Archive for atheism

Dear atheist

Posted in atheism, relationships, Religion, Science with tags , , , , on March 2, 2015 by shirhashirim

My wife was watching a video on her new smart phone the other day and from a distance I heard some of its text. So I jokingly yelled at her: ‘you’re not watching evangelical propaganda are you?’ Much to my surprise she wasn’t. It was this video:

Every time I find atheist propaganda, I can’t but sigh and think of Dostoyevsky’s dictum: ‘When I discuss faith with an unbeliever, he’s talking about something else.’ Still, as the Dutch protestant theologist Miskotte said: ‘Atheists are our natural allies, because they ask the right questions’ and at least some questions posed in te video are worth answering. So here I go…

Dear believer, have you ever stopped to consider why you believe what you believe? Have you ever thought about why you chose the religion you chose? Why do you believe in Jesus Christ as the only means to eternal salvation and not in karma, or reincarnation? Why do you believe that Allah is the one true God and Mohammed is His prophet and not in the four noble truths of the Buddha? Why do you hold the Thorah as the only revealed word of God and not the Baghavat Gita?

I’m perfectly happy to explain to you why I married my wife. I’m also perfectly happy that I’ve never been required to explain why I did not marry the 3,5 billion other women in the world.
In fact I do not expect anyone to oblige me to explain my choices – of spouse, of profession, of breakfast cereal even – in terms of an exhaustive list of reasons for excluding every conceivable alternative.
No Samaritan should be required to explain his rejection of the Baghavat Gita and all other holy writs in favour of the Thorah, before being taken seriously. Nor should any Muslim be compelled to first convincingly reject Buddha and all other religious founders before his viewing Muhammad as Gods prophet can be discussed.
Flooding people with an exhaustive list of alternatives to tackle first is – at best – an obsessive deviation and – at worst – a dishonest trick. In my language there’s a proverb for this: ‘One fool can ask more questions than a thousand wise men can answer.’

Dear believer, do you ever wonder why your heaven resembles a utopian earth and is composed of same base elements found right here on this planet? Do you ever wonder why your dede governs within a power structure that resembles that of the specific time and place in which your holy text was written? Do you ever wonder why your God looks just like you, or the animals with whom you share the planet?

My heaven certainly does not resemble a utopian earth, just as my hell doesn’t resemble a distopian earth, for the simple reason that I have no idea what the afterlife, in whatever form, may look like. I don’t even know whether it can ‘look’ or be ‘like’ anything we know. The same goes for other concepts, like – just to name a random example – God who does not ‘look’, nor is ‘like’ anything. That idea is common to an alarmingly large number of believers of whatever denomination.

Dear believer, is the faith you practice the dominant one within your culture? Do you not find it at least a little suspicious that the overwhelming majority of all religious believers adopt the religion of the society into which they were born, yet remain convinced they’ve locked out or been divinely admitted into the one true faith? Does it not make you at least somewhat apprehensive that allmost every person of faith chooses belief, not because of its virtues, supporting evidence, moral codes or expression of worship, but rather because it was what they were born into? Why out of the abundance of faith choices available does almost every believer on the planet choose the faith that’s within arms reach? Are you a Christian because you were born in America or Europe? A Muslim because you were born in Saudi Arabia or Indonesia? A Buddhist because you were born in Japan or China? A Hindu because you were born in India? Can it be that faith is, in almost every case, just an accident of geography? Do you sincerely believe that had you been born in another country, you’d undoubdedly still be practicing the same faith you now embrace?

And did you know that a vast majority of lovers out of an abundance of choices of partner, choose a spouse from the same country that they were born in? Even if they live in another? Even worse: most of them choose a spouse that speaks the same language, practices the same religion, grew up in the same social class and enjoyed the same level of education. In short: they choose a spouse that is within arms reach. Yet they remain convinced they’ve been – for some of us more or less divinely – admitted into a true and unique relationship. Does it not make you at least somewhat apprehensive that love is – in almost every case – an accident of geography, linguistics, education and social class? Yet the majority of couples live complete and fulfilled lives without ever being sure they’ve chosen the best spouse for themselves.
Most people are born into a religion that they stick to for the rest of their lives, judging by mere labels that is. But during their lives they have to regularly make the choice of remaining in there or changing their faith. Most do change it because they grow up, become adults, gather new life experiences, grow old and gather even more. Changing your faith however hardly ever requires you to change your religion. It depends a bit on the religion: in the white Anglosaxon and protestant corner of the world every disagreement about an iota or comma requires founding a new church, in the Hindu corner of the world, and many others, anything goes.
The point is: those that ultimately do not change their religion discover their faiths virtues, supporting evidence, moral codes and expression of worship in the course of their lives. So it is not correct to say people choose their religion because they were born into it at the exclusion of its virtues, supporting evidence, moral codes and expression of worship. Both are important, decisive even, at varying points in life.

Dear believer, is the faith you practice that of your parents and their parents before them? Is it the first to which you were exposed? Did you know that nearly all religious devotees end up believing what they were taught to believe by their parents? Why is it that we scoff at the idea of labelling a young person a Republican child or a Marxist child or a Keynesian child, understanding he or she lacks the intellectual discrimination, life experience and wisdom to make such a complicated and nuanced decision, but we do not raise so much as an eyebrow when a youngster is referred to as a Christian child? Surely a choice no less complex. Could it be that there’s no such thing as a Muslim child, just a child of Muslim parents?

