The Middle East and Ireland losing their religion

February 5, 2021 • 9:30 am

Two of the last holdout areas for religion—countries and regions that have historically been resistant to nonbelief—are now becoming surprisingly secular. Those are Ireland in the West and seven countries in the Middle East—at least according to recent surveys. The stunning thing about both areas is how fast the change is coming.

Let’s take the Middle East first. There are two studies mentioned in the article below in Die Deutsche Welle (click on screenshot):

The article itself gives data for only Iran, but you can find data for six other countries by clicking on the article’s link to a study at The Arab Barometer (AB), described as “a research network at Princeton University and the University of Michigan.” (The sample size for that study isn’t easily discernible from the various articles about it).

First, a graph showing a striking increase in secularism across the six nations:

The change from the blue bar to the burgundy one is at most 7 years, yet every index in each country has dropped over that period save for a few indices that appear to be unchanged. The true indices of religiosity itself—profession of nonbelief and attendance at mosques—has fallen dramatically. And remember, this is over less than a decade.  Trust in religious leaders and Islamist parties has also dropped.

Here’s the summary among all these countries. (Note that many Muslim countries, including those in Africa and the Far East, as well as nations like Saudi Arabia and Yemen, aren’t represented.) 

In 2013 around 51% of respondents said they trusted their religious leaders to a “great” or “medium” extent. When a comparable question was asked last year the number was down to 40%. The share of Arabs who think religious leaders should have influence over government decision-making is also steadily declining. “State religious actors are often perceived as co-opted by the regime, making citizens unlikely to trust them,” says Michael Robbins of Arab Barometer.

The share of Arabs describing themselves as “not religious” is up to 13%, from 8% in 2013. That includes nearly half of young Tunisians, a third of young Libyans, a quarter of young Algerians and a fifth of young Egyptians. But the numbers are fuzzy. Nearly half of Iraqis described themselves as “religious”, up from 39% in 2013. Yet the share who say they attend Friday prayers has fallen by nearly half, to 33%. Perhaps faith is increasingly personal, says Mr Robbins.

And some data from Iran, not represented in the survey above. Remember, Iran is a theocracy. The survey is for those over 19, and the sample size is large: over 40,000 “literate interviewees”.

An astonishing 47% have, within their lifetime, gone from being religious to nonreligious, while only 6% went in the opposite direction. As we see for almost every faith, women retain their religion more than men.  The “non-religious people” aren’t all atheists or agnostics, but instead appear to be “nones”—those with no formal affiliation to a faith. (This includes atheists and “spiritual people” as well as goddies who don’t belong to a formal church.)

I say that many are “nones” because another study in Iran, cited in the AB article, showed that 78% of those surveyed in the Middle East believe in God: a lot more than the 47% below who professor to being “non-religious” (of course these are different surveys and might not be comparable). Still, in this other survey, 9% claim that they’re atheists—comparable to the 10% of Americans who self-describe as atheists.

And a general remark by a religion expert whom we’ve encountered before:

The sociologist Ronald Inglehart, Lowenstein Professor of Political Science emeritus at the University of Michigan and author of the book Religious Sudden Decline [sic], has analyzed surveys of more than 100 countries, carried out from 1981-2020. Inglehart has observed that rapid secularization is not unique to a single country in the Middle East. “The rise of the so-called ‘nones,’ who do not identify with a particular faith, has been noted in Muslim majority countries as different as Iraq, Tunisia, and Morocco,” Tamimi Arab added.

Inglehart’s book, Religion’s Sudden Decline, came out January 2, so it’s brand new, and you can order it on Amazon here.

*************

It’s a pity that Grania isn’t here to comment on this article from Unherd’s new news site The Post, as she always had a good take on Catholicism in Ireland (she was, in fact, a German citizen born in South Africa). These data come from a study taken by the World Inequality Database, which I can’t access. I’ll just give the scant data for Ireland presented by David Quinn (click on screenshot):

The proportion of Irish people who say they never go to church:

2011-2016: 19%
2020:     50%

That is a huge jump!

