Seek And You Will Find

Bordeaux ObservatoryI have been debating on Fallen & Flawed again. This time myself and a couple of other skeptics have become engrossed in a long conversation with guest poster Rob, who has shown considerable determination to answer our questions and protests, despite moving house over the past few days. I expect he is a competent juggler too.

My most recent comment became so long that I thought it worth making an entire post out of it. It’s also a theme that I’ve heard before but never directly addressed. The quote below is Rob touching on a subject of some interest to me, that of divine concealment. (Unsurprisingly we’d deviated significantly from the topic by this point).

I personally find myself not seeking Him more than Him hiding from me. Something about if you seek you will find.

I think I understand what Rob is saying. If he believes something with certainty, it must look like laziness or stubbornness on the part of non-believers not to see what seems so obvious to him. However, I think there are some problems with the claim “seek and you will find”.

Firstly, many atheists have spent a good deal of time seeking and never finding anything more than our own feelings, fellowship of others – nothing that could fairly be called “God”. That’s why we ended up atheists. A few of us have never believed nor tried to, but most have given at least one religion a go. To the believer perhaps this means they “Weren’t truly seeking”, but to me it shows that “seek and you will find” is often false.

Secondly, this kind of justification can be used for pretty much any belief system.

Imagine you’re a Sihk who is doubting their path. Perhaps the Sikh religion is an interesting idea with some worthwhile moral lessons, but also falsehoods and irrelevancies that can put unnecessary divisions between people when they disagree on points of doctrine. Another Sikh gives this advice.

“At the end of the day, Guru, Shri Guru Granth Sahib [Sikh holy book] is the door to Waheguru [God/Wonderful Teacher].”

Muslim woman at prayerWhat if you’re a Muslim who isn’t feeling Allah’s love? Maybe Allah isn’t there at all? No, apparently you’ve just got to take the time to study harder.

Say you’ve tried Buddhism, but you’re struggling with meditation and still experiencing a life of suffering.  Perhaps Buddhism is not the answer to everything? No, apparently you’re just not doing it right. Obviously it’s because you still have an incorrect understanding of your own person and have not yet eliminated the negative actions which are affecting your Karma.

You’re not trying hard enough

The same thing seems to happen with prayer. When it doesn’t work this can’t, for some reason, be counted as evidence against the chosen deity, despite what the Bible says. No, when it doesn’t work it’s not that the god simply isn’t there. It’s because you’re doing it wrong in some way. I’ve already covered why I think intercessory prayer is a ridiculous idea, so I won’t get started on that again.

Now, I’m not saying that the near-universal, “It’s your fault” response to religious failures is necessarily wrong. If there’s anything to these world views it’s perfectly possible that people are just not getting it right.

My point is that it is definitely not the only possible explanation and to suggest otherwise indicates bias.

However, it is a very convenient explanation and, as we’ve seen above, it’s a great way to justify something whenever the evidence contradicts your claim. It’s like a Joker/Get out of jail free card that religious believers of all stripes can deploy when their claims fail.

Review: The Case For Christ

Back in January, I agreed a book-swap with US-based Christian blogger, Clark Bunch. I suggested that he read Dan Barker’s Godless and he recommended Lee Strobel’s The Case For Christ.

So I’ve read The Case For Christ, although it’s taken me quite a while as I was distracted by other books and spent some time reading up on certain points, not least from Earl Doherty’s cross-examination, “Challenging the Verdict”. Clark and I have already had some discussion of Lee Strobel’s book, but as far as I know he hasn’t yet got around to reading Godless. I’ve sent him another email reminder when I published this post, so hopefully he’ll respond.

