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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Guest article by compassionate atheist friend Jim Gardner

The following comments were made by James Gardner and I was deeply touched by them that I asked Jim for permission to share them here. He graciously approved. If you would like to contact Jim, his email address is thatjim@me.com

The only change I have made was to Americanize the spelling as Jim is from England.


Is Christianity True?

The subject of tonight’s debate sounds simple enough; is Christianity true? But to answer that question honestly, we need to define exactly what we mean by Christianity. This immediately makes it a much more complicated question, because to some people Christianity is about what they believe to be true, and to others it’s about what they believe they can prove is true.

For instance, there are plenty of people who would describe themselves as Christian if they were asked to fill out some basic information about themselves on a national survey, or in a hospital admissions form, or if they wanted to get married in a church.

These people were educated in a school where Christian prayers were held at morning assembly; the local vicar or priest presides over special ceremonies at different times of the year, or they have attended church with their family every week since they were a young child, and believe that the shared values of that community are one and the same thing as Christianity itself.

They might also believe that you can’t be a part of a loving and socially binding community unless all the members of that community share the same Christian beliefs. But many also know that there is a difference between what they believe, and what they can prove.  For example, they are under no illusions about the stories in the bible being metaphorical — that the story of Adam and Eve, for instance, when properly understood, is a first century attempt at explaining the meaning of life, and how we came to be here. They understand that to believe it is a story which literally happened to two actual living human beings in history, is to completely misunderstand what the story is actually trying to tell us. They understand, in other words, the meaning of the word ‘Faith’.

People who recognize themselves in this group might be referred to broadly as ‘Social Christians’. 

From a young age, Social Christians memorize the words to certain prayers, and as adults they regurgitate these same words at weddings, funerals, and regular Sunday service — kneeling and standing at the allotted times during the service at the same time as everyone else.

Many well meaning perfectly good people in the Social Christian group, however, don’t concern themselves too much with the finer details behind the cultural traditions which underpin these rituals, ceremonies, incantations, and sacred rites of passage. 

Probing questions about God, the teachings of Jesus, and the historical accuracy of the bible itself, are often compartmentalized somehow into “those parts of religion which require further reading” — reading and learning which, in their busy lives balancing work with bringing up children, or managing their professional careers, they simply don’t have the time to study themselves with any serious depth.

Despite this, Social Christians comfort themselves with the notion that, while they don’t have the time to look for the answers to the deep and meaningful questions about life the universe and everything, which they are told a belief in Christianity can provide, somewhere deep within the hierarchy of their church and its wider affiliations, there must be a network of serious theologians and bible scholars, who do in fact understand the answers to these questions. 

They place their faith, in other words, in the learned bishops, cardinals, senior pastors, and theologians, who run their church, even when these people appear to give contradictory or unsatisfactory answers to some of the really big questions.

So, from a certain point of view, if we ask the question ‘Is Christianity True?’ according to the values and beliefs of this social group, the answer would have to be yes; Christianity is true. Why? Well firstly, these people have no reason to believe that they are being lied to when they are told Christianity provides a space for them which deals with the spiritual, as opposed to the material — and while we could have an entirely separate debate about what exactly we mean by words like ‘spiritual’, we can for now at least agree that it refers to something deeper, than the flotsam and jetsam of celebrity gossip, reality television, and talentless morons posing as musicians in order to further their modelling career.

Christianity of this kind, is also a ready made social group, with people who understand each other’s worries.  When their car decides to break down on the same day their mortgage payments are due, or their kids need yet another pair of shoes for school, on the one day of the month when they can least afford it, this kind of Social Christianity gives ordinary people, all around the world, an unbreakable safety-net; ready to catch them when they stumble and fall from the high wire of life.

So why, we have to ask, would anybody not want to believe in that?  Surely you’d have to be some kind of nihilist, who doesn't believe in anything at all, to dismiss that kind of belief? A belief in the goodness of people.

