Category Archives: Beagle’s Barks

“On Bullshit” and Creationism

This is a post I did not want to write. First of all, it requires me to speculate on what’s in other people’s heads, which I don’t like to do. Second, it requires me to use a mild cuss word, which makes me uncomfortable even in print. I’m posting anyway because on the first count there comes a time where you just have to say that a waddling, quacking, duck-like animal is, in fact, a duck; and on the second count the word “bullshit” happens to have no adequate synonym.

What is bullshit, and how does it differ from an ordinary lie? Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt gave a good answer in his famous essay, On Bullshit.

The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

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Spiritual Discernment

[Sorry, but this post had to be a Beagle’s Bark.]

Continuing the theme of the last couple of posts, about intuition verus empiricism, I have wanted for some time to write about this passage in the Bible. The apostle Paul says,

… the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For “who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:14-16, NKJV)

So here Paul asserts a third faculty, one beyond reason and intuition: spiritual discernment. What do you think this is?

(Disclaimer: In what follows, I mean to consider spiritual discernment only from a traditional, biblical point of view. I know little of how religions other than evangelical Christianity use the term.)

I was an evangelical for several decades, and I must confess that I never felt I had this spiritual discernment thing figured out. As far as I could ever tell, the feeling is indistinguishable from normal intuition, but (a) it is probably about a spiritual subject and (b) the believer is convinced that God is behind it.

Like secular intuition, spiritual discernment can apparently be honed by years of conventionally acquired knowledge and experience, or diminished by foolish habits. One’s discernment increases with prayer and holiness; it decreases with riotous living. So far, so good.

Insiders-Only Reasoning

What makes me skeptical about spiritual discernment is the exclusivity in the Bible passage above. Supposedly that which is spiritually discerned is “foolishness” to the “natural man” (i.e., the non-Christian or secular person). In fact, this type of knowledge is utterly inaccessible to him, according to the Paul.

The example that Paul uses in the same chapter is the crucifixion of Christ. That God would use such a gruesome, unjust event to bring about forgiveness of sins does seem like foolishness to the unbeliever, but it makes glorious sense to the Christian.

The fact that spiritual knowledge seems irrational to outsiders does not in itself mean it’s false. Most non-scientists would not believe the stunning implications of quantum physics, yet they are true.

So is spiritual discernment on equal footing with advanced science? Do both rely on the same sort of insiders-only reasoning?

Not at all. The scientist — or any other variation of the “natural man” — is convinced that his reasons ought to make sense to anyone who has sufficient background knowledge. He suggests experiments that would invalidate his idea, and invites others to do the same. Whether or not experiments are possible, he attempts to follow universally agreed norms of sound thought. He is willing to change his mind if his interlocutor follows the same norms. He does not claim a special faculty that puts him above everyone else.

Judgementalism

An inevitable consequence of insiders-only reasoning, both logically and historically, is that the spiritually discerning person makes himself the judge of everyone else, but allows no-one to judge him. In the passage cited, Paul claims believers “have the mind of Christ” and are therefore fit to judge “all things” literally as if they are Christ himself.

Can we be surprised that the public face of evangelical Christianity in America today consists largely of a mouth — one that pronounces judgement on liberals, homosexuals, the public schools, evolution-believers, scientists who warn us about climate change, those who would interfere with free-market capitalism, and who-knows-how-many other groups? I say this with all humility and regret, as one who was once spoke with that voice.

Scientists can be reluctant to let go of their preferred theories, but not one of them would ever say, “You can’t tell me I’m wrong. I have the mind of Christ and you don’t.”

Where’s the Evidence?

So the spiritually discerning evangelical knows what other people have no hope of knowing and judges them with the mind of Christ. Those are lofty claims indeed. By what evidence does he make them?

Spiritual discernment is by definition beyond physical evidence and even beyond reason. Those who claim to have it seem suspiciously like Martin Harris — one of the Three Witnesses who claimed to have seen the original Golden Plates of the Book of Mormon … but, it turns out, only with “spiritual eyes.” I don’t know about you, but Martin Harris and his ilk do not convince me.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Sometimes the fate of people who believe they are worthy to see what lesser men cannot is downright comical. You know the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Two swindlers convinced an emperor that they could make fabric so exalted that only the worthy and intelligent could see it. The emperor saw this as an opportunity to expose other people’s unworthiness and clothed himself in this supposed fabric — until an honest boy pointed out that the emperor was, in fact, naked.

