Monthly Archives: December 2012

What If Everyone Will Go to Heaven?

At the philosophy gathering I attended on Friday, one person told of a Quaker pastor she knows who preaches that everyone will go to heaven. We had an interesting discussion around the question, If that were true, would we have any reason to be good?

My opinion is that we would.

To see why, let’s start by considering this life only. Pretend there is no heaven at all.

I’ve already written about why someone who doesn’t believe in any afterlife at all could care about right and wrong and want to do right. The post was Why Care About Right and Wrong? and I can summarize it in one sentence: This life generally goes better if we do the right thing.

It’s one of the wondrous byproducts of my favorite twin concepts, evolution and emergence. Our genes, in their ever-selfish quest for replication, long ago stumbled upon the strategy of motivating their hosts (that’s us) to cooperate with other hosts that have the same genes (that’s not only our children but to some extent everyone we know). Over time, the selection pressures of evolution have locked us into this niche of intelligence and cooperation. Thus emerges evolution’s counter-intuitive result: altruism. We aren’t physically dangerous enough to survive any other way. If we were rattlesnakes, things would be different but we happen to have evolved into a niche of cooperation.

Success in this niche is most certain for those who consistently cooperate, for that makes other people trust you, which redounds to your benefit when you need it most.

Being trustworthy in treating others as you would want them to treat you is the foundation for all morality and ethics. So there you have it. Whether there’s a heaven or not, and whether it’s for everyone or not, the evolutionary pressures of this life have molded most of us into beings who want to be good (most of the time, anyway).

And then there’s the matter of living with ourselves. Most of us look in the mirror at least once a day and we want to like what we see. I wrote about this in Life as Art.

If none of this convinces you, then I ask you to peer into your own soul. Is it really true that you do good only because you want to be rewarded in heaven or avoid God’s punishment? Is it really true that you don’t care about the Good for its own sake? I believe better of you. I hope you believe better of yourself.

I hope I’ve succeeded in making the case that we have reason to be good if there is no heaven. What about if there is heaven in everyone’s future?

Let’s do a thought-experiment. Suppose that instead of treading this vale of tears for threescore and ten and then passing on to our eternal rest, it worked in the opposite order. Suppose we were living in heaven since eternity past and were birthed into this life as our final stage before we fizzle into nothingness. Wouldn’t every argument I made above still apply?

So what difference does it make if heaven is in the future or the past? It is still the same totality of life, is it not? Whatever diabolical calculation our putative villain could make would turn out the same. A million plus one is the same as one plus a million. If the bad man wants to mess up the “one” part of the sum, then his total Machiavellian calculation will turn out the same either way.

This has been fun to think about, but I admit it’s irrelevant. If one day I arrive in heaven (which I don’t expect) and find that Adolph Hitler himself got there first, I will not be upset. Would you? Really?

My Philosophy of Life

Tonight I will attend a party where each person will get the mic for 5 minutes to answer the question, What is your philosophy of life? This is my answer; what’s yours?

* * * * *

What can we aim for if not to be as deeply happy as possible?

Of course, finding happiness is not simple. Doing whatever feels good at the moment is probably the surest way to long-term unhappiness. If you always get what you want right away, you’ll learn why no child is as miserable as the spoiled child. I know I’m happiest when I’m striving for something, not when I’ve got it. I suppose that’s why we never give up striving.

Also, most of us can’t be happy if the people we love are not happy too, so that complicates matters further. The more socially conscious of us are also happiest when we know we have done our part to make society better, even if that involves personal sacrifice.

So things are pretty tangled up. When a string is tangled, it can be helpful to see how it got that way. Same for happiness. How did it come to be so complicated?

I would answer that question with two related ideas: evolution and emergence. I’ve found that those twin concepts are at the root of just about everything. Evolution explains how things developed and emergence explains why they mean what they do.

Evolution

Evolution is itself built on two ideas: descent with modification and survival of the fittest. In other words, things are always changing and whatever variants work best are the ones that create the next generation. We’ve all heard of evolution as it pertains to living things, but when it comes to a philosophy of life I think the evolution of ideas is even more important.

