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Sunday Sermonette: Another Summer Repeat

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. Luke 2:1-5

The miracle stories in most other religions take place long ago, far away, and sometimes not even on the same plane of existence. Athena emerged fully formed and in battle armor from the head of Zeus on Mount Olympus. Odin hung on the World Tree Yggdrasil for nine days and nine nights, sacrificing himself to himself to learn wisdom that would give him power in the nine worlds. Krishna was conceived without sexual intercourse and born to a royal family in 3228 BCE.

The events of Christianity are believed to have taken place in real time, as we see from the precise dating employed by the author of the Gospel of Luke. I was always happy to point this fact out when teaching adult Bible Study. Look: here are solid historical facts. The Bible is an historical document!

I was wrong. The history doesn’t match up.

Both Matthew and Luke, the only two Gospels that address his birth, say that Jesus was born in the time of King Herod. While Herod had many sons who were also named Herod (Herod Archelaus, Herod Antipas, etc.), there was only one King Herod the Great. He is the one credited in Matthew’s Gospel for the massacre of the innocents and for Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt with their infant son. (Tetrarch Herod Antipas was the one who was said to have ordered the execution of John the Baptist and sent an uncommunicative Jesus back to Pilate.) Herod the Great lived from 74 BCE to 4 BCE.

We have some pretty good histories of the life and rule of Caesar Augustus. The empire kept extensive records, and the rule of Augustus is widely documented by both contemporaries and near contemporary historians. Augustus took a census of Roman citizens in 18 BCE, 8 BCE, and 14 CE.

Cyrenius was Publius Sulpicius Qurinius, a Roman senator, Legate of Syria and its attendant province of Judea from 6 CE to 12 CE. He levied a tax on the peoples of the Judean province between 6 and 7 CE, causing the popular resentment that lead to the Zealot movement and the first Roman-Jewish war.

No people being taxed have ever been required to return to the homes of their long-dead forebears. The idea that Joseph had to travel over a hundred miles to Bethlehem because it was the city of an ancestor who’d been dead a thousand years is absurd on its face, and absolutely no records exist suggesting that anything like it ever happened.

So, according to the unknown author of Luke, Jesus was born in the time of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE, when Quirinius was Governor of Syria, between 6 and 12 CE, during a census decreed by Augustus which never happened, by which non-existent decree his parents had to travel to the city of an ancient ancestor.

Was the author of Luke merely mistaken, or was he perhaps serving what he saw as a higher truth, linking the man Jesus to disparate and seemingly unrelated lines from the Hebrew Scriptures? Biblical literalists have tied themselves in knots for decades to insist that the Lukan account is absolutely true and it is merely our fallen understanding that is false. Other apologists attempt to square the circle with inventive interpretations and rationalizations.

This isn’t a mere quibble. At the heart of this matter is the fundamental question of the functional authority of the Bible. Is it the very word of God, containing his laws and moral instructions applicable to all humankind for all times? Or is it a book of myths and legends, useful for understanding historical peoples and their customs and beliefs, but not something on which you would base modern laws and mores?

I think I know the answer. I think you do, too, even if the lector in your church paid lip service by ending the reading with “The word of the Lord.”

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Sunday Sermonette: Heavenly Heartburn

I have described myself as an atheist for less than ten years now, but there are some who would say I had been godless for much longer. To my parents and grandparents, I was in trouble because I’d left the Roman Catholic Church, “the one true Church, outside which there is no salvation” as the old Fathers said. To other Christian friends, my soul was imperiled because I did not believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. Inspired by God, yes. But dictated by him? That seemed unlikely. I wasn’t Baptized in the Spirit, never spoke in tongues or rolled on the floor. I was skeptical of faith healers and any preacher who could fill a stadium.

I was a sensible, rational man, after all. I respected science, and saw nothing in evolution that excluded God. If homo sapiens was field-tested on apes, that’s just good Yankee parsimony. My faith was solidly founded on the three-legged stool of Anglicanism: Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, each balancing the others. Or so I would have said.

I was a member of a liberal church, one which accepted LGBT people. We saw ourselves as prophetic. We had women priests and bishops. We said we were inclusive and welcoming.

One of my more conservative friends, a priest, wrote urgently to warn me to escape apostasy and flee to a true Christian church. Poor man. He was deluded and confused. He must have created God in his own image and likeness, in the image of his own benighted political predilections and prejudices created he Him.

I knew I was right. I knew that God was the loving father of all his children, regardless of sexual orientation or gender. How could I be so sure? Simple: God told me.

