Atheists Do Love to Sin – But There’s A Catch

For some reason, I’ve recently encountered multiple unaffiliated Christians making the same obnoxious claim about atheists. “See, all atheists secretly believe in God — they just choose to deny him because they want to remain in their sinful ways!” In order to make this statement, a believer must dismiss all atheists who found errors and contradictions in the Bible, or who have never had any supernatural experiences, or fail to see God react to human suffering, or see no logical reason to think any god exists, or who were raised without faith and just never changed — you see my point. So where did these believers even get such a crazy idea?

Romans 1:18-32 has Paul making a few broad claims about what he calls “unrighteous” individuals. First, they are well aware of God’s righteous nature; not only has “God shown it to them” (v. 19), but it has been revealed through creation, “clearly perceived…in the things that have been made” (v. 20). Are the unrighteous ignorant according to Paul? No, they actively “suppress the truth” (v. 19), and when it comes to belief in God, “they are without excuse” (v. 20).

Second, these individuals aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are. (I’m sure some Christians love this part.) “Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (v. 22), and so “their foolish hearts were darkened” (v. 21). It’s easy to make the connection to the oft-quoted psalmist writing “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (Psalm 14:1).

Third, God has written off these people, allowing them to follow their base instincts like feral animals. Paul repeatedly states that God “gave them up”: to “impurity” (v. 24), to “dishonorable passions” (v. 26), to “a debased mind” (v. 28). As if he hadn’t already made himself clear, Paul concludes this section by reiterating that these wicked people know exactly what they’re doing:

Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (v. 32)

So that settles it, right? Well, no. Surprisingly, a 2000-year-old book speaking in vast generalizations may not have captured the true motives of each individual non-believer.

To Paul’s first point, it’s apparently quite easy to look at the majesty of creation and not see the Christian god in any of it. For the last hundred thousand years, mankind has studied nature and seen all kinds of gods that are not Jehovah. Even though the Bible asserts that “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1), civilizations throughout the millennia have gazed upon the night sky and seen a wide variety of pantheons represented, from Egyptian to Greek to Chinese and beyond. Modern astronomy has opened our eyes to the vast wonders of the universe without any inherent appeal to a deity.

Paul’s second point boils down to “You think you’re so smart!” Foolishness is by no means the proprietary domain of atheism. A Christian can declare, “Atheists are fools for not believing!” just as much as an atheist can say, “Christians are fools for believing!” Name-calling is no substitute for rational debate. I’d encourage both sides to give the other a chance to support their beliefs before we start dropping F-bombs.

If I were a Christian, I’d have deep misgivings about Paul’s third point. Imagine the implications of a God that gives up on people! Why would a loving god with the power to change anyone’s heart ever decide not to do so? Are some people just not worth it to him?

Christians, you know this can’t be the case. Haven’t you ever had a speaker at your church give an epic testimony of being lost in a quagmire of drugs, sex, or crime, only to be saved by the grace of God? If God didn’t write off Jeffrey Dahmer, David Berkowitz, or Nicky Cruz, why would he write off anyone?

So if the idea that “atheists just want to sin” has only dubious scriptural credentials, why does it remain so persistent? Is there any real-world support?

Here I must divulge a little trade secret: not all atheists have good reasons for rejecting God! I’m sure there are atheists who grew up in restrictive Christian households and, after seeing how much fun the rest of the world was having, decided “I want some of that!” So they rebel, ditch church, and go have themselves a good time.

However, pretending that all atheists reject Christianity for these reasons is just an excuse for believers to disengage. It’s way easier to reduce complex motivations to digestible stereotypes, and simpler to spout well-worn platitudes than wrestle with a tough argument.

I won’t lie, I enjoy being able to do certain things that were verboten as a believer. I drink with friends, I watch R-rated movies, and I still get the same rebellious glee from swearing as an nine-year-old who just discovered the word “ass”. But did I reject Christianity just so I could say “hell” all day long? Hell no!

