Tag Archives: Faith

Tragic Reminder of Christianity’s Power to Alienate and Crush Life

Chris Terry is a Christian in love with Christ. For me his post Amazement was a tragic reminder of how life-destroying that devotion can be. No doubt if Chris were to see this post he would respect that statement as containing a hidden irony: yes, I imagine he might say, we must become “dead” so that Christ can live in and through us.

“Apart from Christ”, he says, “there is absolutely nothing in me that was good.”

I don’t know if Chris is a parent. But I find it hard to imagine any healthy parent thinking their newborn babe, their growing child, having nothing good in or about them. Indeed, in Leaving the Fold, a book about deconversion from fundamentalism, psychologist author Marlene Winell suggests one activity that recovering believers might find helpful is to have a baby doll that they should come to see as themselves when they were an infant, and that whenever they feel overwhelmed by guilt or shame they should project themselves into that babe and reassure them that they are loveable and are loved. As a believing Christian one may, like Chris, be convinced that one does not “deserve God’s grace, mercy, and favor”, but that’s not how any sane parent rears their child. Of course our children are deserving of grace, mercy and favour. Growing up believing anything else is to grow up a psychological wreck.

The Bible is brought out, that book of often fascinating ancient literature that has had such a cultural impact throughout our history, and grotesquely seriously applied personally to the extent that a modern believer will come to see they are “dead in sins” and under the sway of Satan merely by being a part of wider society. If ever the believer comes close to a moment of sanity and begins to wonder what can be so wrong with being a normal and healthy part of the community just as themselves, without any put-on act of trying to be a light for Jesus, and then begin to think that their “sins” are miniscule compared with the mass murderers and child abusers out there, they will devoutly remind themselves as does Chris that that is the sin of pride “downplays their depth of guilt and corruption apart from Christ”. As Chris says,

The mistake is seeking to understand these issues through our own reason, rather than understanding all of life as God views it.

Such a God was responsible for biblical genocides. Even literally sacrificing one’s own children is something he has said is both an unspeakable evil and an ultimate sign of heroic righteousness – the trick is knowing which god to do it for.

No, Chris. You are not as evil and wicked and worthless as your god wants you to think you are without him. Without him you can flourish as a wholesome, good human being. Yes, with faults, some that can be quite harmful. But you are mature enough to know how to manage those potentials and to be a good force for liberation and humanity for others and even yourself, as many other humans really do without suppressing in fear one’s own nature and trying to replace it with some alien “put on” (the Bible’s expression for the process).

 

“I believe because it is absurd” – and the irony of believing a rational person said that

There’s an interesting article discussing the origin of our belief that Tertullian wrote, “I believe because it is absurd”, at aeon.com,

‘I believe because it is absurd’: Christianity’s first meme

by Sam Dresser.

The article is another warning not to thoughtlessly take on board popular “knowledge” that “everyone knows to be true”.

I learned of it through another discussion, one on the Westar Institute site, clarifying the diverse meanings of the word “faith” by Bernard Brandon Scott, The Trouble with Faith.

So far, but no farther… or maybe the journey has just begun

I recently read something I liked on a blog run by someone (James Bishop) I would think of as a fundamentalist or certainly very conservative Christian. The article is Why I No Longer Hold to Inerrancy & The Need For A New Model of Inspiration. I was reminded so vividly of my own days of doubt and struggles with faith and attempting to be as honest as I believed I could be with myself.

James was faced with conflicts and at some point had the honesty to acknowledge that they were real:

As a Christian student in New & Old Testament Studies approaching the end of his time at university, I have discovered a number conflicts between conservative, fundamentalist Christian views of biblical inspiration (of which we will refer to as “classical inerrancy” or “inerrancy”) and what I have come to deem, more often than not, sound biblical scholarship.

He acknowledged that

these arguments require serious consideration especially if one wishes to take the Bible seriously and authoritatively.

Honesty. But the commitment remains. Faith is strong.

