Category Archives: Religion

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.

Same-Sex Marriage vs Tradition

In the last post, we heard from from John Trandem, interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition. If we were to legitimize same-sex marriage, he said, “how would we .. be able to exclude [marriage between] two men and two women or three men or three women…?”

Marriage between one man and one woman, he pointed out, has two things going for it that these other variations do not: biology and tradition.

The last post was about biology. Now let’s talk about tradition.

We can presume that when conservatives in America cite “tradition” they mean Judeo-Christian, or biblical, tradition. This is the tradition on which conservatives like to say our counry was founded. Okay, then.

Like the argument from biology, the argument from biblical tradition has a nasty way of curling back to bite those who trot it out.

For starters, biblical tradition is firmly rooted in polygamy. The Bible mentions two wives of Moses. Abraham had an unkown number of concubines (second-class wives) in addition to his wife, Sarah. I won’t mention Solomon, who had 700 wives, because the Bible does say that kings should not get carried away like that. His father, king David, was a monk by comparison, having only 7 wives, plus maybe a couple of others that are in dispute.

But what could be greater evidence of the polygamous root of Judeo-Christian tradition than the fact that the very 12 tribes of Israel descend from Jacob’s four wives?

The predominantly Mormon state of Utah was not allowed to join the United States until it agreed to outlaw polygamy. Where were God’s culture warriors when this abridgement of biblical norms was being foisted on patriotic Americans?

In addition to wives and concubines, Hebrew men were free to have sex with their slaves. In the chapter of the Bible that immediately follows the Ten Commandments, we find God’s regulations for sex slavery. A man could sell his daughter to a fellow Hebrew, who was then under obligation to continue to have sex with her (presumably so she could have the honor of bearing children) even as he married additional women. Alternatively, he could sell her back if she did not “satisfy him” or he could give her to one of his sons if he chose.

Now there’s a nice family value: Have sex with your servant-girl and then give her to your son for more of the same.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wife gave him a hard time for fathering a child by his housekeeper, where was the outcry from conservatives? (The outcry against his wife, I mean.) Why didn’t traditionalists support Arnold as he upheld the proud biblical tradition of impregnating one’s servants? He was even a Republican, for cryin’ out loud! It’s shameful how people won’t stand up for the Bible.

No study of the wondrous variety of marriage arrangements in the Good Book would be complete without mention of the final, glorious act of Moses, the great Law-Giver of Judeo-Christian tradition. This was to direct the distribution of 32,000 virgin war-captives to his soldiers and sundry others. As recorded in Numbers 31, these girls were parceled out exactly like the cattle that were also taken as “plunder and spoils” of war. It is stated at least 4 times in this chapter that Moses did all this in accordance with God’s direct command (verses 25, 31, 41, and 47).

Numbers 31 does not tell us whether any of the virgins got to update their Facebook status from “plunder” to “wife.” We can only hope. If they did, Deuteronomy 21:10-14 gave God’s instructions for how the Hebrew men were to arrange the marriage — and terminate it at will if the girl whose parents and brothers had been slaughtered by her new husband’s army does not manage to “please him” sufficiently.

We have all been horrified by ISIS’ enslavement and plunder of women in recent months, or Boko Haram’s practice of capturing girls and marrying them off to their soldiers. Why won’t advocates of “traditional marriage” speak up and tell the rest of us that ISIS and Boko Haram are acting exactly as God commanded in the Bible?

Never mind; I know the answer to that one. It’s because it’s bad when Muslims do it, but God’s righteous judgment when those in our spiritual tradition do the same thing.

By the time of the New Testament, the Jews were subject to Rome and were in no position to wage war and get wives by capturing them. However, polygamy was still practiced among both Jews and early Christians. In fact, it was pagan Rome that finally outlawed the practice.

So maybe it is Roman tradition that opponents of same-sex marriage really want? Probably not.

Maybe tradition is not all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe we’re better off thinking for ourselves.

The Islamic State, Christianity, and Holy Texts

What sense can you make of this dialog?

JOE: They say, “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

MARY: Why is the Aurora Borealis visible only in the far north?

JOE: I am convinced we will have a Republican president after the next election.

MARY: I should probably have a mammogram.

JOE: Oak trees are strong and brown. Birch trees are weaker, and have white bark.

MARY: Chocolate ice cream is my favorite.

When I took an acting class in college, the professor gave us an exercise based on dialog much like the above. He paired us off and gave each pair a full page of non sequiturs. Each pair was supposed to take a week to figure out how to present the dialog in a way that made sense. We were allowed to repeat words, but not omit or reorder any. When the class met again, we were to act out our interpretations in a convincing way.