We humans think we’re smart, but consider for how many millenia we were stumbling around in the dark. People were trying out various ideas and, in hindsight, they weren’t doing much better than trying things at random, each idea a modification of the last. The Earth is the center of the cosmos, it’s flat and the Sun is a god. And let’s kill everyone who disagrees. No, wait — the Earth is a sphere and at the center. Hold on — the Sun is the center of it all. And it’s not a god. But let’s still kill people who believe there are other worlds with life on them. Oh — we just realized that the universe has no center. Or maybe it does. And maybe it goes on forever. Or not. And hey! We now think there are a couple billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone. So chances are good that life has developed elsewhere after all. And maybe there are 10 dimensions, not 3. Or maybe 11…

One idea descends from the next. We’re always pushing the boundaries in one direction or another.

What makes all this randomness converge on something that can contribute to a meaningful philosophy of life? It’s the second component of evolution: survival of the fittest. The closer an idea matches reality, the more firmly lodged it is. It persists to inform the next generation of thinkers. That’s how we got to the scientific method: not because we were smart enough to know that it’s the best way to sniff out the difference between truth and error, but because we were so clueless that we tried just about everything else first.

Emergence

After all, we are but recycled dust. Recycled star dust, to be sure, but still dust.

And that leads to the second thing that explains everything: emergence. Emergence is when one phenomenon gives rise to a phenomenon at what is in some sense a “higher” level. In most cases, you could study the lower-level phenomenon at a detailed level for a thousand years and never guess what would arise from it.

Who would guess, by studying brain cells, that they are the woof and warp of the very thought you are applying to them?  Who would guess, by studying color or sound as a phenomenon of physics, that it has anything to do with personal pleasure? Who would guess that an economy whose very cornerstone is personal freedom and no central planning, would end up with more of every imaginable good and service, and better apparent planning, than every centrally planned economy that has ever been tried?

These counter-intuitive results pale in comparison to the greatest emergent phenomenon ever: that unconscious genes would “selfishly” maximize their own chance for replication by chemically motivating their hosts to behaviors that are the exact opposite of selfishness, such as altruism and eusociality. The mechanism is a delicious, hundred-layer cake of one emergence on top of another.

And that’s why happiness is so complicated. It arises counter-intuitively from emergent phenomena that, in turn, are the product of random evolution — both biological and philosophical — that isn’t even done yet. Once we understand that, we can relax and enjoy the wonders that are playing out every day.

For those of us who enjoy philosophy, contemplating such mysteries is a large part of what makes life worth living.

How It Felt to Lose My Faith

In the 1973 movie, Soylent Green, we see the overcrowded Earth of the future, where the only pleasant experience is death. There are euthanasia centers where you get a “full 20 minutes, guaranteed” to slip away while listening to your favorite music and watching beautiful scenes of the former Earth.

Because Earth’s resources have been depleted, most people subsist on one of the manufactured food products from the Soylent Corporation, of which Soylent Green is the choicest. Supposedly it is made from plankton,  but Charlton Heston’s character discovers the horrible truth.

As he is carried away in a stretcher, Heston begs those surrounding him to listen. “It’s people. They’re making our food out of people. Next thing, they’ll be breeding us like cattle — for food. … You’ve gotta tell ‘em! You’ve gotta tell ‘em! Soylent Green is people! We’ve gotta stop ‘em! Somehow!!

But the crowd just stands there. It’s impossible to tell whether they disbelieve him or do not care.

Panic

That is how I felt in the immediate aftermath of leaving evangelical Christianity. I had discovered the horrible truths about the God of the Bible. Almost panicked, I was trying to get my pastor and others to see what was now so obvious to me, but they were carrying on with business as usual. How could these people be so complacent in the face of such horror!?

Anger

Mixed with the panic was the anger I have already described — anger toward evangelical leaders for being so careless about truth while pretending allegiance to it, and anger toward myself for being a willing dupe.

Guilt

Being a dupe was the least of my sins. I felt tremendous guilt for proclaiming the justice of a God who had ordered genocide, slaveryplunder and rape, among a long list of other horrors — even going so far as to proffer excuses for those specific atrocities. My hands were drenched with blood.

I was also guilty of having pushed away people who had given me ample encouragement to see things differently.

Over time, I have been making progress forgiving myself. I hope those I offended have forgiven me, too.

