On February 18th, 2015, President Obama spoke at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. You can find his words here.
First off I want to echo his words offering love and support to Muslim Americans in response to the Chapel Hill murders. There is no excuse for such actions.
I also want to make sure I point out that I agree wholeheartedly with the majority of the President’s speech. Specifically the parts where he calls for frank conversations on the ideologies of terrorist organizations, as well as addressing economic and political grievances. I also agree that we need to remain welcoming of people of all or no faiths. I will point out, however, that addressing grievances likely would not be enough to stop radicalization by religions. This is evidenced by people leaving the US and other economically and politically stable regions to travel to and join radical organizations. But it appears to be true that instability and lack of other alternatives can make it easier for people to be radicalized.
But enough with agreement, that’s boring, right? Let’s talk about the parts of the President’s speech that I take issue with. Here’s some excerpts:
Around the world, and here in the United States, inexcusable acts of violence have been committed against people of different faiths, by people of different faiths — which is, of course, a betrayal of all our faiths.”
Hmm. So it’s a betrayal of all faiths to commit such violence. How does he decide which acts of violence are inexcusable. The Bible has numerous examples of awful violence committed in the name of and apparently endorsed by God.
The President went on:
They [Al Qaeda and ISIL] are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists. And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.
Notice how it is written as if it is an either/or option. Can’t they be both religious leaders and terrorists? And how does the Christian president of a nation based on a secular constitution gets to decide who has perverted another the religion of Islam? Here’s some more:
Of course, the terrorists do not speak for over a billion Muslims who reject their hateful ideology. They no more represent Islam than any madman who kills innocents in the name of God represents Christianity or Judaism or Buddhism or Hinduism. No religion is responsible for terrorism. People are responsible for violence and terrorism.
I do agree that people are responsible for their actions. I also agree that there are lots of Muslims who disagree with suicide bombing, to take one part of extremism. (In fact it appears that everywhere a majority of Muslims do not agree with suicide bombing. Pew Study) But I don’t see how President Obama is able to draw the line between religion and madmen. In his statement he says that no religion is responsible for terrorism. He seems to be implying that if someone does do violence in the name of a god that that is an indication that they are mad. This completely overlooks the fact that in both Christian and Muslim faith traditions violence was done and justified by religion. Look at the gleeful reports of mass murder by Jews in the Old Testament for an example. I guess these people were just madmen?
Here’s one last bit for you:
They want to make very clear what Islam stands for. And we’re joined by some of these leaders today. These religious leaders and scholars preach that Islam calls for peace and for justice, and tolerance toward others; that terrorism is prohibited; that the Koran says whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind.
Honestly, I’m glad that there are Islamic scholars calling for peace, justice, and tolerance. But there is a minority that doesn’t. They also have quotes from the Koran to back up what they want to do. Before non-Muslims get too high and mighty, the same things happens with Christianity. How can one say that Westboro Baptist Church is not real Christianity and that loving, caring, and tolerant people are real Christians? The same thing can happen with violent Christian groups. This imaginary dividing line and belief that there is clearly a right and wrong way to do each religion seems like nothing more than just wishful thinking. It assumes that people that agree with you are right and that the other people that you don’t like are doing it wrong.
The belief that religions across the world join hands in an inclusive kumbaya kind of way is a recent development. The historical record is clear that most major religions believed that they were the exclusive correct way and they everyone else was at best wrong, and generally damned. For centuries nearly every Christian believed that “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.” That is only, the Church could save. Sorry, rest of humanity, enjoy burning in a lake of fire. This stance pulls from the Bible, where it is written that Jesus said that no one could get to God except through him. Only recently have people started reinterpreting their texts and philosophies to try to find a way to coexist and allow for multiple beliefs.
So how in the world do people, including our President, justify saying that only people with this new, inclusive, modern view are “real” religions and the rest are madmen and perversions? Aren’t those with the better historical record have a much better stance to call the new inclusive view a perversion? The honest truth is that all the so called Holy Books are so full of enough contradictions and ambiguous language that just about any position can be justified by them. With enough reinterpretation and theological yoga they can bend to provide justification for any stance. For historical examples see how both sides of the US civil war justified their position from the same Bible.
I put forth that there is no way to decide what is the true version of any of these religions. The problem with religion is that all positions are equally valid. After all, when people such as Mohammed or Paul decide they have personal revelations from God that they get to share, how does one decide if they are true or full of crap? Religion is based on people just asserting things to be true without any outside evidence. Religion fails because it doesn’t have such a system to separate the good and true assertions from the bad. That is why religions continue to splinter and diverge, while on the other hand scientific knowledge, which is pursued using mechanisms that allow corrections and discernment of truth, keeps progressing and adding to a combined single body of knowledge.