I could not possibly answer your first question, as the faith of my dad differed vastly from that of my mom and mine again differs a lot from both, although by mere denomination we’re are all three Roman Catholics. So no, even though we share the same label, I did not ‘end up’ believing what my parents taught me to believe and I happen to know neither did they, even though all four of my grandparents shared the same label.
Everyone’s faith changes though life because people – and the world –  change: they grow up and grow old and meanwhile they gather the intellectual discrimination, life experience and wisdom that goes with their age – or so we hope – and faith cannot do anything else but change with that. It doesn’t ‘end up’, not if you look close enough, not if you look past the labels.
We scoff at the idea of calling a child Marxist or Keynesian because it is clearly nonsensical. Most of us get to know Marx and Keynes in our teenage years at the earliest, when our society thinks it’s time for our youngsters to learn about economical theory. But we get to know humanity – or the lack thereof – from the very first day of our lives, maybe even earlier. We get into contact with humanity though the filter that are our parents – in the first place – and our culture at large. Whether we like it or not, this is what defines us. So we rightly do not raise an eyebrow when a child is called Catholic or Muslim just as we do not mind calling it English, Arabic, Catalan or Kurdish or even ‘lower class’ or ‘nobility’.
Making choices with regards to faith is, in essence, as easy as dealing with other people. Adults do it, but kids do it too, both in their own way. It’s not like choosing a Marxist approach to economy, it’s more like choosing to smile. And that decision can be made as easy or as difficult as you want it to be.

Dear believer, you are supremely confident in your faith, you know it is the right one and all others are wrong. You are literally willing to bet your eternal soul on that very fact. And yet, have you ever stopped to consider that there are two dozen major religions and literally thousands of different faiths practiced on this planet? Did you know that within Christianity alone there are more than 45.000 different denominations, each claiming to understand ultimate truth better than all the others? Do you realise that each member of every faith practiced is just as devout, just as sincere and their conviction every bit as sure as yours? Did you know they too read infallible holy texts, have airtight apologetics, have experienced miracles, feel God’s presence, sense His still small voice, obediently follow His perfect will for their lives, love Him indescribably and can defend their belief with the same fervency as you do yours? (armed Israeli soldier pictured here) And yet, since every religion is mutually exclusive and contradicts the others in matters both large and small, they cannot all be right, right? You know, you just know, your faith is the exception and yet, if every member of every faith feels just as you do, what are the odds you’re right?

I am not supremely confident in my faith, nor do I think all other religions are wrong. Only a fundamentalist thinks like that and as everyone who reads a newspaper now and then knows, fundamentalists may be the group that manages to make the largest amount of fuzz, they are also a minority.
Among the 45.000 denominations in Christianity I know of a few that explicitly claim the very opposite of what you claim them to believe. And even on a larger scale you are quite wrong: Christianity – in whatever form – cannot consider Judaism ‘wrong’ by definition. It would undermine their own faith to do so. They can regard Judaism as incomplete, at most, but not as wrong. It’s even worse for Islam which cannot view either Judaism or Christianity as wrong, although here too ‘incomplete’ is an option.
Neither will you find that all Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and other monotheists reject Islam as wrong, and vice versa, for the simple reason that if you both believe in one God, it necessarily has to be the same One.
And with Islam we haven’t seen the end of this. Hinduism has a tendency towards syncretism to such an extent that my teacher of oriental history thought only one definition of a Hindu was valid: a Hindu was anyone who claimed to be a Hindu. Buddhism too turns out to be a religion that in some cases is perfectly compatible with other religions.
Then there are the ethnic religions of which there are many more than global ones. They have no missionary zeal whatsoever and lack any of the claims you describe: their religion is for their own group, and for nobody else. You couldn’t get in there even if you wanted to. They’re usually small and unknown and only get into the news when religious fanatics threaten their existence: Yezidi’s and Mandaeans for example.
Not all religions use holy texts, in fact, the majority doesn’t. And those religions which do use holy texts, do not always hold them to be infallible. They are generally held to be sacred, true, inspired or inspiring, or any combination of those, but infallible holy texts are the hallmark of fundamentalists, again.
And last but not least: when will atheists finally learn that 99.99% of all believers worldwide have never seen a miracle, never felt Gods presence nor ever heard His voice. For the love of God, get over this obsession with the supernatural, will you?

Dear believer, I’ve often been told that my unbelief is a guarantee of missing out on heaven and ending up in hell, but who’s heaven, who’s hell? I’ve often been told that I should – just to be safe – accept God, after all, what have I got to lose? But whose God? Given so many options, aren’t I more likely to choose incorrectly? Might not I be better off wagering on no God rather than on the wrong God? You put it to me: what if you’re wrong? But what if you’re wrong? What if, rather than Jehovah, Allah is the one true God, or Shiva or Wu Tan, or some God on the other side of the planet you’ve never even heard of yet? The truth is, you already know what it’s like to be an atheist in regards to every other faith, but your own. It’s clear to you that adherents to other faiths are mistaken, deluded or deceived. But they think the same of you. The way you view them is exactly the way they view you. Every devout Hindu has embraced his faith for the exact same reasons you have embraced yours, yet you do not find his reasons compelling, nor do you lose sleep at night, fearing that if you die, you’ll wake up in his hell. Given this, is it so hard to see why some of us just take our atheism one God further?

This is an easy one. See, the point is – to complicate matters further – you don’t have to choose among the many available religions, you can come up with your own faith. In fact: you have no other choice. Because the answer to your question: ‘whose God?’ is: ‘your God’ and the same goes for heaven and hell. As long as you stick to that you cannot go wrong, even if you are. There must be things, principles, values in your life that you hold sacred, maybe not in a religious sense, but still: you hold them to be somehow sacrosanct. Without them life as you see it would be hell (but not in a religious sense necessarily), with them, it could become heaven (ditto). And they may not be arguable or supported by empirical evidence or battle proven, but still, you prefer them over anything else. They may be as simple and irrational as ‘always be kind’, ‘if in doubt, choose life’ or ‘as long as it liberates people, it’s ok’.
If that eventually means you’ll be an atheist, chapeau to you, because it is always preferable to be a good atheist than a bad Amish, or any of the other 45.000 denominations.
The only thing I hope you’ll not end up with, is thinking that all others are mistaken, deluded or deceived, because that’s not what believers think, it’s what a fundamentalist thinks, or Richard Dawkins.