Oh, he didn’t speak to me from a flaming shrubbery or hand me engraved rocks. God doesn’t work that way. I knew him in my heart, you see. It didn’t happen often, but there were times I felt a warm, loving glow in my chest. At such times, I would feel an ineffable sense of peace, a joyful certainty that I was deeply loved and cared for.

Strictly speaking, you weren’t supposed to seek these feelings out, just accept them with gratitude when they came. It’s our job to be about God’s work in the world, after all, we’re not supposed to spend the days sitting around with blissed-out smiles. There’ll be time for that in heaven. Such feelings come when you are open to God and surrender yourself utterly to Him. That’s hard to do, so if it happens, it’s usually unexpected.

What more evidence did I need? I knew that God is real and that he loves me because I’d felt it directly. It’s a pity about atheists, but faith is a gift that not everyone is blessed with.

The trouble is, my Catholic friends also feel the inner presence of God. And so do my Evangelical friends. The corn-fed young missionaries who knocked on my door on Saturday morning referred me to the Book of Mormon, Moroni, chapter 10, verses 4 and 5. God would reveal the truth of Prophet Joseph Smith’s revelation to me. How? By a “burning in the bosom.” Buddhists have been experience transcendent inner peace for eons. So have Hindus. You can know the truth of Islam because your very soul will testify that there is no God but Allah. Pagans and animists feel it on vision quests and in their sacred groves.

Which is more likely? That people from all cultures and times have experienced these feelings, but mine is the only genuine touch of the Holy Spirit? Or that the ability to create these feelings is simply a human talent? Is it more likely that this phenomenon is outside of ourselves, transmitted to us in some mysterious and undetectable way, or that it’s been part of our psychological makeup all along.

Almost ten years ago, I decided it was the latter. That I deceived myself is not proof that no gods exist, of course. There may very well be a god, and that god may very well love you and have a personal and private relationship with you. God may choose to give special attention to you among the seven billion people on earth by means of warm fuzzy feelings, and everyone else may just be fooling themselves.

How, I wonder, would you prove it?

Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true.
-- Demosthenes.

Sunday Sermonette: Heavenly Heartburn

I have described myself as an atheist for less than ten years now, but there are some who would say I had been godless for much longer. To my parents and grandparents, I was in trouble because I’d left the Roman Catholic Church, “the one true Church, outside which there is no salvation” as the old Fathers said. To other Christian friends, my soul was imperiled because I did not believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. Inspired by God, yes. But dictated by him? That seemed unlikely. I wasn’t Baptized in the Spirit, never spoke in tongues or rolled on the floor. I was skeptical of faith healers and any preacher who could fill a stadium.

I was a sensible, rational man, after all. I respected science, and saw nothing in evolution that excluded God. If homo sapiens was field-tested on apes, that’s just good Yankee parsimony. My faith was solidly founded on the three-legged stool of Anglicanism: Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, each balancing the others. Or so I would have said.

I was a member of a liberal church, one which accepted LGBT people. We saw ourselves as prophetic. We had women priests and bishops. We said we were inclusive and welcoming.

One of my more conservative friends, a priest, wrote urgently to warn me to escape apostasy and flee to a true Christian church. Poor man. He was deluded and confused. He must have created God in his own image and likeness, in the image of his own benighted political predilections and prejudices created he Him.

I knew I was right. I knew that God was the loving father of all his children, regardless of sexual orientation or gender. How could I be so sure? Simple: God told me.

Oh, he didn’t speak to me from a flaming shrubbery or hand me engraved rocks. God doesn’t work that way. I knew him in my heart, you see. It didn’t happen often, but there were times I felt a warm, loving glow in my chest. At such times, I would feel an ineffable sense of peace, a joyful certainty that I was deeply loved and cared for.

Strictly speaking, you weren’t supposed to seek these feelings out, just accept them with gratitude when they came. It’s our job to be about God’s work in the world, after all, we’re not supposed to spend the days sitting around with blissed-out smiles. There’ll be time for that in heaven. Such feelings come when you are open to God and surrender yourself utterly to Him. That’s hard to do, so if it happens, it’s usually unexpected.

What more evidence did I need? I knew that God is real and that he loves me because I’d felt it directly. It’s a pity about atheists, but faith is a gift that not everyone is blessed with.