The problem with religious terrorism isn’t that they are doing their religion the wrong way. The problem is that they shouldn’t be basing their actions and decisions on the faulty reasoning that is the cornerstone of religion in the first place. The sooner that we recognize that religions are inherently flawed and divisive the better. We should move past them and learn to coexist based on what we can learn about our shared world and existence, not by declaring by fiat our position to be the one true way. Only by doing this can we as a species move out of the dark ages and start realizing our limitless potential.
I while back I was eating lunch with my brother who is a Christian. I always enjoy our talks, and this time he asked me if I didn’t believe any of the claims of Christianity, how did I think it came to be and stay around for so long? I told him that I thought it was just something like a meme that had caught on and self-perpetuated. My brother then said to me, “well at least it’s a good meme.”
I don’t think that Christianity is a good meme. Its faults don’t seem to be overwhelmed by its goodness. I’m not even convinced that it’s matched evenly. I think it’s time to talk about the some of the bad things I see about Christianity. What things make my short list of problems?
- Faith as a Virtue
- Victimless “Crimes” as Sins
- Afterlife and Armageddon.
Now I know that there are Christians that come in every flavor. Just about any statement that you make about Christians as a whole there is someone somewhere that doesn’t match. Some claim that they don’t believe in or at least don’t care about an afterlife. Others have rejected the idea of sins or a personal omniscient God. But I think you will find that these items apply to the majority of Christians and Christian groups. If I’m wrong please let me know know about it in the comments.
Faith as a Virtue
My biggest beef with Christianity is the fact that it sees faith as a virtue. Faith is one of those slippery words that doesn’t seem to like to be pinned down. The best definition that I have heard is Peter Boghossian‘s “pretending to know things that you don’t know.” I’ve heard other definitions including “belief based on evidence,” but said evidence never seems to materialize. At best perhaps its sticking with what you like?
Christianity in general makes it out that having faith in its propositions is a virtue. Some groups even say that this having faith is what provides you with all the benefits of being a Christian such as love, eternal life, and free parking on Tuesdays. People are encouraged to keep their faith strong and do their best to hold onto it and let it grow.
This is bad. No where else in life is it considered to be a significant virtue to stick to a conclusion without good evidence. Is it needed sometimes? Yep. We don’t have enough time in the world to track down every single buried assumption and factoid. But we should be dogmatic and stick to our guns on these things we don’t really have evidence fore. Instead we should wish we could learn more, and we should be willing to say whoops when we find out that what we thought was true wasn’t. It should not be a virtue to keep believing things when people point out we don’t have good reasons to. It should be a serious vice to keep believing when we not only find out we don’t have any good reasons to believe but instead have good reasons to doubt. It should be considered a virtue to question and revise our beliefs as we learn and grow. Faith is a brake that keeps us from moving forward and doing better. Christianity is bad for us all when it teaches people that this vice is a virtue.
Victimless “Crimes” as Sins
What’s something else bad about Christianity? How about the fact that it sets up as crimes worthy of death things that are not crimes at all. Does a teenager need to be told they deserve to burn in hell for masturbating? No. Do they even need to feel bad about it? Nope. What about someone that falls in love with a person of the same gender? Is this something they should repent for and do their best to ignore and suppress? Absolutely not. Should people be told that they are bloody murders because they terminate a pregnancy of their own body before it has a chance to turn into a child? No.
But by setting up a God that is the ruler and judge Christianity works to make it so that nothing is out of bounds of its control. Have a lustful thought pass through your head? Should you just consider that you are a mammal and work to understand your drives and control them or indulge them as you see fit without hurting others? No, instead Christianity teaches you should think that your quick thought instead hurt the feelings of the omniscient creator of the universe and that you should know you are a bad person for having the thought and therefore as a bad person you deserve whatever ever bad things this all-powerful busy body wants to do to you. After all, you messed up his perfect plan. They make up the rules such that no human can be perfect and tell you that only perfection can be tolerated. This my friends is building a market.
Since there is no evidence that the thoughts and preferences attributed to the Christian god are actually the thoughts and preferences of an omniscient, all-powerful, loving creator of the universe, people should not be taught that they should feel bad for going against these thoughts and preferences. Instead people should be taught to empathize with their fellow humans and work together as equals. They should not consider themselves to be blessed with the one and only true set of divine commands, but just a fellow human with some things to share and lots of things to learn.