Strobel is a journalist and accomplished writer. The Case For Christ has a narrative, rather than academic style, which no doubt adds to its accessibility. Each chapter begins with an anecdote, presumably from his journalistic coverage of criminal trials and investigations, to illustrate the point of the chapter. These introductions set the scene and certainly make the book more readable. Next follows the introduction of the interviewee, a page or two listing their qualifications, publications and academic posts, that kind of thing. All very impressive-sounding, but the author is also keen on including little details about their appearance, the photos in their office and so on, to turn these scholars into fully-rounded characters. I said it was a narrative style. Presumably this is to build the reader’s trust and establish the credibility of the interviewees. I’m sure many readers love it, but at least a third of the book is not making the case for Christ and the curious skeptic in me is yelling, “Get on with it!”.

When we get to the meat of the arguments, Strobel and his interviewees consider the various kinds of evidence for Jesus in keeping with the courtroom trial theme. I’m no expert on these matters so I can only comment on what has been included, not what has been left out. To be fair, skeptical objections and ideas from groups such as the Jesus Seminar are also considered, but never too deeply. There is always a quick and confident reassurance provided that these arguments don’t amount to much nor cast any doubt on the historicity of Jesus. However, I think this approach sometimes backfires. For example, when considering the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus who allegedly referred to Jesus in his writing, Edwin Yamauchi admits that there are phrases unlikely to have been written by a Jewish historian and that these are likely to be “interpolations” by Christian copyists [Specifically that Jesus was more than human, that Jesus “was The Christ” and that Jesus was resurrected]. The final reassurance is less than convincing,

“What’s the bottom line?”
“That the passage in Josephus was probably originally written about Jesus, although without those three points I mentioned. But even so, Josephus corroborates important information about Jesus: that he was the martyred leader of the church in Jerusalem and that he was a wise teacher who had established a wide and lasting following, despite the fact that he had been crucified under Pilate at the instigation of some of the Jewish leaders.”

Now for me this section only casts more doubt on the historicity of Jesus. At the very least the writing of Josephus has had convenient insertions by Christian copyists, presumably with the intention of bolstering the case for Christ. This shows that they were not above this kind of corruption of the evidence. It makes me wonder what else may have been tactically edited by the earliest Christian copyists. Further reading in Challenging the Verdict thoroughly reviews the issue, and shows that Josephus’s “Antiquities of the Jews” arguably reads more smoothly without the quoted paragraph mentioning Jesus. The entire thing could have inserted.

Obviously there’s little certainty here, as all the evidence is so old, but Lee Strobel’s interviewees regularly take a simple passage or ambiguous Biblical cross-reference and proclaim it as very impressive evidence. Invariably this seems to be a case of reading too much into some text with a certain agenda in mind.

The main example is the reading of 1 Corinthians 15 – which speaks of Christ being raised and appearing to people – as if it refers to a physical person. Earl Doherty points out that this assumption comes from the gospels, which were written after Corinthians. He suggests that there’s no reason to suppose Paul’s use of “raised” refers to a physical resurrection.

What does all this show? At the very least it shows that there’s more complexity and uncertainty to this issue than I have the time or patience to grapple with. However, you’d never guess it from the confidence with which Lee Strobel and his carefully-chosen scholars assert their claims.

“All of the gospels and Acts evidence – incident after incident, witness after witness, detail after detail, corroboration on top of corroboration – was extremely impressive. Although I tried, I couldn’t think of any more thoroughly attested event in ancient history.”

In fact, when compared for example to the accounts of the destruction of Pompeii in 79 CE, there a great deal of tampering with the evidence, uncertain dating and insertions/interpolations in Biblical history leaving much room for doubt over what Jesus did or didn’t do.

The Case For Christ is well written and, for the most part, I am not knowledgeable enough to check out all it’s claims. However, the few places where the obvious problems are confidently swept aside reveals the unrelenting agenda to promote the authenticity of the Bible above all.

Alpha Course Poll Forces Voters Hands

alph_course_pollBy now it’s old news that the UK’s Alpha Course ran a poll asking visitors whether “God” exists, by which they presumably mean their god. It’s also been well reported that atheists got wind of the poll and surfed over in large numbers to vote “No”. It’s not the only Christian Internet campaign to fall on its face recently.