Look at it this way: saying “atheists secretly believe but just want to sin” is like saying “Christians secretly don’t believe but just want hope in the face of suffering.” Sure, reassurance in times of trouble is a useful side benefit, but it may not necessarily be one’s main impetus for joining the church.

And if your main view of atheists is “they love to sin”, I’ve got bad new for you. Christians love to sin, too! They just take a break on Sunday mornings.

 

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Ted Cruz is God’s Tool

You know that old joke about the Christian trapped in rising flood waters, faithful and confident that God will save them? A rowboat comes by, then another boat, then a helicopter hovers overhead, and each time the Christian refuses rescue, saying “God will save me!” In the end, the Christian dies and goes to heaven, and on arriving they ask God, “I prayed and prayed, why didn’t you save me?” To which God replies, “What are you talking about? I sent two boats and a helicopter!”

I was reminded of this joke when reading the usual spate of “thoughts and prayers” messages from Texas’ Republican leadership. I’ve posted before about the uselessness of prayer and God’s seeming indifference to our country’s mass shooting epidemic, but something occurred to me this week that may sound unusual coming from an atheist: what if God isn’t to blame?

I focus on my state’s own Senator Ted Cruz in this situation for a few reasons. For one thing, he happens to be up for reelection this year. For another, he is cartoonishly pro-gun. He is also at the forefront of the Texas Thoughts and Prayers Battalion after every single goddamn mass shooting.

I’m not saying Christians shouldn’t pray for God’s help in the wake of tragedy – it’d be pretty inconsistent and worrisome if they didn’t. But here’s a thought to add to your prayer: what if God has actually provided help in the person of Ted Cruz, but Cruz has somehow completely missed God’s calling in this area? What if Cruz goes to heaven and asks God, “Why didn’t you answer my prayers to stop mass shootings?” and God says, “That’s why you were elected to the Senate! I made you my instrument to enact gun control legislation, to promote background checks and restrict dangerous weapons. You could have saved hundreds of lives – why didn’t you ever try doing something?”

Feel free to substitute your own senators or representatives into this scenario as well. If they are unwilling or unable to use their legislative power to help prevent senseless tragedies, perhaps it’s time to elect someone who will.

Photo: Gage Skidmore

Don’t Waste Precious Air on Prayer

Photo by Garon Piceli from Pexels

The Lord’s Prayer is supposed to be Jesus’ model for how his followers should approach God, but if we compare it with God’s nature according to the Bible, there’s no reason to think prayer would actually change anything in the real world.

Why would you pray that God’s kingdom come and his will be done? Could anything possibly stop God’s intentions from being accomplished?

Why would you pray for your daily bread? What kind of loving Heavenly Father doesn’t care for his children’s basic survival? In the same chapter as the Lord’s Prayer, aren’t believers also told not to worry about what they will eat or drink?

Why ask for God’s forgiveness? If God wasn’t already planning on forgiving you, would your feeble supplications change his holy mind?

Why ask not to be led into temptation? I thought it was Satan tempts people – are you telling me God does?

Why ask to be delivered from evil? Wouldn’t a loving God do this without being asked?

Even beyond the Lord’s Prayer, it makes no sense to pray about events from one’s daily life. If that prayer involves the actions or decisions of another person, God could not intervene without violating their free will. For instance, you can’t pray to get that new job without implying that God must work some influence on the hiring manager. You can’t pray for a safe commute without thinking God will nudge some otherwise heinous drivers out of your way.

If that prayer involves the natural world, we already know that God has ceded control over that area. Otherwise, you must believe in a God that makes sure your kid’s soccer game isn’t rained out but doesn’t lift a finger to prevent Hurricane Katrina.

At most, you might pray for God to change your own individual attitudes or shortcomings. However, if you’re self-aware enough to even ask for such things, you’re also self-aware enough to never be sure if it’s God that made the change or if you manifested the change yourself.