But here’s the part I particularly liked — with my emphasis:

Prior, however, I used to hold to inerrancy. I also once believed that every single challenge to the Bible was easily answered and refuted, and, for a time, thought that conflicts an inerrant view had with scholarship was a result of some anti-Christian “agenda” or “hate” towards Christianity. That was until I actually examined the alleged errors themselves, and soon realized that the answers provided on conservative apologetic websites were often grounded on little more than revisionist historical theories, fringe scholarly interpretations, fringe science, and contrived explanations attempting to explain away biblical inconsistencies.

What a welcome acknowledgement! The implication is that James Bishop no longer presumes that every challenge to the Bible is motivated by hate or an attempt to destroy Christianity.

It is a welcome acknowledgement because too frequently I read scholars and others accusing those who question the very foundations of the history of Christian origins of surely being driven, as “atheists”, by a hatred for Christianity and with a dedication to attempt to undermine all that is good about it. I refer in particular to those who entertain the possibility that Jesus was not a historical figure, of course.

Later in the post James explains why he parts ways with Bart Ehrman:

Long story short, as result of his discoveries that were in conflict with a conservative, inerrant view of biblical scripture, he [Bart Ehrman] is now one of Christianity’s biggest critics. He has sowed doubt in the lives of many Christians who have too come to realize the falsity of inerrancy. Inerrancy is spiritually dangerous in this way (see my argument in point 4e in this article). I have witnessed instances of Christians falling away from faith as a result of buying into the false dichotomy that one either embraces full blown inerrancy or rejects the Bible (a strawman caricature often embraced by both critics of the Bible/Christianity and inerrantists). Christian scholar Michael Bird captures this well explaining that this “means that if some young Christian comes across a passage of Scripture that is historically or ethically challenging, then they are faced with the choice between belief and unbelief,” and there lies the problem.

The point I want to make is that unlike Ehrman I wish to build up fellow believers in the faith. Unlike Ehrman, I also haven’t thrown in the towel, so to speak. I haven’t rejected Christianity or the inspiration and authority of the Bible.

I was not aware that Ehrman is one of Christianity’s biggest critics. In his recent Christmas posts he came across as still in love with the “fullness of meaning” of the Christmas story as found in the Bible. See Finding “unbelievable fullness of meaning” in the Christmas stories?

The problem, in James Bishop’s view, is that Christians who begin to see flaws in the Bible might toss it out completely. A fair reading of Ehrman’s views shows that even an agnostic or atheist can still express appreciation for the “unbelievable fullness of meaning” found in the Bible. Same for various Christ Myth theorists who have also expressed strong admiration for Christianity (e.g. Couchoud) and who even remain Christians (e.g. Brodie).

Reading James Bishop’s post is a déjà vu experience for me. It stirs old memories of my own past conflicts and strivings for both honesty and faith.

Many people struggle with the same conflicts. I think some of us find a solution to one particular conflict and rest satisfied with their resolution of it. Thus finding a new definition or understanding of what divine inspiration means is one way to reconcile certain facts about the Bible with one’s faith.

Others of us continue to question and don’t just stop when one conflict is resolved. They do not deny other conflicts as they arise. They confront them, and perhaps find new ways of reconciling opposites. Hence a few Christ mythicists, for example, find a way to maintain their belief in God and remain deeply devoted to the Christian message.

Some even go so far as to question why they believe in God at all. Is it true that morality cannot be justified or explained without God?

Some question the Bible and stop there when they find an answer. Some go further and question their faith and some might find a new set of definitions they are comfortable with there, too. Others go further still.

But at no point do any of us need to presume that those who go further with their questioning are necessarily driven by “some anti-Christian “agenda” or “hate” towards Christianity.” Or does that charge arise as a defence among those who cannot, for whatever reason, take their questioning any further? I can imagine believers having a very real fear of atheism and of atheism being a logical consequence of ongoing questioning. All I can say to those believers is, There is no need to fear. I can understand why someone only takes their questioning so far and no farther. We each stop where we feel most comfortable and it’s not for me to tell others they are wrong in choosing to find some solace in a level of religious belief in the short time they are on this planet.