All this is amusing, but doesn’t really tell us much. It certainly doesn’t say anything about the existence or not of any god and it’s only representative of the people who happened to visit their website. I think the BHA took it far too seriously when they responded by saying,

That this poll has revealed such a high number of non-believers, and such a tiny proportion of those who do believe in a god, is really no surprise. This poll only supports what we know already – that most people either do not believe in god or that they simply do not think about the question because it is not relevant to their lives.

The UK does have a relatively high proportion of non-believers, but in every other poll it’s more like 25-35%, not 98% – besides, votes on this poll were not limited to the UK. We might be better off drawing the conclusion that there are a lot of motivated atheists on the Internet who are up for a prank.

Question Phrasing

What I think is worth investigating is the way the question – and in particular the answers – were phrased. It seems to be a clever piece of marketing.

These ads are up on billboards all over the place, but I first saw this ad on a poster outside a church. My reaction was, “Where’s Probably not?”. Or even Maybe, or I don’t know or the Igtheist position, What do you mean by “God”?. I wasn’t expecting them to have the equivalent of the 7-level Dawkins Scale of Belief, but a few more options would’ve been nice. As it stands, the poll only allows for Certain Theists, Agnostic Theists and Strong Atheists. The results aren’t going to be very representative.

dsb-example_dark

I wondered about this for a while, before slapping myself on the head in realisation. Of course, that’s not the point! The Alpha people were not trying to prove anything with their poll. The results were always intended to be meaningless. They were probably only trying to generate debate around a subject that, in the UK at least, is becoming irrelevant and uninteresting to many people.

Furthermore, I suspect that limiting the options is a tactical choice.

Those who vote Yes or Probably might be persuaded that, having admitted it, they shouldn’t stop there, but take the course and be led into the Alpha brand of Christianity. The rest are left only with the No choice – Strong Atheism – 7 on the scale above. It’s about as far towards the other end of the scale as you can get. A bold position that, in practice few atheists hold. Richard Dawkins, for example, says he’s at 6. The idea being to include an atheistic position that as few people as possible will completely agree with. This presumably in the hope that more people will end up in the Yes/Probably category of potential Alpha delegates. The poll is, after all, advertising and intended to get more people onto the course.

Plus, it helps them to label atheists and agnostics as ridiculous extremists.

Imagine a fiercely nationalistic group asking in a survey, “What should we do about immigrants?” and only providing the options: “Confine them to forced labour camps”, “Send them all home”, or “Give them each a free house and abandon all border controls”. Where is the reasonable, liberal option? Ordinary people answering such a poll would be forced into an extreme position that doesn’t properly represent them. A position which can be ridiculed.

So I expect the non-theists who made up the 98% of voters on the Alpha poll will be labelled by some as “extreme” or “fundamentalist”. However, strong atheists are pretty rare. Few people feel they can actually prove the non-existence of all kinds of deity, especially if we’re talking about the vague and woolly non-interventionist kind.

But rather than go into the philsophical subtleties, it’s simpler to say, “There are no god(s)” or just vote “No”.

New “Conservative” Translation Of The Bible

http://conservapedia.com/Conservative_BibleApparently the Bible is not conservative enough for some people.

The folks who brought us Conservapedia – the alternative online encyclopaedia free from all that pesky liberal bias and concern for what’s actually true – have started a new project. It’s the imaginatively-titled Conservative Bible. Presumably Deutronomy 13 wasn’t conservative enough for them.

In reaction liberal Christians and some more knowledgeable atheists have been enthusiastically quoting all those “Don’t change the Bible” verses. One favourite being:

“You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” – Deuteronomy 4:2

The many comments in response to WorldMag.com’s article on the new translation are along the same lines: “Leave the Bible alone”.

No doubt the conservatives behind this project will argue that theirs is the more accurate translation, while liberals have, over the years, polluted the original meaning of the Bible.

