Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Practical Epistemic Problems of Christianity

The following is a presentation I gave at a Recovering From Religion meetup group. Enjoy.


There are a few things I’d like to accomplish this evening by talking about the practical epistemic problems of Christian life..

1. I’d like to help others understand that the Christian experience, properly understood is purely vacuous and that there’s nothing to go back to even if someone finally manages to give them a stumper argument for Christianity someday.

2. As a matter of non-Christian (and non-theist) PR, we can show how Christianity does not give more meaning to life, but instead unnecessary levels of confusion.
3.  It can be used as an argument against Christianity to Christian friends and family to at least give them some more cognitive dissonance by reminding them of all the impossible binds they are carelessly glazing over to maintain their Jesus warm fuzzies.  

Chapter 1: The Holy Spirit proceeds (from the Father ((and maybe the Son))) into practical worthlessness.

However, popular Christian defender William Lane Craig argues for its utility:

Some of you are thinking, “Well, goodness, if believing in God is a matter of weighing all of these sorts of arguments, then how can anybody know whether God exists? You'd have to be a philosopher or a scientist to figure out whether God exists!”  In fact, I agree with you. A loving God would not leave it up to us to figure out by our own ingenuity and cleverness whether or not he exists. Rather a loving God would seek to reveal himself to us and draw us to himself. And this is exactly what Christian theism teaches. Jesus of Nazareth said, "If any man's will is to do God's will, then he will know whether my teaching is from God, or whether I am speaking on my own accord" (John 7.17). And Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit of God would be given by him to convict and draw persons into loving relationships with himself.

But elsewhere Craig inadvertently exposes the weakness of this when he also says:

Of course, anyone (or, at least any sort of theist) can claim  to have a self-authenticating witness of God to the truth of his religion. But the reason you argue with them is because they really don't: either they've just had some emotional experience or else they've misinterpreted their religious experience. So you present arguments and evidence in favor of Christian theism and objections against their worldview in the hope that their false confidence will crack under the weight of the argument and they will come to know the truth. (This also is what the atheist should do with me.)

Note, this isn’t just the method that many Christians use to “know” god exists, but also which scripture is divine, which interpretations are correct, and what this god’s will in general is.    

So it is logically possible that the Christian god has given you a jumpstart in the worldview game and allowed you to bypass every responsible conversation humans can have about everything important in human life.  But, since Christians of many varieties disagree with each other and other people from other religions have their own seemingly immutable religious confidence, how do you know you got the right brand without engaging all those arguments after all?  Kind of defeats the purpose.  

Whether or not you think the mind is magic (since the Bible does not commit us to any particular theory of mind from physicalism to various forms of dualism) one has to accept that there is a vast array of things going on in human minds across the species from mental handicaps to extreme emotional dysfunction.  There is no obvious way to sort out the difference between the Christian god pulling rank to mentally compel someone to do something extreme and someone being crazy with a religious twist.  And everything in between.  A woman who believes the Christian god told her to bake her children because they would grow up to be evil has a perfectly reasonable place next to father Abraham who apparently had no qualms with being willing to murder his own son, when the Christian god pulled divine rank on him.  A President who believes god told him to go to war has a perfectly reasonable place next to Joshua who was commanded to cleanse the land of religious impurities with preemptive war and genocide.  A modern day prophet who brings the will of god to the people from any number of religions has a perfectly reasonable place next to Paul in the New Testament who felt free to disown Jewish practices Yahweh had said would be everlasting thanks to his most recent personal revelations.

If Christians want to believe this is a Christian nation under that god, that puts this god’s authority over our own legal system.  The President of the United States for example, is free to pardon criminals and order drone strikes.  What wouldn’t the Christian god be expected to do and who are we to say how he is and isn’t allowed to go about doing it?  It completely paralyzes our legal system as long as someone can claim “god made me do it.”    

The problem with the idea that one’s feelings are directly divinely instigated mental states is that there are too many coherent Christian spins on these scenarios and way too much room in Christianity to interpret what we have to work with as to be practically worthless.  Should I righteously fight a “voice of god” in my head because it violates my own sense of goodness and is probably a manifestation of mental illness and/or demonic influence, or should I be willing to set aside every worldly sensibility, trust in this god’s superior moral wisdom I can’t hope to understand from my peon perspective, and stack all my chips on the kingdom of this god since he will make every apparently psychopathic action I may be compelled to manifest all worth it in the end?  It’s all good in Christianity land.

So one can grant that the Christian god may be perfectly real and actually create supernatural confidence.  How we know when that is, is a completely different, unresolvable practical issue, since from our ignorant perspective it seems the Holy Spirit is “sleeping around” with all sorts of religious people and telling them all sorts of things.  This is especially true thanks to Jesus telling us that few will be saved, implying that very few of us will get these special mental states in the first place and that the vast majority of people claiming to have them are mistaken.  Whatever a modern Christian settles on is just as likely for arbitrary cultural reasons as it is because that’s what the Christian god actually intended with no way to tell the difference.  

Chapter 2: The elect can’t possibly know they are the elect.

