Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Story Problems

Remember the process of learning math? First we were provided numbers, and what they meant so we could correctly circle “3 pennies.” Then we were taught that putting together “2 Pennies” with “3 Pennies” produced “5 Pennies.”

Soon we had those arithmetic sheets. You know the ones. With 100 questions of:

“2 + 3 = ____”
“1 + 2 = ____”

The challenge was how many one could do within a certain time, so we could learn to add more quickly. As our education progressed, eventually we were introduced to “x.” It seemed amazing whereas up that point letters and numbers were strictly forbidden from intermingling, once Algebra came along, we were free to incorporate “x” and all its friends like “y” and “z” and the other letters.

We solved for “x.” We had little idea that the rest of our mathematic career would be wholly consumed with finding that enigmatic “x” (and all its friends.)

Wouldn’t it be neat to go back to those sheets of problems, now that we know about “x”? Happily we could have answered each question “x,” “x,” “x,”… “2 + 2 = x” is a perfectly legitimate math equation. The teacher could not mark us as incorrect, because technically 2 + 2 does equal “x”!

Of course that is silly. The reason we did those problems was to learn information, not to merely provide a technically mathematically correct statement. We learned “2 + 2 = 4” so that someday when we see “2 + 2 = x” we could use the basic math skills learned to discover more than just “x.” We would learn that “x = 4.”

Yet as silly as that is, it is a technique I often see employed in our discussion about God. “God” is used (in the place of “x”) to make a logically possible statement, yet it really doesn’t provide us with any new information.

“How did the universe come into being?”

“Who establishes morality?”

“How did life come from non-life?”

The answer of “God” becomes a convenient tool by which a person can appear to have a resolution, yet upon closer inspection, we haven’t learned anything new at all. O.K, so “God” made the universe. How did God create Time? How does supernatural “cross over” to natural and affect the natural plane? Was God involved at only the Big Bang, or at various times along the way, or intimately active with every single nuance and step?

Did God create Freewill to do evil, if he can’t do evil? If God know everything, how could he create humor which depends on surprise? Did God create suffering? Is God complex or simple?

Numerous people confidently answer the question of how the universe started with “God” yet provide a variety of answers to these questions. Even within a particular religion, such as Christianity, the problem of theistic evolution, vs old earth creation vs young earth creation vs open theism, vs complete God control rages as Christians who equally agree as to the “God” that made the universe, fight over what that particular God looks like.

It’s like everybody agrees the answer is “x,” but no one can agree as to what number “x” is!

We so often see the confident, almost arrogant claim of “absolute morality” vested in a God. Yet the simple question, “Can God Lie?” remains a puzzle. When is genocide acceptable? When must a murderer be punished? When can they be shown mercy? What is the degree of punishment for what infractions?

Again, even with the agreed starting point of “God,” depending on the particular theist one talks to, these questions start to fragment off into differing and competing answers.

Is saying “God” any better than answering a second-grade question of “2 + 2” with “x”?

It is fun to watch pages and pages of material and time wasted on “who has the burden of proof in the discussion on God?” Atheists claim that since theists are making an affirmative statement: “There is a God,” the burden must squarely rest on the theist. That it is far more difficult to prove a negative, so atheists complain arguing “There is no God” is akin to arguing “There is no Easter Bunny” or “There is no invisible flying spaghetti monster.”

Theists claim that God-belief is so universal, and of such a majority, that since atheism is the minority position, clearly the burden should be on the atheist.

The tussle back and forth limps on to this day.

Frankly, I don’t mind assuming the burden of Proof. The only thing I ask is that the theist provides me with a description of their God. Tell me what “x” is, before I start to discuss whether it is a correct answer!