The Good Parts…

Those were the tough aspects of losing my faith. After that difficult transition, I was surprised by how many up-sides there were. (And let me emphasize to my evangelical readers that I did not leave the faith because I was seeking these benefits. They were totally unexpected.)

Relief

As a Christian, I hadn’t fully realized what oppressive cognitive burdens my faith had placed on me. What a relief it was to no longer have to puzzle over why worthy prayers weren’t answered, why science and scripture don’t line up, and why God’s ways must be higher than our ways as he allows all sorts of horrible things to happen or even actively brings them to pass. I didn’t realize how much emotional energy I had chronically spent on issues like these until I was out from under it all.

It was also a relief not to have to second-guess my every decision: “This seems wise, but is it really God’s will? Do I think it’s God’s will because it really is, or because I want it to be?” And on and on.

Wonder

A totally unexpected boon has been the pervasive sense of wonder I have about the world. The story of how everything came to be is so much more fascinating than “God did it.”

Just this week, I was driving to work and found myself marveling at how we humans have arisen from the inanimate stuff of the Earth and now we’re dragging more stuff out of the Earth after ourselves, to build roads and cars so we can convey ourselves from place to place. What’s more, we have developed an aesthetic sense so the driver ahead of me evidently likes navy blue cars, and I do, too.

How can you feel depressed when everywhere you look there is something that amazes you?

Aesthetic Satisfaction

In the same vein, I vividly recall hearing a choir on the radio singing a lush, 19th-century work and my thinking, “How incredible it is that these collections of molecules (the singers) have arranged themselves to vibrate other molecules (the air) so they bump into yet more molecules (their own eardrums) in such a way as to initiate a chain of chemical events that brings them pleasure!”

Even more amazing is that my own set of molecules has finally arranged itself so that it has some clue about how the universe works. I get a lot of aesthetic satisfaction out of that — more than enough to compensate for having lost 99.999999% of my future,

Tolerance

At some level, we’re all just molecules bumping and adjusting. There are patterns of behavior that deserve the name evil, to be sure, and we want to discourage those. But I have a much greater tolerance than I used to for people who are just trying to find their way.

Purpose

It’s not that I don’t care. In fact, one of the big surprises about my deconversion is that I now care more about things in this life. As an evangelical, my prejudice was that non-believers have no reason to care about anything. It turns out that’s not true, and I wrote a short series of posts on the subject, if you’re interested.

My purpose, in a nutshell, is to enjoy the one life I know I have. I learned enough from my time as a Christian to know that true enjoyment is not found in selfish, hedonistic pursuit. I enjoy my family, the life of the mind, and the beauty that is everywhere.

After a tumultuous exit from faith, I can now say most heartily, “Life is good.”

Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 6: The God of the Bible

The image of God I received during my 40 years in evangelical churches was overwhelmingly positive. The central message was, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus was our Good Shepherd, faithfully leading and caring for his flock. He sent the Holy Spirit to comfort and teach us.

I knew of darker passages in the Bible, but those were not emphasized. I was confident that God was good, so there must be reasonable explanations for the God-ordered genocides, enslavements, and all-around harshness that characterize some stretches of the Bible.

Liberal Christians can chalk up these passages to a not-yet-developed understanding of the divine. Evangelicals like I was don’t have that luxury. We believed that the Bible is God’s Infallible Word, and does not change. So, if God ordered genocide, then the pagan tribe on the receiving end must have deserved it. Biblical slavery? It was more like indentured servitude. God’s punishments were harsh? That’s because he is so holy.

After the upheavals described in Parts 123 and 4 of this series, those explanations did not rest as easily as they once had. I had learned that godly, well-meaning teachers could be gravely mistaken, or even lie.

Once I began to ask questions with a more open frame of mind, the flaws in the old answers were obvious. Also, I started to notice just how many troubling passages there were. I do not wish to catalog them all here. I won’t even refer you to any of the many Websites that list Bible atrocities. You can find them yourself if and when you’re ready. All I want to do is briefly mention the few passages that hit me particularly hard, and how my take on them changed.

Job

I think the first passage where I said, “Hey, wait a minute!” was the entire Book of Job. Through misfortunes ranging from boils on his skin to the deaths of all his children, righteous Job refuses to “curse God and die” as his wife urges him to do. “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away,” the faithful man says.