At other times, comedy is nowhere in sight. Claims of spiritual discernment were at the root of the witch-hunting hysteria that swept Europe, in which tens of thousands of women and men were tortured or executed (the more famous Salem witch trials were small potatoes); the Inquisition that likewise resulted in unspeakable tortures and horrible deaths, and continues in rebranded, milder form until this day; and the religious strife that tears the world apart today like a thousand demons.

He who puts too much stock in spiritual discernment, whether his own or someone else’s, is like one who believes he is truly a magician. He does himself no harm until he attempts to fly off a cliff on a magic carpet, and does others no harm until he attempts to saw them in half.

Zubeidat Tsarnaev and the Black Hole of Reality

Like many of you, I’ve been spellbound as the drama of the Boston Marathon bombings has unfolded. Since it took place just a few miles from my home, I have felt that I should blog something about it, but I’ve hung back until more of the facts were known.

Unfortunately, the more that has become known, the less unusual the story has become. We’ve seen so much of it before: A young man that everyone had voted least-likely-to-become-a-terrorist falls under the spell of hateful religious extremism, probably conveyed by his own brother. He blows the leg off a seven-year-old girl who had loved dancing — which somehow seems even worse than killing her eight-year-old brother along with at least two other people. While scoring in the 99th percentile for cold-blooded wickedness, he and his brother score in the 1st percentile for competence as criminals and are soon caught. All that is nothing new.

What is new, and what I’d like to muse on for a moment, is the brothers’ mother’s slow orbit around the black hole of reality — that place where all man-made falsehoods are first ripped to shreds and then compressed to a singularity of truth, whether we wish it or not. It has been both maddening and heartbreaking to watch.

Zubeidat Tsarnaev

Zubeidat Tsarnaev

Zubeidat Tsarnaev kept her distance from reality long before the Boston Marathon bombings. According to one of her spa customers, she believed that “9-11 was purposefully created by the American government to make America hate Muslims.”

After her sons were involved in a shootout with police, she told CNN correspondent Nick Walsh that her sons “were being killed because they were Muslims. Nothing else.”

Days later, according to CNN, she was still maintaining that the bombing was staged and the supposed blood was actually paint. Tellingly, she based this opinion on a video she had seen, but she had not seen any video of the actual bombing. It seems that she was staying as far from the black hole of reality as possible.

But then, in the same interview, she said of the bombing’s victims, “I really feel sorry for all of them” and repeated, “Really feel sorry for all of them.” Her voice was cracking, and so was the wall she had constructed to keep herself from reality.

Why would she feel sorry for the victims of a staged bombing, who were splattered only with paint? I think part of her knows the truth. Or as she put it, “There is something wrong.”

Is she still orbiting the black hole of reality at such a distance that it will not pull her in, or has her descent already begun? It’s too early to tell, but I suspect she has slowed below escape velocity and the black hole will soon rip her apart.

I hope it does, but not because I bear her any ill will. Quite the opposite.

(Now comes a Beagle’s Bark.)

I identify with Zubeidat Tsarnaev. She reminds me of myself during my evangelical days.

Just as she swallowed an unlikely theory from an off-the-wall video, but did not think it necessary to watch a video of the actual events, so I took the word of my fellow evangelicals on all manner of topics and did not conscientiously seek out the unfiltered opinions of my so-called opponents.

She projected her own us-versus-them mentality on the police, which caused her to misread their motives in the shootout. I, too, was prone to misread the motives of honest non-believers, chalking up their conclusions to atheistic assumptions and invoking conspiracy theories.

In fact, her claim that blood was actually paint reminds me of the claim, which I entertained but never felt comfortable with, that God created the Earth with only an appearance of great age.

And finally, her uneasy confession that “there is something wrong” is not unlike my own realization that something was amiss in evangelical Christianity, even as I struggled against the pull of godless reality.

I think Zubeidat Tsarnaev will fall into reality eventually. We don’t hear her saying things like, “My sons did not do this thing, but if they had I would be proud of them for killing infidels.” Her moral sense is not completely gone. If she were an evangelical and were confronted with Jehovah’s commands to enslave whole cities and his permission to force the most beautiful of their women into sham rape-marriages, it seems she might not be one of those who would say, “It must have been God’s righteous judgment.” I have hope for her.

Perhaps, when she discovers that the people to whom she has given her ear have been lying to her, it will be the same wake-up call for her that it was for me and she will no longer resist the gravitational pull of reality.

