Kindergartner Told Not To Pray At School

This morning, as I checked my email, I saw a headline similar to the one that leads this post and inwardly groaned. It has all the markers of the kind of modern-day Christian persecution story that people love to rally behind, just like this one:

But how believable are these stories? As one of the articles I read this morning points out, there are already some reasons to be a bit skeptical of this story about the kindergartner. If it really happened, then it’s certainly a deplorable situation — teachers have no right to stop a child from saying a prayer. They also have no right to force a child to pray. Sadly, many of the people who become incensed over the first scenario don’t realize they should be just as incensed over the second. The United States government has no right to infringe upon any individual’s religious freedoms. That’s why it’s so important to make sure our government keeps its neutrality.

Many Christians think they would like to live in a “Christian” nation, but whose definition of Christianity will be upheld? Will it be those who believe women should have no authority over a man? Will it be those who believe that all the Old Testament laws are still supposed to be followed, like sacrifice and stoning? What about those who believe interracial marriage is a sin, or those who think worshiping with instrumental music is wrong? These are the same problems that the early pilgrims were trying to avoid when they came to this country. And even then they often got it wrong, as the Salem witch trials illustrate.

We should all be thankful that we have religious freedom in this country. But having religious freedom does not mean we’re “free” to push our religious views on others. So when organized prayer was taken out of public schools, that was not an attack on religious freedom, it was a defense of it.

What really gets me about things like this story and the recent movie God Is Not Dead is that they’re often attempts to make people feel like religion is under attack in the modern world. That’s simply not true. I find the setup for that movie incredibly unbelievable. I can totally see a philosophy professor being arrogant — but a philosophy professor who is that dogmatic about forcing people to give up theism? I don’t buy it. The whole point of philosophy is to consider different ideas. Forcing someone to believe a particular thing runs completely counter to philosophy. And they also make the same old and unfounded accusation that down deep atheists believe the evidence supports God, but we’re just angry with him. It’s ridiculous and inaccurate, but it’s what many people want to hear.

Regardless of whether or not this little girl was really forced to stop praying, I would love to see a story like this promote a larger dialog about what religious freedom really is. I’m not holding my breath though.

The Omnimalevolent Creator and the Problem of Good

Nate:

John Zande’s post is a brilliant work of satire that shows the problems of trying to match the state of our universe to the existence of an omni-benevolent god. Definitely worth a read.

Originally posted on the superstitious naked ape:

An adaptation of Christopher New’s 1993 essay: Antitheism, A Reflection

 man_drought_20090718If we found a bomb concealed in a children’s kindergarten, primed and set to detonate when it would wreak the greatest possible carnage, we would reasonably assume that someone vicious and vile – someone evil – had designed the device and had purposefully put it there maximise suffering. How much more reasonable must it be for the impartial observer to then attribute the world as we know it to a vicious and vile, non-contingent, omnipresent, omnipotent, omnimalevolentdesigner? Is this not, after all, the most likely explanation for the world before us?

Who else but a perfectly malevolent being would arrange for the enormous suffering present and guaranteed in our perilously thin, blisteringly violent biosphere? Think of the pain and destruction wrought by earthquakes, floods, cyclones, tornadoes, droughts, famines and disease. Would a benevolent designer have made provision for…

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Girl With Terminal Cancer Displays Generosity

I don’t usually post about this kind of thing, but I saw a story this morning about a teenage girl in Utah with terminal cancer who has donated her Make-A-Wish money to her local high school. She’s been receiving treatments in Salt Lake City for months, but her parents have finally brought her home, since there’s little more that can be done for her. Her whole town turned out to welcome her home. The news segment is worth watching:

http://www.ksl.com/?sid=28649941

This is a prime example of the “problem of suffering/evil” that we often talk about, and we naturally wish we could help people in these circumstances. Like most people who read my blog, I don’t believe prayer is effective, so there’s nothing I can do on that score. But her family is saddled with some high medical bills, so for anyone who would like to help out, a fundraising site has been set up for her here.

Fine-Tuning

There was a time when I found the fine-tuning argument alone to be sufficient for belief in god. I still think it’s a pretty good one, though it doesn’t get you anywhere close to the personal god that most religious people believe in. That said, I’ve reached a point where I no longer find it persuasive, not even for a deistic god.