In my evangelical circles, discussion of this book usually centered on why God allows the innocent to suffer. The somewhat unsatisfying answer is given by God’s extended discourse at the end of the book. After poetically saying, “You’re only human and I’m God. What do you know?” several dozen times, it ends with, “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!”

OK, but that that doesn’t really answer my question. Why did this innocent man suffer?

Then I noticed that Job’s whole tale of woe got started when God made an entirely gratuitous bet with Satan. God bragged to Satan that Job would be faithful no matter what, and then invited Satan to take everything from Job except his life. Satan hadn’t even been bothering Job until God dared him to afflict him in every way imaginable!

Particularly appalling is that Satan killed Job’s children with God’s permission. We’re supposed to be happy at the end of the book when Job gets replacement children, but, speaking as the father of six, I feel qualified to say that hardly counts.

Why would a just God — to say nothing of a loving one — invite these calamities on a man whom the very first verse of the book calls “blameless“? And do so just for sport! Sport with the devil, no less! And then expect Job to love him without question!?

This article really hit home for me: The God of Abuse. If you only have time to read the rest of this post or that article, please go read the article.

Noah

The story of Noah brings to mind images from Sunday School: happy pairs of animals boarding the Ark, or maybe the rainbow God created after the Flood.

Does anyone care that this was also the story where God exterminated all but 8 members of the human race? Allegedly they deserved it, but did they really? How about the six-year-olds who died in frantic terror as the flood-waters swept them away from their familes? Were they so different from the first-graders who died this week in the Newtown school massacre? Or how about the babies at their mothers’ breast? Were they more evil than your baby? For more on the righteousness of God’s judgment on Israel’s neighbors, see my post, Was Slavery God’s Righteous Judgment?

And let’s not appeal to a happy ending in heaven. The Bible doesn’t — not for these wicked people.

Jephthah

Jephthah is a lesser-known hero of the faith, but his story has even more pathos. He promised God that if God would grant him victory in battle, then on his return he would sacrifice as a burnt offering whatever first came out of his house. He was probably figuring it would be the family goat, but his young daughter — his only child — was the first to run out and greet her daddy.

Jephthah allowed his daughter a month to mourn the fact that she would never marry, but then fulfilled his vow, offering her as a burnt, human sacrifice to God.

Sad, right? Too bad he made such a rash vow, right? But, you know, you gotta fulfill your vows to the Lord. Right?

Wait a minute! God could have stopped him! He had done it before, when he tested Abraham by telling him to sacrifice Isaac, then staying his hand just as he was about to slit his son’t throat. (Another nice story, by the way.) Why did God do nothing while Jephthah sacrificed his innocent daughter to him? For that matter, why didn’t God prompt the goat to come through the doorway ahead of Jephthah’s daughter? He had marshaled thousands of animals onto the ark. Was it too much to ask for one goat to come through a doorway? Was there no limit to the dispassionate cruelty of this God?

This YouTube video made quite an impression on me. Like all good satire, it goes a little overboard, but not much.

Slavery

It is a common but false idea, spread by lazy apologists who have not done their homework, that the Bible does not condone slavery. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, God directly commands Israel to raid distant cities and capture slaves. He even gives specific permission and regulations for sex-slavery.

I have written at length about biblical slavery on this blog and solicited responses from professional apologists and pastors. Although in some cases they promised to reply, none ever did respond for the record. The scandal is simply denied, excused or ignored. Here are links to my posts. As a set, it’s a lot of reading but they will give you an in-depth look at the lameness of the evangelical apologetics I encountered in all the issues I’m only touching on here.

The Handicapped

Compared to the atrocities above, the passage I’m about to cite is minor. However, it was very personal and happens to have been the last straw for me.

In Leviticus 21:16-23, God prohibits people with various physical injuries and deformities from approaching his altar. Huchbacks, dwarfs, the lame, and other people with “defects” would “desecrate” it, he says.

When I read that passage, I thought of two of my children. One of my sons was in the Marines. If his foot had gotten blown off by an IED during service to his country, he would have been a hero to any decent American, but a second-class citizen at God’s Temple.  One of my daughters has a genetic condition that would have made God consider her presence a “desecration.” I’m sorry, but if there’s anyone whom God should welcome at his altar, it’s these two wonderful young people.