I’d just like to reassure believers that being an atheist, and even having strong views about Christianity itself, does not mean we atheists all condemn individual believers for their choices or that our beliefs are driven by a “some anti-Christian agenda”.

 

Fantasy and Religion: One Fundamental Difference (Or, Why God’s Word Will Never Fail)

Fantasy&ScienceFiction_cover_Oct1978Some theologians like to study what they call the intersects between science fiction (which is a sub-genre of fantasy) and religion. That might be a cute way to spark interest in the gospel message, but in reality there is no intersection between the two at all, at least not cognitively. Scot Atran explains:

One clear and important distinction between fantasy and religion is the knowledge of its source. People generally attribute their personal fantasies and dreams to themselves and to events they’ve experienced. They also know or assume that public fictions (novels, movies, cartoons, etc.) were created by specific people who had particular intentions for doing so.

A religious text is another story. Followers believe it to be the work and word of deities themselves. Believers assume that sacred doctrine was first heard or transcribed in some long-forgotten time by chosen prophets or sages who were faithfully repeating or imagining what the deities had directly said or shown to them. (In Gods We Trust, p. 91)

As I have been showing in my posts on Dennis Nineham’s lectures collated in The Use and Abuse of the Bible, theologians of the modern day have salvaged the Bible from the ravages of standard literary and historical criticism by declaring that its authors were imbued with remarkable spiritual insights into the meaning of the events they witnessed and modern readers who have faith will recognize this gift of theirs in the Scriptures. This is, in effect, a more sophisticated version of the “divine inspiration” of the Bible. It’s a neat device for justifying the Bible as the fundamental source of their faith, filled with divine insights (a more intellectually respectable way of expressing the concept of “divine inspiration”), even though there are human errors evident in the text and even though some texts reveal a humanly flawed author.

sacredtextsThe need by some Christians to affirm the apostolic authority of the Gospels is worth commenting on in this context. It appears that affirming the traditional authorship — two apostles (Matthew and John) and two associates of apostles (Mark and Luke) — is necessary in order to further elaborate the faith narrative that holds these works are indeed products of divinely chosen eyewitnesses. Normal evidentiary means of confirming authorship are dismissed as “overly sceptical” in the need to affirm the faith that a religion grounded in historical events is indeed “historically true”.

But what does it mean to accept a text on faith as authoritative?

Why God’s Word Cannot Be Disconfirmed

Accepting a text on authority and faith implies that the listener or reader suspend the universal constraints on ordinary communication . . .

In ordinary communication, the listener or reader “automatically” attempts to fill the gap in understanding between what is merely said or written and what the communicator intends the listener or reader to think or do as a result.

Atran illustrates. Normal communication works like this: read more »

Appealing to Faith in a Search for Truth, Playing Tennis Without a Net

Before you appeal to faith when reason has backed you into a corner, think about whether you really want to abandon reason when reason is on your side.

(This quote and the following post are largely taken from page 154 of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Dennett.)

Many believers in God claim that their faith is something beyond reason and cannot validly be tested by the standards of science and rational thought. This is fine on a personal comfort level, but many believers also insist that it must apply just as meaningfully when they bring their faith into arguments about evolution, origins of life and the universe, and other pursuits for truth.

Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett has a beautiful response to this faith claim. He begins by referring to philosopher Ronald de Sousa who described philosophical theology as “intellectual tennis without a net“, with the net being a metaphor for rational judgment.

Let the believer who insists that the rigour of scientific method or rational argument not be allowed to touch his faith have the first serve, Dennett begins. Whatever the believer serves, suppose the nonbeliever replies:

What you say implies that God is a ham sandwich wrapped in tinfoil. That’s not much of a God to worship!