They’re not the first and will probably not be the last. For example, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, translated and authorised by the Jehovah’s Witnesses includes some subtle but important changes. When I spoke to them last year, the JWs played down the differences and claimed it was just a slightly more accurate translation. Here are a couple of examples – what do you think?

In the KJV of the Bible, 1 Chronicles 16:30 reads:

Fear before him, all the earth: the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved.

While the same verse in the New World Translation favoured by Jehovah’s Witnesses reads:

Be in severe pains on account of him, all YOU people of the earth! Also the productive land is firmly established: Never will it be made to totter.

It looks like the NWT was translated with an intention of making the Bible say what they’d like it to say. In the first case, the original KJV translation “stable… not moved” is clearly at odds with modern science which tells us that the Earth not only rotates on its axis once every 24 hours, but orbits the sun once a year. The NWT tries to hide this glaring inaccuracy by translating the Hebrew to “productive land” rather than “earth”.

In the KJV Isaiah 45:7 reads:

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

Which the NWT translates as:

Forming light and creating darkness, making peace and creating calamity, I, Jehovah am doing all these things.

Again, the idea of God creating evil is completely at odds with other parts of the Bible and subsequent theology which describes him as good in every way.  I’ve even heard that “god” and “good” have similar etymological roots. The NWT use the alternative translation of “calamity”, which is still not exactly benevolent, but not quite as clear cut as “evil”. Ebonmuse discusses this discord in detail as part of his Little Known Bible Verses series.

I’m not claiming to know what the original authors of the Bible really intended. But whatever the truth about these kinds of claims there’s a danger inherent in any kind of investigation, be it scientific or linguistic which aims to “discover” a particular, predetermined outcome, rather than work out what is true. It’s a kind of wishful thinking. I can imagine Conservapedia translators saying, “We’d like the Bible to be more conservative, so when we re-translate it, we’ll make sure that is what we find!”.

The Zealots Of Open-Source

uce-desktop1It’s about time I owned up to being a zealot and an evangelist… for open-source software. I’ve been using Ubuntu Linux as my main OS for about 4 years now along with Firefox for web browsing and OpenOffice for all that tedious work stuff. I’ve even managed to convert my technophobic mother to using Ubuntu, which ensures she doesn’t end up with viruses or other malware.

Now one of the benefits of open source software is choice and the ability to customise everything. As a result, there have recently been a number of religiously-reworked Ubuntu distributions created for and by people with particular beliefs. This started three years ago with the released of Ubuntu Christian Edition (CE). This includes custom wallpaper, bible study program GnomeSword and a filter to block unsavoury web content. In other respects it works exactly like your plain vanilla Ubuntu, just with Jesus lording it over your desktop. The people involved mesh their theology with open source philosophy via Matthew 10, “Freely ye have received, freely give”, showing that the Bible really can be used to justify anything. Sadly Ubuntu CE has now been discontinued so that its authors could pursue another religiously themed project that judging by the merchandising will be a lot more lucrative.

Not to be outdone, open-source zealots who are also followers of Islam have brought out their own ubuntu-mecustomised distro – Sabily. Again it has a custom theme, Islamic calendar, prayer time reminders and even a console that allows users to type from right to left for that Arabic feel.

Previously nothing more than a rather unfriendly joke, there now seems to be a genuine Jewish edition of Ubuntu, cleverly named Jewbuntu.

However, those with darker philosophies, a taste for the ironic, or simply a desire to wind up Christians, there’s “Linux for the damned”, Ubuntu Satanic Edition. ubuntu-seThis comes with a suitably dark, malevolent desktop theme and a collection of free metal music. Judging by some of the comments it has generated, Ubuntu SE has already succeeded in getting on the wick of some uptight believers, although it’s not clear if they are disgruntled Satanists who are complaining that it’s not the “right” kind of Satan worship, or Christians on a mission to save the damned.

So what about atheists? With all this choice, surely there is an Ubuntu distribution for us? Well, not really. The nearest thing is probably Buddhabuntu, which predictably caters for Buddhists and includes AI software for machine learning, so your PC can become enlightened too.

