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.

Morality is Subjective – and That’s Okay

Atheists often face the charge that we have no true basis for morality. How can we, lacking a belief in a supreme law-giver, hold people accountable for their actions? Without God, isn’t morality just a matter of personal preference, with a nun’s opinion no better than a serial killer’s? Why should anyone follow anyone else’s standard?

Believers assert that only a transcendent, objective standard of morality, i.e. God, is sufficient for regulating human behavior. They say we need a standard that applies to all of humanity and is not simply one’s own individual opinion. However, a closer examination reveals that, even if divine morality can be shown to exist, it faces the very same shortcomings that believers ascribe to subjective morality.

Before they even begin the discussion, believers need to demonstrate that objective morality actually exists. More often than not, objective morality is taken for granted, but its existence is a claim that needs to be backed up. If believers want to point out deficiencies in subjective morality, that’s fine, but what if it’s all we have? You may wish you had a car that reliably starts and isn’t rusting through the floor, but if it’s your only form of transportation, you’ll have to use it in spite of its flaws!

What’s more, the objective morality asserted by believers simply wouldn’t work as well as they think it would. For one thing, God-based morality is not universal, despite the protestations of apologists. If the Christian God is held out as an objective source of morality, why should a Hindu care? Or a Buddhist, Taoist, Zoroastrian, and so on? If morality is based on any particular god, those who don’t believe in that god cannot be held accountable to that standard. In this way, a believer’s own “objective” morality falls short in the same way as subjective morality.

It gets worse. If we accept God is the source of morality, how do we then determine what is and isn’t moral? The problem is that objective morality is necessarily filtered through one’s own subjective human brain. If morality is revealed through a sacred text, then it comes down to the subjective interpretation of the reader. If morality is revealed through personal revelation, then of course this is subjective to the one who receives it. The end result is that every believer thinks they know objective morality, when in reality they can never be sure they have it right!

Observing the history of the church should make this obvious. Somehow, despite having access to the purported source of objective morality, Christians wind up on both sides of every major social issue. From abolition of slavery to feminism to civil rights to gay marriage to transgender issues, Christians seem to receive contradictory messages from their own God. How is this supposed to solve the “problems” of subjective morality?

The truth is that subjective morality is not as deficient as believers claim. Somehow, civilizations throughout history have converged on many of the same conclusions when it comes to moral behavior. There is no thriving modern society that allows for wanton murder, gratuitous theft, or unchecked rape. That’s because we’ve figured out that human beings thrive when we are all working together for the betterment of everyone. Barbarians don’t build skyscrapers, after all. Once we are no longer preoccupied with protecting our families and property, we can use the same time, energy, and resources for greater purposes.

Of course, there will be areas of disagreement as progress marches on, but the core tenets remain the same. Christianity is no improvement in this area. No one disputes the Ten Commandments, but practically all other issues are open to interpretation. All Christianity adds to the moral question is a dubious claim to divine authority and an unwarranted sense of superiority.

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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.

 

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.

 

 

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.

Pop Quiz, Hot Shot

1. Which creation story sounds the most plausible?

  1. The gods fashion man unsuccessfully first from mud, then from wood, and finally succeed with corn and corn meal
  2. A god fashions the first humans from clay mixed with the flesh and blood of a deceased god
  3. A god fashions the first human from clay, and another god breathes life into it
  4. A god fashions the first man from the dust of the earth, and then fashions the first woman from a rib of the man

2. Which flood story sounds most likely?

  1. A great flood lasting generations is abated with the assistance of various supernatural creatures
  2. A great flood lasting several years is survived by one man on a giant boat containing all animals and plants
  3. A great flood lasting several days is survived by one man, one woman, and a multitude of babies on a massive canoe
  4. A great flood lasting forty days is survived by one family on a boat containing sets of every animal

3. Which miracle most likely occurred?

  1. A man multiplies the yield of date trees to help someone pay off their father’s debts
  2. A man produces fire from one side of his body and water from the other
  3. A man cures his immobilized leg and arm by sprinkling them with water
  4. A man feeds a crowd of thousands using only five loaves of bread and two fish

4. Which is the most believable afterlife destination?

  1. Islands of fertile soil, bountiful produce, and fair winds
  2. A massive hall with a roof made from golden shields and an endless supply of mead
  3. A paradise of palaces filled with sensual delights, including delicious food and drink
  4. A city with golden streets, gates of pearl, jasper walls, and jeweled foundations

Why should we believe the Jewish/Christian account of creation and not the Mayan, Babylonian, or Greek versions? Why should we believe the Jewish/Christian flood narrative and not the Chinese, Hindu, or Squamish accounts? Why should we accept the miracles of Jesus and not those of Muhammad, Buddha, or Sathya Sai Baba? Why aim for the Christian heaven and not the Greek, Norse, or Muslim variants?

Growing up Christian, I was raised hearing certain stories in church and naively accepting them. This stores didn’t seem strange until I stepped back and viewed Christianity in the context of other world religions. When you realize your faith has its fanciful tales, and other faiths have their fanciful tales, you start wondering which is actually true – or if none are true.
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