The believer volleys back demanding to know how the nonbeliever can logically make such a claim that his (the believer’s) opening serve has such a preposterous implication. So the nonbeliever replies:

Oh, do you want the net up for my returns, but not for your serves? Either the net stays up, or it stays down. If the net is down, there are no rules and anybody can say anything, a mug’s game if there ever was one. I have been giving you the benefit of the assumption that you would not waste your time or mine by playing with the net down.

Not that Dennett is opposed to faith per se. What he wants to see “is a reasoned ground for taking faith seriously as a way of getting to the truth . . .”

Before you appeal to faith when reason has backed you into a corner, think about whether you really want to abandon reason when reason is on your side.

Dennett assists the reader in answering this question with a few thought experiments:

1. You and your loved one are touring a foreign land when your loved one is brutally murdered before you eyes. Now in this land the legal system allows friends of the accused to testify their faith in his innocence. The judge listens to friend after friend tearfully, sincerely, movingly testify to their complete faith in the accused’s innocence, and by the end of the hearing this judge is far more swayed by their faith claims than the evidence of the prosecution. Would you be willing to live in such a place?

2. You are about to be operated on by a surgeon who tells you that whenever he hears a little voice telling him to disregard his medical training and do something different, he listens to and follows that still small voice. . . . .

Dennett concludes:

I know it passes in polite company to let people have it both ways, and under most circumstances I wholeheartedly cooperate with this benign arrangement. But we’re seriously trying to get at the truth here, and if you think that this common but unspoken understanding about faith is anything better than socially useful obfuscation to avoid mutual embarrassment and loss of face, you have either seen much more deeply into this issue than any philosopher ever has (for none has ever come up with a good defense of this) or you are kidding yourself. (The ball is now in your court.)

From http://gssq.blogspot.com/2008_02_01_archive.html

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why science is not a faith

Reading the same old “tu-quoque/you too!” fallacy from fundamentalist supernaturalists that science or any position questioning the Bible is itself “a faith” or “belief” puts a responsibility however tedious, I suppose, on naturalists with a scientific disposition to continually make accessible the answer to that fatuous canard:

Tamas Pataki, from Against Religion (pp.117-118 )

The charge of scientific dogmatism is so contrary to fact and so foolish that it calls for diagnosis. Richard Dawkins is a favourite bogeyman, and McGrath and Eagleton are two of those who stalk him. How can Dawkins ‘be so sure that his current beliefs are true, when history shows a persistent pattern of the abandonment of scientific theories as better approaches emerge?’ asks McGrath. But Dawkins, of course, is not ‘so sure’: ‘My belief in evolution is not faith, because I know what it would take to change my mind, and I would gladly do so if the necessary evidence were forthcoming.’ He’s not sure (in McGrath’s sense) because although his beliefs may be indubitable in light of currently available evidence, he knows that they are not infallible. That is what science is about: conjecture (or hypothesis) and refutation.

But the religious apologists are imputing a religious conception of knowledge, characterised by inerrancy – just as the Bible is supposed to be inerrant – which allows them to stretch science on the horns of a false dilemma: either science presumes to provide incorrigible knowledge, in which case it is shamelessly dogmatic, or it is just a matter of faith, just like their turf. They have no conception of the difference between warranted but fallible belief, and faith. Finding to their satisfaction that science falls short of incorrigibility, they conclude that, after all, science and religion are in the same boat-just matters of faith.

(Pataki here footnotes by way of illustration Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism (2004), pp.93-97, 179-83. Unfortunately I have not run across a copy of McGrath’s book, so can only leave this reference here for others to follow up. But I have certainly read many of the sorts of ignorant claims Pataki refers to.)

And Anthony Grayling, from Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and and an Essay on Kindness (p.34)

People who do not believe in supernatural entities do not have a ‘faith’ in ‘the non-existence of X’ (where X is ‘fairies’ or ‘goblins’ or ‘gods’); what they have is a reliance on reason and observation, and a concomitant preparedness to accept the judgement of both on the principles and theories which premise their actions. The views they take about things are proportional to the evidence supporting them, and are always subject to change in the light of new or better evidence. ‘Faith’ – specifically and precisely: the commitment to a belief in the absence of evidence supporting that belief, or even (to the greater merit of the believer) in the very teeth of evidence contrary to that belief – is a far different thing.

