The Raving Theist

Dedicated to Jesus Christ, Now and Forever

2005 November

Voices of Theism: Mort Coyle

November 29, 2005 | 77 Comments

The Raving Atheist welcomes occasional commenter — and follower of Jesus — Mort Coyle as TRA’s second Voice of Theism.

I ask that my readers exercise tolerance when responding. Before commenting, please read the definition of “tolerance” set forth in Dawn Eden’s New York Daily News column regarding this site. Compliance will be strictly enforced.


Will Atheism Survive Post-Modernity?

WE ARE LIVING IN A TIME of profound transformation. Christian thinkers, in ever increasing numbers, are discussing this impending cultural change and its ramifications for the church. Yet Atheists seem to be largely unaware of the trend. The change I’m referring to is the shift in Western culture from Modernism into Post-Modernism.

Modernism is rooted in the sweeping movements of 18th century Europe: The Age of Enlightenment, the questioning of Absolutism, the populist revolt against the Monarchy and Catholic Church which culminated in the French Revolution and the “Reign of Terror”, the rise of modern science, industrialization, secular education, separation of Church and State, etc. Modernism was marked by a confidence in the ability of Reason to define objective reality, facilitate progress for mankind and give purpose to life.

Post-Modernism, as the name implies, is currently identified more by what it’s moving away from (Modernism) than what it is moving towards. Scholars ascribe varying markers for when the shift out of Modernism began: The horrors of mechanized warfare in WWI Europe, the misery of the industrial factory, the abomination of atomic bombs dropped on civilians in Japan in WWII, the madness of Stalinism and the failure of Marxism/Communism, the betrayals of Vietnam and Watergate, or perhaps the accumulation of all of these and more. Post-Modern thought emerged from the dawning realization that scientific advances and technology created as many problems as they solved. Progress for some came at the exploitation and expense of others. Post-Modernism is marked by an inherent distrust for institutions of any kind, a move away from objective, fixed points of view and “meta-narratives” and an acceptance of eclecticism, mystery and even paradox. See here for more about Post-Modernist thought.

In the church today, there are those who are embracing Post-Modernism and expending much thought and dialog on what it means to Christianity. Many see great opportunities for the church to shuffle off the monolithic, institutional shell that it’s been burdened with for the last 1700 years and move back to the simple organic structure of its early days, before it became intertwined with the Roman Empire.

Of course, there are those within Christianity who view Post-Modernism as a looming evil which must be withstood by digging into tried-and-true traditions and forms, in hopes of standing firm against the tide.

Others in the church are completely oblivious to the sea change, except for the nagging feeling of becoming less and less relevant.

Strangely, atheism seems to have more in common with these last two groups of Christians in this regard: There seems to be a dearth of discourse amongst atheists about how to avoid becoming irrelevant in a Post-Modern world. Whereas Christianity can look backwards past its Modern forms to a pre-Modern existence, Atheism was firmly planted and nurtured in the supposed terra firma of Modernism.

Alister McGrath, a professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, has written a book which explores the dilemma that Atheism finds itself in. “The Twilight of Atheism” (Doubleday) chronicles the rise, reign and decline of what McGrath terms ” . . . one of the most important movements in modern Western culture”. A taste of what McGrath has to say can be read here.

Perhaps the future for atheism lies in doing what it does best; critiquing dogma, power and privilege. To be heard in the Post-Modern world, however, atheists may have to let go of their own dogmatic and intolerant aspects in order to be given a voice among the many.

Decalogue

November 28, 2005 | 1 Comment

Pawel:You didn’t mention a soul.

Krzysztof: It’s a form of words . . . there is no soul.

Pawel: Auntie says there is.

Krzysztof: Some find it easier to live thinking that.

The Decalogue, Part 1 (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988)

God Squad Review CL (Hellbound Jews)

November 28, 2005 | 108 Comments

Do Christ-denying Jews burn in Hell for all eternity? A Jewish wife and a fundamentalist husband have “successfully solved [their] differences” on that sort of question, but for some reason it still arises whenever they take their ten year old son (being raised as a Jew who “has an appreciation and reverence for Jesus Christ”) to visit daddy’s family. Surprisingly, his fundamentalist Christian relatives assure him that both wife and son are going to hell for being Jewish. The Squad tells him that a few years of family harmony far outweigh the prospect of listening to his loved ones screeeeeeeeeam in anguish forever and ever. In fact, the central premise of mainstream Christian doctrine is pushed aside as if it were irrelevant:

We’ve been asked many versions of this question over the years, and honestly the structure of your family is more important than the structure of Christian theology in working it out.

Obviously, there is a strong “The-only-way-to-the-father-is-through-me” tradition in Christian thought, emphasizing that accepting Jesus as the Messiah is a precondition for salvation.

Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Chapters 9-11, strikes a more theologically accepting tone, but in the end, it’s unwise and unfair to argue with members of your husband’s family or try to change their beliefs. As hard as it is to accept, they have a right to believe that Jesus was not just a good carpenter but God’s essential gift to humanity for salvation.

Let it be.

At the end of days, we’ll all be able to sort things out, but the end of days doesn’t seem to be on the immediate horizon. Your critical task now is to preserve the spiritual integrity of your home.

It seems that their desire to remind your husband about their beliefs has not yet spilled over to warning your son that he’s headed for hell. When and if they start scaring a 10-year-old boy and dividing your family further, you and your husband must insist that they keep their beliefs to themselves.

For now, just tell your husband to slip the punch. Encourage him to listen to his family’s comments about religion, smile, and change the subject.

Is the end of days really the best time for us to “sort things out”? It’s going to be pretty hectic then, what with folks being sucked up into the sky or dodging fireballs — not exactly conducive to any figurin’. If a really big meteor were en route to our fine planet, I think we’d trying to intercept it before it got to the horizon.

And my impression was that God sorts us out on Judgment Day, rather than letting people engage in further debate on what He’s got in store. Plus, isn’t the deadline for accepting Christ the time just before one’s death, rather than the end of days? If we all got to decide upon finding ourselves alive after death, it wouldn’t be a very difficult decision, and certainly no would take until the end of days to guess at the answer.

Finally, what’s wrong with “scaring” the boy about something that could be really scary? I’m sure his parents scare him about the consequences of running around in traffic or playing with matches. Certainly the dangers of Christ-rejecting are much worse — more like juggling with nuclear warheads. A little family discord is nothing compared to what might happen to sonny if his father’s relatives are right. If the Squad is truly on the fence on the question, why not err on the side of safety and give the kid at least a 50/50 chance of selecting the right truth?

Happy Worst Moment

November 23, 2005 | 42 Comments

The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

How We Know

November 20, 2005 | 2 Comments

Phil: How do you know I’m not a god? How do you know?

Rita: Because it’s not possible!

Groundhog Day, 1993

Way Back When

November 20, 2005 | Comments Off

Can you help this girl and her mom?

My friend Ashli is doing the hard part — lending emotional support to the 15-weeks-pregnant woman to see her through a difficult time. It’s a job no government or charity can do effectively, something that can only be done one-on-one. If you poke around her blogs, you’ll see she’s done it for others, and others have done it for her, and it’s something that literally means the difference between life and death.

I’d appreciate it if you could help her with the easy part, with a few bucks. Just one less latte, one less DVD, one less whatever you can do without.

Please e-mail Ashli at thesiclecell — at — yahoo.com (or you can click on the link in her blog entry) if you’d like to contribute. If all goes well, in a few months there’ll be color pictures, too, and one day you’ll be able to say you knew her way back when.

[Note: The Raving Atheist will be posting lightly, if at all, from now through the Thanksgiving weekend. In the meantime, amuse yourself in the new Question of the Day.]

If You Were God

November 20, 2005 | 52 Comments

If you woke up and found you were God all alone in the universe at the beginning of time, what would you do?

Anti-Semitic Homophobic Group Barred from Discriminating against Jewish Gays

November 18, 2005 | 20 Comments

New York, New York, November 18, 2005
Special to The Raving Atheist

A New York judge has upheld a Jewish gay man’s discrimination lawsuit against a Christian organization that preaches that Jews and gays go to hell — holding that the Salvation Army may not direct its deeply-felt epithets against its employees. The decision has provoked outrage from many anti-Semitic homophobic churches, who claim that religious exemptions to employment laws protect their right to spew hate at those they hire.

In a sharply-worded decision, the state Supreme Court judge rejected the charity’s bid to dismiss a suit by a senior caseworker who alleges that his was reprimanded and later fired for complaining that his supervisor called him a “Jewish fag.”

“Invidious discrimination, including by religious institutions, has no place in our society,” wrote the judge. The court rejected arguments that state and city law expressly permit religious organizations to limit hiring to persons of the same religion, and to promote the tenets of their faith, holding that “those limited exemptions are a far cry from letting them harass their employees and treat the employees in an odiously discriminatory manner.”

The court noted that while it had the “utmost respect” for the Salvation Army’s doctrine that Hebrew sodomites are slow-roasted for eternity over fiery pits, permitting supervisors to communicate that doctrine to its staff could lead to “hurt feelings.”

Although Major Guy Klemanski of the Salvation Army’s New York division said his organization “abhors the type of conduct that is alleged to have occurred,” the group’s lawyer, Cindy Molloy, said “We are considering our next step regarding [the court’s] narrow construction of the religious organization exemption.”