Dear believer, I wonder if religions aren’t just ancient constructs in which early humans attempted to both explain and control the chaotic world around them. Though irrational in content, their emergence certainly isn’t. We do not blame our ancestors for inventing religion. There is no shame whatsoever in stumbling when you are blind or failing to properly construct a puzzle in the dark. But we no longer live in the dark. Science is ablaze in our world and illuminates our way, dissipating shadows and exposing even the deepest of crevasses. We no longer live in a cave, we have crossed the valley, scaled the mountains and have begun to make out the magnifcent vista on the other side. We no longer require comforting stories to make us feel safe or valued. Is it not time that our beliefs match our discoveries? Is it not time that our ideas reflect our new perspective? There is equal, if not greater awe in reality than there is in fantasy. Perhaps it is time to stop telling ourselves that we are the reason the universe was made, that our culture is somehow better than other cultures, that our tribe was chosen over all other tribes (pictures of orthodox Jews here). It is time to learn how the universe really is, even if that deflates our conceits, wounds our pride, humbles our point of view and forces us to admit that we do not have all the answers.

Some religions may have originated that way, specifically the ones we tend to label ‘pagan’. But – contrary to a widespread misunderstanding – early humans were smart enough to realise that they really were not capable to control the chaotic world around them by whatever means. It took a bit longer to discover that the explanation part was just as impossible, but still, we found that out too.
As a result, most of the major religions on the planet developed into beliefs that were anything but comforting and reassuring. It questioned our deepest religious convictions and practices. It introduced us to uncomfortable concepts like human inadequacy, guilt, obligations and prohibitions. It taught us annoying things like law and obedience and just when we had gotten the message and had settled into our new habit, it taught us to question the Lawgiver and the value of disobedience. It also taught us to question our ideas about superiority, of our tribe, of our religion, our culture, even of ourselves. Most of all, it taught us the rather unpleasant idea that we might still be living in the dark, despite all the mountaineering metaphores.
Sure, we know about the beginning of the universe, but that does not help us to say sorry to our spouses. We can split an atom, but we cannot end a war. We can put a man on the moon, but we cannot end homelessness. And when our fellow man is dying, we are just as speechless and helpless as early humans were. For all our knowlegde and enlightenment, we still stumble as often as ancient man and we still suck at solving the puzzles life confronts us with.
Deflating our conceits, wounding our pride, humbling our point of view and forcing us to admit that we do not have all the answers; really, it was religion that got there first.

Believer, if you honestly value the truth of all things as you claim, as I truely know you do, you must confront these fundamental questions, ‘far better’, Carl Sagan said, ‘to embrace a hard truth than a reassuring fable.’

That, however, is not the choice: it’s between a reassuring truth and a hard fable. The faithful aim higher than mere reality.

Dear atheist, do you ever wonder why you get told by believers that you think like a fundamentalist? Do you not find it at least a little suspicious that this keeps popping up from people of various walks of faith? Because I know, I just know this has happened to you and if it didn’t, it should have.

In my answers above I’ve referred frequently to fundamentalists and I mentioned ‘white, Anglosaxon and Protestant’, because when listening from afar to your video I picked up texts that gave me these clues. The clues that at first made me think my wife was watching some televangelist.

In the way you adress us in your video, you sketch a picture of believers who hold their own ideas as the only correct ones, as the best possible understanding of the Truth at the exclusion of all other ways of understanding. You assume people of faith are supremely confident, would even bet their eternal souls on being right, and regard those who differ from them as mistaken, deluded or even deceived and destined for a rather unpleasant hereafter. You talk about the inerrant holy scriptures we have and the infallible truths we hold. But these are characteristics of just one tiny corner in the vast and caleidoscopic world of faith. It’s the corner roughly indicated by my clues I mentioned earlier: white, Anglosaxon, Protestant and fundamentalist.

Out there, in the real world, not all religions have gods or a God. Not all religions consider themselves revealed by the God or gods they believe in. Relatively few religions know a hereafter, let alone a heaven, even fewer know hell and those that do have a hell, don’t necessarily believe there’s anyone in it. Not all religions consider themselves infallible or their holy writ inerrant, if they even have a scripture. Only among white, Protestant fundamentalists will you find people who believe that their only true God condemns the souls of those who do not believe exactly what – according to them – is written in their inerrant holy scripture to an eternal stay in hell.

Outside of that cramped and noisy corner, you will find believers who are not so sure about their faith, who shrug at even thinking about the possibility that others might be barred from going to heaven for holding different convictions. Away from the bigots, wou will find Catholic parents who find peace with the conversion of their children, because it is better to be a good Muslim than a bad Catholic. You will find Muslims who’ll tell you they are Muslims, even though they do not believe the Koran, Protestant pastors that subscribe to atheism and are not barred from preaching in their churches. Away from the world that knows of no other shades than black and white, Hindu guru’s have no trouble preaching Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and even evangelical Christians still knock on wood.

Dear atheist, has it ever occured to you that your atheism is remarkably similar to your idea of what ‘faith’ is, with just one tiny difference: the word ‘not’? Might it be that you are actually – and maybe even for good reasons – criticising and rejecting a faith that is within your arms reach? Is the idea of religion you reject that of your parents? Have your dealings with believers been limited mainly to missionary televangelists, protestant fundamentalists or born-again Christians? Could it be that you idea of what faith is, was shaped by the outliers from the religious population?