How Faith undermines Logic: why logic will not rescue one from a cult, or persuade a fundamentalist

This passage from Deborah Bennett’s “Logic Made Easy“, and drawing conclusions from scholarly studies, hit me between the eyes when I read it just recently:

Subjects have difficulty applying rules of logic when counterexamples in the subject’s experience are unavailable or difficult to recall and when the logical task fails to cue individuals to search for counter-examples. (p.105)

This is why it means nothing to, say, a Moonie if one attempting to pull them back out of that “cult” tries to force them to change their minds by presenting them with the plain-as-day evidence of dubious character of their leader; or why one will generally waste one’s time by pointing out the clear evidence for evolution or the fallibility of a biblical text.

The Moonie or fundamentalist is being completely rational within their own lights. The difference is that they are unable to see the counter-examples to their belief system even when they are right beneath their noses. (I know. I used to be this way myself, and often reflect on why I remained in such a thought-system for so long.)

And the reason they are unable to see what is staring them in the face is that their faith system instructs them to exercise total thought-control. The same technique used in cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT):

[Cast] down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5)

Their faith can only be sustained by the techniques of cognitive behaviour therapy. Counter-examples and falsifying evidence simply does not exist, or there would be no faith to begin with. Anything presented as falsifying evidence is conceptualized as a weapon of Satan designed to deceive and in his war against them. The contrary evidence is simply rejected as a tool of Satan to destroy them.

CBT will prompt the believer to reject the contrary evidence immediately. This can be done either by literally dismissing it as false, or more subtly by ingeniously if sometimes fatuously “discovering” reasons to “prove” the invalidity or irrelevance of whatever falsifies their belief. The sham behind these arguments is readily apparent to anyone who notices that only the less informed or fellow-believers buy them. But to those of faith, that simply proves that they alone are right and the whole world lies in darkness.

But they are being logical. Such members can be and often are very smart. They can be studying for higher degrees and doctorates in the most respected institutions. They can even repeat and write all the evidence and argument required to be awarded their letters. But they may not believe much of it. Or they may use some of their “worldly education” in ways it was never intended and would not sustain scrutiny by scholarly peers.

But no matter how logical one may be, that rigid and valid mental process will simply fail to properly inform if faith is lurking to rob them of the ability to even see falsifying evidence right before their eyes for what it really — and so obviously — is.

In other words, faith undermines one’s ability to apply rules of logic — as Bennett, above, observes. Falsifying evidence simply will not exist and must therefore be exposed as falsely presuming to falsify: so goes the (CBT) thought process of faith.

And ironically this is also why it can be the most intelligent, the most mentally agile, who will remain strongest in their faith! One should expect them to have the greater ability to find rationalizations to “falsify” what is otherwise obvious to anyone led by genuine scientific enquiry instead of faith.

No longer to call myself “an atheist”; with some Grayling snippets

I’ve decided to no longer call myself an atheist, but a naturalist. A. C. Grayling convinced me to do this without much trouble in his little book “Against All Gods

As it happens, no atheist should call himself or herself one. The term already sells a pass to theists, because it invites debate on their ground. A more appropriate term is ‘naturalist’, denoting one who takes it that the universe is a natural realm, governed by nature’s laws. This properly implies that there is nothing supernatural in the universe – no fairies or goblins, angels, demons, gods or goddesses. Such might as well call themselves ‘a-fairyists’ or ‘a-goblin­ists’ as ‘atheists’; it would be every bit as meaningful or meaningless to do so. (Most people, though, forget that belief in fairies was widespread until the begin­ning of the twentieth century; the Church fought a long hard battle against this competitor superstition, and won, largely because – you guessed it – of the infant and primary church schools founded in the second half of the nineteenth century.)

