Category Archives: Christianity

Frederick Douglass and LGBT Equality

FDouglass1On July 4, 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered a riveting speech to the citizens of Rochester, New York. Douglass’s theme was white America’s hypocrisy in celebrating Independence Day while a seventh of the population was in chains.

I encourage you to read the full text here. It’s lengthy, but I promise that you will consider it time well-spent.

Slavery was the culture-war issue of Douglass’s day. Today, marriage equality and LGBT rights are front and center. I’d like to apply a portion of Douglass’s oration to these modern issues by excerpting a portion of his speech, interspersed with instructions that today’s conservatives give to LGBT people. Not every word of his applies, but most do.

Argue your case and be patient. Don’t offend us.

I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.

But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, it is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, and denounce less, would you persuade more, and rebuke less, your cause would be much more likely to succeed. But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued. What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light?

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Can You Find God on the Enlightenment’s Terms?

According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 42% of Americans believe “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” Most people who chose that response to the question of human origins attend church regularly. It seems safe to assume that they get some of their most important ideas about life from God speaking to them in one way or another — in answer to prayer, through passages in the Bible, an so on.

In contrast, America’s founding fathers were above all children of the Enlightenment. In the last post, we saw that Enlightenment thinkers insisted that knowledge, including answers to the great questions of life, be justified in ways that are, in principle, accessible to all. A private word from an invisible God would not qualify.

A believer might counter that an Enlightenment epistemology based on science, logic and reason is going to miss important truths that God himself communicates.

In a way, I’d say the believers are right. If I were to have a vision in which the Christian God appeared to me personally and said, “I exist. Worship me,” I would be more inclined to believe that my brain chemistry was doing something strange, than to believe that God had truly appeared to me. After all, people of other faiths that contradict Christianity also have visions of their gods. Evidently visions are not reliable sources of truth, which was exactly the Enlightenment’s point.

However, that does not mean someone like me is beyond God’s reach. If God exists and is interested in a relationship with all mankind, including freethinkers, he could reveal himself in ways that are, in principle, accessible to all.

In fact, believers say he has done exactly that. Google a question like “How do we know the Bible is true?” and you will find reasons like these, summarized from ChristianAnswers.net:

  • The Bible contains many fulfilled prophecies.
  • The Bible is more historically accurate than other texts of the period.
  • The Bible makes correct scientific claims that were ahead of its time.
  • The Bible has a uniquely harmonious message event though it was written by many men over hundreds of years.
  • The Bible has had a unique effect on people who have believe it.

All of these reasons can be evaluated by Enlightenment standards. For example, anyone can, in principle, determine whether a given prophecy was made ahead of its alleged fulfillment, was specific enough to be remarkable, and was actually fulfilled. Even the last reason, which seems private and personal, can be tested by asking, “Do Bible-believers live uniquely righteous lives?”

The ultraconservative, creationist website, Answers in Genesis, is right in line with the Enlightenment as they say, “When asked how they know that the Bible is true, some Christians have answered, ‘We know the Bible is true by faith.’ While that answer may sound pious, it is not very logical, nor is it a correct application of Scripture. … A person doesn’t really know something just by believing it. He simply believes it. So the response is essentially, ‘We believe because we believe.’ While it is true that we believe, this answer is totally irrelevant to the question being asked. It is a non-answer. Such a response is not acceptable for a person who is a follower of Christ.” They go on to give their own reason for believing the Bible is true, based on pure logic.

Perhaps the folks at ChristianAnswers.net and Answers in Genesis are only trying to appeal to the unconverted in ways they would understand, but I give them more credit than that. I think they truly believe their faith is grounded in evidence. That’s certainly what I thought about my faith in my evangelical days.

So my response to a Christian who asks, “Aren’t you cutting yourself off from God speaking to you?” is, “Isn’t God able to speak through evidence?” Most Christians would agree that he is, and then we can have a conversation about the evidence … on the Enlightenment’s terms.

God Did Not Make Us Robots

You’ve probably heard this as often as I have:

God has not made us as robots, but has given us free will.

I happen to think that robots can have free will, but let’s set that aside for the moment. What does the believer in God mean when she says God has given us free will?