And so, obviously the elect (those the Christian god has specially chosen to save) can’t possibly know they are the elect.  Many Christians will already tell you there’s no way to tell who the real Christians are until Judgment day.  They just consider themselves the hopeful candidates.  Just as many others will delusionally assert their golden heavenly ticket, because they think the Bible and their supposedly inerrant feelings entitle them to it.  

Doesn’t really seem to matter what the Bible says on the issue if confidence is an arbitrary state of mind reproducible in any other mind.  Yahweh may be doing his job, but Satan certainly has a perfectly convincing smokescreen going on.  

In any event, you are basically stuck in a no feedback loop where you’ll never know whether you are on the right track for heaven or hell until it is too late.  So that’s an abusive emotional life by default for Christians.

Chapter 3: Jesus probably worshipped Satan.

Or we can’t know that he didn’t.  Hear me out.  

It may make no sense to you why a perfectly good god would allow for any evil for any reason in this world or any other.  It may make no sense why a newly created perfect angel would suddenly flip out with delusions of grandeur and try to defeat this almighty god.  That’s literally insane.  It may make no sense why this god would allow that same fallen angel, Satan, to tempt his newly created perfectly good humans especially when they would need to know about good and evil in the first place in order to make an informed moral decision.  It may make no sense why these perfect people would want to be disobedient and rebel against their loving creator (who’d created them apparently just like a week ago).  Where did that impulse come from?  

And it may also make no sense to you if Jesus had chosen to worship Satan out in the desert where he was tempted for 40 days, since he is supposed to be the Christian god who is incapable of sinning.  However, since we’ve already gone and jumped so many sharks...why not just one more?  The coherency of the story of the temptation of Jesus necessitates that Jesus could actually give in.  The official story is that of course our hero prevailed, but what I would like to suggest is that we don’t know that Jesus did succeed and the evidence we have seems to indicate strongly that he didn’t.  

Consider the following:

Why did Jesus prophesy that the end of the world would happen in his generation and yet it didn’t?  Why has it been 2,000 years since then with no further authoritative word on the subject?  Could it be that there’s no need for a Judgment Day if Satan rules this world permanently?

Why is it that the magic powers of Christian evangelists no longer work?  They have to translate their scriptures the tedious old fashioned way (wasting lots of time) and they start hospitals rather than just miraculously healing people.

Why is it that Jesus’ Church has been fractured into tens of thousands of sects and denominations and continues to be even more divided as time goes on?

Why is it that the gospel message still has yet to reach everyone on the planet 2,000 years later?

And...come to think of it, why was Jesus getting so cranky back in his day by being rude to his family, condescending to his disciples (and calling them Satan as though he was a little on edge), using excessive amounts of name calling to attack the Pharisees as hypocrites (as though maybe he was projecting), cursing that fig tree (as though that’s not irritation overkill), and resorting to violence to drive out the money changers on the temple grounds?

Could it be that he had botched the whole thing and was getting egotistically desperate, pathetically thinking he could still salvage his ministry by sheer willpower alone?  Or perhaps he wasn’t even sure if he gave in or not thanks to the mental effects of dehydration and hunger and just eventually convinced himself of what he wanted to believe.  He was the only one there, so it’s not like any eyewitness testimony in the gospels would be any better than Jesus’ delusional recollections.  A lot of things start making a lot more sense from a Christian perspective if that was the case.  

Let all that settle in for just a bit.

Notice, all of this completely takes for granted every popular argument for Christianity that the intellectually inclined Christians believe are good arguments.  The ontological arguments, the Kalam arguments, the cosmological arguments, teleological arguments, naturalistic incredulity of all forms, even young earth creationism and global Flood geology, OT prophecy...all of that could be 100% legitimate.  But none of that does anything to counter the idea that Jesus gave in to temptation and worshiped Satan throwing away any chance of our salvations.  

All you have to do is suppose that Satan enthusiastically took over from where Jesus failed and has been having fun toying with the religion ever since.  If Satan can masquerade as an angel of light, he can surely ditch one dead Jesus and masquerade as a risen one.  What would change?  How would we know?  The “minimal fact approach” that modern Christian apologists would like to apply to the resurrection of Jesus sure isn’t going to help you any.

Further, Satan may have gotten bored and started two more big bastardizations that began with an angel of light.  Islam and Mormonism.  Over a billion and a half adherents in the world later (1.6 billion Muslims + 13 million Mormons), and Jesus hasn’t corrected the record.  Why would the Christian god let that kind of gross competition and confusion in the world happen?  Unless this creation is just a failed salvation mission.  

Remember, it’s not good drama unless the bad guys can win, right?.  How do we know they didn’t?

And that’s my point.  There are fundamental epistemic problems to Christianity and that even when you add up all their arguments you are still left with something like this because of the inherent weakness of even their best case.  

I mean, if this is totally Satan’s world forever and the Christian god has moved on to other creations, wouldn’t you want to know?  I would.

And before Christians dive into too much nuance to save themselves, remember there is plenty in the Christian worldview to throw many ideologically approved wrenches in that endeavor.  So let’s hop to it.

Chapter 4: What’s good for the demons are good for the jinn.