The trouble is, my Catholic friends also feel the inner presence of God. And so do my Evangelical friends. The corn-fed young missionaries who knocked on my door on Saturday morning referred me to the Book of Mormon, Moroni, chapter 10, verses 4 and 5. God would reveal the truth of Prophet Joseph Smith’s revelation to me. How? By a “burning in the bosom.” Buddhists have been experience transcendent inner peace for eons. So have Hindus. You can know the truth of Islam because your very soul will testify that there is no God but Allah. Pagans and animists feel it on vision quests and in their sacred groves.

Which is more likely? That people from all cultures and times have experienced these feelings, but mine is the only genuine touch of the Holy Spirit? Or that the ability to create these feelings is simply a human talent? Is it more likely that this phenomenon is outside of ourselves, transmitted to us in some mysterious and undetectable way, or that it’s been part of our psychological makeup all along.

Almost ten years ago, I decided it was the latter. That I deceived myself is not proof that no gods exist, of course. There may very well be a god, and that god may very well love you and have a personal and private relationship with you. God may choose to give special attention to you among the seven billion people on earth by means of warm fuzzy feelings, and everyone else may just be fooling themselves.

How, I wonder, would you prove it?

Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true.
-- Demosthenes.

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Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter

This is a Summer Rerun. Sorry, but it’s too nice a morning on Cape Cod to sit inside typing.


A very nice young man offered to prove to me that God exists.  The ultimate and incontrovertible proof of God, he said,  can be found in the First Letter of John, chapter 5.   God exists because he tells each and every one of us so, in our hearts, and gives us concrete evidence by the fact that he sent his son Jesus.  He raised Jesus from the dead to prove that he has given us eternal life, but only those who accept the evidence that God has provided.

I can hear the tinkle of scales dropping from eyes and the heavy thud of formerly godless readers dropping to their knees in repentance.  Why didn't we think of that?

Let's leave aside the unprovable assertion that God speaks in our hearts and promises eternal life you have to die to see, and go straight to the offered physical evidence: Jesus.  

Did Jesus even exist?  

A lot of people question whether he was ever born.  According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was born in the time of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC, when Quirinius was Governor of Syria, which was between 6 and 12 AD, during a census that Caesar Augustus never decreed, by which his parents were absurdly ordered to travel for days to the birthplace of an ancestor who'd been dead a thousand years.  

From the time of the Enlightenment, there has been considerable scholarship questioning the historicity of Jesus.  These things we know:  The Gospels do not record Jesus ever writing on anything more permanent than sand.  None of the people who had personal knowledge of him wrote anything down.  There are no potsherds or archeological remnants.  There are no eyewitnesses, no contemporaneous accounts.  Everything we know about Jesus comes to us from decades or even centuries later.  The very earliest writings we have are from Paul of Tarsus, writing roughly a quarter of a century after Jesus died.  His writings confirm that he never met Jesus while he was alive.  His best claim was that he talked to people who had seen Jesus many years earlier. 

Myths about dying and rising gods were common in the Middle East at the time.  We can still find elements of Mithraism and other Eastern religions in Christianity today. Paul himself made reference to non-kosher additions to what were supposed to be Jewish practices. 

It's interesting stuff you could spend years studying and researching.  Perhaps there was a Jewish mystic named Jesus who lived in the first century, but how many of the stories that have accreted to his record are true?    How can you tell? A book and a major motion picture came out a few years ago involving a well-known historical figure, someone who we have proof existed.  Will people two thousand years from now be wondering about Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter?



The intersection of history, myth, and fantasy is fascinating, but it's irrelevant.  My friend is incorrect in thinking that the existence Jesus in any way proves the existence of God.  It wouldn't matter if the born of a virgin, water-walking, loaves and fishes feeding, rising from the dead stories were true.  None of these can prove the existence of God.  They just create more questions.  How did Jesus walk on water?  We don't know.  How did Jesus feed the multitudes?  We don't know.  It doesn't matter how many unknowns you pile up; you can't explain them with an appeal to another unknown.  

Humans will say almost anything rather than admit they don't know. The trouble is, "God did it" is an answer that provides no information whatsoever, it's just an attempt to halt further inquiry.  

Call it the Argument from Personal Incredulity: "I can't imagine how X could have happened, therefore Y."

I heard a noise in a spooky dark abandoned house, therefore ghosts.  What is a ghost?  Why, it is the imaginary undetectable energy field that somehow contains a human personality and survives his death, becoming momentarily perceptible in creepy places like empty buildings when the lights are out.   

I saw unexplained lights in the sky and therefore UFOs.  What's a UFO?  Funny how quickly the "Unidentified" is identified.  Alien life forms traveled millions of miles to our planet, where they put on light shows and perform the occasional prostate exam on a rural person.  