Pastor Fred Phelps of God Hates Fags expressed concern that the ruling could “severely impair” his ability to reprimand the unrepentant reprobate cocksucking Christ-killing kikes he employs. “They are dogs eating their own vomit and sows wallowing in their own feces,” he said. “They need to hear this truth if they are to have any hope of penitence, faith in Jesus Christ and salvation.”

Great Zeus

November 17, 2005 | 49 Comments

I caught Sam Harris’ lecture at the Center for Inquiry last night. He’s an articulate, engaging and entertaining speaker and I would urge you to catch his road show if he comes to or near your town. Among his many thought-provoking observations was this: although our elected officials routinely make public entreaties to “God” in times of crisis, any politician who took to the floor of the Senate to suggest prayers to “Poseidon” to stop the recent tsunamis and hurricanes (“after all, the ocean in is his jurisdiction”) would be laughed out of a job.

It’s difficult to explain exactly why this is the case. Of course, such a senator might be viewed as simply insincere and disrespectful, no different from an atheist who invoked the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Invisible Pink Unicorn to make a cruel or mocking point. But let’s assume that the belief in the Greek gods was sincere. Why would his sanity likely be questioned?

From the atheist perspective, Poseidon is indistinguishable from Jesus or any other anthropomorphic representation of the God. However, I think even atheists would view the Poseidon worshipper as crazy in a way that mainstream or even fundamentalist Christians are not. So the truth-content of the belief, or its obvious idiocy, would not be the main reason for raising questions of mental competence. And those evaluating the Poseidonite from the religious side of the aisle would have less reason to attack on the grounds of rationality given their own absurd premises. They would, of course, brand their colleague’s belief as false — but that would not be their reason for their sanity assessment, insofar as they also reject as false all “mainstream” religions differing from their own without viewing the adherents of those faiths as nuts.

It’s empting to say that “everyone knows” that Poseidon’s a crock, or that the Greek and Roman Gods are part of an indisputably “dead” religion. But remember that the premise here is that the Senator in question is sincere. He’s not professing a concededly invented belief like the Flying Spaghetti Monster, one that everyone knows cannot be held seriously. Nor is it that Poseidon et al lack the “historicity” that makes beliefs in the Judeo-Christian tradition arguable in some way. The Hindu gods lack historicity, but no politician would openly mock the belief in animal-headed deities or use it to attack their worshippers’ sanity.

Is it merely that Poseidon-belief is so far out of the mainstream that the insanity is inferred from the dogged insistence in going against the social grain? Again, not so clear. Hindus, too, are a tiny minority in America, as are the Amish, but their resistance to social norms isn’t seen as a mark of insanity. There is, of course, a distaste for overtly sectarian proselytizing, and I suppose the invocation of Vishnu on the Senate floor would raise some eyebrows. But the objection would be one of etiquette, the sort which would arise in the case of too much Jesus-talk as well.

Politics as Usual

November 15, 2005 | 53 Comments

This is why I’ve pretty much limited this blog to American church/state issues:

God and his two insurance salesmen — Bishop Gomis and Lalith

By Mahinda Weerasinghe

The intervention of Deshamanya Lalith Kotelawela and Bishop Oswald Gomis in the current presidential election, with a full-page advertisement in the newspapers indicating their political preference, is not likely to serve God, Church, Sri Lankans or Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP candidate allied to the LTTE.

Predictably, born-again Lalith Kotelawela, who inherited the fortunes accumulated by the distinguished Sinhala-Buddhist ancestors, is using the vast capital handed over to him to attack the Sinhala Buddhists. For the better part of his life he acknowledged that the fortune he enjoyed came from his Buddhist ancestors and not from his recently found Christian God.

The founder of his insurance company was Justin Kotelawela, the brother of Sir John Kotelawela — both of whom were Buddhists. It goes without saying that he owes at least a modicum of gratitude to protect the Sinhala-Buddhist heritage which put him on his two feet. It even gave him the freedom to change his religion. And it can be proved that he subsequently thrived on the premiums paid to his insurance company mainly by the Sinhala-Buddhist clients.

Once he got to the top he has begun to claim that it was his Christian God who put him there. He has no concrete evidence to prove that his bank accounts or his successes and that of his ancestors were due to Christian miracles. Of course, he is entitled to believe what he wants to believe. In this respect he is fortunate to enjoy the democratic liberalism inherent in the Sinhala-Buddhist society.

Read the whole thing. The plot of Godfather III emerges a few paragraphs down, followed by a wide-ranging theological discussion.

Wal-Mart Recants Lies about Pagan Origin of Christmas

November 15, 2005 | 32 Comments

Bentonville, Arizona, November 15, 2005
Special to The Raving Atheist

Facing a boycott launched by the Catholic League, Wal-Mart has retracted a series of malicious falsehood it had recently begun spreading regarding the origins of Christmas holiday traditions.