If we accept that Yahweh allows other people of other religions to be deceived by demons into thinking those religions are true, then we have the problem that we don’t know we aren’t the ones in the wrong religion being deceived.  Note, “the wrong religion” can also refer just as easily to the thousands of false versions of Christianity.  This is not some hypothetical possibility like the classic philosophical problem of being a brain in a vat.  If you believe Christianity is true, you believe demons actually exist (in droves) and are actually out to get you.  It’s part of your worldview.  That takes the situation from mere philosophical possibility to practical probability.  And yet, what do we have to defend ourselves with against the odds?  That Christian god that suspiciously doesn’t seem to be on the same team as billions of other demonically deceived people for no particular reason?  Why are you so special?  How can you be so sure you were the chosen one and all those other people weren’t instead?  The only thing that seems to be standing in the way of epistemic anarchy here is human narcissism.

So no matter how much intellectualizing you may want to do, you have no idea about whether you’re being systematically duped.  You already agree on your own terms your god lets that happen to people.  Are you willing to ask why not you?  And then what do you do after you are that honest?

Also complicating things is that the NT says that even false prophets can perform miracles and that they have to ultimately be judged based on their “good” deeds.  So if they are both claiming a different morality they are attempting to justify from the Bible (or even some other moralistic holy book), we’re still lost in Wonderland.  

Satan’s good, isn’t he?


Chapter 5: Totally depraved people can’t trust their religious sensibilities.

So we don’t really even need demons to muck up the job in Christianity land.  We have our own totally depraved sensibilities according to many prominent brands of Christianity.  We’re rotten in sin and incapable of guiding ourselves to the proper divine light frequency.  If this really is the default state for humanity, then who knows how lost any of us might be?  Christians are for some reason worried about thinking reliable thoughts if evolution cobbled our brains together, but who are they to talk with beliefs like these about themselves?  

Of course the question religious people have to ask themselves is if the “totally depraved sinner” clause miraculously only affects self identified non-believers when they give reasons for rejecting various religious perspectives or if there can be plenty of religious delusions that are the result of that same trick?  

Good luck everyone!  A billion and a half Muslims just aren’t asking their god hard enough for the truth, I guess.

Chapter 6: How can I translate divine morality through the filters of history and culture successfully?

Recall what Christian apologist William Lane Craig conceded in the quote I provided at the beginning of this presentation.  How unreasonable would it be to have to have mastered the domains of archaeology, history, ancient languages, and the vast amounts of Biblical scholarship to know a god exists and in this case to get to know a god properly?  How many of you have degrees in any of those fields?  What about the Christian population?  Skeptics are always told they take the Bible out of its cultural context and many snooty Christians are mad at lots of other Christians for doing the same thing.  But who can blame them?

Unfortunately there is no clear underlying philosophical theory, moral theory, or even metaphysical theory laid out in the 66 books of the Protestant Bible.  What is there is scattered through multiple types of literary genres through the filters of the agendas and diverging emphasises of numerous authors and editors.  More than 3 different ancient languages are used.  The Hebrew doesn’t include vowels or punctuation leaving translators to fill in the blanks.  Modern scholars work overtime to stitch together what the original texts probably said from the thousands of fallible copies of copies we’ve collected over hundreds of years to give us versions of the Bible pious Christians have never before had access to.  Unfortunately, even from that, we have many modern versions to choose from each with their own perils and theological translation agendas to sort through.  

Of course, everything is different in Bible land morally and there is no cultural primer delivered in the texts for posterity, especially when we are told that the holy texts may very well be trying to specifically distinguish themselves from their neighboring cultures and even their internal culture and our only guide to that is that very ambiguous text itself.  There is no rubric for translating that morality into vastly different cultural contexts.  There are numerous important moral issues not covered and newer ones invented all the time in this modern world thanks to new entangling technologies.  And so we need to actually understand the underlying principles and not settle for just being blindly obedient to superficial moral commands.  Virtually all the texts are geared for their immediate culture and social context and often have little practical value beyond that immediate religious functionality, especially thanks to the religious innovations of the NT.  Though even figuring out just which things from the OT are now defunct and which should still be in practice is yet another task and a half Christians still cannot really resolve.   

I’ve found even criticizing the religion from the outside can be very difficult as the sides fall off and the bottom of many issues drops out from underneath your argument as new scholarship from all directions offer new distinctions and overturn long held assumptions.  The Bible is the most studied book of all time and unfortunately we now have the problem of information overload, whether you pick liberal or conservative scholarship (or all of the above).  We have way too much scholarship to sort through if you want to get an unassailable handle on the issues (and this is something even trained scholars cannot do).  There are endless pet theories and we must put up with the bizarre filters of how even the most educated and intelligent humans tend to deal idiosyncratically with religious topics.    

Some of you may have noticed how hard direct communication is with someone standing in the same room with you.  Sometimes communicating with someone you’ve known closely for many years is also a serious challenge.  And yet, as Christians we would be saddled in this case with virtually impossible hurdles to clear and a lot on the line.

Chapter 7: Weak and strong faith and the disputable matters?

