Maybe Things Just Aren’t Perfect

I formulated my recent post on morality in part to counter the Christian objection that, without a perfect moral standard, non-theistic morality is flawed and therefore worthless. Since then, I’ve observed a similar theme with the arguments of believers on a variety of topics. The claims include:

  • Christians have God as a dependable source of truth, while atheists depend on fallible human cognition which evolved for survival, not truth.
  • Christians can always rely on God in times of trouble, while atheists have no one to rely on except their own error-prone selves.
  • Creationism is a comprehensive explanation for the diversity of life on earth, while evolution is missing transitional fossils and the ultimate origin of life.

Setting aside the problems with these specific arguments, note that they are all designed to pit the perfect against the imperfect. The idea is to present atheism as lacking and incomplete when compared with the Christian God. And of course it will! It’s incredibly easy to set up an impossible standard, lambaste your opponent for not living up to the standard, and claim victory.

Believers employ arguments like this because it allows them to gloss over the most important step. You have to demonstrate that your all-powerful, all-knowing god actually exists. Arguing in this way is the apologetic equivalent of saying, “Your girlfriend isn’t as hot as my girlfriend (she’s in Canada — no, you can’t see a picture).”

There’s another reason why Christians find such arguments persuasive (and think that you would be persuaded also). From beginning to end, the Bible has a running theme of “perfection or nothing”. In the Old Testament, the slightest blemish made a lamb unworthy for sacrifice. In the New Testament, the slightest sin makes a soul unworthy of heaven and deserving of an eternity of hellfire.

Imperfect but existent humanity is superior to a perfect but non-existent god just by virtue of being real. I touched on this fact in my morality post. Like morality, we can wish we had a perfect, 100% reliable source of truth and bemoan our easily-fooled human brains. However, these brains may in reality be all we have to work with. A non-existent god can’t be a source of morality, truth, or anything useful. It can only be a source of deception.

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God is NOT Love (According to the Bible)

I’m pretty sure it’s now official church doctrine that every wedding must quote from 1 Corinthians 13. Nowhere else in the Bible to we get such a convenient checklist of what Christian love is supposed to look like. By the transitive property, this chapter should theoretically be a description of God himself, because God is love. And yet, anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes in Sunday school will notice that God regularly fails to exhibit the characteristics Paul attributes to a loving being.

Love is patient …and God is impetuous. He forbids Moses from entering the Promised Land after decades of obedience because he struck a rock instead of talking to it. He sends bears to maul those who poke fun at his prophets. Jesus himself cannot bear the audacity of a fig tree that fails to produce fruit out of season.

Love is kind …and God destroys the life of his most faithful servant to win a bet. Is it kind to flood the whole earth and command genocide? Plus, you know, hell.

Love does not envy …and God is jealous, unable to bear even a hint of dissent. The first three commandments, prioritized even over murder, are about worshiping God alone and using his name correctly. Actually, much of the Old Testament is a record of God’s incessant attempts to stamp out his competition. Note also that the only unpardonable sin is not serial murder, cannibalism, or child rape, but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Love does not boast and is not proud …and God spends whole chapters expounding on his own greatness and even made the heavens just to show off. In Exodus, he hardens the Pharaoh’s heart and inflicts plagues, pestilence, and death on Egypt so that his “name may be proclaimed in all the earth.

Love is not self-seeking …and yet, according to apologists, God allows people to be doomed to hell because he didn’t want to create “robots” forced to love him. In other words, God is willing to doom most of humanity to eternal torment just so a handful will love him properly. How self-seeking is that?

Love is not easily angered …and yet he kills people for peeking into the Ark of the Covenant, looking back at their former home, and not impregnating their sister-in-law, for a few examples.

Love keeps no record of wrongs …and God absolutely does, which is the whole reason Jesus’ death on the cross was necessary in the first place.

A better expression of love, as exemplified by the God of the Bible, would be something like this:

Love is testy, love is cruel. It is envious, conceited, and vain. It is self-centered, quick to anger, and never forgets an offense. Love does evil and declares it good. It protects its own and damns all others. Love constantly fails.

Adam and Eve Wouldn’t Have Lasted Two Seconds Outside the Garden

Picture this: You’re Adam or Eve. You just fucked up big time. Your life of ease in the Garden of Eden, days spent naming animals and watering plants, is now over. You’ve been kicked out forever, left to survive with nothing to your name but the clothes on your backs. How will you survive without the Creator who once walked with you?

God cursed Adam to “cultivate the ground from which he was taken” (Genesis 3:23), as was his job in the garden (Genesis 2:15). But where did Adam learn how to farm in the first place, and why? He didn’t pick it up by trial and error, because error in farming means your crops die, and death was not yet a possibility.  Then again, if your crops can’t die, their cultivation becomes a formality. Why would God have the man he created go through the unnecessary motions of farming plants that don’t need farming — unless he already knew the man would need these skills to survive in the future.