Put that way, it sounds ridiculous, and it is.  The fact that millions of people deeply and sincerely believe in ghosts and aliens does not change that fact.  

I heard a story from a long time ago told by unknown authors writing decades after the event about a magical religious figure, therefore God exists.  And what is a God?  Why, whatever incoherent combination of attributes answers all unanswerable questions, of course.  "His ways are mysterious and it is not given that mortal men should understand" is a particularly good catchall.

How many unexplained effects does it take to make an answer?  Just as many zeroes as it takes to add up to one. 

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Sunday Sermonette: Convicted In Absentia

When talking about God, a dear friend of mine likes to say, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Aphorisms that use wordplay are always memorable, but is there anything worth remembering? Absence of evidence is evidence of absence. If I claim there is a dragon in my yard, wouldn’t you demand to see it? If I tell you it is invisible, wouldn’t you ask for some other proof - footprints in the grass, for example? If I tell you that it is not only invisible but undetectable by any human means, wouldn’t you conclude that there is no dragon and that I should lay off the tequila?

In law, the police cannot drag me before a judge to answer a murder charge without some evidence linking me to the crime. I don’t have to prove I didn’t do it, the state has to prove I did, beyond reasonable doubt, by preponderance of evidence.

It is the same in any kind of formal argument. The party making the positive claim, “God exists”, must prove it. The other party need not prove the deity’s non-existence.

My friend doesn’t accept this point. In his culture, God is an accepted fact, whose existence is no more open to question than the sun rising in the east. To him, I am the one making the claim.

Can God be proven not to exist? It depends upon which god you mean. If you’re referring to a deistic god, one who lit the fuse on the Big Bang and then retired to a transcendent dimension to watch the fireworks, then yes, it is impossible to prove that a god does not exist. So what? Who would care about such a god? Who would worship it? It would just be another concept, like “singularity.”

The God in which most claim to believe, the Abrahamic God, the God of Abraham and Isaac, of Jesus and Mohammed, is a God who acts in the physical universe. Exactly how he acts is a matter of disagreement between the three great monotheisms and their tens of thousands of sects and denominations, but it is agreed that he is directly and actively involved in the universe he created. Saint Paul wrote that God clearly shows himself so that no one can claim ignorance (Romans 1:20). Isn’t this is a scientifically testable claim?

This morning, people in every part of the country are asking God to intervene and take action in the material world. They are praying for rain in Northern California, or freedom from tornadoes in Oklahoma, or relief from flooding in Florida. They are praying for healing for stricken loved ones, for prosperity and success, for peace in our times. Hundreds of thousands of people are praying for hundreds of thousands of divine interventions, and, they believe, God hears them all. They believe that those who pray fervently enough, or those whom God especially favors, will have their prayers answered. After all, didn’t Jesus promise that anything we asked in his name, God would grant? Surely there must be more than mere anecdote to support the hypothesis that a God who answers prayers exists.

A few years ago, the Templeton Foundation funded an extensive 2.4 million dollar study of intercessory prayer led by a Boston-area cardiologist. 1,802 cardiac bypass patients in six hospitals were arbitrarily divided into three groups: those who were prayed for and knew it, those who were prayed for and didn’t know it, and those who were not prayed for and didn’t know it. The prayers were made by three different geographically dispersed churches, whose members prayed for individuals by first name and first initial of their last names, just in case God didn’t know. The prayer was for a successful surgery and a quick recovery without complications. The test measured the efficacy of prayer in two ways: both whether it actually worked, and whether the mere knowledge that one is being prayed for has a psychosomatic benefit.

Here are the results (link goes to the study’s abstract at the National Institutes of Health). “Conclusions: Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG (coronary arterial bypass graft), but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.” Those who were prayed for who knew they were being prayed for had worse outcomes than those who were not prayed for or who didn’t know they were being prayed for.

In the past couple hundred years, the evidences of absence have been mounting. Are there any questions to which a god provides a scientifically valid explanation? Are there questions where a god belief provides any explanation at all? As every child knows, a parent’s exasperated “Because I said so, that’s why. Shut up and eat your oatmeal.” is not an explanation, it is merely the end of inquiry.

Where is the evidence? Where is the proof? Where are the facts? “We want one fact. We beg at the doors of your churches for just one little fact. We pass our hats along your pews and under your pulpits and implore you for just one fact,” said Robert Ingersoll in the late nineteenth century. “Let the church furnish at least one, or forever hold her peace.”