But the truth of this kind of Social Christianity even goes one better than that — because it’s not just about the small things on a person to person basis, which makes the social cohesion of the church a force for general good. 

Catholic relief organisations alone raise hundreds of millions of pounds every year to aid the poorest of the poor in the world. They go into dangerous regions to feed the hungry and home the homeless. Indeed the very selflessness of the people who do this work — literally doing what they are told in the New Testament they must do in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, is an area which no atheist I know, and certainly not myself personally, would ever seek to criticize — even though we could, again, have an entirely separate conversation about what exactly is meant by “the kingdom of heaven”, and why anyone would want to spend an eternity in such a place to begin with.

And yet, despite all of this, we on the none religious side of the equation are repeatedly told that atheists (all of us mind you) stand against the very values I have just made abundantly clear represent the best of human nature. 

Indeed, there is a sadly growing breed of Christian fundamentalists out there today, whose fingers are planted so firmly in their ears, that they don’t even hear the harsh criticisms of their actions which come from other Christians, let alone from those of us who were raised religious, but who now hold ourselves to a far better standard of truth, than a belief in belief itself.

Christian fundamentalists of this type have, in recent years, had this harsh light of truth shone onto their actions, beliefs, and teachings — many of which make a mockery of those very people in the church who dedicate their lives to believing in the works attributed to the alleged Christ in the New Testament.

They betray their own in some extremely disturbing, and in many cases very deliberately antagonistic ways.

For example, we now know, thanks to freedom of information requests filed with the authorities in the United States, that this dirty underbelly of Fundamentalist Christianity, have founded hundreds of extreme right wing political organisations, who enjoy tax exemption because of their pseudo-religious status.

These organisations have bought and paid for everything from the war on women’s reproductive rights, and the conservative led opposition to universal health care, to demands for pre-enlightenment notions about biology, chemistry and geography to be taught in State run schools, instead of science.

Worse still, their efforts in this area are championed by the low life in high places, whose vast radio, television and publishing networks, are specifically designed to attract an audience who equate the willful spreading of misinformation, and the artificially drummed up controversy surrounding matters which in reality are about basic common sense, with an inside out, black is white, up is down, Alice through the looking glass perfect ignorance of what the United States constitution specifically says about precisely this kind of tyranny both foreign and domestic. 

We fight against these attacks on our civil liberties, right alongside our Social Christian friends, who no more equate atheism with nihilism, than we on the non-religious side equate the Vatican sanctioned systematic rape of children, with the values of the vast majority of law abiding, right thinking Catholics, who are as appalled by these evil acts as the current Pope, who replaced a German theologian that actively protected those who carried out these atrocities, rather than obey the creed he literally pontificates upon when telling other people how they should live their lives.

Not that crimes against children are the exclusive preserve of Catholic clerics. In Washington State, in November of this year, Larry and Carri Williams were given life imprisonment, for the beating and starving to death of their adopted daughter Hana. They were the fourth set of parents to be convicted of such crimes, in the United States alone, who cited the advice of a book called “To Train Up a Child” written by Michael and Debi Pearl, of the No Greater Joy Ministries, as a justification for their sick depravity.

This book, which claims to present biblical justification for its methods of raising a child to be a “good Christian” includes amongst its advice the use of whips on the bare skin of infants only a few months old, and insists that, quote, “Parents who don’t whip their babies into complete submission are indifferent, lazy, careless and neglectful”, and are guilty therefore of “creating a Nazi”.

The question here is, how fair would it be for me to insist that, if our opponents are serious about answering “Yes” to the question “Is Christianity true?”, that they must justify the teachings of this perverted book, and the bible which inspired its writers to carry out such wicked acts on their own children?

Now, there are many who argue that, since many of our opponents describe themselves as theologians, or at least that they are better versed in the bible than I would ever claim to be, that they should find it easy, therefore, to justify the slow and painful torture of infants at the hands of people who believe as fervently in their heart of hearts as they do, that they have special permission from Yahweh, which gives them a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to these sorts of actions, and that it is therefore perfectly fair for me to ask them to explain such wicked acts, using only their vast scholarly knowledge of the bible as a means of doing so.  