I asked some Bible-believing Christians about the passage and they had the predictable excuses but by this time the excuses rang hollow.

Conclusion

Although I had always thought of God as good, the Bible also showed him to be a monster. I saw three ways to resolve the contradiction:

  1. Evil is actually good when God does it.
  2. The God of the Bible exists, but the Bible represents him imperfectly.
  3. The God of the Bible was created in the image of man — specifically, in the image of a superstitious, tribal people who were trying to do right, but had significant moral blind spots.

#1 was a non-starter.

After all I had been through over the previous four years, #2 was too close to more-of-the-same. I was not going to believe anything without evidence, and I didn’t see enough evidence for anything close to the God of the Bible.

#3 seemed by far the most likely. In fact, I felt as if I had no choice to admit it was true.

I was done with evangelical Christianity.

Next time: How it felt to leave my faith.

Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 5: Highlighting Your Comments So Far

This little series, which I expected would be nothing more than a record for posterity, has garnered much more interest in the present day than I expected. I’ve been particularly pleased at the insightful and important comments several people have left. They’re important because they reflect sentiments I’ve heard often, but which I had neglected in my posts. I’ve responded in their respective comment streams, but wanted dig them out of that relative obscurity and put them in this post where more people will see them.

And let me apologize at the start for not including every good comment. There were many, but this post is about 1,20o words as it is.

I’m going to start with the most recent posts because that’s where some of the most important conversations took place.

From Part 4: Romans 8:9:

Here, I said that I had not seen significant difference in the conduct of evangelicals versus the rest of the population, and neither had formal surveys. I argued that this was evidence against “a central doctrine of evangelical Christianity,” namely that Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who gives them the motivation and power to live better lives.

Jeremiah Dahl rightly observed that the central message of the gospel is not to become a better person. “If your only idea of sin was ‘being a bad person’, then of course I can see your predicament; but that’s not what sin is. The shopkeeper didn’t need to be saved from being a terrible person, he needed to be saved from his sin, from rejecting the God who created him. … [In the] words of Christ, he is without a doubt failing to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind’ which is what Christ commands before saying ‘and Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

I think Jeremiah is so correct that I considered devoting a whole post to presenting the gospel from an evangelical point of understanding. Ironic, eh!? :) Instead, I hope the following will suffice.

  1. Every person is sinful.
  2. The penalty for sin is death, which in this life means alienation from God and in the next means eternal separation from him, in hell.
  3. However, Jesus took that penalty on himself by dying on the cross. Because his own life was sinless, his death did not have to pay for his own sin. That uniquely qualified him to die in our place.
  4. We can avail ourselves of Jesus’ sacrifice by “receiving him.” Evangelicals differ on what this means. For some, it means to receive God’s free gift, no strings attached. Others say that in addition, one must turn from the old life of sin and resolve to follow Jesus as Lord.
  5. At conversion, the Holy Spirit indwells the believer, giving him new power for godly living. Jesus’ resurrection not only showed he conquered death for the next life, but gives us victory over sin in this life. As Romans 6:4 puts it,  “…we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” And two verses later, “…our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin.”
  6. Importantly, we do not earn our salvation through good works, for salvation is God’s gift. Rather, we do good out of gratitude for what God has done for us, and out of simple love for him.

From Jeremiah’s comments, I gather that his evangelical tradition differed from mine on point 5. However, where I come from that was an important aspect of the salvation story, which is why, when I did not find it to be true, it shook my faith.

From Part 3: Prayer Studies:

etnotablog saw my argument about prayer studies as “thinly veiling the much more egregious question, ‘How could a loving God allow people to suffer and die?’  question.” He continues, “Looking at why, with or without prayer, a loving God would allow any person to suffer unjustly is a question that has less to do about the validity of prayer and more to do about the nature of God and His relationship to man. Or, even further removed, does God exist at all?”

Chris responded before I did, and did it well. “The Beagle points out that it is written in the Bible that the prayers of ‘the faithful’ will be granted. Then it is demonstrated [that] multiple groups of presumably faithful people did not have their prayers answered, not just for miraculous healing but for marriage repairs as well. This then forces one to question the validity of prayer as a means to achieving any sort of end.” He continued with much more that is worth going back to read.