There’s a whole laundry list of details we could rattle off about our universe, any of which, if it had been the slightest bit different, would have prevented life as we know it from existing. That’s staggering to think about, and it’s no wonder that many people find this reason enough to believe in God. But I think the biggest problem with it is that it looks at our situation backwards. It takes the current state of things and projects backwards through time, pointing out all the details that were necessary to get us to this point. But that’s a game we can play with any scenario.

People do it all the time with their personal lives, for instance. They think about their spouse, their children, their job, and they think “how would things have turned out if I had never done X?” Or even consider your own existence. If your parents had married different people, or even if they had just conceived at a slightly different time, you wouldn’t be here. And not just your parents, but their parents, and their parents, and their parents, all the way back through history. If any of them had died young, or made different choices, you would not exist. The odds that you as an individual are here as opposed to all the other people that could have been here but aren’t are astounding. But few people would claim that it took divine intervention to get you here.

When we consider the universe as a whole, if things had been different, then we wouldn’t be here to think about it. Maybe some other species would be wondering at the incredible combination of factors that were needed to them to get here. Or maybe there would be nothing conscious at all.

Our universe was here for 14 billion years before we were able to stand in awe of our existence. Is it reasonable for us to assume that it was all done for us? Just a 14 billion year lead up to feature us as the climax?

Some Questions for my Fellow Nonbelievers

I was having a discussion with a friend of mine the other day, and it started me on a certain train of thought about two topics in particular. I think they’re often points of misunderstanding between those who are religious and those who aren’t. I have my own thoughts about these two issues, but I’d really like to hear from the other nonbelievers who read this blog. As always, Christian commentary is welcome too.

  1. If the Bible’s claims about God, Jesus, miracles, etc are untrue, what were the motives of the people who wrote it?
  2. Many nonbelievers view Christians’ efforts at teaching their children and others as indoctrination. Is that a fair term? Why do we view it as indoctrination? And if that’s what it is, what is the point of it? Furthermore, are we indoctrinating our own children against religion? If we’re striving for open-mindedness, should we try to teach our children about religious perspectives as well?

Again, I have my own thoughts regarding these questions. I think they’re often asked (or unasked) in a way that carries some assumptions, and I’ve tried to leave those intact. So if you feel that the questions aren’t phrased correctly, feel free to address that in your response as well.

I almost never directly ask for comments, yet my posts usually get quite a few. It will be just my luck that no one comments now that I’m asking. :)

Love and Compulsion

I’m currently reading a book where the author said that God remains hidden from us today so that we may freely choose to love him or not. You can’t generate love through compulsion, he argued. And he’s right about that. As an illustration, he gave Kierkegaard’s story about a king in disguise:

Once upon a time, there was a king who longed to marry. One day, as he was riding through his kingdom, he happened to see a very beautiful young lady in a poorer section of the kingdom. He was struck by her beauty, so he found reasons to travel through there more often, even getting the chance to speak to her on occasion. As time went by, he realized he wanted to pursue a relationship with the woman, but how should he go about it?

As king, he could have her brought to the palace so that he could court her, or even propose marriage immediately. It would be very hard for her to refuse the king, but he wanted to marry for love. So he also considered dressing as a peasant in order to get to know her, and only revealing his true identity if she genuinely fell in love with him. But the dishonesty inherent in that approach was unappealing.

He finally thought of a real solution. He would give up his station as king and move into her neighborhood as a regular citizen, perhaps taking up a profession like carpentry [wink, wink]. Then, if she came to love him, they could marry, and he would know that her love was truly for him and not his position.

It’s a nice story, and its application is clear. God loves us and wants us to love him. Because of his position, he could command our love, but then it would not be genuine. His solution was to come in the flesh as Jesus, giving up his position in Heaven so that we could come to know him and love him legitimately.

But when you think about it, this isn’t an accurate illustration at all. In the story, the young woman only stands to gain. If she never meets the king, or if she never falls in love with him, then her life is no worse than it was before. But this is not what Christianity teaches. It claims that all humans are sinful, and we need saving. A better illustration would be a story where people on a cruise have fallen overboard. Someone still on the ship offers to throw the people a life preserver. Will those people first try to get to know him before they accept his offer? Of course not! They’ll happily take any help they can get. All that they really needed was to understand how serious their situation was.

To show the effectiveness of this, consider so many of the conversion accounts in the Book of Acts, especially chapter 2. Peter preaches to the crowd on the Day of Pentecost, and (supposedly) about 3000 of them were converted to Christ that day because of Peter’s message. Did they really know who Jesus was? Did they really have a deep relationship with him at that point? No. The implication is that they simply became convinced that they needed what only he could offer. They were drowning, and they needed rescue. According to that passage, that’s all that was required.