And how good of a farmer could Adam have possibly been, coming from a paradigm where nothing could possibly die? Even the best farmers survive only at the whims of burning sun and fickle rain. It would only take one failed harvest for Adam to realize, “Oh, it’s not going to be so easy now, is it?” Adam also wouldn’t be in the habit of storing food for the lean times, either. We have no indication that the garden had seasons, and definitely no droughts or pestilence, so where would Adam get the concept of food shortages in order to be prepared for them?

Let’s say the worst happens. Adam’s first post-fall crop fails miserably, and now he and Eve are facing a long winter without enough food. They could return to foraging, scraping by on seeds and plants. However, thanks to the fall, some of those plants are poisonous now! The Boy Scouts won’t exist for another 6000 years, so they have no clue which plants will sustain them and which will make them vomit until they die.

And let’s not forget that other winter threat: disease. Bacteria and viruses that were once benign are now seeking hosts to infect, and Adam and Eve don’t have years of immunity built up to help them fight illness. Who needs an immune system in a world free of disease? God must have cooked it up on a whim before sending them on their way. In fact, he must have carefully tuned their immune system — they must die eventually, of course, just not immediately. How thoughtful!

Oh, and the winter pinch is not just affecting Adam and Eve. The world has predators now, carnivores who need a new food source since their bodies no longer digest fruit and plants. Why not start with the fleshy pink hairless apes shivering vulnerable in the cold? It would have only taken a single starving saber-tooth tiger to snuff out the only two human beings in existence.

I suppose the Christian answer to all these questions is “magic”: God magicked illness away, magicked predators away, magicked in enough sun and rain (but not too much!) and so on. However, this just turns God into a clingy helicopter parent, no longer walking with them but still orchestrating their lives behind the scenes. It’s as if he realized his discipline went too far but couldn’t bring himself to take it back — after all, what kind of lesson would that teach his impressionable children? As always, the Genesis story only makes sense as one of many creation myths mankind has invented, not as a literal description of historical events.

Dismissing Minimal Facts With Minimal Effort, Part 2

In part 1 of this series, I introduced the “minimal facts” approach to Christian apologetics and briefly touched on three events surrounding the resurrection that apologists claim are beyond criticism. As it turns out, the cases for the crucifixion, burial, and empty tomb of Jesus are not as airtight as apologists would have you believe. There are still a couple more “facts” worth addressing, and as you can imagine, they’re quite problematic as well.

4. Jesus appeared to people post-resurrection.

From the historian’s perspective, we don’t have independent sources for many of Jesus’ purported post-resurrection appearances. The Emmaus road experience is only found in Luke. The Sea of Tiberias appearance is only reported by John. An appearance to “five hundred brethren at one time” is only mentioned by Paul, as he quotes an early church creed while writing to the Corinthians.

The creed recorded in 1 Corinthians 15 is often cited as evidence that Christians believed from a very early date that Jesus had appeared to others after his resurrection. However, the fact that Christians believed something had happened is not necessarily related to what actually did happen. This will come up again.

Apologists will claim that this creed arose far to early for legends to develop surrounding the resurrection. Nonsense! How long did it take for nutcases to start claiming that 9/11 was an inside job, Sandy Hook was a false flag operation, or Tupac was still alive? And that’s with the wealth of information available in an Internet-connected society! How quickly will legends spring up when all your information comes from the rumor mill buzzing around town?

Might these supposed appearances have a naturalistic explanation? We do know that grief-induced hallucinations are surprisingly common, and we also know that stories tend to grow in the telling. Maybe one or two of the disciples had such an experience and told the others. Over time, the experiences of a few disciples evolved into the experience of all the disciples, seeing Jesus at the same time. This is certainly a more plausible explanation than the dead coming back to life.

5. The disciples came to truly believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

How one responds to this “fact” depends on how it is phrased. I don’t know of any scholar who disputes that the disciples and earliest Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead — but far fewer would conclude that Jesus actually did.

It should be pretty obvious that belief has no inherent relation to the truth of a proposition. People believe in the power of Jesus, astrology, crystals, homeopathy, CrossFit, Santa Claus and all kinds of incorrect ideas.

Moreover, people sincerely believe in incorrect ideas. Apologists often object that no one would allow themselves to be martyred for proclaiming what they know is a lie. Agreed, but who said the disciples were lying? They may well have been sincere in their belief that Jesus rose from the dead — sincerely wrong.

So we see that, as usual, Christians have trouble getting their facts straight, but even if we were to grant apologists all of their claims, the minimal facts approach still suffers from a fatal flaw.

Think of it like a magic show, with the classic trick of the magician sawing their lovely assistant in half. Unless you’re a stage magician yourself, you might not have access to all the ins and outs of how magicians perform their tricks. All you have are a handful of facts that you and the rest of the audience have all observed.

  • The assistant is a whole person before lying down in the box.
  • The magician saws through her.
  • The assistant appears to be split in half.

If you can’t figure out the trick, do you immediately assume that the magician has real magic powers? Or do you pick from a list of unconfirmed but entirely mundane explanations? Perhaps the saw is fake. Maybe there’s a secret compartment, or a mirror. The supernatural is probably dead last on your list, right below secret alien technology.