By the same token, therefore, people with theistic beliefs should be called supernaturalists . . . . (p.28 )

Simple. So I’ve decided not to discriminate against those who believe in garden gnomes or leprechauns and revert to the catch-all “naturalist”. And those who confuse this with naturist might have more to think about than others.

The “Tu-Quoque/You too!” fallacy: Atheism is not a faith

The point of Grayling essay is to rebut the common fallacious claim that “atheism is itself a faith position”.

I’ve responded to this charge numerous times myself on various forums, and I suspect many of those who don’t want to think otherwise will simply ignore the obvious rebuttals to this charge:

People who do not believe in supernatural entities do not have a ‘faith’ in ‘the non-existence of X’ (where X is ‘fairies’ or ‘goblins’ or ‘gods’); what they have is a reliance on reason and observation, and a concomitant preparedness to accept the judgement of both on the principles and theories which premise their actions. The views they take about things are proportional to the evidence supporting them, and are always subject to change in the light of new or better evidence. ‘Faith’ – specifically and precisely: the commitment to a belief in the absence of evidence supporting that belief, or even (to the greater merit of the believer) in the very teeth of evidence contrary to that belief – is a far different thing. (p.34)

Faith, on the other hand, is belief in the absence of, even contrary to, the evidence. Grayling does not say it, but I can see no place for faith to intrude into scholarship that plies itself to understanding the literature and historical origins of any religion.

The sad part is that some fundamentalist Christian “scholars” pretend to agree with this statement, but their escape hatch is to insist that it is “dishonest hyper-scepticism” to go beyond a superficial face-value acceptance of selected (not all) texts. They fail miserably to see that true scholarship means submitting even their favourite texts to verification. They really demand that we have faith in the surface reading of their canonical texts and only submit noncanonical texts to scholarly scrutiny.

Religious faith is surely something that belongs to the privacy of one’s home or circle of fellow-believers. There is nothing publicly noble about anyone believing in a proposition contrary to the evidence. Even many Christians accept this when they twinge with some embarrassment over their fellow-travellers who allow their loved ones to die “in faith” in preference to seeking medical care; and most Moslems feel ashamed at their fellow-faithful who blow themselves up with innocents “in faith”.

I’d rather they felt no embarrassment or shame, but only constructive anger. Embarrassment and shame are emotions that admit that they belong to the same general mind-set, the same broad club, to begin with.

Forget asking who should win: cancel the game instead

But the argument is not about “which faith is true” and “which faith is false”. It is about the irrationality of faith to begin with:

Even some on my own side of the argument here make the mistake of thinking that the dispute about supernaturalistic beliefs is whether they are true or false. Epistemology teaches us that the key point is about rationality. If a person gets wet every time he is in the rain without an umbrella, yet persists in hoping that the next time he is umbrella-less in the rain he will stay dry, then he is seriously irrational. To believe in the existence of (say) a benevolent and omnipotent deity in the face of childhood cancers and mass deaths in tsunamis and earthquakes, is exactly the same kind of serious irrationality. The best one could think is that if there is a deity (itself an overwhelmingly irra­tional proposition for a million other reasons), it is not benevolent. That’s a chilling thought; and as it happens, a quick look around the world and history would encourage the reply ‘the latter’ if someone asked, ‘if there is a deity, does the evidence suggest that it is benevolent or malevolent. (p.37)

The ethics of belief

Notes from Peter Singer’s The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush (pp. 114-119)

What are we to think, ethically, of someone who bases his or her life on unquestioning faith, of someone for whom religious belief is “an unquestioned foundation that will not shift”? read more »

Faith : a keyword to war (or peace)

Language has been manipulated by leaders since 9/11 to instill a state of fear and war in our minds. A new book by academic Mary Zournazi, Keywords to War: reviving language in an age of terror, discusses many of the words manipulated today for this intent. In the process she looks at how the same words have reflected different cultural values since their inception. I outline here her discussion of the history of the word “faith”. Zournazi compares today’s manipulation of the word with reference to Simone Weil‘s criticism of how the word’s use and meaning in the Nazi era. read more »