Afterlife and Armageddon
What else is bad about Christianity? How about the central theme that Jesus is coming back and Christians will live with him eternally? This is a double whammy of delusion and wishful thinking that has real negative consequences here on this planet. After all, if this life is just a shadow and foretaste of an infinite, why should we focus on making this life better? That’s bad math. With the mathematical trick of infinitely great, infinitely long paradise on the horizon, you can justify being miserable or making others miserable in this life. After all, its just a short time of trouble before paradise. What’s seventy or eighty years of repression and submission to external authority when you have an afterlife that will be worth it all?
But the problem is that there isn’t actually any good reason to think that this wished for afterlife will really happen. Or that Jesus or anyone else will pull back the veil and destroy the Earth we have which is full of sickness and trouble and make us a new perfect one. So because they have been fed these delusions people make decisions that otherwise don’t make much sense. They may decide to not do things that make themselves happy and might lead to a better life because they don’t think happiness here is worth giving up the eternal bliss they have been promised.
And why focus on long term problems? If Jesus is coming back any day, who needs long term planning? After all, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Don’t just stop with your life, either. Why worry about the cumulative effect of humans or what the world will be like in 100 years? After all, aren’t the signs clear that we are in the end times? Famines aren’t a sign of global warming or things we need to fight, but rather a sign of the birth pains of the new perfect Earth Jesus will give us. All the bad things aren’t things that need to be fixed, but rather signs and portents that Jesus will come back to save us very soon.
This is just more wishful thinking and delusion. It takes people’s focus away from where it needs to be, making the world a better and safer place for all of us, and instead puts it toward battening down the hatches, spreading the word of our impending damnation, and letting everything go to hell in a handbasket.
So there’s a short list of things I think are bad about Christianity. I could list many more, but I hope this is enough to answer the question about why I don’t think that Christianity is such a good thing. Sorry, brother.
I try to give Christianity a chance, I really do. I don’t know of any reason to think that Christianity is special compared to other world religions. But it was the religion that I was exposed to growing up and is also the professed religion of most of the people I know personally. So while I peruse other religions for kernels of wisdom, Christianity I treat a little differently. I read Christian literature to try to find out if maybe I’m missing some key evidence or reasoning. Something that would make me think that maybe there is some reason to think that it might be true. I haven’t found anything, but for some reason I keep looking.
In this quest, occasionally I run across something that causes me to pause. Recently I was reading an apologetics text. In it I saw something I had not heard of before now, the Engel Scale. This tidbit was developed in the 1970’s at Wheaton College by Dr. James Engel and Viggo Sogaard. It is reproduced below using an image from this site. This scale is supposed to be show the continuum in which every person is located.
This most immediately obvious thing to me about this scale is that I don’t fit. In fact, it’s not just that I don’t fit neatly into a category, but instead that according to this I don’t exist. The scale starts with the lowest level of damned souls being at a value of -8, where they have awareness of a supreme being, but no knowledge of the Gospel. As a soul proceeds to a better place, they go through levels -7 through -4 where they learn about the Gospel and grow a “positive attitude” toward it. The fun is just getting started, though, because in level -3 they decide they are personally screwed up. This is supposed to lead eventually into their new birth as a Christian, where they are no longer tagged with negative numbers and progress toward high levels of communion with God.
As I said, I don’t show up on this scale. Despite being sold as a scale evangelists can use to place anyone, I don’t see myself. In the past someone would probably have put me in the good positive numbers, but since then my study has led me to the conclusion that there is no supreme being. No God to commune with. That faith in Jesus cannot be expected to lead to eternal life. So where do I go?
I no longer have faith in Jesus so I’m relegated to the negative values. I acknowledge that I have personal issues, though now I don’t think that they are the ones that Christians think I should worry about, so I’m probably at least at -3. I have studied the Gospel during both my initial recruitment, my life as a Christian, and most strenuously in my realization that it was malarkey. So I should be at least a -5. Right?
But here’s the rub, I can’t be because I don’t even meet the qualifications for the lowly -8, the bottom rung of heathens. I have no awareness of a Supreme Being. I am very aware of the concept, like I am of the concept of the tooth fairy or unicorns. But just like unicorns I find no evidence in the world for a Supreme Being. In fact it looks to me very much like there isn’t one around.
So here I am, a person that can’t exist in this scale. I’m not too worried about myself, as I’m pretty sure I actually do exist. But I do worry for Christians who are taught such a simplified and wrong model of humanity.