The minimal facts should be treated the same way. We simply don’t have access to all of the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and its aftermath, and, barring some monumental archaeological find, we probably never will. Somehow, when communicating to humanity the most important story in history, God has left us to play connect the dots without all the dots. The information available to us is simply not enough to get the full picture of these three days in Judea two millennia ago, and certainly not enough to determine that a crucifixion victim rose from the dead.

 

Dismissing Minimal Facts With Minimal Effort, Part 1

The minimal facts approach has become a popular approach to Christian apologetics, and I can see why. It allows believers to run an end-around on one of atheists’ favorite topics: confusing and contradictory Bible passages. It basically says, “Hey, let’s set aside these 200 questions where scholars disagree and focus on these four where they do!”

At its core, the minimal facts approach is an argument from ignorance. The apologist presents a series of facts and asks the listener, “How can you explain these facts without the resurrection?” The apologist thus attempts to shift the burden of proof onto the listener, asking them to disprove a theory that the apologist has yet to prove!

It is possible, however, to play the apologist’s game and face their “facts” head-on. While the apologist asserts one unified explanation for all presented facts (namely, the resurrection), non-believers aren’t required to provide one unified alternative explanation.

Moreover, these alternatives don’t necessarily have to be the most plausible explanations on their own, just more plausible than a man rising from the dead. This is a relatively easy bar to clear! However, how one addresses the minimal facts depends on which specific ones are being presented.

1. Jesus was crucified.

This fact is uncontroversial (among non-mythicists), but also unspectacular. I feel fully comfortable agreeing for the sake of argument that Jesus, like all men, died. Finally, believers and non-believers find common ground!

2. Jesus was buried in a tomb.

This is where it starts getting controversial. Scholars such as Bart Ehrman have noted that Romans were not in the habit of granting traitors a proper burial, choosing instead to dump their bodies in a common grave. However, in How God Became Jesus, writing specifically to counter Ehrman, Craig Evans claims that we do have examples of Roman clemency to crucifixion victims, noting that “Peacetime administration in Palestine appears to have respected Jewish burial sensitivities” (p. 77).

So if Pilate could have allowed Jesus to be buried, the question becomes: did he? The story of Joseph of Arimathea does appear in all four gospels, but it is not without its own difficulties. For one thing, there is no town of Arimathea known to history. For another, different gospels give different reasons for the specific choice of the tomb. Matthew says Joseph buried Jesus in “his own new tomb” (27:60), but John says it was chosen simply because “the tomb was nearby” and it was time to prepare for Passover (19:42).

It is also sometimes claimed that a character like Joseph of Arimathea would be an unlikely invention. After all, didn’t the Sanhedrin just get through condemning Jesus to death? Why now introduce a sympathetic council member?

Two problems here. One, if Evans is right and the Romans did allow some crucifixion victims to be buried, it would be appropriate for a member of the council to ask Pilate for the body so the burial rites could be performed. And two, the gospels have a running theme of Jesus appealing to the most unlikely members of society. He’s already dined with tax collectors at this point, why not win over one of the Sanhedrin? Multiple gospels even quote a Roman centurion exclaiming beneath the cross, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39 et al)

3. The tomb was found empty.

Oh boy. I recently did a whole post on contradictions in the resurrection accounts, but it’s hard to be brief when faced with the sheer incongruity of the whole scenario. Given that this event is supposed to be the turning point in human history, the watershed moment of the entire Bible, you would think God would inspire the gospel writers to keep their stories straight.

Apologists expect us to look at stories of women finding an opened or unopened tomb both guarded and not guarded by one or two men or angels before or after fetching the disciples or telling no one, and take away “Well, we can all agree that the tomb was empty!”

Regarding the women who ostensibly discovered the empty tomb, apologists raise the same point as with Joseph of Arimathea. According to them, the “criteron of embarrassment” makes it unlikely that the gospel writers would invent a story where women, legal non-entities at the time, are the ones who make the discovery. But is this really embarrassing, or is it entirely consistent with a character like Jesus who eschews social norms and appeals to the lowest strata of society?

For the sake of argument, let’s say we ignore all objections and grant the apologist all three of these points. Is resurrection the only explanation? Here’s my pet theory — and remember, it just needs to be more believable than a holy zombie.

Jesus is crucified. Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for the body, but Pilate, still peeved from being dragged into the whole affair, refuses the request. Not wanting to admit failure, Joseph tells Jesus’ followers that he has secured the body and buried it in a tomb. The next morning, the stone is rolled away and followers find the tomb empty.

No appeal to the supernatural required! We know historically that Pilate was a dick to the Jews, and we certainly know that people lie to save face. I believe this hypothetical scenario accurately explains the facts presented in a wholly naturalistic manner.

But there are yet more “minimal facts” to address! My next post will go into the purported post-resurrection appearances of Jesus and the rapid growth of Christianity.

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.

 

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