But since God is so well hidden that we can question his very existence, many of us don’t even know we need saving. Oh sure, there are people from a thousand different faiths telling us we need salvation, but the evidence they give to support this claim is woefully inadequate. Why doesn’t God give us a bigger sign, if we’re really in trouble? Why doesn’t he just tell us directly? Why aren’t all these people who are so ready to believe in God united by a single religion? It’s hard to believe there’s a fire when there’s no trace of smoke.

The most glaring problem with this story is Hell. Not all Christians believe in a literal, torturous Hell, but many do, including the author of this book I’ve been reading. How is Hell not compulsion? To fit it into the illustration, we’d need to change a few details. Instead of the king passively waiting to see if the maiden will accept him, he promises his love, but also promises to roast her alive if she refuses his advances. It’s not quite so nice a story when we add in that detail.

When you get right down to it, Christianity is all about compulsion. God loves you, and he doesn’t want to force you to love him or serve him. Of course if you don’t, you’ll be tortured forever.

This only shows that the problem of God’s hiddenness hasn’t been solved at all. The author of this book, as well as many other Christians, say that God is hidden so we can have the “freedom” to either believe in him or not. But their reasoning is faulty, since Christianity gives us no such freedom. It’s like saying you’re free to commit murder in the US, even though it could earn you the death penalty in most states. The fact that there are laws prohibiting it means you aren’t free to do it. When you consider that the Christian God has every reason to let us all know he exists and that he expects certain things from us, the fact that he doesn’t do this is really all the evidence you need to see that he’s either not real, or he’s not all-loving and all-good.

Secular Activism vs Atheist Evangelism

Nate:

Excellent post — definitely worth reading. A couple of quotes that stand out:

Everyone in this world probably believes a silly thing, or two, or three, and while I do agree that silly and untrue things should be debunked, I no longer feel they should be debunked whenever possible. They should be debunked whenever appropriate.

It takes a high level of integrity to actively fight for principle, even if you disagree with the position.

Originally posted on A Point of Contention:

I was recently having a discussion with a member of the relatively new Secular grassroots organization SecularityUSA (check them out when you have time at globalsecular.org/secularityusa). During that discussion we discussed the difference between Atheism, and Secularity as Political objectives. Those terms are certainly not mutually exclusive, so perhaps it would be more clear to say that we discussed the difference between the kind of Atheism that seeks to undermine Religious belief, and the kind of Atheism that seeks to undermine Religious authority, a very important distinction.

I will not pretend to be a paragon of either camp. I enjoy fierce academic debate as much as the next Skeptic. I know the reasons why Kalam is a silly argument to make and I am not shy in the least about saying so. However, over the past couple of years, I have become aware of a gradual but important shift in…

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Paul: An Assessment

In the last post, we took a deep look at Romans 9, and I was quite critical of what Paul had to say. However, in many ways, I actually feel sorry for Paul. Let me start by saying I’m no scholar, so my assessment of Paul and his motivations is likely way off. But I definitely get a particular impression of him when I read his writings, and I felt like sharing it.

First of all, I think that Paul really meant well. Just look at how he starts off Romans chapter 9:

I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit — 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.

Paul knows that many of his fellow Jews did not follow after Jesus, so he worries about their souls. But he says that if he had the power, he would accept damnation on their behalf, if it would save them. That’s admirable.

I see Paul as a very educated and devout Jew who was struggling with the world in which he found himself. Imagine growing up and believing that you’re part of God’s chosen race, and that he has promised to one day send a Messiah who will save your people and lead them to glory. But in Paul’s time, it would be easy to wonder why this hadn’t happened. The Israelites had lived through captivity by the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman empires. For centuries, they had been passed back and forth among the various world powers, and there was no end in sight.

In addition to the difficulties that came with the idea of a Jewish world power, Paul’s immersion in Greek culture probably made him quite sympathetic to the Greek way of life. Why would God only pursue a relationship with one group of people, when Paul could see that people were largely the same, regardless of their nationality or ethnicity?

In Jesus, Paul could reconcile both of those problems. Instead of viewing the Messiah as a physical ruler that would lead the Jewish nation to power, what if the Messiah was meant to bring spiritual deliverance? That would explain why God had left the Jews under foreign rule, and it opened up the possibility of a relationship with God for all people. As he thought about the Jewish scriptures, he felt that some passages seemed to allude to this very idea.