I have a friend that works at the First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. I’ve posted about things I’ve heard in his sermons before. I try to keep an eye on the church website, as they occasionally post some of his sermons. While perusing today, I came across a sermon title that I couldn’t pass up. Tom Ogburn, the senior pastor of this church, had posted a video titled, “Overcoming Doubt.” This sermon is below and starts at 31:30 if you want to see if for yourself. I will do my best to fairly represent what he says and respond to it, and I welcome any comments on where you think I am misunderstanding or misrepresenting him.
Let me start out with something that Ogburn said that I agree with. He stated that if his God isn’t big enough to handle big questions then its not much of a god. I completely agree with that. But after this point we part ways.
I won’t harp on quibbles I have with his sermon such as his misunderstanding of Buddhism. Instead I want to raise my complaints with his overall theme. I find that these can be difficult to condense out of sermons, where the goal seems to be to just circle around and say the same thing over and over again, interspersing short anecdotes which seem to be vaguely related until at the end the people in the pews think they heard a good set of deep teaching for half an hour instead of the same superficial arguments or directions presented multiple times.
Ogburn’s premises in his sermon seem to boil down to this:
- Legitimate truths can be subjected to skeptical review.
- Skepticism is bad, as it leads to confusion and frustration.
- Philosophies besides Christianity go nowhere and will lead you to have no answers and an unfulfilled life.
- Answering doubts is to be done by appeals to authority (Bible and faith traditions), as only an authority can give you satisfactory answers to questions.
The first point seems true enough. Everything can be subjected to skepticism. Unlike Ogburn, I don’t see this as a bad thing. As he said at the beginning of his sermon, if he God isn’t big enough to handle big questions then it is not much of a god. Despite this statement, however, Ogburn repeatedly makes it clear that he thinks that skepticism is bad. He seems to think it will only lead to confusion and frustration.
I put forth that perhaps asking skeptical questions about ones’ Christianity leads to confusion and frustration because it causes one to question assumptions and realize that perhaps they were mistaken. I, however, do not see this as a bad thing. Sometimes you have to be a little uncomfortable to move forward. No one likes to think that they were wrong, but we are all wrong sometimes. In fact, we are all wrong a lot. Our natural human tendency is to avoid that awful feeling of realizing that we have messed up. Our brains have many built in mechanisms which try to help us do just that. But ignoring our mistakes doesn’t help us in the long run. I believe it is important to actually work to understand what is true, not just to pick the first thing that comes around claiming to be true and believe it.
It is the fact that I am worried about what is really true that makes me disagree with Ogburn’s method of dealing with doubt. Ogburn states that when one has doubts, they should take those doubts to an authority who will answer the questions and fulfill your soul. He states that “to find truth you must seek truth in the one that actually gives us truth.” This is positively circular and absolutely useless. If you knew which source actually gave the truth you wouldn’t really have any doubts, would you? Why address your doubts by making this appeal to authority, then? Because the authority that Ogburn points you to will give you the answer that Ogburn thinks you should end with.
Ogburn several times appears to try to instill fear into his congregation about leaving Christianity. For example at the end of his sermon he says, “If you have doubts and you walk alone- you do this without Jesus- I’ll tell you it leads to nowhere.” At another time he says that we should avoid questions which lead us to emptiness I think this is a pretty narrow view and a blatant appeal to emotion and fear. Billions of humans are living lives that they don’t think are meaningless or empty without Jesus. One doesn’t have to be scared to ask questions. One should not stop thinking skeptically because they fear the consequences. I for one would rather ask questions and face the fact that things may not be the way I wish they were instead of just assuming that my way of looking at things is right because I’m too afraid that I won’t like how the world really is.
In the end, Ogburn’s method is a way to try to bury one’s doubts to try to avoid being scared or uncomfortable. You should use it if you are afraid that you will find out that the trees aren’t really sneezing and you don’t think you can deal with that. But his method is a horrible way to deal with doubts if you actually care about what is true.
Have you read through some of the Answers in Genesis articles and thought about their arguments? I know, it can be painful. For example, take this AiG page: https://answersingenesis.org/is-god-real/the-creator-clearly-seen/
“It isn’t so much the evidence for the Bible you do not accept; you don’t accept the fact—as your starting point—that the Bible is true. When you presuppose that the Bible must be “proven,” any sort of evidence you see can be interpreted against the Bible. But Christians, who start with the presupposition that the Bible is true, can explain the evidence—logically, consistently, and correctly.”
This doesn’t make sense to me. Can you imagine talking to your children and saying, “Now first you have to start with the fact that Santa Claus is real. Then you can explain any evidence that might show up.” The author goes on to talk about how only the Bible has a consistent version of how things like why there are rock layers, why there are so many people groups, and etc. This is not true because other religions have stories which would also describe these things. I believe the way to decide which (if any) are right are based on evidence in the real world. The rocks don’t agree with a global flood. Archeological finds don’t agree with the Tower of Babel as the start of different languages. The stories just don’t hold up to fact checking. So when this happens what are you supposed to do? I would say you would need to say well, apparently this either isn’t true, or doesn’t mean that I thought it meant.