I agreed with etnotablog on one point: “Prayer not working says nothing about whether a God or gods exist.” However, I continued, “It is evidence against the particular God-claims entailed in evangelical Christianity, and that was my point.”

etnotablog also made a point that comes up frequently when discussing scientific studies of prayer. Citing the episode From Luke 4 where the devil tempts Jesus to put God to the test, etnotablog asserted, “We can accept that prayer is a way to interact with God (of the Bible) and believe that there is power to heal and restore found in it, but at the same time we have been told that it will not be subject to tests and trials.”

To someone like me, this is tantamount to saying, “Prayer heals, as long as you’re not paying attention.” Scientific trials are nothing more than the most reliable way of paying attention that we have discovered so far.

Besides, Dr. Byrd was not “testing” God. He is a Christian, and was trying to demonstrate God’s power.  It seemed to me that his study has more in common with 1 Kings 18:16-40 than with Luke 4.

The conversation continued for quite a while from there!

From Part 2: Worthy Prayers:

Nathan thought that both Science and belief in God ought to admit that they don’t have all the answers. He closed by saying, “…at the end of the day, I don’t see any alternative than to take a leap of faith in one direction or the other.”

In response, I offered my posts,  Myth, Meth, MathSound MethodHierarchy of Methods, and Is Atheism a Faith?

Michael said, “Science concerns itself with the material whereas religion concerns itself with the immaterial.”

I responded, “The moment religion makes predictions about what will happen in the material world, it has stepped into the realm of science: it has made claims that are testable.” That’s what I went on to explore in Part 3.

There were other worthy comments, including those in Part 1, but I’m going to cut this short (shorter, anyway).

Next time, I’ll continue with my series, taking a fresh look at God as found in the Bible

Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 4: Romans 8:9

Even if you’re not used to studying the Bible, I hope you’ll stick with me for a brief look at a passage that was of critical importance in my journey out of the evangelical church.

Romans 8:5-14: 5 Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.

13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. 14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.

One thing on which Christians of all persuasions agree is that faith in God will make you a better person — not perfect, but at least better. The passage above explains why: Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit (verse 9). That automatically and inevitably puts them in “the realm of the Spirit” (verse 9 again). The Spirit is the king of this realm, “leading” them (14) and “governing” them (6) to live in accordance with his desires (5).

In contrast, those without the Spirit do not belong to Christ (9). They have their mind set on fleshly desires (5), leading to death (6, 13). In fact, they cannot please God (8).

The broader context of this passage is that to simply know the rules of good conduct (the Law of Moses) does not give one the power to be good. That takes an inner work by the Spirit of God, which only Christians experience.

If you have not lived in the evangelical church (let me emphasize that I’m not speaking of more-liberal versions of Christianity), it may be hard to appreciate the full thrust of this. As a group, evangelicals believe that they have both a motivation and a power to be good that is simply absent from the non-Christian world. The motivation is love for God and the power is the Holy Spirit. The fifth point of the National Association of Evangelicals’ Statement of Faith makes this clear:

We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life.

But forget about the power. I don’t know how many times I heard that non-believers don’t even have a reason to be good. I even heard that coming out of my own mouth! We attributed any good behavior by non-believers to God’s continual restraint of their human, sinful nature and his common grace. Were he to withdraw his hand, the world would plunge into chaos.

Good Non-Believers

A turning point for me came when I became friends with the man who ran the convenience store down the street. Pravin was from India, where he had been a doctor, and was a devout Hindu. When anyone had come into his clinic without shoes, Pravin knew that person was even poorer than average and he would treat him free of charge. He would even give him some milk for his family. Pravin also told of the time a man had come into the convenience store in the dead of winter, begging for milk for his children. None of the culturally Christian storekeepers on the street had given him anything, but Pravin was glad to do so.

Being a good evangelical, I had been considering how I might share the gospel with Pravin, but as I got to know him I realized that he was already a better person than most of my Christian friends. It seemed ridiculous to tell him he was “destined for a Christless eternity” and needed to repent and be saved.

I had known many fine non-believers during my life. Why hadn’t I felt the same way about them? I’m ashamed to say it took a Hindu who had come from a country where the influence of Christianity was almost non-existent to shake my categories thoroughly enough.