The apostle Paul says in Romans 14:1:
Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.
But which matters are the disputable matters and which are the indisputable ones?  Depending on how wide a selection you take in, every internal matter in Christianity is disputable and every fundamental underpinning of it is disputable if you widen that scope to all humanity.  Paul certainly doesn’t give us a comprehensive list and just expects us to “get it.”  But I’m sure people disputed things with Paul in his day that he didn’t think were disputable.  

Granted, everything humans know about anything is disputable.  Epistemic problems are ubiquitous.  I’ve reminded many Christian apologists online that “epistemology is hard” and that we are not entitled to answers.  The reason Christianity throws us a curveball here is that an unknown god’s opinion is supposed to be respected and we just don’t know what that is.  All the while we’re trained to distrust and blame ourselves for exercising our own understanding.  We’re having a conference call and the most important line is just as good as dead.  It’s hard to get a lot of spiritual work done since that’s the case, since you necessarily have to spend your entire life even figuring out what is actually expected of you, long after you needed to be applying it.

Chapter 8: Which earthly spiritual authorities should I listen to?

So let’s say you are struggling and you don’t trust yourself in your spiritual immaturity.  Perhaps you should go talk to your spiritual elders.  But who are they?  Do they have an official badge you can check?  It is completely plausible given the apparent sensibilities one gathers from the OT and the NT, that this god might well have totally written off American culture and all the Big Religion in it.    “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”  Tell that to American exceptionalism.  Maybe this god is just waiting for our entire nation of evil, counterfeit, religious people to achieve their full measure of sin so we can properly judged and that this just hasn’t quite played out yet.  

How many Protestant, Catholic, and non-denominational groups seem like you could just pull their moral demographics right from the pages of the NT?  I’m not just talking about religious hypocrites.  I’m talking about the ones that actually do live how they think they’re supposed to and if we can find that in the Bible.  Like none.  Are most of congregations filled with willing celibates who have sold most of their stuff, living in poverty, and joyfully preaching the word of their god to the masses while wielding magic powers?  Are they communists like they are in Acts?  Um...  Not really.  

Does this god hate our consumer materialism where even everything about Christianity has been commercialised?  Our sex appeal culture where even most Christian women show a lot more skin than their ideological predecessors did?  What about all our church ladies who don’t cover their heads and do speak up in public?  Does this god hate our tolerance of homosexuality?  We certainly don’t stone them anymore so perhaps we’re hating the sin enough, but not hating the sinner enough?  How many evangelicals get abortions?  Same rate as everyone else I hear.  Our churches are on every corner even though poverty is not solved?  Seems like there’s a mire of things that the Christian god might hate about us all and wasn’t shy about blanketly condemning entire nations in Biblical history.  Especially being the United States of America sweltering in privileges human history has never seen before.  Perhaps all the pastors and priests of every congregation are on this god’s shit list.  Apparently there are entire towns in the Bible where not even one single person was counted righteous.  That seems really implausible to my fallible sensibilities, but apparently that’s something you have to believe is possible, so why not your own culture?  How could one possibly know unless we are told otherwise from an authoritative source that we just don’t have?  

You can come up with all sorts of excuses for why we can’t find modern Christian culture right there in the Bible.  The problem is that this leaves us with no imprint of what Christianity is supposed to look like and too much speculation.  This isn’t just about one isolated issue.  It’s a forrest of them.  Unless you just so happen to have a well evidenced, seamless explanation on most of them that dovetails right into modern times that doesn’t look like special pleading to justify your own inherited culture, one is going to be left with the overall impression that things could be drastically wrong and we just wouldn’t know it until it is too late.  

Modern Christians seem like the fanboys and fangirls of a rock star who doesn't really have anything to do with them, but they are completely in love with their own made up version.  This is something even many Christians often feel free to level at each other.  It is easy to imagine the potential rude awakening if any of these Christians were to ever finally meet their maker and have definitive information.

Chapter 9: Prayer is vanity.

So you are on your own.  I guess that leaves prayer.  But again, given the massive privileges of the United States even on a bad day, why in the world would a god of all answer my practical prayers about anything when people all over the world were living in massively worse situations?  Why would he answer any of my spiritual need based prayers when he apparently hasn’t cleared up the massive religious confusion around the world.  How would I ever know I’m asking with a pure heart given we’re taught how depraved we are and how deceived by demons we might be?  Why should I be confident I’m asking any more earnestly than anyone else around the world?  How hopeless is that?  

Or if your prayers are apparently answered, how do you know that it was actually intended to be the answer to your prayer?  Perhaps there is some other divine reason for the same thing occurring and it is just incidental that your prayer seemed to be answered and that this god isn’t actually trying to validate your current view on your life.  Are we to assume confirmation bias and coincidence is non-existent in the Christian worldview or that the Christian god is obligated to let us know when the message was not intended for us?  

And do Christians really expect prayer to move mountains?  Or do they settle for suspiciously impotent concepts like “it’s all about being dependent on god.”  No, you are basically told you are running the whole damn relationship yourself without explicitly saying so.  Don’t expect your god to be bothered with participating in any discernable way which makes you completely on your own with absolutely nothing to go on.  