My partner was totally stumped, as were most people in the class. However, I took up the challenge and managed to cast the dialog as being about a visit to the dentist, even though dentists were nowhere in the original. (There was a sentence about a proctologist, though!)

I was able to give every syllable an interpretation that made perfect sense. Not only that, but I was sure that I had found the only solution to the puzzle. When other students assigned a different meaning, I had to give them credit for trying, but I thought they had not fit their interpretation to the text as well as I had.

In fact, had I not known that the dialog was designed as nonsense, I might have marveled at how cleverly its true meaning was woven into seemingly unrelated content.

That experience is what came to mind when I read the cover story in the latest issue of The Atlantic: What ISIS Really Wants. To hear American politicians talk, the Islamic State is not Islamic at all. They are just a “death cult.” The Atlantic‘s article argues very effectively for a more sobering view:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Yes, there are alternate interpretations of Islam. As Graeme Wood points out toward the end of the article,

There is, however, another strand of Islam that offers a hard-line alternative to the Islamic State—just as uncompromising, but with opposite conclusions. This strand has proved appealing to many Muslims cursed or blessed with a psychological longing to see every jot and tittle of the holy texts implemented as they were in the earliest days of Islam.

[The are] committed to expanding Dar al-Islam, the land of Islam, even, perhaps, with the implementation of monstrous practices such as slavery and amputation—but at some future point. Their first priority is personal purification and religious observance, and they believe anything that thwarts those goals—such as causing war or unrest that would disrupt lives and prayer and scholarship—is forbidden.

In practical terms, then, one fundamentalist group is attempting to take over the world, while the other peacefully devotes itself to a life of prayer and scholarship. Two groups have the same view of their holy text, but reach opposite conclusions about how to live.

It would be easy to laugh at the ridiculous Muslims, but we in the Christian West have not been without diversity of interpretation of our holy text, the Bible.

One thinks of Christian pro-lifers who bomb abortion clinics, while other Christians, equally devoted to the scriptures, decry that practice and focus instead on prayer, asking God to stop abortion by changing people’s hearts.

Or, on a less violent level, one is reminded of Bible-believing Christians who preach that God will heal all who ask in faith for a miracle, even as other Bible-believing Christians caution that such prayers are presumptuous.

How can people who agree on a simple, common-sense, literal method of interpreting a holy text reach opposite conclusions based on it?

Surely part of the answer is that all scriptures have some passages that point one way, while others tend toward the opposite.

However, the acting exercise also taught me that if even a nonsense dialog can be wrestled into meaning something consistent, surely a relatively coherent book like the Bible or the Koran can be made to say things that the original authors did not have in mind.

More than that, it taught me that when someone thinks he has found the only sensible interpretation that takes the entire text into account, it may be because of his cleverness rather than because the text actually speaks with a unified voice.

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?

—–

* – 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.

Do Animals Believe in God?

Whenever we humans have been wrong about animals, it has been because we have underestimated them. As a schoolboy, I was taught that animals could not reason, solve problems, or use tools. False, false, and false. Earlier than that, scientists believed animals even as advanced as other primates could not feel pain. Way false.

Any dog-owner knows that animals can anticipate and even manipulate the thoughts of members of other species (their human companions).

Animals adopt children, display altruistic behavior, and wage organized war. Elephants, dolphins and chimpanzees have all been observed to take special care of their dead. All of this was unthinkable a hundred years ago.

If you are a religious person, you have your own reasons for believing in God. But think for a moment about people in general, especially primitive people. Why do they pray for rain? Why do they sacrifice their daughters to volcano gods? Why do they believe every tree and rock has a spirit? Surely humans’ hyper-developed sense of agency has something to do with it. We believe there are personal forces behind events, even when there are not.

It’s easy to see why we have evolved to go overboard in this way. If one of your great-great-…-great grandparents had seen the grass rustling on the savanna and mistakenly thought a lion lurked there, he might waste a few calories running away from nothing, but otherwise no harm done. The opposite error, believing there was no lion when it was right there stalking its dinner, would have been fatal and you would not be here. In that environment, it would not take long to evolve a bias for seeing animate forces behind events.

That environment was also the one that shaped the forbears of our animal cousins. Why wouldn’t the more cognitively endowed among them evolve a belief in some sort of god exactly as we have?

Maybe animals are smarter than we are, in a way: they know when to stop. After all, they have never been observed sacrificing their daughters to volcano gods, or doing rain dances. But why wouldn’t animals have an animistic view of nature? And isn’t animism a form of polytheism? And mightn’t that polytheism have developed into a proto-theology in some of the more advanced animals? Maybe they can’t talk about it with each other (or maybe they can), but who knows what’s going on in their heads?

What do you think?

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.”

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.