Choices

The main complaint about these distros is that there’s very little additional content to justify burning an entire CD. The same effects could be achieved by adding the desired programs and themes to an ordinary Ubuntu install with little hassle.

On the other hand, I’m all for choice, be it philosophically or in software. I think in both cases the majority of people are sadly ignorant of the vast choices that are available to them. Instead they tend to stick to what they know and never explore outside their comfort zone. If these distros encourage religious people to “get” open source, then that’s all to the good in my opinion. Plus, actually taking the time to read their holy books is one of the major factors in many people’s de-conversion, so Bible or Qu’ran verses poping up on people’s screens may have edifying consequences.

How about you? Are you a fan of open source? Are they any religiously-themed distros that I’ve missed?

No True Christian

I’m willing to bet that any atheist who has spent any time discussing religion online has come across the suggestion that anyone who no longer believes, never truly believed in the first place. An ex-Christian was never a “real” Christian. Commenter al expressed this opinion about myself and Lorena over on Fallen And Flawed a few weeks ago.

… because Jesus Christ has promised that [1] whoever comes to Him He will never cast out, and that [2] no one (not even ourselves) is able to pluck us from His hand, therefore:
There can be no such person as a former Christian– only those who think they were once Christians but never really were.

This idea is not dissimilar to the perseverance of the saints – “once saved, always saved” thinking of Calvinism. Leaving aside the theological geekery, the obvious first response to this is that al is committing the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, which can be expressed as:

220px-porridge“No true Scotsman would have sugar in his porridge.”
“My uncle Hamish is Scottish and he has sugar in his porridge.”
“Well, then your uncle Hamish is not a true Scotsman.”

The pertinent question here being whether the first speaker is trying to make a generalisation about true Scotsmen, or to define what a true Scotsman is – that is, someone who does not have sugar in his porridge. As most people already have a reasonable definition of what a Scotsman is, to redefine it here without saying so explicitly is misleading. If this is what the first speaker had intended it would be better phrased as, “The definition of a true Scotsman is someone who does not have sugar in his porridge” and perhaps some other criteria such as country of birth or parentage.

In al’s case, the assertion comes from the bible, which he interprets as “There can be no such person as a former Christian”. To a biblical literalist it seems, any conclusion – no matter how much of a stretch it is – is better than the bible being wrong. And yet there are plenty of people who changed their mind about Christianity. So, when faced with atheists who claim that they genuinely believed as Christians before changing their minds, apologists are left with few choices.

One is to say that these former believers are lying and only pretending not to believe because they hate God or want to live as they please.

Slightly more charitably, they can claim the ex-Christian was mistaken and didn’t have a genuine relationship with Jesus in the first place. This is what al does.

You both have obviously tried something– church, a belief system, the counsel of others, I don’t know what– but something that represents itself as Christ. But it was not Him, and you have discarded the baby with the bathwater.

Note the subtle shift here. We’re no longer talking about people “being Christians” as most of the world understands it, but the relationship with an invisible, intangible muslim-woman-at-prayer240Christ. Christians may complain that it is the same thing, but there’s a difference. The world at large does not define people as belonging to a particular religion on the basis of some invisible supernatural relationship. How could they? Nor do people look inside the heads of professed believers and see all their beliefs – they can only see the way people act and trust what they say they believe. If for example someone says they’re a Muslim, if they attend to Muslim prayers and regularly visit the mosque as other professed Muslims do, then it’s quite reasonable to call them a Muslim. The statistics which show there are around 2 billion Christians in the world are not based on observing whether they each have a genuine relationship with Christ. They’re probably based on what which box they tick on census or identification forms.

However, al says, with an air of authority, “But it was not Him”. I doubt he would claim any special insight into our former religious beliefs. He is inferring that our Christian belief was not a genuine relationship with his god by the simple fact that we no longer believe it. It seems he is making a new definition of what a true Christian is – that is, someone who does not lose their faith or change their mind about Christianity.