Chapter 10: God is impossible to understand and therefore have a coherent relationship with.

And to top it all off, Christians like the apostle Paul have used god’s infinite ineffability as a convenient excuse for why they don’t have to deal with the tough questions.  God pre-ordains everything and yet still blames us when things go wrong.  The explanation given is the equivalent of “Shut up, that’s why.”  The Christian god’s ways are infinitely above our ways and we shouldn’t even expect to understand.  Well, that’s all well and good, except for that little thing called intellectual consistency.  If I see a number of really difficult issues that I’m supposed to give my version of my religion a free pass on, how can I possibly judge any religious sensibilities of anyone about any religion or philosophy?  Do I think liberal Christian ideas are full of shit?  Well what do I know?  Aren’t liberal Jesus’ ways infinitely above my ways?  Does someone think Islam makes more theological sense than Christianity?  Well what do I know?  Aren’t Allah’s ways infinitely above mine?  If the difference between me and whatever god is infinity and this god simultaneously is too good to come down and explain things in Ben terms, then what do I have to go on?  

How should I even know what I should be looking for?  Maybe you’d think that the most popular, most prominent religion in the world is probably the true one.  But then again, maybe the real god values the homegrown, doctrine lite, modest pagan religions and Big Religions merely embody many levels of human corruption that this god absolutely loathes, but allows to play out anyway.   

So Paul’s “shut up, jars of clay” bit turns out to be waaaaaay too good of an excuse that basically just destroys every practical thing in religion land.  Good job!

Chapter 11:  The Problem of a God’s Perfect Knowledge

The Christian god supposedly knows everything and for this to be true, this knowledge has to actually exist in some real way.  Otherwise, what does it even mean to say this god possesses “knowledge” if there’s nothing to have?  Presumably this knowledge would have to be absolutely detailed in every regard and it would have to include the perfect representation of all logically possible things.  Our universe is a logically possible thing and therefore it would have to be included in that infinite inventory.  So my question is, how do we know that our supposedly created world is not actually just an artifact of the Christian god’s perfect knowledge rather than something he chose to bring into existence purposefully?

Remember the Garden of Eden story where we’re told Adam and Eve would become like a god, knowing both good and evil?  That means the Christian god must know both good and evil even if it never choose to act on the evil knowledge because of its all good character.

How would a created world tell the difference between itself and a "knowledge world" with nothing to compare itself to? How would we even know if there would be a difference?  The practical difficulty here is if we live in a world that doesn’t make much sense from the Christian perspective for a number of reasons, it may be because every incoherent thing is housed in the Christian god’s perfect knowledge and we’re just stuck with that unintentional chaos.   

The best a Christian could respond to this would be to say that B-theory of time (which treats time and space as a static, at least four dimensional object which would allow this to happen) is flawed in some way, which it’s not (for reasons I'll not get into here) and the Bible certainly doesn’t commit us to any theory of time anyway.  

A Christian may also want to argue that we don't necessarily know things work this way since this is speculative metaphysics and theology.  And maybe that’s the case.  But it does seem to solve the eternally vexing and prominent problem of evil and keep a morally blemishless god from creating or allowing for the existence of any evil whatsoever...not to mention it also solves most every other problem in Christianity by bypassing them altogether.

Again, all the other positive Christian arguments could work just fine and given the supposed nature of god...we’d never know this wasn’t true.  As more and more theologians start accommodating multiverse theories and the idea that all logically possible things actually exist which seems to be where physics is going they're going to have to deal with this issue seriously. They may have a rude awakening even on their own terms since we may have just discovered we're living in a part of god’s mind rather than whatever created worlds may be elsewhere.

Chapter 12: There’s no way to tell why bad (or good) things happen.

In the Bible it says that Yahweh will revisit the sins of the father to the 3rd and 4th generation.  Now, those are the sins of up to 4 other people (2 of which you’ve probably never even met at all) that you can be randomly punished for.  And if god isn’t sexist (you know, as in the morality of women is actually just as important as it is with men), that’s actually the sins of up to 30 other people that can be pinned on you.  If that’s not flying blind in terms of understanding your moral place in the Christian god’s universe, I don’t know what is.

As it turns out, we learn from the book of Job in the Bible that the Christian god has a bit of a gambling problem.  A gambling problem that involves wagers over the salvation of human souls.  A gambling problem that makes all of your loved ones, your friends, your health, and your stuff collateral damage.  And it’s all okay because all those things can simply be replaced with new filler relationships in the end.  You might be completely blameless in your spiritual life, and apparently if the Christian god wants to look good in his heavenly court, he feels at complete liberty to slam your life, like poker chips, on the table just to win a bet with Satan or whomever else wants a shot.  Clearly, we don’t know how often he does this, but it is cause for concern.  I mean, Job had all those conversations about why such ludicrously bad things were all happening to him at once and the answer was a roll of the divine dice and in the end when Yahweh bothers to actually talk to him, Yahweh basically doesn’t answer Job’s questions and just tells him to shut the hell up.  Well that’s certainly helpful, isn’t it?