At any rate, I finally learned that non-believers could be just as good as believers.

Struggling Believers

I had also been learning the opposite: believers could act just like I had always imagined non-believers would.

If you’ve been with me through Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series, you’ve seen how I became disillusioned with evangelicals’ dishonesty. It seemed that the more committed someone was to the brand of Christianity I was part of, the less honest he was. Instead of handling facts with integrity, he was likely to twist, misrepresent and ignore them.

And then there was the outward behavior. As an evangelical, I had seen it up-close for nearly 40 years. If I were to catalog all the ways we showed no evidence of being indwelt by the Holy Spirit, I would seem to be claiming that evangelicals are worse than everyone else and that’s not my point. I am only saying that we were no better.

Even when we tried to improve, I could not perceive anything supernatural at work. It seemed to be no easier for an evangelical with a short temper to control it than for anyone else, even if he or she was praying for God’s help. Likewise for lust, sloth, or other sins.

This is not my experience alone. As my pastors used to lament from the pulpit, survey after survey shows that evangelicals do not behave much differently from the rest of the population. The image often used was that society was sliding down-hill and the church was only a little behind. As Ronald Sider wrote in the January, 2005 issue of Christianity Today,

Born-again Christians divorce at about the same rate as everyone else. Self-centered materialism is seducing evangelicals and rapidly destroying our earlier, slightly more generous giving. … Born-again Christians justify and engage in sexual promiscuity (both premarital sex and adultery) at astonishing rates. Racism and perhaps physical abuse of wives seems to be worse in evangelical circles than elsewhere. This is scandalous behavior for people who claim to be born-again by the Holy Spirit and to enjoy the very presence of the Risen Lord in their lives.

Sider saw rays of hope in a 1992 Gallup survey that showed certain “heroic and faithful” Christians did behave better than average, but to cite this as proof of the Spirit’s power would only be to commit the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. Besides, I have a hunch that heroic and faithful secular humanists are exceptional people, too.

Conclusion

I knew and still know some truly wonderful evangelicals. However, my anecdotal experience with evangelicals as a group was that we were no better than anyone else, and had no special power to improve our character even when we wanted to do so.

World-class pollsters such as George Gallup, Jr. and George Barna (both devout Christians, by the way) reached the same conclusion more scientifically.

I was forced to admit that one of the central claims of evangelical Christianity is false. There is no Holy Spirit who indwells and empowers only the born-again.

[Edited to add:] In case I haven’t made this clear already, let me say it again. My point is not the usual whining about Christians being “such hypocrites” so now I will take my toys and go home. This is all about a central proposition of the Christian faith having been proven false.

But what of God? Surely Jehovah is good, and worthy of worship! Maybe, but I had been proven wrong on many other counts. I was now ready to take a fresh look at the character of God as revealed in the Bible. The answer I found drove me, screaming, from the faith. More on that next time. [Edit Dec 13, 2012:] No, there’s been a change in plans. I’m going to highlight some of your comments first.

Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 3: Prayer Studies

Just this week, a Christian I trust related a story of miraculous healing that was told to her by a Christian she trusts. It seems that a man had been in a coma for 30 days. In a scene reminiscent of Acts 19, a garment was conveyed from a man of prayer and laid over the invalid. A few more prayers and 5 minutes later — the man arises!

How can stories like that fail to restore my faith? By the end of this post, you’ll understand why I’ve become a little jaded.

Parts 1 and 2 of this little series brought us to the point where I was still an evangelical but my faith needed to be strengthened. I had heard that scientific studies proved prayer to be effective in healing the sick, and decided that would be a good place to start.

I did a lot of rooting around on the Internet. To the extent that I could trace the claims (most of them were unsourced), the majority originated with a study led by Randolph Byrd, M.D.. This report was typical:

One of the most quoted scientific studies of prayer was done between August of 1982 and May of 1983. 393 patients in the San Francisco General Hospital’s Coronary Care Unit participated in a double blind study to assess the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer. … The patients who had received prayer as a part of the study were healthier than those who had not. The prayed for group had less need of having CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) performed and less need for the use of mechanical ventilators. They had a diminished necessity for diuretics and antibiotics, less occurrences of pulmonary edema, and fewer deaths. Taking all factors into consideration, these results can only be attributed to the power of prayer. [emphasis mine]

My experience with creationists had taught me to check the facts, and then the facts behind the facts.