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Sunday Sermonette: Wishful Thinking

A couple days ago, Father Dwight Longenecker wrote an essay on Patheos called Is Atheism Wishful Thinking? In his little sermonette, he tries to reverse the argument from the atheist contention that Christianity is wishful thinking to claiming that it is the atheists who are guilty of building castles in the air.

This sort of projection always reminds me of Martin Short’s SNL character Nathan Thurm, the sweating neurotic lawyer with an inch of ash hanging from his cigarette. “I’m not defensive. You’re defensive.” But I digress.

Father Longenecker begins by dismissing childish and superstitious ideas of God as someone who invites you to a big family reunion after you die and answers prayers. The God of Catholicism is more robust, he says. God is a stern Daddy. Daddy makes us to pay for our sins in purgatory after we die and sometimes makes us eat our vegetables. Father. Longenecker didn’t say so, but Big Daddy also apparently also allows children to be raped by priests and and afflicted by war, want, disaster and disease because that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and that which does kill us sends us to purgatory faster.

No, Father Longenecker’s God is no wimpy Salvation by Faith Alone God. His God requires followers to leave their families, pick up their cross and follow Him. Nothing soft or wishful about that. Following Christ is tough work. Luckily for Father Longenecker, his cross is a word processor in a comfortable office in Greenville, South Carolina. And since he’s a convert from the Anglican priesthood, he didn’t even have to give up his wife and kids. Maybe he really, really hates typing.

Having disposed of that strawman (and a large percentage of Christianity), Longenecker rolls out his big guns. There’s a universal belief in an afterlife, he says. The polite word for this is equivocation. Lying, after all, is a sin. There is no such universal belief unless you’re willing to stretch it to include reincarnation, personal annihilation and incorporation into the Atman, the end of Being and the beginning of Non-Being, and so on. There certainly is no universal belief in an afterlife in which you are judged and punished or rewarded accordingly. This is the belief of his church, not the belief of all humankind.

But even if everyone believed it, so what? What proof is there? What is the mechanism by which anything that could be called “me” could possibly survive my death? How can something without nerves, senses, glands, or any other semblance of corporeal existence actually, you know, *exist* in any sense of the word? Why should unsupported belief be considered proof of anything except that lots of people believe? Is something true because one person believes it? It is any truer when ten believe? How about a million - now is it true?

Father Longenecker has shown us the carrot. Now comes the stick. The atheist portrays himself as a rational, common sense, scientific, careful and sensible sort of fellow, but given the possibility that there just might be a heaven, hell and judgement, isn’t it the believer who is, in fact, the sensible fellow?

Yes, it’s that well-worn and often debunked argument called Pascal’s Wager. With eternal bliss or eternal torment on the line, isn’t it safest to act like you believe? The flaw is that it assumes a binary state: either the God in whom Father Longenecker believes (without a shred of evidence save that other people also believe), with all of his attributes including willingness to inflict eternal punishment for the unforgivable sin of doubt, is the One True God, or there is no God. But there have been thousands of god-claims entertained by us humans. Which do we choose? They can't all be right. They can, however, all be wrong.

Father Longenecker conveniently ignores Protestants. I’m sure you’ve seen Chick Tracts. You know, those cheap little comic books produced in the vulgar style of cartoon pornography once called "Tijuana Bibles". According to J.T. Chick’s theology, Roman Catholics are idolaters and the Pope is the Antichrist. They're all bound for a permanent vacation at the Lake of Fire. Pascal was Catholic. Did he lose the bet?

Finally, is this really the sort of God you want to worship? Do you really think the Creator of Universes and Spinner of Galaxies who engages in psychic communication with every living human being can be so easily fooled by someone cynically going through the motions of faith? What does that say for Father Longenecker’s Big Daddy God that he has the mind (as well as the manners and morals) of a spoiled and thoughtless child?

The other flaw in Pascal's Wager is that it assumes that one can believe without cost. But there is a very high cost, and not just in Sunday tithes. The glittering casinos of Los Vegas and the towering cathedrals of the Church are examples of what happens when you combine wishful thinking and credulity. This is the only life you can be sure you’re going to get. Why waste this one wishing for another?

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Sunday Sermonette: Stupid People

There have been atheists in this country since the beginning, but we have always been the minority voice. Right now, there are more who identify themselves as atheist than Mormons and Jews combined. People unaffiliated with any religion make up the fastest growing demographic segment in surveys of American religiosity, but we're still in the minority.