Of course, if it’s not your dead relatives, or Yahweh’s heavenly soul casino, there’s always the “we just live in a fallen world and bad things happen for no particular reason” thing.  Which is practically indistinguishable from that horrible chaotic world of atheism where no divine shepherd is looking out for you.  Thank you, Jesus!

And if that’s the case, then what are we to make of when this god is trying to reveal to you a hidden sin of yours that he wants you to work on?  There’s an infinite number of other reasons bad things might be happening, and if you have that corrupt human nature, how do you know that you are not just being hypersensitive to random stimuli?   Lots of Christians are obsessed with their sins, always coming up with hundreds of unnecessary ways to find themselves guilty which they’ll even admit becomes a sin in and of itself.  

Good luck sorting all that out!

Other curve balls include the bit where Yahweh uses mind control on pharaoh to get his way and at times prevents pharaoh from giving in to Yahweh’s will.  So watch out for that possibility.  

Yahweh apparently hated Esau from the womb (for being too hairy or something).  So you never know if that’s the case.  Be sure and shave, I guess.

Oh, and Jesus takes a moment out of his busy schedule to let us know that the cities of Tyre and Sidon would have repented of their sins and totally avoided damnation had Jesus bothered to show them any magic tricks (Matthew 11:21).  So if you feel like you need more evidence in life and that this would probably have dramatic impact on your salvation vector, it may actually be Jesus’ fault and he apparently has better things to do.  

Jesus seems to play the “why bad things happen to you” card from all sides in the gospels (Luke 13, John 9, etc.).  A tower falls on some folks and Jesus dismisses any particular reason and instead turns to threaten his disciples with eternal damnation unless they shape up.  A woman being crippled is blamed on Satan.  Someone has had some disease for many years and it wasn’t the parents’ fault as some people supposed, but instead, Yahweh just wanted an opportunity to show off.  These are just random explanations that are totally different from each other and you’d literally have to be Jesus himself to know the divine truth behind the appearances.

I attended a debate between Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza and atheist John Loftus (where Loftus lost the debate horribly) and incidentally I was asked by a young Catholic man how I could possibly deal with grief as an atheist since the evils in life don’t mean anything.  I told him I had endless problems attempting to contextualize myself in Christianity and that nonbelief had actually cleared up all the confusion.

I mean, we’re lucky when the Bible even attempts to explain things to us, and--god help us--if that reason actually even makes any sense, can be applied to our own context successfully in a helpful way, or systematically sabotages other areas of knowledge.  

If you can get through the gauntlet of issues I’ve laid out and figure out the correct divine meaning behind why bad things happen to you (or even good things), specifically as a Christian, I’d be thoroughly impressed.  You’d have to win the theological version of the Nobel Peace Prize or something, because by my reckoning it’s impossible.  Either the Christian god sends you a literal memo explicitly explaining himself or he doesn’t.  

And so we’re left with “legitimate rape” victims who were apparently raped just as the Christian god intended for some mysterious reason that we can only speculate horribly about.  Oh how comforting and definitive Christianity is in tragedy!        

And the final huge curve ball of my presentation here is:

Chapter 13: God lies.

One of the little known practical things you might also want to know is that the Christian god lies.  He lies to good people and to bad people, though as I’ve already mentioned, there’s no way to actually tell which category you are.  In the Bible Yahweh lies to Abraham when he tells him that he wants him to sacrifice his son Isaac, but later reveals that this is not the case (especially since human sacrifice is considered immoral).  Yahweh also lies by proxy to bad people by sending them evil spirits who have the power to delude humans into believing things that are false.  

Let me be clear.  In both instances Yahweh’s behavior is considered honorable.  In the case of Abraham, Yahweh is using a lie to solicit a positive spiritual outcome.  In the case of the evil king and prophets, Yahweh is using lies to punish them for wrongdoing.  

Not many Christians seem willing to take this seriously, but it is right there in the text.  For Biblical moral proof of concept, the prostitute Rahab is considered righteous (by the later New Testament book of James) for lying to the guards about where the Hebrew spies were hiding.  If righteous lying is not a sin, then there is no reason why a righteous god cannot righteously lie especially when we have examples of him doing just that.  So, even though there are parts of the Bible that also say, “God cannot lie” one must remember that one of the commandments is “thou shalt not kill,” but it really means, “thou shalt not unrighteously kill,” since the Hebrews are divinely ordered to massacre tons of people and capital punishment is also part of the divine law.  Similarly, to be consistent with all the textual evidence we’d have to conclude that the divine anti-lying passage really means, “God cannot unrighteously lie.”  Or you know, a lying god can lie about being able to lie.  Whichever.  

The bottom line is: You either have reading comprehension and intellectual integrity with the scope of passages or you don’t.    

So it seems we have a peek into the machinations of Yahweh’s tool set.  And one has to wonder just how many things are righteous lies in the Bible that are not revealed to be lies.  In a sense, we could consider ourselves like Abraham on our faithful way to carry out Yahweh’s apparently immoral orders.  We’ve been lied to and we don’t yet know what the twist ending is going to be.  Still, as faithful Christians we can assume that these divine untruths may be for our benefit in some way and that we aren’t exactly entitled to the truth about everything.  