The process of leaving my faith did feel like being ripped apart by a black hole. But ultimately, I found I was happier as part of the singularity of reality than struggling against it.

I wish her a similar happiness.

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.”

Sex-Selective Abortions

[This post is a Beagle’s Bark.]

President Obama recently stated his opposition to a House bill that would have jailed doctors who knowingly perform abortions for sex-selection.

Predictably, the president has been roundly criticized by the Religious Right. Even his defenders acknowledge, “Banning abortions based on sex-selection is something everyone can sign on to in principle.”

I confess that I am uneasy about abortion. Even the most ardently pro-choice people are at some point (surely at 8-1/2 months!). I also think that the reasons the president’s deputy press secretary gave for the president’s position are dubious. So, I am not writing to defend the president’s decision on a bill that I have not even read.

Instead, I would like to challenge those who criticize the president based on their biblical convictions to take the plank out of their own eye before they attempt to take the speck of sawdust out of the president’s.

If sex-selective abortion is bad, surely sex-selective infanticide is much worse. I humbly ask my Bible-believing friends to grapple with the fact that the Bible claims God ordered exactly that.

I am thinking the book of Numbers, chapter 31. God has commanded Moses to take vengeance on the Midianites. In verses 17 and 18, Moses commands:

…kill all the boys, … but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

Lest we think that this was just Moses’ idea, remember that the chapter makes it clear throughout (verses 7, 31, 41 and 47) that Moses was doing as the Lord commanded.

So, according to the Bible, we have God selecting which children will live and which will die based solely on their sex. Isn’t that exactly what we object to in the case of sex-selective abortions? (The excuse is that this was an act of divine judgment, but see my post here for a response to that idea.)

Next, consider Psalm 139:13:

…you [God] knit me together in my mother’s womb.

The Bible says that God fashions the developing child in the womb. How does that square with the fact that up to half of all pregnancies terminate with spontaneous abortion? Are these “acts of God”? It may be argued that miscarriages are the result of The Fall, but the Bible says that God is still active in “opening and closing the womb.” One of the prophets even implores God to cause miscarriages. The Bible does not depict God as standing idly by while the consequences of The Fall work themselves out.

I will continue to grapple with the abortion issue. In return, will my religious friends wrestle honestly with these troubling Bible passages?

Umbrella of Protection?

At first he merely offered a hand to help us in or out of the van, and laid his other hand on our backs as we entered or exited. Then he would hold open a door and touch each of our backs as we walked through; this seemed fine the first time, but I wasn’t sure why it was necessary to touch both of our backs with full open hand every single time we walked through a door of any kind. If there was bench seating, his thigh was closely pressed against mine or the other girl’s. He would take and hold my or her hand as we walked to and from buildings. Without asking or announcing, he stroked my hair. If he was sitting opposite me in the van I would often look up to find him gazing at me, and then he would nudge my foot with his. I would smile nervously, pull my foot back, and look back down at my papers. If he was seated next to me in the van he would rest his hand on my forearm or reach over to hold my hand. I learned to hold my papers in whichever hand was closest to him.

Is that creepy or what? To explain, I must go back 40 years, to one of the formative experiences of my youth.

In high school, I attended Bill Gothard‘s Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, since renamed the Basic Seminar. You can visit that link to learn the seven main points. Many of them are excellent, but today I want to bark about the second one, which is to get under the “umbrella of protection” that God-given authorities provide:

Under each umbrella of protection, God sets in place the leadership of His choice, just as He placed Moses in leadership under the “umbrella” over Israel. So, under each umbrella of protection, God raises up and establishes the human leadership to represent Him before the people. These leaders become our human umbrellas, accountable to God for the stewardship of their responsibilities.

I was an insecure teenager trying to get his life together, and that message was very appealing. It was hard enough to negotiate the difficult interactions with my peers; I was only too glad to relinquish to God my sometimes-difficult dealings with authority figures. God had appointed them and if I were to follow their lead, he would take care of me.

I should have seen disaster coming right about here:

[God] provided leadership through Moses. When the people murmured again Moses, they were actually murmuring against God.

Once we equate an earthly authority with God, the fallible human starts to realize they he can get away with anything. The Catholic sex-abuse scandal may come to mind, but the Catholic church is not the only authoritarian power-structure that has problems, as we will see.

It’s amazing how we can lose sight of the old truism that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Our hope is not in authority and submission, but in accountability and mutual, earned respect.