But how many times do we atheists hear it said that we too are morally bereft, simply because Stalin or Pol Pot were themselves anti-religious.  And how often do we have to point out the ignorance of such statements, and remind those who continue nevertheless to churn them out, that for every psychopath who will use the first thing which springs into their twisted minds to justify their actions, that there are millions of people around the world who spread as much peace, love, and understanding as they possibly can, despite that they do not hold onto any religious notions about the origins of altruism, compassion, and morality?

How often do we have to explain that to use these kinds of false guilt by association tactics, is to stoop into using precisely the same kind of tricks we constantly find being used against us; and should therefore be above using ourselves?

And what of the values of Secular Humanism which we do uphold? We are often accused, after-all, of believing in nothing.

Well, as far as charitable works go, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, is specifically set-up, using the vast fortune of the Microsoft billionaire, himself an atheist, to eradicate some of the most virulent and life threatening diseases known to man. It does this by a focused application of methods proven to be effective, not by wishful thinking, but by the rigorous and true methods of science, and the best which 21st century medicine can offer.

In some of the most war torn and dangerous places on Earth, secular charities are given unique access to those who need their services the most, precisely because they are not affiliated with any church or religious group.

And while that simple fact detonates in the brain of those who believe religious charities have exclusive rights over the doing of good works, ask yourself how many children with Muslim parents would be left to die of treatable diseases, if the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, or Doctors Without Borders, only hired Christian missionaries — many of whom undoubtedly have humanitarian concerns at the forefront of their work, but who nevertheless side-load their efforts with the handing out of bibles and preaching about Jesus, when they do their work on behalf of religious organisations.

So, I don’t ask my opponents to justify the evils which are carried out by Christians, in order to answer the question “Is Christianity True”? Neither do I ask them to explain how it is possible for so many people around the world who do not believe in any gods — let alone the specific God of the particular religion which they just so happen to believe in — nevertheless manage to live perfectly good and productive lives.

I don’t ask this, primarily because we already know what the fundamentalist’s answer to this question is — and I’m sure that there are as many people listening this evening who are as tired as I am, of being told that, whether we atheists like it or not, we are just as incapable of escaping Yahweh’s iron grip as those who willingly grovel before the only book which claims He exists in the first place — despite that we can dismiss the bible as the bronze-age fiction it has been repeatedly proven to be — not simply by those who would not want this book to be true, even if such a thing were possible — but by bible scholars the world-over who have spent their entire professional careers attempting to explain, that to think of the bible as historically accurate, much less factually inerrant, is to completely misunderstand why and how it was written in the first place.

But, setting this fact aside for a moment, the only thing which those who oppose the kind of values I hold myself to must do, in order to claim the sort of victory in the debate against atheism which they deserve, as opposed to the victory they often claim to have secured before any conversation has even taken place, is accept that in the real world, the only things which matter have nothing to do with what you believe, but are to do with how you behave.

In the incestuous world of internet point scoring and petty comment thread squabbles, where professional liars like Tim, the self-styled Bible Thumping Wingnut, or Eric Hovind, and Sye ten Bruggencate — or for that matter even the so-called serious theologians and philosophers such as William Lane Craig — who flourish in their efforts to distort and divide us into easy to attack stereotypes, simply by repeating the same lies about the non-religious which we have had thrown at us since the dark ages — the one simple fact they refuse to engage with on even a basic level, is that to acknowledge the truth of the kind of Social Christianity which me, and many others like me were raised to believe in, is to acknowledge the kind of Christianity which will save the fundamentalists from themselves.  

When I was a young man, sitting in the pews at church, at those family weddings, funerals and regular Sunday services — going through the motions because I believed it made me a good person — I did so because I saw what forgiveness and a peaceful understanding of one another can achieve, from people who learned their life lessons the hard way. 