It is surprisingly difficult to define free will, but at a minimum it means the ability to make a choice free of coercion and threat.

When we see a prisoner of ISIS make an anti-Western speech just prior to being beheaded, we all realize that he did not make that speech of his own free will. He had undoubtedly been threatened with tortures worse than beheading if he did not do as he was told.

To the extent one is threatened, one does not have free will.

Supposedly God (I speak now of the God of the Bible because I live in Judeo-Christian America) is not like this. But how is he not like this? Does he make no threats?

On the contrary, consider this litany of threats from Deuteronomy 28, as one example among many. If the people do not obey God, it says, he will send all manner of curses. (Note that the text speaks of God sending curses in most cases; these are not just “natural consequences of bad behavior.”)

  • “The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, fever and inflammation, which will plague you until you perish” (verse 22)
  • “The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.” (verse 24)
  • “The Lord will afflict you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors, festering sores and the itch, from which you cannot be cured.” (verse 27)
  • “You will be pledged to be married to a woman, but another will take her and rape her.” (verse 30)
  • “Your sons and daughters will be given to another nation [as slaves], and you will wear our your eyes watching for them day after day, powerless to lift a hand.” (verse 32)

Verses 47 and 48 conclude, “Because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and gladly in the time of prosperity, therefore in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and dire poverty, you will serve the enemies the Lord sends against you. He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you.”

Note again God’s active role in bringing this about: “the enemies the Lord sends…”, “He will put an iron yoke…”. These are not warnings of how things will work themselves out. They are threats.

The believer will respond that such chastisement is evidence of God’s love. He disciplines us because we are his children. We should worry if we were not to experience his discipline because that would mean we were not his children at all (Hebrews 12:4-11).

But when does discipline become child abuse? Would afflicting your child with sores and itches that cannot be cured be discipline or abuse? Would causing your child’s fiancee to be raped be discipline or abuse? (If the passage above doesn’t persuade you that the God of the Bible is capable of that, I dare you to follow this link to 2 Samuel 12:11 and see how God “disciplined” his child, King David. Note once more God’s active role.) Would sending people to enslave them be discipline or abuse?

“Ah, but that’s the Old Testament. Jesus gave us a new kind of relationship with God.”

Not really. Jesus only increased the stakes by introducing the doctrine of hell. As Christopher Hitchens said, “[In the Old Testament] once [God] is done with you, once the earth closed over you, that’s it. There’s no torture of the dead. Not until gentle Jesus, meek and mild, do you get that.”

Would a fiery hell, from which there’s no escape, be discipline or abuse? *

We haven’t even touched on the doctrine of predestination, which could not be taught more clearly and unambiguously than it was in Romans 9:15-21.

Let us now return to our friend the robot. Suppose he is equipped with sensors and software that enable him calculate the action that is most likely to lead to his continued well-being.

Who has free will: the person under threat of disease, rape and enslavement if he does not do what he is told; or the robot, who can take the action he deems optimal, unhindered?

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* – A growing minority of even conservative Christians believe that hell is only a place of final annihilation, not eternal, conscious torment. However, this is and always has been the minority view.

Did God Guide the Evolution of Morality?

About a third of Americans believe “humans have developed over millions of years from less-advanced forms of life, but God guided this process.” That sounds like a solution that will please everyone, doesn’t it? The scientist’s theory of evolution is accepted and the believer’s God has a central role. *

Few people on either side of the debate would find that position threatening. It’s a different story when we talk about the evolution of morality. Somehow a naturalistic explanation for our moral sense strikes closer to home than a naturalistic explanation for life itself. In some ways, our moral sense is a more important and cherished component of our identity than our physical bodies.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis pointed to our shared moral sense as evidence of God. We yearn for right rather than wrong; how could we long for something that does not exist? We thirst for water, which exists, rather than for an imaginary liquid. In the same way, our thirst for righteousness strongly suggests that there is such a thing.

Let us agree, then, that there is such as thing as right and wrong. Could evolution, rather than God, account for our sense of it?

I have heard it argued as recently as this morning that evolution could not have been the wellspring of morality. The competition-to-the-death that drives evolution could never result in anything like the moral sense we all have. Evolution could only produce creatures more and more efficient and ruthless. By now, we should all be Nazis. The atrocities of the Islamic State should be the norm.