That even goes for relationships with parents, teachers, employers and the law. That’s the genius of democracy. In countries where the law is accountable to the people it governs, there is generally lower crime and better governance. Not to mention more happiness.

So what about the sexually harassed 17-year-old girl at the beginning of this post? Her story would break my heart under any circumstance, but as a former Gothard devotee I feel an extra pang as I tell you where her ordeal took place. She was an employee at Bill Gothard’s headquarters and the man to whom she refers was none other than Bill Gothard himself.

Her story is but one among many reported on a Christian Website called RecoveringGrace. Most of the stories are from people who were abused in families that tried to live by Bill Gothard’s authoritarian, patriarchal principles and often under his control. (“Control,” you ask? Gothard has a home-schooling curriculum that comes with many, many strings. For example, the husband in one family we knew was not allowed to wear a beard, as a condition of using Gothard’s curriculum.) Other stories recount inappropriate conduct by Gothard himself. The common theme is that a hierarchical, authority-oriented culture is a breeding ground for abuse.

By the way, I learned about all this when reading a blog post which also reported that the director of another Christian ministry recently committed suicide while being investigated for the sexual abuse of a 10-year-0ld girl. That ministry, Voice of the Martyrs, was important enough to me at one time that I included them in my will.

*Sigh* doesn’t begin to cover it.

Why Do Atheists Care About Religion?

<< Previous in this series: Why Do Atheists Care About Other People?

I’ve noticed on the CNN Belief Blogs and elsewhere that atheists comprise many if not most of the commenters. That puzzles the believing portion of the commentariat.

When I was a Christian, I, too, could never understand why an unbeliever would care one way or the other about religion. Why would he or she waste time commenting on CNN’s Belief Blogs? Why not just leave religious people alone?

Now on the other side of the fence, I find that there are at least three reasons. [What follows is a Beagle’s Bark. 😉 ]

To Warn of the Dangers of Faith

Many atheists are former believers. We have seen not only the benefits of a faith-based life, but also the damage it can do. Just as evangelical Christians want to warn the world about the peril of hell, atheists want to sound the alarm over the dangers of conservative Christianity. For me, these included the following.

  • I  became morally compromised by having to justify some of the commands and actions of God in the Bible. I’ve posted about this here.
  • I became intellectually twisted by having to fit modern, scientific knowledge into a framework that was forged in the Bronze Age.
  • I became emotionally damaged by believing that my Heavenly Father’s very best plan for the world included so many seemingly gratuitous instances of suffering, and by believing that even my righteousness is like a filthy menstrual rag.
  • I became relationally insecure when the God with whom I was supposedly having a relationship so often did not speak a word to me — at least none that I was able to hear.
  • I became socially toxic due to an excessive, us-versus-them mentality. It’s hard to be both graceful and sincere toward the rest of the human race when the Bible specifically says that “friendship with the world is hostility toward God” and calls all non-believers “fools.”
  • This one did not apply so much to me, but I saw others become bound by fear due to the doctrine of hell. (Here is a gift one otherwise gracious person gave me when I left the church.)
  • …and on and on.

To Do Penance For Our Sins of Faith

Second, some of us former believers feel guilt over our years spent in religion. Warning others away from it is a form of penance. In the Bible, God

This list, too, could go on and on.

During my 40 years as a Christian, I never felt as guilty and ashamed as I did when I realized that the book I had promoted as God’s Holy Word teaches atrocity after atrocity, and all my excuses for it were totally lame. I felt that my hands were drenched in blood. I hope that by speaking out now I can undo some of the harm I have brought on society.

To Protect the Body Politic

And speaking of society, here in America conservative Christianity drives at least one side’s passion in many political issues: abortion, homosexual marriage, school prayer, science curricula, global climate change, and recently even birth control.

While evangelical Christians seek to make their faith-based views into law, they ironically complain that our secular government is trying to deny their religious freedom. I say this is ironic because, far from promoting religious freedom, the Bible demands the death penalty for even a whispered suggestion of worshiping another god. But I digress. For now, let’s just say that the Bible’s definition of religious freedom is “worship Jehovah or else.” When a substantial portion of the American electorate upholds the Bible as God’s Unchanging Word, the rest of us get a little nervous.

That wraps up this series. I hope the reasons I have given for why an unbeliever would care about religion, other people, right and wrong and indeed anything at all make sense. If not, please leave a comment!