So-called New Atheism began with the publication of Sam Harris's book, The End of Faith, which itself was a response to the religious fanaticism that led to the 9/11 terrorist bombings. New Atheism is the same as old atheism - there is still no good evidence for the existence of gods. What's new is the proposal that we stop giving religion a free pass in the public square of ideas. The claims of religion should be countered, criticized, and denounced by rational argument.

Sometimes believers think New Atheists are just being rude and insulting, especially those who've internalized their beliefs to the extent that any challenge to those beliefs is seen as a personal assault. Many found the title of Richard Dawkins' seminal book The God Delusion offensive on its face. 

They may also feel offended when a particular an argument is framed against a particular tenet or belief that others who call themselves members of the same religion believe, but that they themselves may not. They look at the long atheist skewer containing dead and debunked classical arguments for God, and feel slighted. Well of course we don't believe the Ontological Argument, they say. God is greater than that which can be imagined; we cannot imagine anything greater than God; therefore God exists?  That's just trying to define something into existence with wordplay. Atheists must think we're stupid.

No, I don't think Christians are stupid. There are stupid Christians just as there are stupid atheists, but by and large, believers are not especially stupid people. I was religious for half a century. I assure you that my IQ has not gone up in the past decade. I still have many good friends and beloved relatives who are devout. Some of them believe truly absurd things, but they're none of them stupid.

They just have the normal cognitive biases of anyone raised in this god-soaked culture. If they are anything like I was, they simply don't devote much thought to the claims of their faith. It's a settled question. The sun rises in the east. There is a God. Now, we have to organize the church bake sale, so can you make brownies?

I have friends who are absolute atheists, but enjoy the community and society of a church. I was speaking to a friend a few days ago who wouldn't be caught dead at Sunday Mass, but wants her daughter to have the benefits of being a member of her town’s largest and most influential community organization.

Many religious people are allies. We don't agree about whether Jesus is coming, but we agree that despoiling the planet as if the human race were almost done with it is insane. We're united in the campaign for marriage equality, and work together in the community food pantry. We're all against the self-appointed imams of the American Taliban. 

So why do I write atheist blog posts if I get along fine with so many believers? Two reasons. First, I'm adding my voice to those saying that questions about the nature and existence of God can and should be raised, and the prejudice of faith learned at our parents' knee can and should be questioned. There are still a lot of places in this country, let alone outside it, where it can be dangerous to be an atheist. By being "out of the closet," I help make it safer for others to come out.

And second, because it's therapeutic. As nice as so many of my believing friends are, and as beautiful as I've found some aspects of religion, it comes with some very heavy baggage. Recognizing that has enabled me to discard some of those bags, and life has become better, richer, and fuller. The trouble with religion is that, having once accepted a proposition by faith, it is very difficult, no matter how intelligent you are, to then consider the proposition by evidence and reason. 

This is the only life we can be absolutely sure we'll get. It would be truly stupid to waste it.

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Sunday Sermonette: Sunk

I may owe you all an apology. I may have been flying false colors all this time. Last week, I read that no less an authority than Ken Ham declared that Richard Dawkins was not an atheist. There is no such thing as atheists, he explained. It says so in the Bible. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 1, verses 20-21: For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

All humans are born with an innate knowledge of God.  If you don’t believe that, it’s because your sinful nature has led you to deliberately cloud your mind.  Q.E.D.

Now, I believed in God for half a century, but when I actually looked deeply into the claims of the Christian religion, I found them rationally impoverished, logically incoherent, and morally repugnant.  I decided I no longer believed eight years ago. My sinful nature was clearly working overtime. But I’ve been pretty comfortable as an atheist for many years now, so I decided I wouldn’t just take Ken Ham’s word for it and did some research myself.



Saint Paul was not the first person to believe in innate knowledge. He was an educated man, after all.  Innate knowledge has been kicked around by philosophers since the ancient Greeks. Many philosophers (Leibniz, among others) have found the idea of innate knowledge useful in explaining how we know what we know. John Locke (among others) objected, saying that the human is born a blank slate, and that all knowledge is founded on experience.  It’s the Nature vs. Nurture debate, and there’s no sign it will be settled soon.

Where we get into trouble is when philosophers try to define God into existence.  Rene Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am," but as he pursued that line of reasoning, he worried. “I think, therefore I am … I think.”  What if what he perceived wasn’t real?  What if a demon was deceiving him?  His solution was God. If God is the cause of clear and distinct perception, and if God is perfect in every way and doesn’t deceive us, then Descartes could assume that what he perceived was true.  But how to prove that God exists?  In addition to an ontological argument (We have an idea of God as a perfect being. It is more perfect to exist than not exist. Therefore, God exists), he decided we all have an innate idea of God as an infinite being.  Because we have this idea, it must be an infinite objective reality. There must, he said, be as much reality in a cause as in an effect. 