Before responding, let’s be sure we understand the assertion. It is that no purely physical (i.e., godless) mechanism could possibly produce the moral sense we share. If we were to inspect the process without allowing God into the picture, it would not hold together.

That makes it unlike theistic biological evolution. The adherents of God-guided biological evolution say that he nudged mutations at key points so they were not random, although his work was subtle enough as not to be obvious. If I flip a coin five times and the outcome is heads every time, you might suspect that I cheated by “guiding” the process, but you would not say it’s impossible for a five-heads sequence to occur all by itself. C.S. Lewis and others who make the argument from morality are saying that it is impossible for the moral order we observe to occur as the result of a purely physical process.

Richard Dawkins more than refuted this almost 40 years ago in his book, The Selfish Gene. I posted a little series summarizing the book three winters ago. To boil it down even further, the argument goes like this. The unit of evolution is the gene, not the organism, for it is the genes that are doing the mutating. The genes (not the organisms) that produce the most copies of themselves are the evolutionarily successful ones. Copies of one’s genes exist most abundantly in one’s kin, and then in one’s tribe, race, species, and genus, in that order. Therefore, genes that manage to induce in their host bodies an instinct to aid the survival of one’s kin, tribe, race, etc., will promote more copies of themselves. Cooperation becomes a survival strategy, not necessarily for the organisms but for the genes. And indeed we see great cooperation and sacrifice for family members, a strong but somewhat lesser loyalty to tribe, and so on down the line — just as a gene-centered explanation of cooperation predicts.

What is the first rule of cooperation? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That also happens to be the basis for all morality, according to Jesus himself. Voila!

A purely physical, perfectly sensible explanation for morality has been found. Believers have declared this to be impossible. Indeed some, following C.S. Lewis, have made this the linchpin of their argument for God. Will they now recant? In the spirit of truth, will they admit their error from their pulpits and in conversations with the unconverted? Will they even read Dawkins’ short book before they decide not do to so?

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* – Young-earth creationists are unhappy with theistic evolution because, to them, it directly contradicts the gospel. They believe that Adam and Eve were real people and death — physical death — entered the world because of Adam’s sin. There was no death before Adam, so eons of “survival of the fittest” could not have happened. This is not a fringe view, by the way, according to the same Gallup poll cited above, just under half of Americans believe “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”

Broad is the Road to Moral Insanity

Slacktivist recently posted a very insightful series called Unlearning the Lies We Learned from the Theologians of Slavery. Briefly, he points out that many of the great Protestant theologians who are America’s spiritual Founding Fathers supported slavery or even owned slaves — men like Jonathan Edwards (yes, even in the North!), Patrick Henry and George Whitefield. Slacktivist shows that this disturbing truth ought to challenge us in many ways. Do read his whole series, but I’d like to focus on one sentence from Part 4:

You have to get a host of other things wrong in order to arrive at the place where you get that one thing [slavery] wrong.

What wrong steps did Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield take that made that final step of justifying slavery seem perfectly sensible and even godly? Might we have already taken some of those steps?

As a former conservative Christian who walked the same path as Edwards et al, I suggest the road to moral insanity can go something like this…

  1. You believe that you are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and this gives you a supernatural edge in deciding moral questions: you can understand scripture and hear God’s voice more reliably than people who do not “know God.”
  2. In fact, you are taught to distrust non-believers’ ideas as non-spiritual “worldly wisdom” or worse.
  3. From that privileged position, you allow yourself a moral epistemology that you deny to others. When a fundamentalist Muslim arrives at obviously inhuman morality based on the Koran, you wonder how he can be so blind. “Why don’t his conclusions lead him do question his scriptures?” you ask. But when the same hermeneutic is applied to the Bible to arrive at positions that the rest of society has come to agree are harmful (e.g., the condemnation of homosexuality), you defend the process as being “faithful to God’s Word.”
  4. Having fully embraced an epistemology that has, by your own account, failed everywhere else it has been tried, you are well-prepared for final steps to moral insanity.
  5. You encounter passages in the Bible about, in this case, slavery. Although you are a good person, the plain reading of the text is that God not only tolerates slavery, but actually commanded his people to enslave whole cities full of people that were at a distance, minding their own business. The New Testament provides not a glimmer of relief for slaves, with Jesus’ parables casting God himself as a harsh slave-owner, and Paul teaching that slaves should obey their masters, rather than teaching masters to free their slaves.
  6. Although you are a kind person and would never in a thousand years have tried to justify slavery on your own, far be it from you to deny the authority of God’s Word. You come up with excuses for it. If you are Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield, living in a culture where a consensus against slavery has not yet emerged, you positively endorse it as part of God’s Order.
  7. As I outlined in my last post, you are now mired in the same moral insanity as ISIS, for exactly the same reasons.