I’ve posted before about common logical fallacies. But we humans have some other bad habits and in-built tendencies that we often fall into. These include the sunk cost fallacy and loss aversion. These are both parts of the tendency of people to stick to their guns even when it’s not in their best interest. I think that it is unfortunate that humans (including me) have these, as they keep us from moving forward.
I think that these tendencies help religions keep adherents. I’m not by any means saying these are they only ways that religions make it hard to change course. Other things such as confirmation bias, peer pressure, fear of punishment, loss of promised rewards, and risk of social ostracism seem to also be involved. But let me try to lay out a scenario where these specific tendencies could influence one to stay in a religious tradition despite doubts.
Religions take a lot of work. Lots of people study the faith traditions of their religion, or at least show up and spend hours at a time at church events. If you grew up in a tradition, these sunk costs could have piled up fast. If you have spent years in formal religious training, they could be astronomical. You also have deep respect for others in your religion and see all the time and effort that these people have sunk into a the same religion. You see all these sunk costs, all this precious time spent and treasure expended. You think, “There is no way that all my effort and all the efforts of people I love and respect have been based on something untrue. I must be wrong in my doubts.” The amount of effort expended becomes part of the “evidence” that what you are doing is correct.
The problem with this is that people do make mistakes. If you are religious, think about all the religions that are now gone. For generations people worshiped gods that you think don’t exist or are evil spirits. Should they have kept going because it was the tradition of their family and friends? Think about your children and the people that love and respect you. If you keep going down a path that is wrong or based on faulty reasoning, those people in the future will have an even harder time changing course, because the traditions and sunk costs will be even greater. New evidence comes to light all the time. You likely know things that earlier people did not. You may know more of the world, other religions, or science than they. Sunk costs are not justifications.
Many people see the sunk cost fallacy as a matter of pride. People make a decision to do something, and won’t give up because of their pride or concern for that others think about them, or that it will be an admission to themselves of their fallibility. Loss aversion can be chocked up to fear of the unknown. It is hard to let go of something familiar when you don’t know what will replace it.
But sometimes it needs to be done. Sometimes you have to admit that you don’t have all the answers, give up on a wrong path, and try a new one. Truly some people may think less of you for not being firm to a tradition, or for abandoning something that they themselves believe. But if you do otherwise, will you still respect yourself?
I recently re-read The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. If you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend that you do. In the book, the author spends a lot of time laying out his arguments in a certain way, so I won’t spoil a lot of them here. But one of his conclusions (backed by scientific studies described in the book) is that when people want to believe something they ask,” Can I believe this?” When they don’t want to believe something, they ask “Must I believe this?”
Since the human mind is expert at finding reasons and rationalizations, the answer to the first is almost always yes, while the answer to the second is almost always no. People have strong built in confirmatory biases. They are adept at finding “evidence” that agrees will their preformed conclusions.
How do we get around this in-built human trait? The author suggests something akin to a lite version of the scientific method, where arguments on both sides are presented to a neutral third party who evaluates the arguments. I’m not sure how well this will work in practice. After all, if the decision goes against one side, that side will almost assuredly conclude that the third-party was not neutral at all. They will be able to find some sort of reason or rationalization to support this view, because it will of course be necessary. After all, since they are obviously the correct side, then of course there is no way that a truly neutral observer would not agree with them, right.
How can we get to that place we wish we could all be? How do we decide not if we can or must believe something, but rather if we should believe something? If one of our beliefs is justified, and not just an unwarranted assumption? The author does not give us much hope, as he says that only very rarely does reasoning ever get someone to change their preconceived notions. When this is combined with social constructs such as religions and stereotypes that tell people that they should not even listen to the other side, because they are crazy, deceived by the devil, or for whatever other reason, our hope would even further diminish. We still have people who think that the earth is flat in the 21st century, so the author’s conclusion seems pretty safe.
How do we get around this? The author suggests first getting to know and like people before you hear their evidence or opinions. If you do this, your mind will want to listen to them and agree with them, and so you are more likely to think about their opinions instead of rejecting them from the start. Of course, our standard human desire to hang out and associate with people who share our opinions and values works against this, which means that this takes work and is not likely to happen naturally. But I for one will keep trying to get this to happen in my own life (though of course I will likely fail most of the tine), and challenge you to try to overcome your standard human instincts and do the same.