My grandmother raised four children on the good will and community spirit of a once vibrant Catholic church, which today has fewer and fewer parishioners who regularly attend Sunday Mass, and which no longer has a priest in permanent residence.

But where the fundamentalists see declining church numbers in this country and elsewhere as a portent to the end times, we see it as a great victory for common sense — because it means that, finally, people are beginning to understand that caring for one another, and having a strong sense of social responsibility, are not values exclusive to Christianity, but are the best argument for Secular Humanism it is possible to make — that you no more need to believe in things which aren't true in order to live a good life, than you need to believe Jesus was the creator of the universe in human form, to see that the real lesson we are taught in the parable of the good Samaritan, is that doing what you know to be right, is always preferable to doing what you’re told is right.  

How supreme the irony is, then, when we’re told by our religionist detractors that this story came directly from the lips of their messiah, when in so doing they reveal that morality itself must therefore not only predate Christianity, but that this was acknowledged even by Jesus himself, when he set the story in a time prior to the establishment of his own ministry.  

The problem for the fundamentalists, however, is that in acknowledging this inescapable fact, they must also acknowledge that in their sheer determination to continuing calling what they do the correct version of Christianity, they merely highlight the futility of their attempts to mislabel those aspects which define a good life well lived, simply in order to be seen by their peers, like a modern-day Pharisee, to be holier than holy — to be seen as being better than someone who believes in things which can be proven to be true, simply by saying they believe in things which cannot.  

So I would like to invite anyone listening this evening, who might believe that it is fair for them to adopt these sorts of tactics, to understand that by simply lying to themselves and other people about who we are, as a species, they do nothing to preach the message of the gospel they claim to believe in — while at the same time they make our job of leaving the world in a better state than the one we found it in, all the more difficult to achieve.  

If anyone who recognizes themselves in this group, would like to affirm publicly that from now on they will no longer use the sort of sly tricks which do more harm to their own religion than atheism ever could — such as the silly word-games of the so-called Kalam Cosmological Argument, or the meaningless psychobabble of Cornelius Van Til’s Transcendental Argument — they will easily claim the victory, which only they think it is necessary for them to win, against those of us who distance ourselves from them on no greater point of principal, than we understand the value of rational skepticism, over and above dogmatic obedience.

Sadly, however, I rather suspect that those with ambitions of achieving the level of notoriety enjoyed by the likes of Pat Robertson, Ray Comfort, Ken Ham and the endless parade of blissfully ignorant self-appointed experts like Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, will all refuse to accept this simple invitation, whilst from the other side of their mouth proclaiming themselves merely the humble servant of a man who preached against exactly the sort of hypocrisy of which they are the living embodiment.

Instead, what we’re going to hear from this all broadcast and no receive Cosa Nostra of sheep in wolves clothing — in the coming weeks, months and years — is but a repeat of those same demands which are made of those of us on the non-religious benches over and over again; to explain away a string of unrelated, out-of-context anecdotes, about personal experiences, and the second and third hand accounts of these no-doubt emotionally compelling experiences, which are embellished ten fold by authors on-board the lucrative Christian publishing gravy train; and those writers of fan fiction which grease it’s wheels; who are as oblivious to an actual explanation for these experiences, as they are blind to the fact that their entire modus operandi is seen by the lights of the modern communication age, for the blatant scam that is, was, and always will be.

We’re not going to hear anything about how their twisted ideology accounts for the mountain of scientific evidence which points to the universe being billions of years old, or the Earth itself being abundant with life, precisely because of the natural mechanisms described in astonishing detail by evolutionary biology, or indeed the complementary sciences of physics, cosmology, chemistry, and geology — which they pointblank refuse to gain even a grade school level understanding of — perhaps because they know what this does, beyond any reasonable doubt, to show that page one, chapter one, verse one of the bible itself simply isn't true.

But in the world of the Christian fundamentalist, none of these basic matters of fact are of any concern.