The controversy ignited after the giant retailer received a complaint that it had replaced “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” as its official seasonal greeting. In response, a Wal-Mart customer service representative sent an e-mail asserting that the Christmas celebration was “an ancient tradition that has its roots in Siberian shamanism.” The employee also stated that “christmas’ red and white are actually a representation of of the aminita mascera mushroom . . . Santa is also borrowed from the Caucuses, mistletoe from the Celts, yule log from the Goths, the time from the Visigoth and the tree from the worship of Baal.”

According to Catholic League President William Donohue, Wal-Mart later issued an apology and “withdrew its insane statement regarding the origins of Christmas.” In a press release issued yesterday, Wal-Mart assured its shoppers that “Jesus was born under a snow-covered pine tree in Bethlehem, surrounded by presents wrapped in red and white paper, and greeted by chants of ‘Merry Christmas’ from Santa and his elves.” Wal-Mart further urged its customers to continue their orgy of consumerist gluttony in commemoration of the infant savior, hinting that they could find a great deal on Cardinal’s Professional Texas Hold’em Poker Set in Aisle five.

God Squad Review CIL (Cults)

November 14, 2005 | 80 Comments

A readers asks the Squad to share its thoughts about “how cult-like sects give Christians a bad name.” One of the Squad’s criticisms of cults is that they engage in “brainwashing”: the Squad asserts that “i]f you are separated from those you love, deprived of sleep and told over and over again what to believe, you would almost certainly lose your ability to think critically.”

The reason people fall for cults is not that they have lost their ability to think critically through sleep-deprivation. It is that they long ago lost that ability through the early-childhood brainwashing that instilled whatever crazy superstition the cult is trying replace with its own. A person who has accepted one set of fairy tales with no basis in reality or logic is susceptible to indoctrination in whatever new fantasies any cult has to offer. Although the Squad complains of its “long and distasteful contact with many cults — Christian, Hindu, Jewish,” it could never explain how the alleged “cult” versions of those religions differ, at any level of rationality, from the purported “originals” or from the innumerable “mainstream” sects which comprise each of those faiths.

Candidate Sees Atheism and Holocaust Denial as Winning Combination

November 13, 2005 | 11 Comments

Montgomery, Alabama, November 13, 2005
Special to The Raving Atheist

Capitalizing on the growing appeal of godlessness, the founder of the Montgomery-based Atheist Law Center has stepped down to run for public office. Larry Darby, the organization’s president, announced on Wednesday that he would seek the Democratic nomination for Alabama state attorney general in the June 6 primary.

Darby also credited his decision to resign to the desire to include holocaust-denial in his campaign. “Had I not resigned, I would be viewed as a single-issue candidate,” he said.

The candidate noted that prior campaigns of holocaust-denying politician David Duke had being seriously hampered by the Klan leader’s embrace of Christianity. “Americans detest superstition,” he noted. “My candidacy represents the perfect fusion of the atheism of Stalin with the anti-Semitism of Hitler.”

Darby said, however, that he hoped his religious views would not be made an issue in the campaign. “Americans are a tolerant group . . . they know it’s not fair to take a personal, private matter like faith and hold it against a candidate.” He added that he expected his poll numbers would only increase if he were forced to engage in shrill denunciation of any godidiot Jew-lovers who might oppose his platform to rid the Pledge of god and the banks and media of Zionists.

Darby’s campaign is also expected to get a boost from the endorsement of the National Atheist Media/Business Lobbying Association (NAMBLA). “Plus, I’m going to make liberal use of the cuddly atheist arachnid mascot on all of my campaign literature,” Darby said. “Look out for a landslide.”

Good God (Updated)

November 12, 2005 | 15 Comments

As I noted here, most theologians exclude from the notion of God’s omnipotence the ability to do logically impossible or inconceivable things such as making a square circle, making 1 + 1 = 7, making something exist and not exist simultaneously, or making a rock so big He couldn’t lift it, and then lifting it. He’s still all-powerful, they say, and it’s no reflection on divine competence that He can’t do things that don’t even make any sense. You might criticize a weightlifter for his inability to lift a twenty pound barbell, but you can’t complain that he’s “weak” merely because he won’t comply with an inarticulate demand to pick it up without picking it up.

In Thursday’s post I rejected the standard theistic response to the Euthyphro dilemma — the objection that God wouldn’t command murder or other crimes because they are bad. A reader, in turn, faulted my analysis on the ground (as I understand it) that insisting that God have the power to make bad things good would involve the same sort of contradiction as insisting that He lift an unliftable rock. In other words, you can’t blame God for hating murder because it’s very bad and He’s all good; and to fault Him for the inability to make murder or any other bad thing good would lead to a contradiction.