Book Review: The Language of God

When I was a believer, I would have been scandalized by someone like Francis Collins. A Christian… who’s okay with evolution?? Burn the heretic! I now know that the truth doesn’t have lines so clearly drawn, and that’s where The Language of God comes into play. Collins, a geneticist and head of the Human Genome Project, attempts to serve as a bridge between science and faith, showing both believers and atheists there is merit to the other side. Does he succeed as a peacemaker? Is the long war finally over?

Let’s get the niceties out of the way first – and yes, there are positive things to say about Francis Collins! Overall, The Language of God is a very readable text. Collins brings in complicated subjects like cosmology and genetics and makes them understandable to the layperson. Even if a reader disagrees with the conclusions Collins draws from certain arguments, it won’t be because they didn’t know what he was talking about.

Collins lives up to his scientific credentials by acknowledging the consensus about the age of the earth and evolution by natural selection. He denies any scientific “conspiracy” suppressing creationism by pointing out that, if anything, scientists are invigorated by new ideas that challenge the existing paradigm, and these ideas succeed or fail on their own merits, not from science’s “atheistic bias”.

Collins takes his fellow believers to task for being dismissive or ignorant of modern science. Astutely, he points out that young people who discover the evidence for evolution after only learning creationism will be led to question other teachings – including the foundations of their Christian faith. He goes back as far as Augustine to show that a literal creationist view of Genesis is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of Christianity.

So where does Collins’ faith enter the picture? The Language of God is bookended by the idea of moral law. Collins does not believe naturalism can explain a “higher standard” of human behavior, noting that altruism “cannot be accounted for by the drive of individual selfish genes to perpetuate themselves.” I’ll let Dawkins debate Collins on this point, but I do think that Collins doesn’t give enough credence to the advantages of altruism on the population level. Surely Collins would acknowledge that humanity flourishes when we all work together – his Human Genome Project would certainly not have been successful without his team setting aside their own individual objectives for a common goal. While Collins believes that the evolutionary impetus leads to tribalism instead of altruism, he must acknowledge that the innumerable denominations of Christianity indicate that religion suffers the same difficulty.

Collins also disagrees with claims that mankind created God as a form of “wish fulfillment”, as he doesn’t think the harsh and strictly just God of the Bible is the type that people would create from whole cloth. But aren’t the vindication of the faithful and an eternity of heavenly bliss exactly why people find Christianity so appealing? More broadly, Collins contradicts himself in a matter of paragraphs by proposing that a universal human longing for God points to an object of that longing. Somehow, Collins doesn’t think the idea of a God “fulfilling” some universal “wish” is an example of “wish fulfillment.” Which came first: the longing or the longed-for?

Collins encounters the same pitfalls as other apologists when addressing the issue of human suffering. He recounts the harrowing ordeal of his daughter’s sexual assault and his own struggle to reconcile his faith with this very personal evil. Collins proposes two reasons why God may have allowed this horrible event to occur. For himself, he believes he now understands that he cannot protect his children from all pain and suffering, and he must entrust them to God. For his daughter, he notes that this experience has allowed her to be a source of counsel and comfort for other women who are dealing with the same issues.

I’m glad Collins and his daughter have found ways to cope with their trauma, but are outsiders going to find these solutions satisfactory? For Collins’ daughter, if the only purpose of suffering is to be able to help future sufferers, wouldn’t it be great if there was some all-powerful being with the ability to end the cycle of suffering permanently? And how is Collins comforted by the idea of his daughter being protected by the same God who fail to prevent the original assault? How many second chances would you give a babysitter who let your child be harmed under their care? Collins precedes his explanation with so many “if” statements he almost seems to be losing confidence himself:

Consider this: if the most important decision we are to make on this earth is a decision about belief, and if the most important relationship we are to develop on this earth is a relationship with God, and if our existence as spiritual creatures is not limited to what we can know and observe during our earthly lifetime, then human sufferings take on a wholly new context.

Emphasis mine, but that’s a lot of conditions for your grand rationalization of human suffering! You’d better be damn sure your God is real, because if our existence is limited to our earthly lifetime, and if our most important relationships are with our loved ones and not with God, you may have wasted your life devoting yourself to a cosmic teddy bear.