Or do you find the world of faith away from where right is right and wrong is wrong too imprecise, too unclear, too blurred or fuzzy to have a meaningful discussion about it? Is grey too nuanced a shade for you to talk with those for whom black is never as dark as it can be, and white an unattainable form of purity? Because in the world of faith it is possible to find believers who are able to recogise thruth in a statement they consider wrong, and vice versa, people who – like the poet – manage to lie the truth. In the world of faith you’ll find paradoxes, contradictions and mysteries, people who’ll talk about their deepest thoughts not in terms of mathematical proofs, but in the stammer of people who are in love and basically incapable to express their feelings with the adequacy you seem to long for.

Dear atheist, all over the world you’ll be able to find believers who see that there’s more to be said for atheism even though they do not share your views completely. Believers who consider atheism a reasonable choice people can make, without seeing you as mistaken, deceived, deluded or hell-bound. Believers who still see you primarily as a fellow human being with whom they might have more in common that they’d expect.

It is those faithfull you might want to adress and listen too. As you so eloquently said: there’s a whole valley out there, beyond the cave.

Atheism & Christianity

Posted in atheism, Religion with tags , , on June 11, 2014 by shirhashirim

A long time ago my mom told me a story that had reputedly happened in a concentration camp. Prisoners were forced to watch the hanging of a man. But he was too light and the hanging didn’t work quick enough. The prisoners were forced to watch the poor fellow die slowly for the better part of an hour. While the man was still writhing, someone asked aloud: ‘Where is God now?’, and a voice from the back of the group of prisoners answered: ‘He’s hanging there, on the gallows.’

My mom told me this to illustrate a central point in Christianity: God suffers with those who suffer, quite literally. Whatever you do to your fellow-man, you do to God. Basically she told us a Midrash on Mat 24:40 and Mat 24:45. The story always impressed me, because it makes God so very human and because with an idea like this, you don’t need follies like voluntarism, or hollow phrases about God’s ways not being ours (a gross misinterpretation of Isa 55:8 by the way) to explain it all away.

More importantly, if my mom’s exposition were correct, then the idea of the incarnation was something far more magnificent than what I had hitherto understood about Christianity. ‘Magnificent’, however being a totally wrong choice of word. Compared to this Nietzsche‘s Umwertung aller Werte was just child’s play. Ever since my mom told me this story, I’ve considered the Christian idea of the incarnation a brilliant one.

It took me years until I finally found the original source of the story. It’s a passage from Eli Wiesel‘s Night, a book I consider required reading for everyone. The story is different in its details:

One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around us, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains – and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.
The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him.
This time the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.
The three victims mounted together onto the chairs.
The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses.
‘Long live liberty!’ cried the two adults.
But the child was silent.
‘Where is God? Where is He?’ someone behind me asked.
At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.
Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon the sun was setting.
‘Bare your heads!’ yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping.
‘Cover your heads!’
Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive…
For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.
Behind me I heard the same man asking”
‘Where is God now?’
And I heard a voice within me answer him:
‘Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows…’

The story is also very different in its intent. It does not show from this particular passage, but from what Eli Wiesel writes in the rest of Night, it is clear that this was one of the key events that turned him into an atheist. My mom had heard a rendering of the story that had been Christianised to the bone. The last quoted line above was definitely not ment as a confession of (Christian) faith, rather the very opposite!

Still, I think Wiesel – or my  mom – made a valid point about Christianity: where there is no humanity, God is dead, truly dead. ‘Truly dead’ in the exact same sense in which Christians confess that Christ is ‘truly God and truly man’.

I found this post- some four years old – among my many unpublished drafts, and thought I might as well post it…


Posted in atheism, Religion with tags , , , , on October 7, 2009 by shirhashirim

There’s a useful concept among atheists called ‘semantic atheism’. It refers to a result of the process whereby the God of gaps is slowly pushed back by advances in science. Basically God as an explanation for the unexplained is increasingly unnecessary. Soon there is no need for a concept of God in an explanatory sense.

As a consequence of this gradual pushback there’s increasing stress on the notion that any discourse about God essentially belongs to a realm outside that of logic and reason. This idea itself is old, but to the more logically inclined among us it makes very little sense. If  the concept of God does not fall inside the realm of logic and reason, how will we ever be able to talk about it? More importantly: how can we ever be sure we’re talking about the same thing?

‘God’ as a concept in this view is a semantic void, a meaningless word that can be inserted in language, but that doesn’t really mean anything nor refers to anything. Even though God might actually exist, the concept simply does not and cannot refer to Him and we should still all be atheists, even if only semantic ones.

I disagree up to a point. Talking about God can be compared to synesthesia, even if the comparison is slightly slanted. Synesthesia is a condition where someone perceives a stimulus of one sense in two or more. For the synesthete a particular shape may have a color or taste. A musical interval may taste sweet or a particular sound can be cold. These associations are consistent within one synesthete, but not among synesthetes. Not all of them experience the number 2 as ‘red’, or a minor third as sour. There are no rules for the population of synesthetes as a whole.

Every synesthete is therefore a synesthete on his or her own, there are no shared experiences. But that doesn’t mean that the phenomenon itself cannot be communicated. In fact: a synesthete can communicate about his condition with a non-synesthete. The latter may not be fully able to sympathise, but that does not prevent some understanding between the two.

I myself (a non-synesthete) once pointed out to a friend who was unaware of her condition that she was a synesthete. After she did some googling around for herself I heard nothing but cries of recognition and relief.

The experience of God, just like synesthesia, may be a lonely and lonesome experience and essentially incommunicable, but still people seem to understand each other quite well when they’re talking about it. Semantic atheism still is a good and useful concept, but it’s too strict and logical to accurately describe human experience.