My point, however, was merely that God (even if He does exist) isn’t essential to morality precisely because it’s out of His control, dependent on a standard outside of His whims. The same point is frequently made with respect to the relationship between morality and law. An act isn’t moral merely because it has been decreed legal. No matter how much we respect our lawmakers, we don’t judge their laws to be good simply because have been duly passed. We look to a standard outside the mere fact of legislative enactment. Nobody argues that morality would be impossible if senators and representatives didn’t exist to tell us what to do. They’re no more essential to goodness than God is.

Note that this argument is merely a challenge to God’s necessity or relevance, not a direct refutation of His existence. A related but flawed attack is sometimes posed to God’s existence by atheists who point to His “inability” to do bad things. That criticism is analogous to the one which insists that He lift the unliftable rock. Being all good, a contradiction would arise in imputing to Him the power to do even one bad thing.

Analogous, but not identical. We can at least conceive of God behaving badly. It’s not logically impossible in the absolute way that making square circles or liftably unliftable rocks is. So it’s not really “inability” but restraint; he could squash that old lady with His fist but holds back because He’s not just powerful but also good.

The real challenge to God in the moral sphere is not so much a logical one as an empirical one. It appears that no restraint at all has been exercised in the unleashing of pain and death upon the world, or conversely, that too much restraint has been exercised in preventing it. The arguments about what He could do but wouldn’t do are rendered academic by what so plainly has been done. It simply isn’t All Good.

All that remains is sophistry about evil as necessary to the creation of greater goods. “We could never be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world,”* said Heller Keller, underestimating, I think, the benefits of “only joy.” Presumably that’s the situation in Heaven — none of the fear necessary to bravery nor the boredom necessary to patience — and to argue that such a state of affairs is impossible here precludes one from arguing that it’s possible in the hereafter.

*Coincidentally (I hope) the solution to yesterday’s Cryptoquote in Newsday.

Update: As a commentor notes, C.K. Chesterton once raised the problem of pleasure. From what I gather, he was arguing that if believers are obligated to explain the existence of evil or pain in the world, atheists are bound to account for the existence of pleasure. I hadn’t heard of this argument before, but my initial thoughts are these:

(1) The existence of pleasure would be a “problem” for atheists in the same way that evil is for believers if atheists were postulating that the universe was run by a being that was all-bad. The argument in that case would be that the existence of any pleasure would negate the existence of such a creature. So the problem of pleasure is more of an argument against Satan than an argument in favor of God.

(2) Atheists who raise the problem of evil aren’t asking believers to explain the origin of evil. They’re asking believers to explain how the existence of any evil is consistent with an all-good, all-powerful being. So the proper question for theists to pose with respect to pleasure is whether it is consistent with a godless universe. It certainly is; no logical contradiction arises from the propositions that (a) humans experience pleasure and (b) god does not exist.

(3) To ask an atheist where pleasure comes from is no different than asking where anything comes from. It’s just a variant of “how did we get here?” or “why is there something rather than nothing?” But assuming that the answer must be “god” in the absence of a conclusive explanation simply begs the question. You may have no explanation of how your car keys disappeared or who put the extra cherry on your ice cream sundae, but there’s no reason to jump to the conclusion that god was responsible.

(4) To the extent the argument is that no real pleasure is imaginable in the absence of pain, I simply don’t understand it. That sounds more like sadomasochism than theology. It seems that under that theory, people would have the right, if not the obligation, to cause pain in order to maximize pleasure. But I manage to find ways of making people happy without whipping and tormenting and badgering them until they feel a heightened sense of relief. Just look at my blog!

Honor Thy Father

November 11, 2005 | 5 Comments

The Atheist Ethicist honors his father, William Lee Fyfe — an atheist who served in the Army during the European occupation and in the Air Force during the Korean war. He retired with a 100% disability after a plane crash in Japan, and died eariler this year from the long-lingering effects of his injuries. Be sure to read the letter he sent his son following the 2002 Pledge of Allegiance decision.

I’m sure that on this Veterans Day, he’s smiling down on us from Heaven.

Thursday’s Post

November 10, 2005 | 26 Comments

This exchange between an anarchist poet (Gregory) and a traditional one (Syme) in G.K. Chesterston’s The Man Who Was Thursday highlights a number of philosophical confusions that frequently arise in atheist/theist debates:

[Gregory]: Why do all the clerks and navvies in the railway trains look so sad and tired, so very sad and tired? I will tell you. It is because they know that the train is going right. It is because they know that whatever place they have taken a ticket for that place they will reach. It is because after they have passed Sloane Square they know that the next station must be Victoria, and nothing but Victoria. Oh, their wild rapture! oh, their eyes like stars and their souls again in Eden, if the next station were unaccountably Baker Street!”

“It is you who are unpoetical,” replied the poet Syme. “If what you say of clerks is true, they can only be as prosaic as your poetry. The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria.