Maybe you think, “I’m quite sane, thank you very much. I don’t support slavery at all. I’m completely against it.”

Really? Have you repudiated God’s commands to enslave in the Bible, or do you justify them with one lame excuse or another?

When your Bible tells you that God commanded genocide, do you blame the victims, or do you say that genocide is wrong, period, therefore the Bible is wrong?

When the Bible commands a man to stone his own wife to death if she expresses the slightest desire for religious freedom, what is your reaction? Do you justify this command as “God forming his people” or do you say that no amount of historical context can justify stoning one’s wife?

These are all markers of moral sanity.

Although slavery, genocide and religious freedom are no longer a sources of controversy in America, we are fighting other battles in the culture wars, with same-sex marriage and abortion rights being the most active and long-running. More lately, a flare-up has started over contraception. In each case, the spiritual heirs of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield appear to be on the wrong side of history.

Jesus said, “The gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. The gate is small and the way narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

As we consider the questions that stand where the slavery question stood 150 years ago, I would add, “Be careful. The gate to moral insanity can look a lot like the gate to God’s Kingdom, and the road can appear to be the road of faith.”

ISIS, Evangelicals, and the Mantle of Moral Leadership

Even if you’re reading this ten years from now, I doubt you’ll have forgotten the horrifying events of the summer of 2014.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have, among other atrocities, besieged members of the Yazidi religious sect at the Sinjar mountain, where children have died of thirst; they have captured and enslaved hundreds of Yazidi women after killing their male relatives; and they have issued “convert or die” ultimatums to hundreds of other members of this often-persecuted minority, slaughtering at least one entire village that refused. ISIS have not been kind to anyone, but they seem to have an especially large ax to grind with the Yazidis, holding them to be polytheistic devil-worshipers who should not be allowed to live.

How can this happen in the 21st century? Haven’t we arrived at the point where every person on the planet knows it’s wrong to besiege a religious minority, to enslave and rape its women, and to kill its men? Have we not learned that nothing can possibly justify this behavior — not even even the demands of the One True Religion?

Apparently not. But at least we Americans have gotten the memo, right?

Again, apparently not. I have heard more than one such American use the same thinking as ISIS to justify the same behavior as ISIS and defend a tribalistic morality that is just like ISIS’. I have heard this from Americans who are nice people and whom I otherwise respect. Are you surprised? You shouldn’t be; there are tens of millions of Americans who hold these views.

I am thinking, of course, of American evangelicals. Before you close your browser, hear me out.

Consider Bible passages like Deuteronomy 20:10-15, in which the God evangelicals worship commands his people (verse 15) to besiege (verse 12) members of other religions, and enslave them (verse 11), treating women as “plunder” to be “used” (verse 14) after killing their male relatives (verse 13).

10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

As Christians who believe the Bible is God’s Word, evangelicals must defend God’s commands in this passage as “good” — and they do. As a member of that group for 40 years, I heard all the reasons.

“Those nations were evil and deserved what they got” is the primary one. “He had to drive the infidels out of the Promised Land” is another. “He was forming his people” is a third.

That sounds a lot like “This is where the Islamic State belongs and these Yazidi devils who are in it now don’t deserve to live,” doesn’t it?

But what if evangelicals are right? What if God really did have good reasons for ordering genocide, enslavement, and the plundering of women? Is that possible?