Surveying belief

Posted in atheism, Religion with tags , , , on May 6, 2008 by shirhashirim

The notable ‘new atheist‘ Sam Harris has instigated an fMRI brain-study of belief and disbelief. On his website he’s calling for volunteers to fill out four surveys.

We especially need Christians to respond, as one of the goals of these surveys is to design stimuli that a majority of Christians will find doctrinally sound.

Every time scientists want to get a grasp of belief or believers, they fall into the same pits: uninformed, hideously unclear questions about the fuzziest of concepts, that altogether betray an unhealthy familiarity with only the most vocal, most literal and most primitive forms of the belief studied and desperately trying to force believers to speak their language.

My prediction: Mr. Harris is going to find significant differences in brain structure and brain activity between querulant atheists like himself and people with a rigid personality, narcissism and/or an anxiety disorder and whose beliefs are very inspired by, seriously influenced by or an expression of one, two or three of those three.

Given the fact that most people are religious and Mr. Harris is expressing a dwindling minority view, his research is going to backfire. Before we know it atheism is going to be labelled a brain-defect. That’s not what I want to happen (I gave the reason before, and I’ll give it again: Genesis 1:27)

See for yourself. Here are some questions from Sam Harris’ Survey A with my nasty remarks:

1. Please indicate your degree of belief in the God of the Bible.
Which Bible? People have worked on the text of the Bible for about a thousand years and ideas about God, they are various and changing. There are Samaritan, Jewish, Lutheran, Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic versions of the Bible. Muslims profess to believe in ‘the God of the Bible’ too, some Hindu’s as well… Then the concept of ‘belief’ seems to be a bit fuzzy. Do you mean ‘believe to be literally true’ or ‘believe to be inspired but not necessarily without faults’ or ‘believe to hold fundamental truths about mankind’?
2. Please indicate your degree of belief that the Bible is the word of God.
Again: which Bible? And what is it exactly that you mean by ‘Word of God’? Orthodox Christianity holds that the Bible is the inspired word of people about God, not ‘the Word of God’, that’s more a Muslim thing. Does the maxim “poets lie the truth” count as ‘belief’?
12. The idea of a Personal God is a product of ancient superstition.
Among others. And why not modern? Surely, you’ve been told about ‘context of discovery’ and ‘context of justification’? Where this idea came from is fairly independent of why people believe it. Incidentally: when talking about God, what does ‘personal’ mean exactly?
14. It is reasonable to believe in an omniscient God.
‘Omniscient’, ‘God’, really. Santa Claus is a less unclear concept. Do you mean ‘true’ or just ‘reasonable’? ‘Cause there used to be a lot of untrue ideas that were perfectly reasonable.
19. It is always best to do one’s work for the glory of God.
Please clarify? What is that? (and I do not mean ‘work’)
20. There is no sign of God in my experience.
If this is a way of finding out ‘doctrinally sound’ Christians (according to what doctrine, I might add), you’ll probably end up with very few Christians and a lot of nutheads…
22. Humans are a product of the natural world, just like all other animals.
Fairly unintelligible reference to evolution. I know quite a few creationists who would easily answer
‎‎’yes’ to this question, thinking that ‘product of the natural world’ refers to creation. Personally, I think it refers to both.
26. Angels really exist.
What ‘angels’? Do you mean the מלאכים from the Thora? Those are messengers, nothing more. You mean Satan, as in Num 22:22? You mean the mythical winged creatures in Christian folklore? And what is meant by ‘exist’? As far as I know only the (created, if you want) universe ‘exists’.
30. Faith in scripture tends to make people compassionate and insightful.
Yes it definitely does. Unfortunately, the reverse is just as true.
31. Belief in Biblical “prophecy” is based on poor scholarship, wishful-thinking, or both.
That depends entirely on what you think ‘prophesy’ is. If you mean ‘predicting the future’, you’re right (against which the Bible warns), but if you mean biblical prophesy, you’re wrong. Quite a few biblical prophets said things we could all take at heart, regardless whether you believe they were inspired by God or not.
32. There is no God to answer our prayers.
That would be a pagan God, a useful God, God that makes rain when the harvest is under way, a God that does what people want Him to do. That has very little to do with Christianity (or Judaism for that matter). God does not make rain!
38. Man fell from a blessed state when he yielded to the temptation of Satan.
Does this refer to the story in Genesis? Then what satan? Do you mean the snake? Then why say ‘satan’ instead of ‘snake’? Oh:
and why the past tense?
39. Christian teaching is filled with obvious misconceptions about the world.
That depends on what you mean by ‘teaching’. Are you referring to the official teachings of Christianity? There’s no such thing, unless you refer to a particular church. Are you referring to what various people teach nowadays in the name of Christianity? Then you’re quite right.
40. Jesus Christ was born like an ordinary person, not sent by an invisible God.
Compound question to which answers may differ. Everyone believes He was born like any other human. But ‘sent’ is not quite right: orthodoxy has it Jesus was (the Son of) God, not some Jewish boy on an errand.
42. The Biblical story of creation is basically true.
Literally? Metaphorically? Allegorically? Morally?
45. Jesus Christ was sent by his Father as a sacrifice for the redemption of humankind.
Please clarify ‘Jesus’, ‘Christ’, ‘sent’, ‘father’, ‘sacrifice’ and ‘redemption’.
46. Schools should teach their students to value Christianity as a path to truth.
And every other major religion.
49. Satan exists as a personal, malevolent being.
Please clarify ‘satan’, ‘exist’, ‘personal’, ‘malevolent’ and ‘being’.
53. Christianity does not describe the universe as it is.
Hansl and Gretl doesn’t either, but who cares? Christianity isn’t about describing the universe.
54. The Christian idea of the Holy Spirit is likely fictional, misleading, or empty.
Which Christian idea of the ‘Holy Spirit? On which side of the filioque-controversy are we supposed to be? Please clarify ‘fictional’, ‘misleading’ and ‘empty’. (And what is the word ‘likely’ doing there?)
56. Man emerged through a gradual process of evolution like every other species.
I know quite a few evolutionists who would argue strongly about the ‘gradual’-part. How are they supposed to answer this question?
61. God sometimes influences my decisions directly.
See question 20 above.
62. The Holy Spirit has ensured that the Bible is free from significant error.
Ok, I won’t ask you to clarify ‘Holy Spirit’ this time, but what is ‘significant’?
66. People who think they are communicating with God are wrong.
Mr. Harris, by now you really must have read enough about Christianity to know that the answer to this question will vary wildly among ‘doctrinally sound’ Christians. Personally, I do not pretend to know how God communicates with people, so I’d never use the word ‘wrong’, but if anyone claimed to be in direct contact with God, I’d suggest he’d take his medication.
68. Christ’s death provides atonement for the sins of humanity.
See question 45 above.
69. Humans are by nature sinful and inherently in need of Christian salvation.
Again: if this is a way to filter out ‘doctrinally sound’ Christians, you’re neglecting the majority of them. This idea is held by the –large- minority of post-reformation Christians. The majority (Orthodox and Catholics) hold that humans are by nature inclined to do good (i.e. to not sin), but unfortunately they are also imperfect.
70. God’s presence can be directly felt.
See questions 20 and 61 above.
71. Human beings were created by God.
As in: God used evolution to create us?
75. The universe is governed by an all-powerful, all-knowing God.
Ok, by now, you’ll probably guess what’s coming up: define ‘govern’. Furthermore: how can we humans judge what ‘all-powerful’ and ‘all-knowing’ means?
78. The widespread belief in a Personal God suggests that God actually exists.
It suggests a lot of people believe in a personal God. Maybe it’s good to repeat this in other words: there are more than enough Christians to be found who do not believe God ‘exists’ (only creation does), and for whom that word is nothing more than a figure of speech.
81. Christian teaching is the most important system of beliefs we have.
It’s the largest, but ‘most important’ is a fuzzier concept.
82. If Jesus existed, he was mortal, like every other human being.
Hello? Have we been paying attention recently? According to a massively large majority of Christians, Jesus died, so He must have been mortal…
85. People should relinquish their religious faith wherever it conflicts with science.
Why relinquish? Loads of other options available.
86. Believing in the Christian God is essential for true happiness.
Believing in the Christian God (or any other God) is not about happiness.
90. Religion should have more of an influence on public policy, not less.
Which religion?
91. God is clearly working in my life.
See questions 20, 61 and 70 above.
94. The Bible is filled with accurate prophecies that we should take seriously.
The Bible also mentions not to pay attention to ‘prophets’. Anyway, see question 31 above.
96. Jesus Christ probably did not rise from the dead.
I’m puzzled by the ‘probably’-part.
97. When tragedy strikes, it has nothing to do with the will of God.
Among ‘doctrinally sound’ Christians the answer to this problem varies widely, even within single churches that consider themselves ‘doctrinally sound’.
100. The Bible is the best guide to morality and personal fulfilment that we have.
The Bible is not about personal fulfilment, in fact it’s a totally alien concept to the Bible.