The first misunderstanding concerns free will. A common atheist objection to God is that complete divine omniscience would defeat human autonomy. This position is expressed in the passage above by the anarchist’s complaint regarding the predictability of the train’s destination (or destiny). But the solution suggested by Gregory — arrival at an “unaccountable,” unpredictable, random destination — doesn’t make us any freer. We’re still at the mercy of the train, except that it’s operating arbitrarily, without any plan at all.

Notably, in most atheistic formulations, God’s omniscience is simply replaced by an equally rigid and problematic determinism, in which our conduct is dictated by the atoms of our brains rather by the words of the Almighty’s pre-printed script. Once again, introducing an element of caprice into the causal laws would not free things up, any more than epilepsy would relieve us from the tyranny of our brains. And another frequently overlooked point is that even the unexpectedness of an outcome does not necessarily prove escape from the operation of the causal laws. A train which plunges off a bridge may be acting just as much in accordance with the laws of physics as one which makes its regular stops; given the pre-existing circumstances, the failure to derail might be considered a miracle.

Syme’s theory better approximates what we recognize as freedom: the ability select and an accomplish a goal, out of an infinity of possibilities, in accordance with our desires. Or, in some circumstances, to recognize our desires and exercise the freedom to resist them. But this, too, is ultimately an unsatisfactory solution, insofar as we do not necessarily get to select or change what those desires are. Once again, for all we know, they may be as mechanistically determined as the flight of a rock falling off a cliff.

So the debate over free will is largely irrelevant to the God problem. God’s alleged omniscience does create a problem for theist, but not because of its effect on human free will. Rather, the better argument is that it thwarts the operation of God’s will, conflicting with His alleged omnipotence. A God who sees the future to its end has committed Himself to sit back helplessly and watch history unfold, unable to change anything in the smallest way without contradicting His prior foreknowledge.

The second confusion illustrated by the excerpt concerns the argument from design. Here, the difficulty arises largely with Syme’s thesis that “magic” is demonstrated by the accomplishment of a particular, presumably non-chaotic end. In theology, this corresponds to the notion that life, and particularly the human mind, must have been designed because they are too orderly and complex to have arisen from chaos. But as much complexity and orderliness, and hence “design” can be read into the structure of a rock, however dull, unshapely and random-looking it may be. So the distinction between chaotic and orderly is again immaterial. The argument is essentially a presupposition that everything is designed, topped with the question-begging conclusion that there must be a “designer.” But this tells us nothing about Its nature and attributes, or even whether It is conscious, and does not address any of the standard objections based upon the conflicts between omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, etc.

Finally, there is the confusion over the basis of morality. This (as I little suspected while reading the book) is apparently the key theme of Thursday. Although the thesis is not clearly articulated in the passage, Chesterton’s novel was intended as an attack on moral relativism. The anarchist rejects order and seeks to destroy simply because he can, because, in the words of another novelist, everything is permitted. Syme sees greater glory in the adherence to the presumably God-ordained moral law.

Once again, neither side is right here. Despite the caricature of atheists as anarchists or nihilists, neither immorality nor relativism are the inevitable consequences of atheism. The godless have plenty of reasons to conform their behavior to standards dictated by reality and the empirically observable, objective negative consequences of misbehavior. And the notion that God is necessary for morality, as I’ve noted before, is disposed of by the Euthyphro dilemma. It refutes divine-command morality by demonstrating that the concepts of “good” and “bad” are either independent of God’s will or nothing more than a set of arbitrary, ever-changing whims. Killing an old lady would be good if God commanded it; and it is no answer to say that “God wouldn’t command it because it is bad” because that implies a standard of morality outside of God’s control. If anything, religion promotes moral relativism by tying morality to the undeterminable desires of an undetectable being, with the consequence that each faith can, and does, differ on the proper resolution of every debated social issue — often with the most important consideration of all, human needs and desires, excluded from consideration entirely.

But again, none of these arguments addresses the actual existence of God. They focus instead on the supposed consequences of belief or disbelief. Theologically speaking, the debate should center on the problem of evil, where the burden passes to the theist to explain how a universe so full of suffering and death is compatible with ruler who is so infinitely good.

Give Us this Day Our Daily God

November 8, 2005 | 27 Comments

Should children be coerced by the state into publicly, verbally proclaiming the insane lie that God exists? Newsday puts that question to the clergy in a milder form (“Should ‘under God’ stay in the Pledge of Allegiance?”) and gets some predictable answers. Rev. James A. Graziano, pastor of the Faith Tabernacle Church of God in West Babylon sounds like he might as well be Rocky Graziano:

The Pledge of Allegiance recognizes that this country and its flag are not independent of God. Yet, there has always been the influence of those who promote radical individualism and feed on their own self-will. This minority would like to erase every symbol and acknowledgment of God in our society. I believe the majority of Americans want God, not only in the Pledge of Allegiance but in every aspect of life.