The thought is not as crazy as it sounds. Ironically, the idea that some entities are justly privileged to do things that others may not is what the rule of law is all about. Think about it. The State gets to put criminals in jail, but if a private citizen does the same thing, it’s called kidnapping. The State may impose a fine, to be paid to itself, but if a person does that it’s called stealing.

So is God like the State, meting out justice in ways for which the rest of us are not qualified? Not in the case we are considering. The claim that God is perfectly just, coupled with the claim that he is omnipotent, implies that whatever he is up to in Deuteronomy 20 is the best of all possible worlds. What we call atrocities are, in fact, the highest good. His plan could not possibly be any better.

Is that true? Presumably a state of affairs in which everyone, including God, is at least as well-off would be a better one. Can we think of such an outcome?

It’s easy. Here’s one modest improvement. Surely there were children in these cities who had not yet reached the age of reason. If they worshiped another god, it was only because their parents dragged them to church, so to speak. They did not deserve to become slaves. God could have tucked in a verse along the lines of “…but every child under the age of ten, you are to raise as your own, lovingly teaching them all I have commanded.” To kill the parents and steal the children would still be barbaric, but it would be better than calling the kids “plunder” to be “used”.

And don’t even get me started on what it meant to “use” the women as plunder. Are we seriously saying that such explicit permission brought about the highest possible good?

And let’s not forget that God could have sent his Holy Spirit on these distant cities, converting them into worshipers of himself, or at least giving them the chance. He would supposedly do exactly that in a few hundred years. Why wait?

The argument that God was doing the very best that could be done, given his broader purposes, just doesn’t hold up. The hard reality is that the God of the Bible ordered the same atrocities that ISIS has committed, for much the same reasons, with just as little justification. And tens of millions of evangelicals in America continue to defend him for it.

I believe that most evangelicals have good hearts and want what’s right. I believe that if all the passages like Deuteronomy 20:10-15 were in a book other than the Bible, Christians would believe that book to be inspired by the devil himself. Yet there they are in the Bible. Christians now must choose between defending and repudiating them. As long as they continue to defend, it will be hard for some of us to believe that Christians are in touch with moral reality.

Christians who stick by those passages have the same moral epistemology as ISIS: consult an ancient text and justify whatever you find there. Why should such an epistemology, which has led to moral and humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq, be trusted in our churches?

American evangelicals want to wear the mantle of moral leadership. That’s fine, but to qualify they must stand up and thoroughly repudiate the moral philosophy of ISIS.

Countering Our Own Prejudice

One of my kids asked me today, “How can a person prevent herself from being prejudiced? I have a bad impression of the culture of [a certain country], and when I meet someone from there, it’s very hard not to assume he’s like that.”

One strategy that arose in our conversation was to remember what “bad” groups we are members of, and how we don’t conform to the stereotypes.

We’re American and I imagine the picture the rest of the world has of us. Compared to most developed countries, we have far more crime, yet we insist on having permissive gun-ownership laws; we have more people in prison than any country on Earth, yet we style ourselves as the moral beacon of the world; our government is incredibly dysfunctional when it comes to caring for the poor, but we always seem to have enough money to invade other countries; we want the world to trust our leadership, but we spy even on our friends; we like to tell other countries to respect their citizens’ rights and the rights of their neighbors, yet it was not all that long ago that we stole the bulk of our continent from Native Americans and Mexico; we are the only country ever to have have used a nuclear weapon in war, and we have done it twice; our academic scores are well behind many less-developed countries’ and we seem determined to remain ignorant, with large numbers of us denying climate change and evolution. I could go on and on.

Yet, if you meet an American on the street, chances are he’s a normal, nice person with a decent moral core.

Sometimes, our prejudice toward someone arises from assuming he will live up to the dangerous implications of his ideology. But most people don’t. Most people quietly ignore those parts of their belief system that are particularly bad.

They have learned to do so because they are carried along by a civilization that has moved on from the early days of their ideologies. You won’t find Jews today in favor of slavery or genocide even though God commanded both in the Hebrew Bible. Christians don’t torture people into professing orthodox faith anymore even though they once thought it a good idea since an eternity in heaven or hell was in the balance.

If we are open to the possibility that other people don’t conform to their stereotypes any more than we do to ours, I think most people will pleasantly surprise us.