I’ve left out some questions that are not about belief, like ‘this is how it should be’-statements. (“It is good for doctors to avoid all direct communication with their patients”), the blatantly obvious and the ludicrously ridiculous (“It is very important to marry someone who shares your exact birthday”, “Bill Gates is one of the founders of Microsoft”), and a few statements about ‘I’, probably psychological check-questions to see whether the respondent is likely to give socially acceptable answers instead of true ones (“I like to be complimented”, “I am a very analytical person”)


Posted in Religion with tags , , , , , , on April 24, 2008 by shirhashirim

Over at the ever-readable Café Philos -the only things missing there are the three ‘B’s: Bar, Barmaid and Beer- Paul Sunstone asks his readers: “Is Belief in Gods an Accident of Human Evolution?” Don’t ask me why it’s always humanists who come up with the most interesting questions, but it’s one reason to cherish them. As Paul says:

In order to make a row of arches, you must make a row of spandrels. The spandrels are a sort of unintended side effect of making a row of arches. In much the same way that you must make a row of spandrels when making a row of arches, some people — notably Scott Atran — have argued the notion of god is an evolutionary spandrel.

This sparked a whole herd of thoughts. Too many to post a comment, so I’m dedicating a post to the notion of God as an evolutionary by-product.

First, I always thought that evolution was a collection of ‘accidents’, some of which turned out to be actually useful, while others didn’t. But if the belief in God is categorised as an ‘accident’, it looks like evolution is divided into ‘useful’ adaptations and ‘accidental’ garbage. This gives evolution a goal -which it doesn’t have- and maybe even a moral content (“bad things come with good ones”), whereas evolution is utterly devoid of morals.

Second, if everything is an accident, the distinction between ‘arches’ and ‘spandrels’ is useless: it says more about the speaker, than about evolution. Sure, bad things come with good ones, but it’s the observer who decides what’s good and what’s bad, not evolution. It’s generally known among psychiatrists for example that people suffering from depression are much better at estimating their chances of success than ‘normal’ people. In this respect, it’s the ‘normals’ who are suffering from unfounded optimism. It’s the realists that are depressed. It is also known that the average person has a 10% chance of becoming clinically depressed. That chance however increases to 25% when the person is a writer, and no less than 75% when it’s a poet. It is also known that depressed people have more sex (it’s one of the explanations for the question: if depression is so bad, why hasn’t evolution taken care of it?). Now what is the arch and what is the spandrel? Poetry? Literature? Depression? Optimism? Less sex? Realism? ‘Normalcy’? Pick your preferred combination!