These “if” states pop up throughout the book, and they only serve to undermine Collins’ credibility. When addressing the fine-tuning argument, Collins claims that if an intelligent Creator set off the Big Bang, then the unlikely fine-tuning of the universe falls into place. Collins also notes that miracles are not an issue for the theist scientist, because if a being exists outside of nature, then there’s no conflict in positing that this being could make miracles happen.

By making these claims, Collins has now provided an explanation for literally any phenomenon one wants to explore. But Collins has already shown a more naturalistic bent than many Christians, so as a scientist, where does he draw the line? When does he stop looking for naturalistic explanations and accept that “God did it”? Collins never addresses this.

Moreover, Collins’ rationale can be used to support more than just Christianity. If Allah is the one true god, and if Muhammad is his prophet, then of course Muhammad could split the moon in two! How does Collins sort through the supernatural claims of other religions to arrive at Christianity? This is never addressed either.

Even Collins’ stance on theistic evolution (or as he rebrands it, “BioLogos”) fails when held up to scrutiny. Collins is clearly familiar with the “god of the gaps” fallacy as he applies it to intelligent design, but he vehemently denies that theistic evolution falls into the same trap. He weasels his way out by claiming that his ideas are “not intended as a scientific theory” and questions like “How did the universe get here?” and “What is the meaning of life?” are not answerable by science. However, the first question is absolutely the domain of science, and the second is not answered by theistic evolution anyway, so where does that leave Collins? If “BioLogos” is not a scientific theory, perhaps he should not spend an entire book using science to defend his views.

While I obviously have my issues with a lot of Collins’ writing, I must emphasize that I haven’t addressed the hefty chunk of The Language of God where Collins, as a scientist, simply explains the evidence for various ideas that may be controversial to Christians but not to scientists. I think The Language of God could be a good book to give that anti-science family member to show that science and God don’t necessarily conflict. However, because of its various apologetic issues, I hope this book would not be the last word on the subject, but that it would ultimately serve as a springboard into further inquiry.

So You Think You Know Easter

 

      1. Why was Jesus’ particular tomb chosen?
        • It belonged to Joseph of Arimathea
        • It happened to be close by
      2. Was the tomb sealed when the women arrived?
        • Yes
        • No
      3. Who did the women meet at the tomb?
        • One man
        • Two men
        • One angel
        • Two angels
      4. Did the women fetch the disciples before or after encountering the men/angels?
        • Before
        • After
        • Trick question – they fled in terror and told nobody
      5. Where did Jesus first appear to the disciples after his resurrection?
        • On a mountain
        • Indoors/seated at a table
        • In Jerusalem (location unknown)
      6. Where did Jesus ascend into heaven?
        • Jerusalem
        • Bethany

References:

  1. Matthew 27:60, John 19:42
  2. Matthew 28:1-2 (Yes), Mark 16:3-4 (No), Luke 24:2 (No), John 20:1 (No)
  3. Mark 16:5 (One man), Luke 24:4 (Two men), Matthew 24:2-3 (One angel), John 20:12 (Two angels)
  4. John 20 (Before), Matthew 28 (After), Luke 24 (After), Mark 16 (Trick question – remember, verses 9-20 are a later addition!)
  5. Matthew 28:16 (On a mountain), John 20:19 (Indoors), Mark 16:14 (Seated at a table), Luke 24:33-36 (In Jerusalem)
  6. Acts 1:4-9 (Jerusalem), Luke 24:50-53 (Bethany)

Christian Music Retrospective, aka Abstinence is the New Sex

Welcome to part 2 of a ?-part series where I make peace with the Christian songs that prevented me from discovering Nirvana until 2002.

Superchick, “Barlow Girl”

We met these sisters Barlow’s their last name
Ordinary girls they don’t live in the fast lane
They don’t rate with the guys that score
Cause they don’t flaunt what the boys want more

Christian teenagers have it rough. When you’re being told your natural hormones are simultaneously a gift from God and a gateway for Satan, sometimes your trendy Ex-Masturbator T-shirt just isn’t enough to stem the tide. Thankfully, groups like Superchick are there to remind you that abstinence is, like, totally cool and stuff.