“God” is this nebulous answer that we grapple with trying to determine how possible it is, in light of the universe we observe, and because the theist leaves the answer deliberately mysterious, we feel as if we are wrestling with the wind! We are informed that this God is so much more powerful, so much more knowledgeable, not to mention not even material, so there is no possible way in which we could ever comprehend its existence. That if we had this knowledge and understanding, in addition to our observation, we would clearly understand that such a God exists.
If it was put into a math equation, it would look like this:

“Universe + Unachievable knowledge = Certainty that God Exists”

The only thing that is a constant number in that equation is: “Universe.” Everything else remains unknown! I feel as if we are discussing a problem similar to:

“2 + y = x” (Ain’t math fun?) Then we debate what is “x”? A bit useless, as whatever “y” is, will make a big difference as to what “x” is!

If “y = 8,” then x would have to be “10.” If “y” is 4, then x is “6.” If “y” has to be somewhere between “0” and “100” then x has to be between 2 and 102. But without knowing what “y” is, x could be just about anything!

Worse, we discuss concepts such as “freewill” and “consciousness” and “morality” and “love” and “life,” all of which add a different variable within this equation. Simply saying “God” is not enough. It is as if the person has said, “The Answer is ‘x,’” when every book, every teacher, every professor and every answer key as a different solution and a different answer as to what “x” is.

We also learn that whatever “x” was in the first math problem does not mean that “x” will be the same number in the next. Yet somehow, when using “God” in the place of “x” we are to presume it is all one and the same.

“What has every culture included within its society?”
“Right. Therefore my God exists.”

Whoa, whoa, WHOA! Where did we make that leap? Just because the answer to the first question is “God” does not mean much. In fact, more people disagree than agree with your particular concept of God.

“The universe requires a designer.”
“Therefore my God exists.”

No. At best one has proven a deistic type entity exists. Over and over I see this leap from “here is an argument for God—therefore the Calvinistic Protestant Christian Inerrant Literal Bible God exists.” It presumes that all “x’s” are the same. If Intelligent Design proves “x” exists, and the Christian is attempting to prove “x” is “God” then the jump is made—Intelligent Design proves the Christian God exists.

No, not all “x’s” are the same.

Look, you want these arguments for God? You want them to prove something? You want “God” to be a real answer? Give us more than a three letter word. Give us some concrete descriptions of what this answer is. Don’t answer every question with the same “x.” Give us an answer that has some information within it.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Bashed Potatoes?

“Bashing Christians.” I have heard that phrase now twice in as many days. What exactly must one do to “bash” a Christian?

The impression given is that we have run out of arguments; we have run out of debate; we have depleted all common courtesy. That all we have left is the ability to hurl unrelenting insults, with no basis. The image of a man, towering over his victim, and beating him with a stick over and over without cause.

Admittedly, I can be quite involved in my discussions on-line, and certainly suffer from arguing a topic about four posts too many. I am sure that a few people have walked away from me feeling a bit black-and-blue. But is that “bashing Christians?”

Is simply discussing Christianity from a skeptical point of view enough to achieve the label of “Bashing”? Why? A Christian is claiming to hold “Truth.” Not some minor, little “truth” like one falls if one steps off a cliff—rather some big “Truth” that was instituted by the very entity that created the concept of truth, created the language by which we can say truth, created the lips, the tongue, the ears and the mind by which each person who reads this understands immediately what I mean by “truth.”

You have God on your side! “If God is for you; who can be against you?” Rom. 8:31. Skepticism should not be feared—it should be welcomed! Every question and inquiry would give stronger demonstration of the viability of Christianity.

It seems rare, but once in a while I get a case where I hold truth. Every piece of evidence, every testimony, every inference falls directly in line with our theory of what happened. Every corner turned just gives greater justification, and more light on exactly what we propose.

I would LOVE to take those cases to trial! Oh, what fun to watch the story unfold exactly as I portrayed in my opening statement. “Please, please,” I beg my opponent, “Take this to trial. Ask any imaginable question you have. Show again and again how right I am.” They settle.

A Christian is claiming to have ten times that amount of truth on their side. While it may not be as clear-cut as a human civil lawsuit, at the least they should welcome the opportunity to display the strength of their arguments and how skepticism emphasizes how strong their case is. Enough to convince the skeptic to settle.

