free decision unless the option is there to choose otherwise!” Okay, how does God the Father handle this?

God is not a helicopter parent. We all hate parents like this, and so we may be glad God doesn’t obsessively try and control every aspect of our lives. That said, going all the way in the opposite direction is problematic as well! Good parents don’t let their children do whatever they want, especially when they want to do something that puts themselves at risk.

Think of it this way: you’re a parent, and you’ve dealt with enough helicopter parents over the years that you know you don’t want to be like them. However, your children still act foolishly on occasion, and one day you notice that your son has gotten his hands on your gun.

What do you do? You could say to yourself, “Well, I don’t want to take the gun away from him. That’s what one of those helicopter parents would do! My son should be free to make his own decisions, even if they’re mistakes.” Or, you could take the gun away! What would a good parent do?

According to the Bible, we are staring down the barrel of an eternity in hell, and God seems content to sit back and see how everything plays out. If, as a Christian, you want to say that God actually did do something about this by sending his Son to die for our sins, I would point to this as God’s ultimate failure as a father. A good father wouldn’t let things get so out of control that the only solution was for his own son to die.

 

 

Damnation: To Infinity and Beyond!

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for ex-Christians is the idea of infinite punishment for finite crimes. The notion that a single lie, a lustful thought, or a covetous desire is enough to doom a soul to an eternity of torment seems at odds with a loving and merciful God. Christian apologists have an answer, which I usually see phrased as analogous to earthly royalty:

  1. Offenses become greater with the honor due the offended, e.g. stealing a penny from the king incurs a much greater penalty than stealing a penny from a commoner.
  2. God is due infinite honor, therefore offenses against God incur an infinite penalty.

This seems to make some intuitive sense, but the problem is that the same analogy can be used to support the exact opposite point. Doesn’t a king’s greater power and status also bring with it a greater ability to brush off minor offenses? If a peasant steals a penny from a king who has millions and millions of pennies in his coffers, and the king issues the death penalty for the offense, wouldn’t the king be considered a tyrant? Or, more appropriate to the Christian God, if a peasant lusts after a woman, or tells a white lie to his neighbor, or covets another man’s fancy hat, must he pay the ultimate price?

If you want to use the royalty analogy and claim God has infinitely greater honor than an earthly king, one should also be able to say that God also has an infinitely greater capacity to forgive. The Bible itself even gives examples of rulers who deliberately set aside their disciplinary powers and instead offered clemency. Did Joseph use his authority over Egypt to exact revenge on his brothers, who sold him into slavery, or did he extend an olive branch? Upon becoming king, did David exterminate the line of Saul, who made multiple attempts on his life, or did he seek out Saul’s grandson and grant him Saul’s lands?

What lesson are we to glean from these stories? In Sunday school, these stories were used to demonstrate that there is no transgression too great to be forgiven. But isn’t this the opposite of how God acts? The Bible’s own models of magnanimous rulers make God look like a divine dictator by comparison.

Christmas Isn’t Logical, and For Once I Don’t Care

Even the most rational, relentlessly logical people have their moments of weakness. This month, I’ve been struggling a bit with my enjoyment of Christmas. This time of year has certainly been secularized to a large extent (the “war on Christmas” has seen much success), but I’m still not sure if my atheism should impact how I have traditionally celebrated the season.

Is it wrong to enjoy carols about the birth of Jesus while arguing that the birth narratives are wholly contradictory? Is it problematic to elucidate the merits of critical thinking and reason while singing about flying reindeer and magical snowmen?

I don’t know! I’m still new to this whole atheism business. Like it or not, my upbringing is part of who I am, and if that’s left me sentimental for Christmases past, is it necessary for me to deny this? Can I permit myself just a bit of nostalgic nonsense?

I will probably watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and quote Linus’ scripture monologue from memory, while acknowledging that it’s bullshit. I will listen to carols about Santa Claus and Jesus alike, even as I know they’re mythology. I will enjoy one time of year when people feel compelled to be generous and thoughtful, even if it’s for fundamentally flawed reasons.

I don’t even really care if a cashier wishes me a non-inclusive “Merry Christmas!” I might even say “Merry Christmas” in return! Does this make me a bad atheist? Do I need to turn in my badge?

I suppose there’s a time and place to raise objections, and I’m not exactly sure yet where to draw that line. My brain tells me that we atheists must vigilantly stand against every religious encroachment, no matter how small, but my gut tells me that it may not be worth looking like a stodgy asshole during the one time of year when people are actually being pleasant to each other.

Is this me admitting a potential flaw in my own thinking? Hallelujah, it’s a Christmas miracle!

Book Review: Unbelievable?

I really like the idea of Justin Brierley’s podcast “Unbelievable?” Bringing together opposing viewpoints for reasonable discussion is exactly what we do in the Atheist Christian Book Club, so when we read Brierley’s book, also titled Unbelievable?, I felt legitimately optimistic. Surely Brierley’s ten years of mediating between theists and atheists would refine his own beliefs, weeding out the weakest arguments and leaving only the sturdiest pillars of faith for his readers to consider. Sadly, I found that Brierley’s arguments were oddly focused on unquantifiable inklings and hunches, and not enough on hard evidence.