However, there are some interesting implications of this viewpoint. If this is not the only way to identify a true Christian, then there is potential for a contradiction. If for example professional ministry or daily prayer were considered proof of genuine Christianity, then there are already many examples of “real” Christians who have become atheists.

On the other hand, if there are no other certain indications of true Christianity that rather throws doubt on everyone. The effect is that there’s no certainty whether anyone, however enthusiastic they might be about Jesus, is a true Christian by al’s definition.

So, if we run with his definition, al can’t be certain that there are any true Christians. I’m sure his relationship seems pretty real to him, but even he could change his mind at a later date.

In one sense I’d agree – I was never in a genuine relationship with Jesus because, as far as I can tell, no such person exists. However, at the time, my belief was entirely genuine, as I would assume al’s still is.

Review: Godless by Dan Barker

Dan Barker is now the co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, but what makes his story interesting is that he was once an evangelical preacher. His latest book, published only last year is godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists. Barker’s earlier book, published in 1992 was Losing Faith in Faith and from the few online excerpts I’ve seen, it seems to have a lot in common with godless. However, as the more recent publication, godless appears more polished and up to date with plenty of additional content.

Godless is organised into four sections, the first describing his experiences as a preacher and his growing doubts. The second and third sections discuss the arguments for atheism and the problems with Christianity, while the final section covers some of his work with the FFRF.

Rejecting God

For me, the first section is the most interesting part of the book as it offers in insight into the mind of a sincere believer, detailing his lifestyle and thought processes during his five-year journey out of Christianity. What is notable from the introduction onwards, is that Barker was perhaps more rational about his reasons for believing than some. He didn’t believe it because he found it comforting, or because he wanted to fit in. He simply thought it was true.

I was always in love with reason, intelligence, and truth. I thought Christianity had the truth. I really believed it. I dedicated my life to it.

I seems to me that Dan’s desire for the truth was a factor in his de-conversion, as often seems to be the case. I am impressed by the honesty and modesty with which he describes his thoughts and actions as a believer. Some of these are no doubt embarrassing to him in retrospect, but he manages to have a laugh at his own expense. Of particular interest are the reactions of his Christian friends to his loss of belief. These range from total shunning through confusion, to amicable acceptance. My only criticism of the first section is that there’s not enough of it. At only 67 pages out of around 350, it is not the main focus of the book. This is partly because he avoids going into any theological arguments in the first section; it’s entirely about his experience.

Why I Am an Atheist and What’s Wrong With Christianity?

The largest part of the book is taken up by the two middle sections, in which the author covers in detail the arguments for atheism and against Christianity. I’m not entirely convinced by the approach of splitting the book up into personal story followed by the philosophical arguments. Sometimes I think technical, precise writing can become more readable when interspersed with human anecdotes – see for example Bill Bryson’s excellent A Short History of Nearly Everything. On the other hand, the volume of philosophy included would be in danger of drowning his personal experiences, so I can see why he did it this way.

Together, these two sections fill nearly 200 pages, which is perhaps justified. If they’d only been touched upon during the biographical first section, some of the finer points would have been lost. As it is, he thoroughly covers common theistic arguments, biblical contradictions and questions over gospel history in surprising detail. Additionally, one chapter titled “Dear Theologian” takes the form of a letter from God. This has a rather different style, asking questions rather than providing answers. At first this seems out of place, but I found it an interesting piece of philosophy and questioning things is exactly what free thought is all about.

In terms of arguments for atheism there is only a little in this section that will be new to a moderately well-informed atheist.  Nevertheless, he makes a comprehensive and convincing case for atheism which is as clear and relevant as any atheist book I’ve read.

Life is Good!

Appropriately, the book’s final section covers Dan Barker’s work with the FFRF trying to maintain the separation of church and state, fighting cases against organisations which use supposedly secular tax dollars for decidedly sectarian purposes. This is reasonably interesting, although there were no anecdotes which stood out as particularly memorable. Perhaps it would seem more relevant to those living in the US.