Yet with this immeasurable amount of truth by which the Christian claims to support their position—what do we see? “You skeptics are too hard. You ask for too high a burden of proof. You just want to bash Christians.” They act like this is some school board debate as to whether to charge a dollar more to see the Varsity Basketball games in order to pay for new uniforms.

As if this is just one of many debates in which one human attempts to persuade another. The best argument God is not on your side? The fact you don’t act like it.

So what exactly are we doing that is “bashing Christians”? Have you ever asked yourself that? Rather than a reflex response of “that is bashing Christians,” have you paused for a moment and wondered why the other person is saying what they are saying?

Isn’t a sign of being a Christian that the world should hate you? (John 15:18-25) I would think the conversation would be more like this:

Christian: Are you bashing me?
Non-Believer: No.
Christian: Nuts. Because a sign that I am doing it right is that you should hate me.
Non-Believer: Why should I hate you?
Christian: How I live should convict you of the sin in your life.

Christians are commanded to love each other. John 15:12. We are supposed to be able to pick you out because of your love for each other. John 13:35. And THAT is why a Christian should be bashed. Because you are showing us up on how well you are at this loving thing.

Is that what we are saying? Are Christians hearing, “Wow. You guys sure display a level of compassion and concern for each other that is far above anything a human could do.” We all know the phrase: “Christians are the only army at war in which the wounded are killed.”

We deconverts have been in church. We have been in ministries. For years. We know the level of “love” Christians display for each other. (If sarcasm was measured by grains of sand, there is not enough sarcasm in the universe to cover that last sentence.)

Why are Christians complaining about being bashed? This is key--Because they recognize that they are not being bashed for the right thing! We cannot pick out Christians by reviewing the list of charitable contributors. We cannot pick out Christians by how they treat their fellow humans. We cannot pick out Christians by what they drive, by what they buy, by the people they associate with.

They aren’t being bashed for being loving—they are being bashed for being hateful.

Oh, don’t get self-righteous and assume that simply because we do not care for your attempts to legislate morality, that you must be doing something correctly. You DO understand that the Pharisees portrayed in the New Testament were also attempting to legislate morality and equally were hated for it. Somehow I don’t see bashing them as being approval from the Christian God for what they were doing.

First of all—it isn’t bashing for us skeptics to question precepts that Christians are attempting to foster as truth. If it is, (and truth from a God!) any question should be welcomed and addressed—not avoided and complained about.

Secondly, if you are going to be bashed—how about being bashed for the thing that your Bible says you will be hated for—your morals! All the arguments in the world become unconvincing if you don’t act like you believe it, either. You want to convince me you have faith in God? Rather than buy the newest, fanciest car, use some of that money toward a monthly contribution to a local homeless shelter. Care for the poor, the orphans, the widows. Rather than watch football on Sunday afternoon on your Big Screen TV; go to a nursing home and watch it on a 13” black and white with a lonely grandparent.

Start showing such a love for each other that we all want in.

Stop complaining about bashing if you are being bashed for the right thing.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Being Offensive

The world focuses attention on being politically correct. Avoiding some statement that might offend some particular group or person. Inevitably, by the very nature of concentrating so hard on not saying something, we invent whole new ways to be offensive.

Something that struck me recently, though, is that in the world of religious quips, it is more acceptable to add a statement or notation. To ask one to refrain is considered rude. (A great example is refraining from “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays.”)

This point was brought home by two incidents.

First, I still receive those general e-mails from friends and family which often include a verse at the end, or a statement about God blessing me. They know I am an atheist. They are well-aware that such statements have no meaning to me. But I am part of the crowd receiving the e-mail. A crowd that is mostly Christian. Should they erase that part from the e-mail before sending it to me to be “politically correct”?

Second, on a blog which concentrates in defending Christianity, an entry was placed about praying for an individual’s health. Since it is typically a free-for-all regarding discussion, not surprisingly a person eventually posted a comment regarding how prayer was ineffectual. The Christians were (also not surprisingly) shocked at the heartlessness of the comment. I have been told by people they are praying for me. Should I ask them to not, out of “political correctness”?