A big theme of Unbelievable? is what I call the argument from “there’s just got to be more!” I’m sure there’s a more formal name for this fallacy, but Brierley continually assumes that, because mankind searches for a higher power or a greater purpose, this indicates there is a power or purpose to be found. In chapter 2, Brierley says that, despite scientific discoveries regarding human origins, he “can’t escape a conviction that the order, elegance, and majesty of the universe and our existence within it is crying out for an explanation beyond itself.” He quotes a psalm where David stands in awe of the vastness of the universe, but rather than being humbled by mankind’s seeming insignificance on the cosmic scale, Brierley promotes David’s “sense of purpose” and “belief that he was made in God’s image” – as if believing it makes it so.

Some of Brierley’s support for his faith comes from feelings so vague they could be used to prop up almost any belief. He recounts the stories of people who found God in pop music and poetry, rainbows and romance. He treats childbirth, one of the most well-studied areas of medicine, as pure magic. Has no one pointed out to Brierley that, even if we grant his “evidence”, they don’t point to any particular religious persuasion, or perhaps not even to God at all?

At times Brierley shows plain, unadorned ignorance, presenting fallacious arguments and patent untruths that I can’t believe have gone ten years without being corrected. He claims that the second law of thermodynamics would inhibit evolution, ignoring that the Earth is not a closed system so the law does not apply. He seems to believe that anything that provides hope is good by default, but he doesn’t make the connection that not everything that provides hope is true. He adds “legend” to C.S. Lewis’ “liar, lunatic, Lord” trilemma, but he applies this only to mythicism, never addressing the idea that Jesus’ exploits could have grown legendary after his death. At one point, in two sentences Brierley manages to confuse weak and strong atheism and assert quantity over quality for theistic arguments:

Atheism … has an overall much shorter list of arguments of its own in favour of a naturalistic worldview, the prime one being the argument from suffering.

In this respect, I’ve often felt that the weight of arguments in favour of theism is frequently underappreciated by sceptics. They may dispute their validity, but the preponderance of arguments tips the scales towards belief in God.

It’s confounding statements like this that make me lose any respect I may have had for Brierley at the outset. He touts his impartial debate moderation, and this may be the case, but his book shows all the confirmation bias and bad-faith arguments I’ve come to expect from apologetic authors.

Free Will Isn’t Free

You get up on a Saturday morning, get dressed, and throw open the front door. How are you going to spend your day? You can keep things small and routine: visit a friend, go shopping, watch TV. You might also do something epic: take a spontaneous road trip, withdraw your savings and give it to the homeless, start that novel you’ve been talking about for years. The possibilities are seemingly endless!

But they aren’t endless. There are somethings that you are simply not allowed to do, at least not legally or easily. You can’t throw hand grenades at pedestrians. You can’t declare yourself a police officer and start fighting crime. You can’t drive your car onto an airport tarmac.

Is your “free will” restricted by not having every theoretical activity available to you? Perhaps, but is this really a problem? We generally agree as a civilization that, as a whole, we’re better off if individuals don’t have certain options on the table. We might argue about what those options are, but few advocate anarchy as the ideal state of affairs.

Now let’s get into a specific example. Let’s say you’re a young man with a history of violence, and you really have it out for your mother-in-law. You decide to spend your day of endless possibility by going to her church and shooting up the place.

Would anyone have a problem if this man wasn’t given this particular option? If God placed an invisible wall around the church, preventing the man from entering or firing through, would we be any worse off? Indeed, wouldn’t this in fact be a powerful testimony of God’s protection? Imagine if someone got a video of a gun-wielding madman smacking into absolutely nothing!

Instead, in the aftermath of yet another gun massacre, we are forced to assume that God must have his reasons for not interfering – just like in Columbine, Paducah, Killeen, Austin, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Orlando, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, Charleston… and on and on.

 

God Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

This post will be more of an emotional argument than I generally try to employ, but I’ve decided to take a page from the Christian playbook and prey on the victims of a recent tragedy.

The Sutherland Springs church shooting was, on the one hand, yet another in a string of killing sprees that has become such a depressingly mundane part of American life. Not even churches are immune from this kind of tragedy, as we already know from the events in Charleston two years ago.

But aren’t Christians supposed to be special? Isn’t God supposed to be “a very present help in trouble“? What happened to the David’s God, of whom the king declared:

“The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation,
my stronghold and my refuge,
my savior; you save me from violence.” (2 Samuel 22:2-3)

“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name.
When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.” (Psalm 91:14-16)

“The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.” (Psalm 121:5,7)

What reassurance is a believer supposed to take from these passages? Why does God include them in his Word if he doesn’t intend to follow through?

If your God lets a deranged maniac waltz into his own house, where he is supposedly present, and gun down his own faithful, not even sparing children – at what point do you consider the possibility that he isn’t really there? Surely if there was ever a time for God to demonstrate his awesome power, it would be in the face of a disturbed man hell-bent on showering his holy place with the blood of his followers.

How will these people go back and worship God in the same place where he failed to protect their family and friends? How will the pastor, whose own daughter was among the deceased, get up and preach about God’s love and compassion?

How would you handle this failure on the part of anyone else? If your security guard allows a robbery to happen, you fire him! If your doctor fails to diagnose an illness, you get a new one! Or do you convince yourself, against the weight of evidence, that these are the best individuals for their respective jobs, to the point of recommending them to those around you?