They don’t date they won’t date
They wanna see how they’re gonna grow up
Who they’re gonna be
But in the meantime they might feel unloved
When all the girls around them are hooking up

As an official representative of Boys, I can confirm that dating leads inevitably to the mortal sins of mixtapes and Non-Committal Make-Outs (aka NCMO – thanks, Christian college!).

All the boys in the band want a valentine from a Barlow Girl
Boys think they’re the bomb
Cause they remind them of their mom

Freudian vibes aside, if I were using the Mom Standard to rank women, then I’d be ensuring any potential dating partner has her casserole game on point.

No girl should feel she has to trade
Her body for love or be an old maid
And yes there are guys who are willing to wait
Ask a Barlow girl on her wedding day

Credit where credit’s due, it’s not the worst idea to remind teenagers that high school relationships don’t really matter in the long run (CW dramas notwithstanding), but the issue is always presented as if there’s no happy medium between chastity and promiscuity. Why do millions of Christian teens think their only options are complete suppression of their sexuality and wanton indulgence of it? It’s this kind of thinking that leads to abstinence-only education, and the shortcomings thereof.

Maybe instead of deceiving them, we try giving teenagers the information they need to make wise choices regarding sex. If they decide on their own that it’s not worth the risk, good for them! But if they decide to have safe sex with a steady boyfriend or girlfriend, should they be threatened with the same hellfire as a mass murderer?

See also: Rebecca St. James, “Wait”

4Him, “Can’t Get Past the Evidence”

You broke into this world of mine
Stole my heart, you robbed me blind
While I wasn’t looking at all,
Without a warning or a sign,
It seems You caught me by surprise
Now I know the reason why Love is the alibi

As an erstwhile apologist, I appreciate it when Christians argue from evidence, not from gut feelings or “faith.” Even if their evidence is faulty, at least they’re coming at the God question from a logical foundation. So when the extremely 90’s-named 4Him declares that they “can’t get past the evidence,” they must be talking about something solid, something that will put those know-it-all atheists in their place, right? Let’s find out!

This particular song takes the novel angle of describing God with criminal metaphors. In this scenario, I’m not sure what love is supposed to be an alibi for. “No, you see I couldn’t have been at the scene of the burglary, I was in Todd’s heart the whole time!”

And I can’t get past the evidence,
I can’t get past the proof,
I can’t get past the evidence
It’s impossible to do
I can’t get past the evidence
And I can’t deny the truth
I can’t get past the evidence of you

The chorus makes it clear: mountains of evidence point to the existence of God. Will 4Him give us any examples? I sure hope so!

We look for pieces on the way
To fix the puzzle of this place
Is there an equation to life?
But in the midst of every day
There’s a clue there is a trace
A remnant of love remains
I’m ready to rest my case

You see, science thinks it knows everything with its fancy “experimentation” and “figuring stuff out,” but can it explain LUUUVV?? (Insert mic drop here.)

Beyond the shadow of a doubt
I see the light
I’m a victim of a love I can’t deny
I’ll be the first to testify,
That I can’t get past the evidence of You

More on love here, but also another crime comparison. If one is a “victim” of love, does that make love a crime? Are my parents love criminals? If God is love, and love is crime, then is God crime itself? The math checks out.

And I can’t get past the evidence,
I can’t get past the proof,
I can’t get past the evidence
It’s impossible to do
I can’t get past the evidence
And I can’t deny the truth
I can’t get past the evidence of you

I’ll say this: while I don’t think the existence of a concept of love is evidence in God’s favor, it’s probably a more interesting subject for a song than, say, the cosmological argument. That said, if William Lane Craig ever dropped an album, I’d Spotify that in a heartbeat.