Lo and behold, it turned out to be true!! The prayed-for group did have better outcomes in 6 categories! (The seventh, “fewer deaths,” was not at a statistically significant level, even though it was specifically prayed for.) However, what the evangelical Websites and even the abstract of the study itself failed to mention is that no significant difference was found in the other 20 outcomes that were measured.

Are we to believe that God cares about whether someone needs diuretics but is indifferent to whether they have gastrointestinal bleeding?

The outcomes that did improve only did so to the tune of 5 to 7 percent compared to the control group. Are we supposed to attribute that barely noticeable result to the mighty creator of the universe?

There were also plenty of methodological problems, documented in this critique by Gary Posner, M.D.. But it gets worse. Following standard procedure in science, another group tried to replicate Dr. Byrd’s result. 

Christianity Today — more or less the official journal of mainstream evangelicalism — was good enough to report the result of the follow-up study.

The Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP), conducted under the auspices of Harvard Medical School, was by far the most comprehensive of its kind. The study required 10 years and $2.4 million…

The result: The group whose members knew they were being prayed for did worse in terms of post-operative complications than those whose members were unsure if they were receiving prayer. The knowledge that they were being prayed for by a special group of intercessors seemed to have a negative effect on their health.

The two groups that were unsure of whether they were receiving prayer were also compared. One group actually received prayer (the same group mentioned above), while the other did not. This time, the group that had received prayer experienced more major complications than the group without additional prayer. In other words, the study seemed to show that prayer—at least prayer from strangers—might be bad for one’s health.  [emphasis mine]

But in a manner with which I was becoming increasingly familiar, they find a way to spin the evidence 180 degrees. Christianity Today continues:

Ironically, STEP actually supports the Christian worldview. Our prayers are nothing at all like magical incantations. Our God bears no resemblance to a vending machine. The real scandal of the study is not that the prayed-for group did worse, but that the not-prayed-for group received just as much, if not more, of God’s blessings. In other words, God seems to have granted favor without regard to either the quantity or even the quality of the prayers. By instinct, we might selfishly prefer that God give preferential treatment to those who are especially, deliberately, and correctly prayed for, but he seems to act otherwise.

True to his character, God appears inclined to heal and bless as many as possible.

Folks, you just can’t make this stuff up. But it is so very typical of what I heard in the evangelical church.

Although I had hoped that checking out the studies on intercessory prayer would strengthen my faith, the studies and the untruthful or contorted reporting of them by evangelicals only made my doubts grow. Even where I had been assured there was hard evidence, there was none.

The image that kept occurring to me was that I was standing on a floor made of a thin sheet of balsa wood. It was cracking under me and I kept trying new places to stand, only to find that those cracked as well.

But what of the man who came out of the coma? There was a time when that one third-hand report would have been enough to keep my faith-batteries well-charged for months. Now I look at it differently. Just as Dr. Byrd cherry-picked a few barely positive outcomes to report in his abstract and ignored the other 20, so incidents like this must be taken in the context of the thousands of people who awake from comas with no prayer, or fail to awake after much prayer. Heck, people were probably praying for this man for the entire 30 days, and would have continued to pray for 300 more. If he had awakened after any of the other prayers, that would have been cited as equally miraculous. And if he had never awakened, we never would have heard about it.

People awake from comas all the time. Cancers go into remission, backaches are healed, and the lame walk. Healing any of those things through prayer doesn’t mean a thing unless done as part of a controlled scientific study. And all the studies have shown little if any effect. If God really wants to show his power and mercy, let him regrow the limb of even a single amputee.

There is actually an entire Website devoted to that suggestion: WhyWontGodHealAmputees.com. Read it and see if you can offer a reason why God would be in the miracle-working business … but only if the miracle is not too hard.

While you’re doing that, I’ll prepare the next installment in this series. You’ll hear why I came to believe that my fellow evangelicals and I embodied one of the strongest refutations of the evangelical faith.

P.S. –  If you think you have a killer miracle story, please be sure it’s not a magic trick or a fraud.