Overall I found the book an enjoyable and edifying read. I was a little disappointed by the briefness of his de-conversion story, but to be fair he probably wasn’t keeping a diary or holding a tape recorder during conversations, so it may be difficult to go into more detail without misquoting people. To some extent godless may be seen as a jack-of-all-trades – part autobiography, part philosophical debate, so may be unsatisfying to those who are not interested in reading both those things. For those who are however, it is both entertaining and informative. I would highly recommend this book to the recently de-converted or to Christians wanting to understand a different perspective.

Hell: What am I going to do about it?

Over on Christ-Centred Blogging recently I have been arguing about the injustice of hell. Assuming for the sake of argument that hell exists and that Christians are right about how to avoid it, my point is that the doctrine is unreasonable given that the majority of the world’s population does not have the knowledge required to avoid it. In effect ignorance is a crime against God. Commenter Demian Farnworth asked:

Eshu: I think the important question now is: You know about the possibility of hell. What are you going to do about it?

Which is a fair question. I suspect Demian’s next point was going to be that I have not (yet) taken heed of the warnings or hell, so it doesn’t matter that not everyone is aware of the choice Christianity presents. Many people have heard it and ignore it.

Ignorance, however, is only part of the problem. We’re no doubt all aware of a variety of religious ideas, mythical stories and superstitious warnings. We don’t and can’t heed them all. It doesn’t matter how scary they sound or how comforting the alternatives they offer might be. We need to know whether or not they’re real. A point often overlooked, it seems.

Consider the following analogy for example.

Let’s say I’m wandering down the street and a man accosts me on the street and says that if I don’t hand over my cash, then his friends will drop a nuke on my house.

A pretty scary (albeit unlikely) scenario. So what am I going to do about it?

Many people would just ignore him, but I’m a curious skeptic and while it seems far fetched I’d like to find out what’s going on. Does he really have powerful friends who could render my house even more untidy than usual? Who are they? Are they really at his beck and call?

It sounds like he’s crazy or making it up. Then again, you might think that in the circumstances it would be simpler to just give him the ten pounds I have in my pocket and not take the risk. But even then I don’t know where it will lead. He might demand more money from me. Other people might start issuing similar threats. Unable to pay them all I’d have to guess at which one (if any) actually had the ability to turn my home into a radioactive pile of rubble.

First I’m going to make some assessment of whether it’s likely. If he’s just making this up I ought to at least report him to the Police and put a stop to this intimidation. On the other hand if it’s true that this guy has nuclear capabilities and isn’t afraid to use them, then I should probably negotiate with him to see if we can work things out without any nukes getting dropped.

Before I can do any of that I need to decide whether it’s true or not. As far as I can tell, Christianity and the doctrine of hell is nonsensical, self-contradictory and therefore untrue. Until anyone can iron out those howling inconsistencies, I can only ignore it.

Religion Causing Offence

fool_hath_said_posterI came across an offensive advertisement on my way to work recently. It was put there by the Trinitarian Bible Society. I’ve seen a variety of other Bible verses in their adverts, but the one pictured to the right caught my eye.

“The fool has said in his heart, There is no God.”

That’s not an argument for the existence of a god. It’s not even a statement of belief. It’s an insult. An ad hominem attack – something intended to sully an opponent’s character and by association, their opinions. That is, unless this is intended as an isolated story about one particular fool with no wider context. In which case it’s hard to see why the Trinitarians are so keen to let hapless commuters know about it. As it is, the idea seems to be to tell passers by that “Atheists are fools and well, you’re not a fool, are you?”. Trying to convince people to agree with you by insulting those who disagree is only slightly better than telling them they’ll suffer eternal torment for disagreeing.