Don’t misunderstand me—I am not offended by some verse in a letter, or a statement of “I’ll pray for you.” Our society is pervasive with such things, and my particular environment has traditionally been inundated with it. I tend to overlook it.

But what if I did the same? What if I included in my e-mail a quote? Something along the lines of:

“Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand. – Mark Twain”

I already know my friends and family would be shocked. Offended. Taken aback. They would be hurt and puzzled over how mean it is that I would dare include such a blasphemous statement when I know they are a Christian. As if I was being deliberately odious.

Isn’t that a bit of a double standard? While I may not be bothered so much by some verse or quip, other people are. Yet Christians are not equally receptive. Part of it is the fact they are convinced they hold truth. That they are entitled to do such things, because it is the right thing to do. Adding a verse in a letter that might…just might lead someone to Jesus is the equivalent of giving a warning that drinking bleach might…just might be hazardous to one’s health.

While I am equally convinced that getting people to think with clever quotes is the “right thing to do” that is superceded by the fact that it offends others. Which is the wrong thing to do. Therefore I exercise restraint. Christianity cannot take that extra step. Offending others is part of the stamp of being a Christian.

If they are not offending us, they must be doing something wrong. If I dare ask, “Hey, can you not bother to send me a verse?” that is proof positive that the one thing they absolutely MUST do is send me a verse! It is validation that I must be “feeling the heat” and it is time to turn up the temperature.

Occasionally, in my discussions ‘round the net, I come across a Christian who says “I will pray for you.” I desperately want to tell them not to bother. It is a waste of time. Yet I know, if I dare even breath the slightest protest, they will only waste more time and effort in the endeavor. My request to not, is proof that they must.

I understand both the Christians on the blog being offended by the statements regarding the ineffectiveness of prayer, as well as the person who posted, since it was traditionally a blog that was open to such arguments. Christians have no problem (and I invite them) to post a comment on my blog regarding the fact I am going to hell, or am an apostate, or became an atheist because of some terrible sin. I will be more than happy to engage them in that discussion.

It seems a bit odd to have a blog such as this, and then complain if someone posts a comment that is not complimentary. But, Christians often feel that if we dare “return fire” on their sacred cows, it is rude and insulting. Why? Why can a Christian tell me “I will pray for you” and we must find that acceptable, but if I reply, “Good, I will think for you” then I am just being a nasty person.

Where is it written that a religious statement, regardless of the intention, must be viewed in the most positive light? Have I lost the opportunity to be offended?

Rather than pray for me, take a few moments and hug your spouse. Hug your child. Call up a friend and chat. It has more benefit.

It seems to me, the most politically correct thing to do is either stop tossing out religious post-it notes, OR stop being surprised when a few post-it notes come back your way.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

What's New?

I recently acquired a satellite radio and will confess that one of my guilty pleasures is to listen to Christian Talk Stations. Last Tuesday, I was listening to Albert Mohler discuss the media’s impact on families.

One thing he emphasized was to reduce media content itself; we should reduce the physical medium by which we receive information. He talked of the fact that when radios first came out, homes only had one. With the introduction of the transistor, homes gained more.

How when Television first came out, homes only had one. Now we have TV’s in every room. Or when we had one telephone in a house, rather than one telephone per appendage.

He was intoning that we should vastly reduce the number of items, since before it was “better.” That we were more wholesome, and Christian and Moral back in the Olden days, prior to this media explosion.

(Yes, the irony was not lost on me. I chuckled as I listened to a program on channel 170 out of almost 250 channels requesting we reduce our input! The fact that we even have so many choices made this broadcast possible.)

I thought, “Is older necessarily better?” But more importantly, “Why hasn’t God caught up with the times? When will He get involved in the communication explosion?”

We can moan and complain how complex machines have changed our lives. We could claim that before Television and Cable and MTV, life was simpler. Better. More wholesome.

The reality is that life is…different. In some ways better. In some ways worse.

At one time the only way to communicate was by one person talking to another. Then writing was invented, making it possible to communicate from one person to a number. With the invention of the printing press, mass communication was introduced, allowing numerous people to share the same information.