Yes, a moderate majority-imposed hive-mentality beats self-willed radical individualism every time. But what’s this about God in every aspect of life? Can the cashier at the DMV make you say “Allah Akbar” thirty times before he renews your license? What’s that, Jimmy? Are you going “radical” on us? Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani, of the Al-Khoei Islamic Center in Jamaica wouldn’t have a problem with it:

As a member of the clergy, we believe in God. When we seek the blessings of God, that act that we have embarked on may be blessed. If we do not seek the blessings of God, then the act will be cursed. So from an Islamic point of view, we must say that we should do [the Pledge of Allegiance] under the name of God.

I sure don’t want any of my acts to be cursed. Hey, wait, writing is an “act.” I better put “God” at the end of this sentence — God! And now that I think about it, typing each word is an act, so maybe I should put God after God every God word God from God now God on God!. In God fact God, every God letter God is God an God act. IGodsGod tGodhGodiGodsGod eGodnGodoGoduGodgGodhGod GgodoGoddGod fGodoGodrGod yGodoGoduGod?

God Squad Review CXLVIII (Communion Without Annulment)

November 7, 2005 | 7 Comments

“No sacraments for you,” said a Church to a couple who were married by a justice of the peace after the husband was unable to get annulment of his first marriage. So they’ve written to the Squad to see if there’s any way they could convince a priest to give them a spoonful of Jesus’ bloody guts, without which getting in to Heaven is so much harder. The Squad recommends that the guy re-apply for the annulment, suggesting that there might be a few modern loopholes to be exploited:

In the 1970s, the church took another look at its grounds for annulment and added the most commonly used cause today: “lack of due discretion.” A person seeking an annulment would have to acknowledge that there was something missing in the marriage from the beginning that would have kept it from lasting forever. In your husband’s instance, there seems to have been a lack of desire for a commitment by his former wife.

A person seeking an annulment might also choose to highlight any immaturity, abuse or addiction that would keep their marriage from being healthy, happy or holy. In other words, although a couple entered into marriage, their marriage could be dissolved because one or both spouses were incapable of having a lifelong spiritual commitment.

What sleazy lawyering. Shameful, considering that the Church recently offered an easier, more honest solution:

Catholics who remarry without having obtained an annulment of their original union — a declaration that the marriage was invalid from the beginning — can receive Communion only “if they promise to live as brother and sister without sexual relations.”

What’s so hard about that? It sure beats living as brother and sister with sexual relations. Or father/daughter, with or without the sex.

Why Does God Hate Amputees?

November 4, 2005 | 131 Comments

Marshall Brain asks, “why does God hate amputees?” and suggests an experiment:

For this experiment, we need to find a deserving person who has had both of his legs amputated. For example, find a sincere, devout, Christian veteran of the Iraqi war, or a devout Christian in your church who was involved in a tragic automobile accident.

Now create a prayer circle . . .. The job of this prayer circle is simple: pray to God to restore the amputated legs of this deserving Christian. I do not mean to pray for a team of renowned surgeons to somehow graft the legs of a cadaver onto the soldier, nor for a team of renowned scientists to craft mechanical legs for him. Pray that God spontaneously and miraculously restores the soldier’s legs overnight, in the same way that God spontaneously and miraculously cured Jeanna Giese and Marilyn Hickey’s mother [victims of rabies and cancer].

If possible, get millions of human beings all over the planet to join the prayer circle and pray their most fervent prayers. Get millions of people praying in unison for a single miracle for this one deserving Christian amputee. Then stand back and watch.

What is going to happen? Jesus clearly says that if you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer. He does not say it once — he says it many times in many ways in the Bible.

And yet, even with millions of people praying, nothing will happen.

I’ve yet to read a compelling theistic answer to the amputee problem, many of which are listed by Brain. Frequently the religious will argue that it’s no challenge to God’s omnipotence to say that He’s incapable of doing something that’s logicallly impossible, like making a square circle or forcing 1 plus 1 to equal 3. But the theory of most prayer is that He is capable of changing the operation of natural laws, which is the very reason people prayer for cures for cancer and other diseases. Certainly the magic behind altering the internal structure of a cancer cell is no different from regenerating a limb — why does no one ever even consider praying for the latter “miracle”?

Martyrs

November 2, 2005 | 26 Comments

Here’s another editorial tribute to Rosa Parks that’s worth pondering, even by those who question the underlying Christian doctrine of salvation through belief in the resurrection:

Martyrs.jpg

Fortunately, this time the cartoon is signed so any lingering questions regarding its meaning can be addressed to the artist. But I think that the challenge it poses to atheists is pretty clear: why do we ridicule the martyrdom of Christ, yet praise a similar act of self-sacrifice when performed by someone like Ms. Parks?