Book Review: There Is a God

Christians love themselves a good “get.” Whenever a notorious celebrity or outspoken atheist converts to the faith, from Alice Cooper to Jeffery Dahmer, believers point to them as examples of the life-changing power of Christ. Antony Flew is one such name that I’ve seen dropped multiple times in Christian apologetic texts, podcasts, and YouTube videos. Flew was a well-known atheist writer and debater for decades, but his 2007 book There Is a God claims that all it took to become a theist was obeying the Platonic maxim to “follow the argument wherever it leads.” So what arguments were responsible for Flew’s famous change of heart?

Flew is a philosopher by trade, and he understandably views the God question through this lens. However, when it comes to other fields of study, Flew behaves like a child who hasn’t learned to share; he demands these other fields respect the domain of philosophy while simultaneously using philosophy to encroach on those fields.

Early in the book, Flew sets ground rules for scientists who wish to engage in philosophy, declaring that “a scientist who speaks as a philosopher will have to furnish a philosophical case.” This is a fine sentiment on its own, but Flew doesn’t seem to understand when it is appropriate to speak as a scientist and not a philosopher. For instance, Flew does not believe that origin of life questions can be answered by life science:

How can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with intrinsic ends, self-replication capabilities, and “coded chemistry”? Here we are not dealing with biology, but an entirely different category of problem.

This error in categorization leads Flew to to believe we have a “reason for doubting that it is possible to account for existent life-forms in purely materialistic terms”. He goes on to quote a number of scientists who acknowledge (honestly) that we don’t know how life arose on this planet, and concludes that the “only satisfactory explanation” is an intelligent designer. Sometime, despite being a neophyte theist, Flew has already mastered the “science doesn’t know, therefore God” cliché.

Flew employs the same cliché when discussing the idea of the multiverse. Once again, Flew points to the lack of scientific consensus on this issue as support for theism. However, his critique that multiverse theory “explains everything and yet nothing” rings hollow when “God did it” theory has the same shortcoming.

This isn’t the only time Flew demonstrates a knack for classic apologetic mistakes. He masterfully assaults the strawman of the scientist with the atheistic bias, decrying the “dogmatic atheism” of scientists trying to “preserve the non-theistic status quo.” Flew’s collaborator, Roy Abraham Varghese, ups the rhetoric in the book’s first appendix by claiming that “a deliberate refusal to ‘look’ is responsible for atheism of any variety.” Has Varghese never encountered atheists like myself who have searched for God and found nothing?

Flew is happy to quote-mine scientists when they support his views, but he has some basic misunderstandings on key scientific questions. He has bought wholesale into the “monkeys with typewriters will never randomly produce Shakespeare” argument against evolution, ignoring the point that natural selection is not as random as he thinks.

Additionally, several of Flew’s arguments boil down to “laws require a Lawgiver,” a circular argument that cannot be used as evidence for said Lawgiver. Flew frequently uses loaded language to point towards a creator god he has yet to demonstrate. He asks, “Who wrote the laws of the nature?” as if we already know there is a “who” to write them. He claims that “if you accept the fact that there are laws,” you must then ask the question, “What agent (or agents) brings this about?” Once again, when did we establish that there is, in fact, an agent who brings anything about?

Flew then makes a leap in quoting Swinburne to assert a “personal God with the traditional properties” must be said Lawgiver. This is worth noting, because it’s one of the few places in the book where Flew comes off as anything other than a deist. Flew never publicly declared himself a Christian, so if you are a Christian reading this book looking for a dramatic conversion story, you will be disappointed in that regard. Flew does admit that “the Christian religion is the one religion that most clearly deserves to be honored and respected,” but he outsources the heavy apologetic lifting to N.T. Wright in the second appendix.

I finished There Is a God with a base level of respect for Antony Flew. He has, if nothing else, walked the walk while risking his livelihood and academic reputation. I’ve made the same journey, albeit in the opposite direction, and while I disagree with Flew’s conclusions, I admire his intellectual honesty more than I do, for instance, Sean McDowell, the apologist son of an apologist who appears to simply be following in the family business. That said, I believe Flew’s lofty credentials do not counterbalance the faulty arguments and misinterpreted evidence that ultimately lead to his change of heart.