Third. It is assumed that the notion of God is a by-product of our ability to see ‘agency’ or assume causation in the world around us. That is a very large step, as the ‘spandrel’ to agency/causation is more likely to be paranoia than the notion of a God. If religious notions are a by-product of the capability to assume causation for example, it is much more likely that humans started developing idea’s about jinns, ghosts, the spirits of their forefathers, leprechauns, fairies and genies. Beings that are much ‘closer to home’ than notions of gods or a God, which bring about a load of theological contradictions and problems. Things that have to be discussed and consciously thought about.

This brings me to a sub-point (point π): secular people tend to see religion as one and the same issue, without distinguishing between Aberglaube and Glaube. The first is what comes naturally to humans, the second is much more cerebral, is usually hotly debated and often counter-intuitive. It’s not rare for Glaube to be an antithesis to Aberglaube. What Abraham does to God in Genesis 19:23 for example is unparallelled in religious history (hm, sorry, it’s not: Exodus 32:13, Mat 15:27) and runs counter to most ‘notions of God’. What Buddha thought out about suffering is totally counter-intuitive. Even when secular people can be excused for not noticing the difference, this doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Fourth, one may very well wonder if colors are a by-product of rods and cones (well, cones actually), or if piano music isn’t the beneficial by-product of the invention of copper wire, felt, woodworking techniques and elephant hunting. In a sense it is exactly that. But answering that question doesn’t tell you anything about Chopin or Rachmaninov. The question assumes that the notion of God is a relatively simple thing like the ability to assume causation. It is much more conscious and cerebral than that. Having said that: sure, if we weren’t hard-wired to be religious, we couldn’t be. Just as we couldn’t see colors without cones.

Fifth, the question seems to put people in the position of a victim: evolution, their genes made them do it. To turn the argument around: before we know it, atheism is classified as a genetic defect, and where will that leave us? Not where we want ot be. Even if atheists would be so, not as the result of choice, but as a by-product of genetic hard-wiring, it would be nothing less than blasphemy to assume a defect. Why? Genesis 1:27.

Sixth, I’ve blogged about this before: religion is a language. With that idea in mind, we might just as well ask: are metaphors ‘spandrels’ of language? To the literal-minded, metaphors make about as much sense as religion does. On the other hand: metaphors make for good jokes, literature and poetry (and depression). Why bother about spandrels at all? What problem is solved by categorising the metaphors, depression, poetry or notion of God for that matter as a spandrel? Sure, it serves to alleviate ‘Atheists Anxiety’: it’s just evolution, it’s only natural, we needn’t worry! But if you ask me, Glaube was invented to be disquieting.

the Prayer Paradox

Posted in Society with tags , , , , , , on February 20, 2008 by shirhashirim

Back then, when I was still a little boy and my mom tried her very best to raise me into a fine Catholic boy, I was taught that prayer works. If you needed something and you prayed for it, God would provide.

Of course -little boys being little boys- I quickly discovered this wasn’t exactly how I thought it would work. I prayed for loads of things that I never got. I even prayed for other people, who didn’t get what I wanted them to get. Mom -being a mother- had a quick answer: I hadn’t prayed enough. So I prayed more and when that too didn’t work, I was told that maybe I had prayed too much. You can overdo such a thing you know.

Now, with enough trial and error the child will -given time- succeed in approximating the correct amount of prayer to such a level of precision that any reference to one of the above arguments will picture God as a nit-picker. And since He isn’t, my mom needed a third argument. Preferably one that wasn’t quantitative.

‘Maybe you didn’t pray the right way.’ Whole new world there. For some time that world kept me busy wondering whether I had really meant what I prayed for, whether I had really concentrated enough, whether I had really, really believed it would work ’cause without faith, nothing works.

Until I realised that the trinity too little, too much, wrong way was one unsolvable mystery. No matter what you did or didn’t do, the idea that you had done at least something wrong to warrant God’s unresponsiveness could always, under all circumstances, rationally be maintained. Post facto, that is. It’s no wonder I stopped praying altogether and never took it up again. I console myself with St. Augustine’s words that ‘singing is double praying’. But that’s not the point.

Recently I realised that sets of after-the-fact explanations that -as a whole- form a perfect, unassailable ready-for-use rationalisation of what you already believed, occur more often. They’re fill-in exercises, templates if you want, and they are not particular to religion. ManagementSpeak™ is full of them: ‘I should have phoned this customer more/less/better.’; ‘The company didn’t communicate more/effectively/on a more abstract level with it’s employees.’; ‘This process was watched to closely/not precisely enough/not effectively.’; ‘We should have delegated more/less/thoroughly.’

We have no idea why customers take a particular decision. If we ask them, they’ll give a socially acceptable answer, especially if the real reason reflects badly on us. They’re pretty much like God. When you don’t know why customers -or God- act the way they do, you cannot influence them and that’s scary. ManagementSpeak™ -like lots of religions- give you the answers. Nobody knows if they are true, but at least this type of self-blame gives you the idea you can influence the world, or you could have done so. Your fate is in your hands, not in the hands of some unpredictable variable like God or your customers. Sleep tight, sweet dreams!

Meanwhile, ManagementSpeak™ heaven turns into employee hell. An ideology of ready-made, fill-in rationalisations intended for beneficial self-blame can just as easily be applied to others when things go their unintended ways. In companies that invariably means: employees. There is no way an employee can defend himself, unless by applying his own version of ManagementSpeak™ and starts blaming the boss back. Whatever the outcome of that, one result is already fixed: everyone believes ManagementSpeak™ reflects reality. Everyone knows they can always blame others, provided they’re apt at using ManagementSpeak™ well enough. l’Enfer, c’est les autres.