After all, we can appreciate how difficult it is to communicate with our own children some basic truths about reality and sometimes (or even often times depending on the age and temperament of the child) have to resort to convenient lies that are not designed to hurt them at all, but instead to keep them safe and on track in terms of their limited understanding.  Even Jesus himself communicated primarily through parables and wasn’t necessarily interested in always explaining himself fully to everyone.  But sometimes he did.  

So in light of this, we’d have to ask ourselves what if there are aspects of the Bible that aren’t true, but were divinely designed to be believed anyway?  Which parts might those be?  How deep might those provisional myths go?  A lot of modern Christians struggle with justifying their worldview in this scientific age.  So this is fairly important.  There are certainly already Christians out there who do basically take the entire Bible as a divinely inspired book of myths that is designed to successfully convey only spiritual truths.  And why not?  If you trust the Christian god, then you trust the Christian god.  Perhaps you might think that the Bible must be true in all its historical contents or Yahweh has no legitimate resume to impress us with, but that ignores the fact there’s really no practical difference trust wise and remember this god’s ways are infinitely above our ways in any event, so shut up, that’s why.  You just have to take the Bible’s word for it that those events really happened which isn’t something the other evidence we have necessarily supports.  

So if divine trust is being established apart from the Bible for even the most liberal of Christians (who are in line with the conclusions of mainstream secular scholarship and science) and also for the ultra conservative Christians (who may manage to believe that a particular modern translation of the Bible is inerrant) then what spiritual truth is ultimately lost between the vast ideological chasm between the positions?  Again, in this case, trust is trust and Christianity is about a relationship with a god and not the arbitrary fantastic historical things recorded in the Bible that don’t really practically matter anymore anyway (if you are being honest).  And so if Yahweh can lie, that means pretty much everything in between those two extremes is a legitimately possible “disputable matter” since any combination of truth and literal lies still amounts to taking the Bible seriously as a divinely authored spiritual collection of texts.  

For those that protest, it should be reminded that the one lonely verse in 2 Timothy 3:16 on the inspiration of scripture is nothing like a detailed Chicago statement on Biblical inerrancy, can’t possibly speak for every book in the Protestant collection of texts, and may well be one of the least inspired verses in the entire canon (especially given most scholars consider the text a fabrication anyhow).

In terms of human knowledge there are no modern scholarly or scientific consensuses that come to the aide of conclusively demonstrating Biblical Christianity to the intellectual world.  Hence many Christians struggle.  “God” is not part of any scientific theory and all investigations into the supernatural have not turned up any psychic powers, demons, spells, witchcraft, efficacious prayer, miracles, or anything else that would empty James Randi’s million dollar bank account that’s been popularly dedicated to the task with many years of trying.  To say that modern scholarship pertaining to the Bible remains even weakly compatible with a full view of scripture as historical truth would be a gross understatement.  

No doubt many conservative Christians will take umbrage with these claims, however, contrary to their convictions something has convinced a wide array of scientists and scholars that cross so many cultural lines and philosophical backgrounds all over the world in such a way that has never been seen before in the history of humankind.  Not to mention that most scientists (at least in the US) are Christians or at least religious and biased towards such supernatural conclusions.  Yet, where is the science of God?  Are the minority of atheists really that scary?  Religious scientists see Richard Dawkins and just run away, I guess.  Instead most of these religious scientists and scholars manage to split reality into faith and facts categories that don’t overlap regardless of how intellectually distasteful every honest person knows that is.  Either the evidence and argument for these consistently non-Biblical conclusions about the world are pretty good if you are familiar with them in a non-ideologically hostile way or Satan, the jinn, and/or Loki have created yet another awfully compelling conspiracy.  

Of course, if we accept that Yahweh lies, we don’t have to blame the bad guys.  A modern Christian is confronted with the strong possibility that the Bible represents what Yahweh wanted us to believe...not necessarily what is true.  Whenever the evidence mounts against a straightforward reading of the Bible, that may just mean we’ve inadvertently revealed one of Yahweh’s convenient falsehoods that may have been designed to keep the story relatively simple and palatable for ancient audiences through the present day.  Then again, in any given case, perhaps the Bible is right and the evidence we have is grossly circumstantial.  The point is, any possibility is ideologically consistent since the Bible even on its own terms can’t be the only metric of actual truth.  God lies.  Christians still have to cope with how that meets reality.  

On the other hand, it could be the case that Yahweh expects faithful Christians to believe and defend the lies anyway until officially told otherwise.  Some Christians might allow for “natural revelation” to properly overturn some level of Biblical revelation.  Others will not be comfortable with that.  That would be the other practical problem here of not really knowing what this god expects of us, since merely broadcasting with a loud microphone that anything in the Bible might be a divine white lie kind of ruins the intended general effect.  Taken together, serious Christians would be torn across the spectrum on the issue as they always have been at every level and there’s nothing in particular to help them out of that mess.

Chapter 14: Turning this all into an argument against Christianity being true.

Up till now, I’ve not argued that supernaturalism, or theism, or Biblical Christianity is even false.  I’ve only pointed out how taking it seriously doesn’t lead anywhere useful.  Although one would think that If your religion is unlivable that casts egregious doubt on its underlying validity.  