Let’s first recall the primary objections to the theory of Christ’s “dying for our sins.” First, it presumes that the entire human race is sinful because of the supposed rebellion of Adam and Eve, without regard to actual individual wrongdoing. Second, it holds that an innocent person’s suffering somehow wipes out the sins of others, a concept which violates the most basic conceptions of justice and common sense. In any event, it’s hard to see how what Jesus did was truly a sacrifice if, in the end, He didn’t truly “die” in any sense of the word.

These criticisms apply with equal, and perhaps greater, force to Parks’ martyrdom. Although a few negroes may have earlier rebelled against the duly-enacted public transportation seating statutes, those isolated transgressions did not create some collective guilt for which Parks was required to atone. Likewise, her imprisonment did not pay the debt owed by others who unlawfully refused to surrender their seats. And insofar as she was ultimately acquitted of any crime, she sacrificed nothing of value at all.

It should also be borne in mind that Parks’conduct was substantially more culpable than Jesus. Christ did not commit a sin to earn his crucifixion, whereas Parks broke the very laws whose violation she was atoning for. Moreover, Parks acted out of a selfish motive — to gain the comfort of sitting — whereas Jesus sole aim was to suffer for the benefit of others.

Good News, Bad News

November 2, 2005 | 3 Comments

Dividing future Supreme Court justice Sam Alito’s past decisions into “good” and “bad” categories,* Jill of Feministe has an odd take on his church/state rulings. Under “bad,” she lists his opinion that “the Establishment Clause was not violated by a city holiday display which featured a menorah, a creche, Santa Claus, and other religious and secular holiday symbols.” Under “good,” she applauds him for writing a “unanimous opinion that the New Jersey police force had acted inappropriately in firing two Muslim officers for refusing to shave their beards.”

Both decisions are bad because they promote state preference for superstition. The holiday display case provides cover for governments to continue traditional celebrations of Christ’s birth month, allowing them to do so as long as they disguise their intentions by dressing things up in the garb of diversity. The beard case incorporates God’s grooming rules into on a civil service code. The general effect of both rulings is to favor religion over non-religion.

If I had to pick, though, I’d flip her good/bad ratings of the rulings. The display case is far less objectionable than the beard one. By allowing secular symbols (including, presumably, the Atheist Atom), at least the pretense of fairness is maintained. But the beard case specifically prioritizes idiocy over sanity. No employee can insist on sporting a beard or sneakers (or a Carmen Miranda fruit hat) to work out of ordinary considerations of comfort or appearance — but start jabbering about what you think Allah wants, and you can make your own rules.

*Ultimately, of course, she concludes that he is mostly “bad news” for rejecting her view that a state may legally compel childbirth (with life and health exceptions) only after viability rather than a few months earlier.

Ong-Bak

November 1, 2005 | 6 Comments

I don’t revere lumps of stone like you do. I have no respect for religion. I revere only myself. Revere me also. I am God. I decide if you live or die.

Kom Tuan, Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, 2003

Matter of Interpretation

November 1, 2005 | 16 Comments

It’s the worst Rosa Parks cartoon ever says Brittney Gilbert of Nashville is Talking, the blog of W-KRN-TV (News 2) in Music City. “Tasteless” and “bizarre,” adds Evariste of Discarded Lies:

ParksJesusFinal.gif

Brittney doesn’t say where she found it, and Evariste got it via Brittney, so there’s only speculation regarding the motives and intent of the original cartoonist. Evariste opines:

I think it’s supposed to be a sweet tribute, that poor Rosa kept fighting her fight till she died and finally got to stop and come to Jesus, but it’s not even accurate. Rosa Parks on the bus was a seminal moment for America, but she went back to a quiet life after that, and America changed. I’m sure the cartoonist meant well, but this just leaves my jaw on the floor.

Brittney herself adds nothing to her characterization of the work as “worst,” but one of her readers offers this defense:

I don’t really see the problem with it. To me, it just shows her commitment to the struggle that she would still be holding on to that seat even in death. The outstretched arms of Jesus are uplifting showing her that she doesn’t have to fight anymore now that she’s with him. She then makes the funny little quip. I quite like it actually.

Speaking for myself, I included the panel as part of my obituary cartoon round-up on Parks simply because it fit the motif of the rest of the entries — Rosa goes to White Heaven, run by and for Caucasians. I don’t see how its stands out as significantly different from the others, all of which depict the pearly gatekeepers and bus drivers as white men. Rosa’s crack seems to make the theme more explicit, perhaps; but then again, as the commenters point out, it could be argued that the true message is that, as Rosa apparently concedes, a person’s seat-worthiness should be measured by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin. Rosa’s offer to Christ might also be viewed as more patronizing than servile — if all those drivers are going to presume to announce that they’ll permit” her to sit anywhere on an empty bus, she’s entitled to do the same.

But we’ll never know what was truly meant by it. For all we know, the author might have been some atheist trying to prove that all it takes to make people take an idiotic cartoon about corpse in a flying bus seriously is a little bit of Jesus.

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