Taking offense at the new atheists

Posted in atheism with tags , , , , , on February 11, 2008 by shirhashirim

Now there’s an expression I find useful: ‘new atheism’. I don’t think there’s anything particularly ‘new’ about present-day atheism, but atheists all over the world have been busier expounding their views over the past years. They’re growing more ‘missionary’ about it too. Reactions from the believing side -being religious- provoke wonder among atheists. At Café Philos, Paul Sunstone asks why ‘new atheists’ like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins offend the religious. Isn’t ‘being offended’ a sign of ‘being wrong’ and not wanting to face that? And aren’t religious people applying double standards? If we have to respect faith, don’t we also have to respect the lack of it?

I’m not familiar with Dawkins and have only read a few pages by Harris, but my country has also had it’s share of ‘new atheists’ and I’ve read some of them in my mother tongue. I consider atheism to be a perfectly respectable position, and an obligatory one for scientists. Usually I find myself assuming the role of an atheist among believers. Yet I do recognise some of the irritation these ‘new atheists’ cause among believers, among atheists I can just as easily assume the role of a believer. Why do we take offence? A couple of points and some illustrations.

  • Atheists tend to aim their criticism at an outdated image of religion.

    There’s no conclusive proof that God exists. That’s the main point every atheist discourse starts with. Sure, in the 19th century, in the aftermath of Aristotle and Thomism, people still believed you could prove Gods existence by sheer logic. Nowadays most believers have realised that logic (like time and space) is a phenomenon of creation of which God is not a part, nor is He subject to it. Proving God amounts to blasphemy. As I heard one believer once state: ‘As soon as conclusive proof of Gods existence is found, we know He doesn’t.’

    • Atheists tend to read sacred scriptures literally.

    I still wonder about the atheist friend of mine who burst from indignation when I told her that the biblical figure of Job was not an actual, historical person, but a character in a story, just like the prodigal son and the good Samaritan. It’s a view already present in the Talmud, but atheists nowadays won’t allow believers to play around with scripture like that. This is one of the reasons why atheists -much to their surprise- are labeled ‘fundamentalists’ by believers. Sacred scriptures started to be read literally with the rise of modernity. Anyone acquainted with Late Antique and Medieval exegesis would know that a literal reading of sacred texts was not the rule, but rather the exception. Most religions started out on the basis of mythologies, reworkings of, and polemics against mythologies, mostly in the form of alternative mythologies. None were ever meant to be read literally. Modern exegesis and theology operate on that basis and those notions have seeped down to ordinary believers. It is very tyring to discuss your sacred writings with someone who insists you’re not reading them correctly (i.e. literally).

    • Atheists take the view projected by a -usually very vocal- minority as representative of the whole religion.

    Every time I get into discussions with atheists I first need to clear prejudices about religious ideas, on modern science for example. No, the Catholic Church never had any difficulties with the Big Bang. The idea was even invented by a Catholic priest. No, Islam never had a problem with evolution, until some idiots started seeing it as an idea from the detestable West, and began importing Christian creationist literature. Yes I know modern science has opened up the possibility of creation being self-explanatory. I wouldn’t expect anything less. Only an amateur-God would make a universe in need of an explanation. Religions tend to harbour a wide variety of faiths, atheists only honor a part of them.

    • Atheists do not recognise the internal debates that have raged in every religion.

    Atheists tend to see faith as a collection of ‘silly ideas’, hence the nature of parody-religions like the Flying Spaghetti Monster. This causes them to address lots of attention to denying or scientifically explaining things like miracles and mystical experiences, apparently thinking that -being silly- these must be important aspects of faith. However, 99% of all believers have never had a mystical experience and 99.99% have never been involved in a miracle, in whatever role. Within religions, debates on the nature of (e.g.) miracles have raged ever since their inception. Views range from a direct intervention by God into the laws of nature to a flat denial of the existence of miracles. The latter can be found in the Talmud, so it’s not a modern invention.

    • Atheists think legal

      The idea atheists have about religion usually amounts to: ‘a collection of silly ideas that can be proved to be factually incorrect’. This means that what believers say is either true or false. Figures of speech, metaphors and what believers are really trying to say get hopelessly lost in conversations between believers and atheists. ‘That is not true and I can prove it’ is a productive phrase in court, but not in religion. ‘An attempt to express in a tentative, stumbling way, our experiences and convictions’ won’t work in court, but it might when you’re discussing faith.

      • Most atheists have a chip on their shoulder.

      The proportion of ex-believers among atheists of the missionary kind is very, very high. And the proportion of fundamentalist-like systems of faith that were left among these ex-believers is again very, very high. Lots (luckily not all) of atheist viewpoints are simply formerly religious viewpoints with a -rather uncreative- ‘not’ inserted somewhere. Nothing else has changed, not even being religious about it. This is another reason why believers sometimes hurl ‘fundamentalist’ at an atheist.

      • Atheists do not (always) take their partners in discussion seriously.

      Believers trying to bring more subtle notions into the discussion, things that go beyond the phrase ‘God does/doesn’t exist’ are quickly accused of foolhardiness, beating around the bush, trying to wiggle their way out, or cognitive dissonance. I’ve even once heard Stockholm Syndrome hurled at a believer. Believers are people too. It’s very difficult to keep you calm when someone decides to treat you like a psychiatric patient.

      Having said all this: for atheists it must be tremendously difficult to distinguish faith from lunacy. Unfortunately fundamentalists are everywhere. They use the same words, images and ideas as ‘normal’ believers. Their systems of belief are simpler, much better understandable for the outsider and far easier to assail. They’re louder too. ‘Normal’ believers are just not the type of people to get loud about their -very private- convictions. The last thing on my mind is blame atheists for all this. It’s the believers (all of them) who’ve caused these misunderstandings.