If your god is supposedly not the “author of confusion” and yet clearly the entire world is confused on the fundamental point of this life and how to live it on your god’s terms, this should be taken as good evidence of the bankruptcy of your theistic worldview.  

Endless, serious practical epistemic problems are what happen when your religion is false.  When you grant your belief system way too many free passes on having to present primary evidence for the most important beliefs, mutually converging error bars all overlap each other leaving you with delusional anarchy rather than mutually converging lines of evidence granting you legitimate confidence.

In our experience good moral agents do their very best to communicate and clarify their message effectively to their audience.  And they show up.  The solution to all these problems presented is merely doing what we expect any moral person to do: Show up, introduce yourself, build trust over time, don’t do anything sketchy, answer important questions, troubleshoot problems, etc.  That’s not some standard that atheists invented to get rid of the Christian god.  It’s what humans invented to get along in the world where there’s a spectrum of trustworthy to untrustworthy people out there as well as belief systems in their varying degrees of truth and falsity.  

If you think you are supposed to have a respectable relationship with a good god, then communication is the number one priority as it is in all our important relationships.  Unfortunately communication is disturbingly a rather low priority on the part of the Christian god.  

A bad strong prediction makes a bad theory.  And bad theories should be discarded.  

Just agreeing with me that you shouldn’t necessarily trust Jesus’ magical influence over your mind (in order to sufficiently establish Christianity as true) is already a deal breaker with the religion on its own terms.  You can’t admit that even in the best case scenario the Holy Spirit still fails.  And to be intellectually honest, you have to, just to run basic thinking operating procedures in your brain about your first person perspective on the world of experience.  

Chapter 15: Conclusion

And so, to review, the Holy Spirit is unreliable even on a good day, the elect have no security and can’t possibly know they are the elect based on the evidence given, even the best evidence for Christianity is so weak as to allow the freight train of “Jesus worshiped Satan” to breeze on through, a god who allows billions of people to be deceived by demons for no particular reason can’t be trusted to not have allowed that to happen to your favorite population of religious people instead, totally depraved humans can’t trust their religious sensibilities to even know what they are looking for in the true religion, since the Bible provides no underlying moral theory, philosophical theory, metaphysical theory, or rubric for translating its values across any and all cultural lines Christians are forever left to speculate through the filters of language, culture, and sophisticated textual and scholarly issues none of us are qualified to resolve, there is no way to tell what are the “disputable matters” and which are supposed to be indisputable since the apostle Paul does not even give us a list, there is no way to know who our true earthly spiritual authorities really are to seek proper advice, given the relative depravity and spiritual confusion of the world it would seem that prayer of all sorts is vanity, an impossible to understand deity that does not explain itself to us leaves us in the impossible divine hearsay bind, a god with perfect knowledge of all logically possible realities might have confused and salvationless realities just like ours on file indistinguishable from the “real” thing (thus making more sense of the problem of evil since we would not have been created), there is no way to tell why good and/or bad things happen to you in order to contextualize your life in Christian terms, and the Biblical god lies.

These are real issues in Christianity land.  I know I struggled with many of these exact issues.  I know lots of Christians who struggle with various aspects of them to the extent they are aware and care about the issues.  

Now there are of course Christians out there who seem very intellectually active and somehow manage to attain amazing levels of livable and preachable confidence in Christianity.  It’s just that they don’t provide a plausible path through all this terrain to join them.  It sounds like a mental accident on their part.

If we are just looking for the religious person with grossly disproportional confidence to their ability to defend their position (compliments of a Holy Spirit), unfortunately as I’ve said, that’s just as much a recipe for following extremely delusional people.  What’s the difference?  

In any event, Christianity doesn’t have to be false to just be just plain indecipherable and unlivable for an intellectually honest person.


Andy teh Nerd said...

What's the Holy Spirit's hourly rate?

Ben said...

It's not hourly. It just costs you your intellectual integrity.

eckthelion said...

After several bong hits and this article I feel positively philosophical.
I also think that being moral and doing good is the only religion there is. Even the bible eludes to this, taking care of widows and orphans which is an example of good works mostly free of self interest unless you believe we are all that codependent. With all the class A types the world has ever produced it's more than likely that every religion was created by one of them to express some step by step plan to something too simple for such convolutions.
But lets face it, being good is just too boring for some. They have to be good in public which causes admiration, which causes emulation. Peasants just don't have time to sort this out even if they had the training so I'd imagine it would be pretty easy to just go with the flow, especially during harvest time when time is short. But lets say you had a great harvest and some lazy bum who calls himself a priest says it's because you did this and such and being an ignorant peasant you now have something to think about and fear. You see how this gets going? Add thousands of years to it and it gets thousands of times worse. We are only now beginning the throws of withdrawal thanks to actual explanations and better education. How the hell anyone can think anything else is happening here is crazy. -Russell

Ben said...

It seems the presuppositions that fell into place in the collective Jewish/Christian mindset just weren't meant for everyone, but somehow get the job done if you don't think about the religion as a privileged hypothesis.