I admit I’m no philosopher. I enjoyed Philosophy 101, but the mental gymnastics gave me headaches. One thing I do know. Just because something is necessary to your cleverly constructed logical argument doesn’t give it existence in hard, cold reality.  It might be equivocation. It might be fantasy.

This is not to say there is no innate knowledge. A baby is born knowing how to suckle, and not much else. A young lizard hatching from the egg already knows almost everything it needs to survive and reproduce. In computer terms, there’s RAM, the random access memory we work in, and ROM, the read-only memory that contains basic operating instructions. How does a bird know how to build a nest? It’s all in ROM.  How does a child know about Santa Claus?  It has to be programmed into RAM.  It has to be taught.

That all people have an innate knowledge of God is a doctrine of the Church. Do you know what’s not a doctrine of the Church?  Gravity. Gravity is invisible, but no one ever found it necessary to require belief in it on pain of excommunication. It may be true that all humans are inclined to magical thinking, or awe and wonder. It’s a long, long way from that to knowledge of God.

Not all human cultures have god beliefs. Those that do have god beliefs do not seem to agree, not even how many gods there are or what the attributes of a god would be.  The philosophical gods of Pascal and Leibniz may include the attribute of perfection, but they’re not even in the same ballpark as the Christian God in all his incomprehensible Trinitarian glory.

So Ken Ham, speaking ex cathedra from his crackpot “Institute”, says there are no atheists because the Bible told him so.  He also believes that the Bible tells him that the Earth is only 6000 years old, that humans co-existed with dinosaurs, and that the greatest mass slaughter in ancient legend, the tale of how a supreme being murdered every last human being on the planet except one old drunk and his family (to say nothing of all other terrestrial life), would make a great tax-funded amusement park.  Bring the kiddies!

The computer scientist Don Norman, director of the Design Lab at the University of California in San Diego, famously said, “The only intuitive interface is the nipple. After that it’s all learned.”

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Sunday Sermonette: God's Not Dead Again

The mercenary wretches who made God's Not Dead have decided that Christians with persecution complexes are still insufficiently validated in this country. They’re ginning up a sequel, creatively titled God’s Not Dead 2. They can’t use Kevin Sorbo again, because they killed him off in the first movie, but never fear, they’ve found even more talent from Hollywood’s D-List. Remember Melissa Joan Hart? Sure you do. Sabrina the Teenage Witch? And Melissa and Joey, currently airing on ABC Family. Not enough high-wattage star power for you? How about Jesse Metcalfe, who played Christopher Ewing in the short-lived remake of Dallas? Or the former Mrs. Mike Tyson, Robin Givens? Or Sadie Robertson from Duck Dynasty? Surely you remember her. I hear they’ve even disinterred Fred Thompson from his current stint selling reverse mortgages to hapless elders.



The plot of this star-studded extravaganza is even less credible. The original, you’ll recall, was based on what Snopes.com calls a “glurge,” “The sending of inspirational (and supposedly 'true') tales, ones that often conceal much darker meanings than the uplifting moral lessons they purport to offer or undermine their messages by fabricating and distorting historical fact in the guise of offering a 'true story.'” The result, Snopes says, is "more often a sickly-sweet concoction that induces hyperglycemic fits.” In the original, Kevin Sorbo played a philosophy professor who didn’t believe in God and hated His guts for killing his mom. As is customary in philosophy classes, Sorbo demanded that his students accept without argument the statement that God Is Dead. A brilliant young Christian student successfully debates him. The professor is fatally injured in a car wreck, but with his dying breath accepts Jesus as his personal savior, and it all ends happily ever after with a song titled, you guessed it, God’s Not Dead.

The sequel is yet another manufactured confection where a Christian schoolteacher, played by the former Teenage Witch, is forced to defend her faith in court. As you know, the First Amendment makes Christianity illegal in this country, and the ACLU (the AntiChrist’s Lawyer’s Union) is dedicated to persecuting believers wherever they may be found. There’s a war on faith in this country, you know. Why, Christians aren’t even permitted to be bigoted jerks anymore. Anyway, you’ll be happy to know that the court rules that, you guessed it, God’s Not Dead Again.

Since there will soon be two movies, I have two questions. First, please describe God. How can we talk of something as being alive or dead if we don’t even have evidence it exists? It’s like going to the police station to file a Missing Persons report on Bilbo Baggins. Worse, because most of us could describe Bilbo Baggins and recognize him if we saw him.