Faced with this I considered writing a letter of complaint to the advertising company. I can imagine the outrage if someone put up an advert with the equivalent slogan, “The idiot has told himself there is a god”. Thinking about it later it I realised I was overreacting. I don’t have a right not to be offended. No one does. No one has the right to veto something simply because they find it offensive. For one thing what people find offensive is subjective, so to outlaw the causing of offence would be something of a blank cheque.

The parallels with the reactions to recent atheist advertising are predictably the next section of this post. The bus adverts paid for by public donations to the Atheist Campaign are now on the streets of the UK. As the amount raised was in excess of what was expected, a series of “tube card” adverts, like the one below, are also being shown on the London Underground.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently offensive about the statement on the card shown nor the other freethinker quotes that were used. However as I agree with the sentiments in this case it’s hard for me to judge whether they would offend people. According to Ariane Sherine, who came up with the idea, the email response she’s received has been almost all positive. With the exception of a few extreme examples, I think most religious people in the UK would support atheists’ right to free speech even if they find it offensive. Some have even said that they welcome the debate.

So I’m not going to follow the great British tradition of writing a stiff letter (presumably on cardboard?) to complain about being called a fool.

Free speech is there to protect offensive speech and controversial ideas, as Greta Christina wrote when she was offended recently:

“What Buckley failed to realize is something blindingly obvious, something many, many people have said before me: We don’t need the First Amendment to protect the radical assertion that puppies are cute and apple pie is delicious. We don’t need the First Amendment to protect popular speech. We need the First Amendment to protect unpopular speech.”

It doesn’t matter how offensive the eye of the beholder finds someone else’s opinion. If some belief system’s representatives put up adverts saying “All those who disagree are hopelessly stupid and criminally insane” they should still be allowed. I don’t think it would help their cause much, however. There are plenty of good reasons not to offend people when you communicate – it can backfire and create hostility and turn the offender into the bad guy – and I’m certainly not convinced by a religious group who thinks that one of their best arguments is to call atheists fools. I think it’s pathetic, but I support their right to say it.

One Man’s Experience Of The Alpha Course

I don’t often write posts waxing lyrical about something I found on the interwebs. There are plenty of freethinking blogs out there who do an excellent job of covering topical issues that are of interest to the non-religious.

However, this case is of particular interest to me.  I have toyed with the idea of going along to a local Alpha Course and asking all sorts of awkward questions. For a while I’ve been badgering yunshui to come along with me, you know, to hold my hand. I thought it would provide an insight into the psychology of believers, both new and old.

Then, a few weeks ago yunshui came up with the perfect excuse. He sent me a link to Stephen Butterfield’s “Alpha Course Reviewed” blog. This is a detailed account of the author’s time as a curious skeptic on the Alpha Course. He was granted permission to make audio recordings of their sessions including the DVD presentations featuring Nicky Gumbel and the group debates which followed. Much of the conversation is transcribed word-for-word, with exception of the other attendees’ names. As a result the 11 blog posts are each rather long, however I found them compulsive reading. The blog shows how thin the arguments presented on the course are, and how nonsensical Christian doctrine is accepted regardless. For example, here’s an extract from the final session which includes a typically protracted discussion of evil and free will.

The long-standing male member is still keen to press the issue. He tells me that God gave us free will because he wanted us to choose whether or not we loved him. He continues:

Long-Standing Male Member: “The argument I could make is that we’d be robots if it were any different. If we HAD to love God then we wouldn’t be free.”
Me: “Are you free in heaven not to love him?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “I’m choosing IN THIS LIFE to love God. I make the choice HERE
Me: “Oh, so there’s no choice in heaven? I gather from that that we aren’t free in heaven, then”

What is especially impressive is the Stephen’s patient questioning, even when he is forced to repeat himself or listen to lengthy heartfelt testimonies. He seems to get along pretty well with the other members of the group – most of whom were already Christians.  He manages to avoid antagonising the other attendees while pressing his points and picking apart their rationalisations.

For those who aren’t Christians it’s well worth reading to understand the Christian mindset. For those who are, Stephen’s questions may help you to understand why so many people find it hard to accept your beliefs as true.