With a systematic postal system, we could communicate to one particular person across the world with a specific writing. What took months to deliver began to take weeks. Then days. The radio/telephone provided us an opportunity to actually talk with another person who was many miles away.

Along came faxes, internet, e-mail, text messaging, and now with broadband, video interchange. There is so much opportunity to interact, that many of us feel like we can NEVER unplug and go back to that one-on-one conversation. Too busy faxing, e-mailing and blogging!

Is it better? Sure, I can obtain the instructions to build a Navajo house, with a simple Google search and a click of a button. Is it worse? Yes, I can also access illegal pornography 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

While listening to Rev. Mohler attempt to persuade his audience to (apparently) go on a machine destroying binge, I was not convinced. We have these items and media and content available to us. Rather than turn a blind eye to them, we should teach discretion about utilizing them.

But where has God been in all this? Why hasn’t God caught up in the media craze?

According to Christianity, the last time God actually appeared on earth was sometime in 33 C.E. Plus or minus 3 years. Then, for a short period of time, he inspired (however we want to define that) some authors to write about him. By 150 C.E., this dried up, too.

For a short period of time, people could perform fantastic miracles, raise the dead, handle snakes, and even their shadow would heal others! But those ended, too.

For almost 2000 years God has been silent. Oh, there is still the claim of some internal “feeling” or a passing thought one attributes to an internal communication. There are claims of some miracle happening where a person is cured of cancer. Nothing like a blind person seeing simply because he happened to be standing in the right spot on a sunny day! No dead rising from the graves!

For all the hype and pomp about “God working” all we see are people, contributing money, time and effort, so that other people are benefited. No church building appears overnight—it takes bonds, and contributions and building committees and campaigns. People do not miraculously flock to church. That takes programs, and visitation, and signs and lights and special events. No coins appearing in fishes to pay for churches.

Imagine if God really did inspire some author in this century. She or he would be lambasted by the public for daring to equate their writing to the level of inspiration!

For nigh 2000 years, Christianity has had the same Television. The same phone. The same radio. No upgrades, no new gadgets—nothing that has kept up with the times.

One problem with American law, is that it inherently is always a little behind the times. Many statutes are implemented to react to a situation, not to anticipate a situation. We had to enact a whole new group of laws with the advent of financial transactions by telephone. Another set because of automobiles. Yet another because of automatic weapons. Another because of the internet.

Over and over we see a new technology or event, and subsequently a law created to monitor that technology.

Yet the Bible (and consequently the Christian God) has not equally kept up to the task. Unlike the law, it never modifies. It is caught in the same four walls. We now have issues with abortion. Or the morning after pill. Or contraception.

Issues not contemplated in the First Century. And now Christians struggle, because their Bible, which was prepared by people who never dreamed of the state of the world today, is unequipped to handle our problems.

The Bible archaically handles women in authority. We now have women CEO’s and leaders of Government who can’t teach an adult male Sunday School thanks to the Bible. The Bible discusses how one should treat their slaves. Not very relevant in today’s society.

Today we have frozen embryos. The Bible is silent as to that situation. We have the possibility of cloning. Again, the Bible is silent. We have step-children and multiple divorces and evolution and cosmology and interaction with a huge variety of beliefs and cultures. All of which the Bible is completely inadequate to deal with.

At what point does one question that it is time for God to step in and provide some new insight? See, the one answer—“There is no god” fits every question. Why did the ancient Hebrews write from a perspective limited to their knowledge? Because there was no god giving direction. Why did the New Testament writers address their concerns, with their limited knowledge? Again, no god.

Don’t act shocked—every religion holds that some other religion demonstrates a remarkable limitation of knowledge because there is no god behind it. Christians make fun of Mormons, as their books and beliefs appear to be so human. But become somber if you dare question why the New Testament is ill-equipped to handle the technological advances of today.

Why hasn’t God provided any new insight? Because there is no God. That answer fits every single time.

Perhaps Christians should not be asking if older is better, but rather at what point does older become out-dated.