Second, by what conceivable definition of the word “life” can God be considered alive in the first place? We know what life is. We recognize all kinds of life in all sorts of improbable locations: the deep ocean under the Antarctic ice, or in superheated ocean vents. Life is distinguished from non-life by its capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change until it dies. Rocks don’t reproduce, act, or change unless acted upon by another force. Rocks are not alive. Even the lowliest slime molds eat, excrete, reproduce, and dies.

So when we say God’s alive, how on earth would we know that? A Christian would say that God can be defined: he is the eternal being who created and sustains the world, both transcendent and immanent, perfect and complete, lacking nothing, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. How do we know this farrago of logical contradictions exists? He revealed himself to a few select and conveniently long-dead people.

How is God alive? He doesn’t occupy any physical space in the detectable universe, he has no physical appearance, he does not eat, grow, or change. Unless you credit the dubious legend of a pregnant girl in Palestine a couple thousand years ago, he doesn’t reproduce, and he doesn’t die.

But, according to Christianity, he did die, and if you believe, you’ll live with him forever after you die. You just have to believe. If you believe hard enough, maybe he’ll reveal himself to you. How can you differentiate between wishful self-deception and the “still, small voice of God?” How can you distinguish between confirmation bias and the actions of a deity who puts the “b” in “subtle?” Just believe harder. Keep believing as hard as you can. Avoid skeptical blogs like this and the company of apostates and sinners. Surround yourself with other believers, and maybe you too will receive a revelation. Hey, it worked for me for 50 years.

Or maybe you could just relax and stop wasting the only life you’ll ever have (to say nothing of your money) trying to believe fantasies.

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Sunday Sermonette: Godless America

While speaking with the President of Turkey on April 6th, 2009, President Obama said, “...we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation... We consider ourselves a nation of citizens, who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”

The Religious Right went nuts.  Not a Christian nation?  See, we told you he was a secret Muslim!

The president wasn’t saying anything new.  He was echoing what his predecessors said in our nation’s first Mideast peace treaties: 

“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”  (The Treaty of Tripoli, drafted by George Washington’s administration, unanimously ratified by the Senate, and signed by President John Adams.)

Recently, a Christian friend corrected me. The roots of our Republic, he said, can be traced back three thousand years. They were written by a Prophet of God in the First Book of Samuel. So I immediately grabbed my Bible and looked it up.

I’ll skip the usual son of this, son of that introduction and gloss over his his two mommies (his father had a good traditional Biblical marriage: multiple wives), and head straight for chapter 8, where the men of Israel came to him and said, “We want to be like other nations.  Anoint us a king.”  



Samuel warned them that kings were no good, that a king would take their sons and daughters and servants and property (1 Samuel 8:11-18), but in the end he gave in and anointed Saul, a handsome young man who couldn’t find his ass with a torch and both hands.  (Quite literally.  See Chapter 9, where Saul chases his family’s donkeys all over Israel. He doesn't recover them.)

God tells Samuel that it was not Samuel who the people rejected, but God himself.  And the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them. (1 Samuel 8:7)

Early in the Reformation, Protestants seized on this verse to prove there was something fundamentally wrong with monarchy itself, and therefore something good about a free society. 

And that’s what gave birth to America.

Except… 

The time before Samuel anoints a king wasn’t a wonderful democratic republic. Samuel’s sons were ruling as Judges over the people.  Think of them as warlord-prophets, who rose to power based not on popular support, but on their ability to raise an army large enough to impose their will. If you weren’t just cherry-picking verses, you’d see that the rule of Samuel’s son’s was riven with corruption.

Monarchy is absolutely approved in Scripture. Moses himself ordained:  When thou art come unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein, and shalt say, I will set a king over me, like as all the nations that are about me; Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee … (Deuteronomy 17:14-15).  The Israelite who asked Samuel to anoint a king used these same words, clearly appealing to that earlier Scripture.

Finally, the time of Kings was Israel’s Golden Age. Hapless King Saul was succeeded by King David, who was followed by King Solomon. The Temple was built, and Israel became a geopolitical power to be reckoned with.

Oh, and just an extra credit point: Samuel did not write the scripture that bears his name.  In the book, Samuel dies in chapter 25.  

Fact is, if you’re looking to the Bible for your political science instruction, you’re reading the wrong book. It’s also the wrong book if you’re looking for information about cosmology, geology, biology, ecology, oceanography, meteorology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, zoology, botany, economics, history, logic, mathematics ….

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