Of course, this did bring a problem as well. Many Jews had not accepted Jesus as the Messiah, and this made Paul worry about his countrymen. But in Romans 11, he wrote that there was still hope for the Jews — the door was always open for them to accept Jesus and gain their rightful place with God’s people.

There also seems to be some concern with the Problem of Evil. Why did good things happen to bad people? Why did bad things happen to good people? Why were there bad people at all? Why was there so much corruption in the Jewish leaders of his time? I think this is part of what he’s exploring in Romans 9. He’s trying to explain that bad people factor into God’s plan, by giving him opportunity to show his power and magnificence. And by comparison, they make God’s mercy seem even more amazing and extravagant. It’s a distasteful notion to most of us today, but in Paul’s time, a god that operates via “might makes right” probably seemed rather natural.

In a lot of ways, I can see how Paul came to view Christianity as a solution to the inconsistencies he was experiencing from the combination of his Greek culture and Jewish faith. It probably seemed like a convenient way to tie everything together into something more optimistic than the narrow definition of “God’s people” that Paul had grown up with. At least in Paul’s Christianity, there was an opportunity for all people to be saved, regardless of ethnicity.

As I said, I’m no scholar, so my ideas of Paul and his motivations are worth very little. They’re likely a good bit off the mark. But when I read his epistles, this is the impression of him I often get. I’d be interested to hear what you guys think…

Romans 9: A Divine and Fickle Dictator

It had been a while since I’d read Romans 9, but an email correspondence that I keep with a Christian caused me to read it last night. When I was a Christian, this chapter had always been difficult for me, but that’s because I was trying to fit it within my own theology. Last night, I was struck by several things I had forgotten and thought it would be worth sharing.

For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls — she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
– verses 6-13

Here, Paul makes a distinction between those who belong to Israel by birth, and those who are children of Abraham by faith. In other words, just because someone is Jewish does not mean he/she is really God’s child. He then points out that even before Jacob and Esau were old enough to know right from wrong, God rejected Esau in favor of Jacob. That seems a little arbitrary, doesn’t it?

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
– verses 14-18

So is God being unjust in choosing one infant over another? Not according to Paul. Why? Because God can do what he wants.

What kind of answer is that? If Paul’s argument were true, then there would be no such thing as right and wrong. God is always right, regardless of his behavior, because whatever he does is right by default. That flies in the face of what most Christians believe today, yet that’s Paul’s position. And he anticipates an argument about it:

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, oh man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory — even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
– verses 19-24

Paul’s only defense is that we can’t question God. But we’re not questioning God, Paul, we’re questioning you and the authors of the Old Testament.

And don’t miss what Paul says here. He’s saying that God creates some people to show mercy toward, and he creates others that he can use to demonstrate his power. He’s a god with an inferiority complex. Such a god does not actually care for his creation; he uses them as pawns for his own glory. And who is this god trying to impress? Obviously not humans, if he thinks so little of us. And he’s supposedly the only deity, so who’s he putting on the show for?

And what about Paul’s argument regarding the potter and the clay? On one hand, there’s a decent point there. It’s kind of like “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” If someone gives you something, don’t be overly critical of it. So if God gave us life, who are we to question him on the quality of it? The problem is Paul is saying more than that. He’s saying if God created you and finds you inadequate, you can’t put that back on God — you can’t complain “why did you make me this way?” But Paul’s wrong about that. If God’s not happy with how humanity turned out, that’s not our fault, it’s his. It would be like a child putting a model together incorrectly and then becoming angry at the model. It’s not the model’s fault that the child built it wrong, so it would be unjust to take that out on the model.

Paul’s God is fickle and arbitrary. He makes people like Pharaoh disobedient, and then punishes them for their disobedience. He picks others for glory and mercy, who have done nothing to merit such favor. The sad thing is that many Christians view this as a good thing and talk about God’s wondrous mystery and mercy. This is not a good thing. Such a God is untrustworthy. Unlimited power and a personality disorder make for a very dangerous combination.

And the description of God in this chapter is at odds with other passages that claim God is the embodiment of love and wants all men to be saved. Both versions can’t be right. In addition to its contradictory descriptions of God, the Bible is filled with all kinds of contradictory accounts, failed prophecies, immoral commandments, bad science, and faulty history. Why do so many people, even after learning about the Bible’s faults, continue to believe that it teaches anything accurate about the supernatural?

2013 in Review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 49,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 18 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Thanks to all of you who follow along and contribute to the discussion!
Click here to see the complete report.