They are so focused on their complete mischaracterization of who we are and what we believe, that when we shout from the rooftops about how amazing the universe is — precisely because there are no gods — they assume our efforts to point out this basic fact must be a trick; designed to cheat them into abandoning their emotionally comforting yet logically fallacious, carefully annotated collection of call and response received opinions.

In their world of internal dialogue, where the existence of devils and demons is accepted without question, but the intellectual honesty of the scientific method is fair game, to be torn apart until it is stripped of the facts which prevent it from fitting the thin narrative they wish to spin — by our simple honesty in admitting that we do not see any evidence for the existence of a supernatural aspect, we are admitting that we did not find what was planted for us in the places where they manufactured it.

Their cookie cutter production-line process, of squinting in a dimly lit room at the very same sacred texts which we have had quoted at us, as if we haven’t heard them literally chapter and verse a thousand times before, is in it’s very failure to sway us towards their twisted goals, merely yet more proof of what they already believed about us, before they pretended to listen to what we have to say.  

So, in closing, I simply say this to all of the Christian fundamentalists out there watching and listening this evening.  We know what you believe and why you believe it. But the childish games you've played in this past year alone haven’t even begun to convince us why we must believe it too. In fact all you've managed to achieve is the exact opposite.

And yet persuade us of your claims you must — not simply to justify the countless number of times you have misquoted what we have actually said to you, and said about you, and the shallow and ignorant non-arguments you repeatedly make against our deliberate and unceasing campaign against the lies you teach to children; or in your endless diatribes about how “evil”, “nasty”, and “dirty” we are, simply because we pay attention to the details you would prefer went away.

No. You must explain why we should believe what you believe for no other reason, than if your version of Christianity really is true, it is your moral duty to convince us of it — not with your words, but with your actions.

But as that other great fictional character from folklore, Spiderman, once said, “With great power comes great responsibility” — and so our opponents must also recognize that, by definition, it is our responsibility to save them from becoming the very thing they fear the most — because we share this planet together whether they like it or not — none of us exist in a vacuum.

And so I invite all religious fundamentalists out there, to accept what far too many have refused to do before — and listen to us, when we tell you in all sincerity, Social Christian, Secular Humanist, Agnostic, Atheist, and all points in-between — together with one undivided voice of reason — your brand of Fundamentally Flawed religious extremism is not only completely untrue, it is dangerous; and if you had any real understanding of why we despise what religious fundamentalism does to retard human progress, in it’s total and complete ignorance of what Einstein, Turing, Dirac, Pauli, Newton, Darwin and Jesus wanted to teach all of us, you wouldn't want it to be true either.

Monday, December 2, 2013

On being a theist

I can concede that any theological claims where the alleged immaterial reality trumps demonstrable truth is necessarily false and constitutes an irrational faith. However I find the claim that faith is irrational to be itself irrational and fundamentally either dishonest or flawed. Real faith is not irrational it is arational. From the standpoint of reason, even the question of god is unanswerable.

Just as personal solipsism is beyond proof so too the solipsism of the universe itself is beyond grasp.

For those who have no personal awareness of a presence, a personal faith cannot ever be more than a cultural or anthropological byproduct and very likely an immoral social opportunity to exploit. But for those who sense a presence they cannot deny, there is no more a choice to be theistic than the atheist has for concluding other people exist.

It seems to me that both the theist and the atheist must resort to oxymoronic strategies in an attempt to prove the experience of the other is invalid.

We must accept ourselves where we find ourselves and we must not reject others who find themselves elsewhere.

Why have I had an experience of presence since a young child? That is an excellent question. Seeking an answer seduced me into entering the abusive realm of fundamentalism which proved to me to be void of the answer. As I venture through my 6th decade I have no compelling answer.

Why do various others have no such experience? How the hell would I know, but I cannot resort to inventing a hell to satisfy the question.

I accept my fellow human beings who are atheists as honest with self, lovely people I am privileged to know. All I ask is that you accept me as a theist, puzzling as it may seem.