The proportion of Irish people who regularly attend church (once a month or more often):

2011-2016: 33%
2020:     28%

This shows that the drop in Irish religiosity reflects a rise in who rarely or never go to church, not a falling-off of the regulars. Quinn reports that “just under half of Irish people were coming to church less than once a month four or five year [sic] ago and this is now just 22%. Many of those sporadic attenders have stopped coming altogether.”

Over much of the 12 years this website has been going (we started in January 2009), I’ve written posts showing the decline of religiosity in the West, predicting that it is a long-term trend that will end with religion becoming a vestigial social organ. Yes, it will always be with us, but in the future it won’t be very much with us. But I thought the Middle East would be a last bastion of belief, as Islam is so deeply intertwined with politics and daily life. But that appears to be waning as well, for the Middle East is becoming Westernized in many ways, and with that comes Western values and secularism (see Pinker’s Enlightenment Now for discussion of increased secularism and humanism.) This is to be applauded, except by those anti-Whigs who say that religion is good for humanity.

Quinn echoes much of this at the end of his piece, explaining why Ireland remained more religious than England and the countries of Northern Europe:

Secularisation has swept across the whole of the western world, and Ireland is part of the West. It was impossible for Ireland not to eventually be affected by social and intellectual trends elsewhere. What almost certainly delayed secularisation in Ireland is that, in the years after we gained independence, one way of showing we had shaken off British rule was by making Catholicism an integral part of our national identity. As we no longer believe it is necessary to do this, we are now shaking off the Church.

The third factor is that, as a small country it can be particularly hard to stand out from the crowd. Once, we all went to Mass. Now, below a certain age, almost no-one goes. We were a nation of nuns and priests. Now, we are becoming a people with no direct religious affiliation: a country of ‘nones’.

Amen!

h/t: Steve, Clive

FFRF interview with Anthony Grayling

January 17, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Here’s a new 25-minute interview of philosopher Anthony Grayling by Dan Barker, co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Anthony and Dan cover a surprisingly large area of ground in this short time (there’s the famous Ron Reagan’s “not afraid of burning in hell” commercial in the middle, which is still great), and rather than summarize what Anthony says, I’ll just write down the questions he fields:

What is your background? Why did you take up the study of philosophy? I did not know that Anthony grew up in what was then Rhodesia. His entrée into philosophy—and his explanation for why he never believed in God— are worth hearing.

How can we be moral without a god? Here Anthony espouses the humanistic philosophy and ethics that so many of us are familiar with. I’m not sure this bit will persuade those who require a god to be moral without one, but it’s nice to hear it expounded by someone who not only believes in humanistic ethics, but also has thought about this for decades.

How do we make it through hard times without a god? I didn’t know this, but Anthony’s sister was murdered just after she was married. How did he cope with it? And how, in general, do we deal with any tragedy without the consolation of religion? Anthony’s answer involves compensating: doing something good to mend the world, which at the same time may mend you as well. I have found this useful, and did my most ardent volunteer work during the darkest times of my life. It really helps; it’s hard to think about your troubles when you’re helping people who are as bad off or worse off.

How does one find meaning in life without God? We had a long discussion about this five years ago on this website.  Anthony gives a good answer, one that involves both buttressing your relationships (“good relationships are at the very heart of good lives”) and either immersing ourselves in our rich human culture or helping others to do so. I found this one of the best parts of the interview.

The one bit that I found somewhat wonky in Anthony’s musings was his idea that the universe is justified by its having produced a species—us—that has created on balance more good than bad. (But what about all those other species that are the results of evolution as well?). He concludes that it’s our duty to add good to the world “for the sake of the universe.” This resembles religious Jews doing mitzvahs (deeds commanded by G*d) in the world to hasten the coming of the Messiah.

What can philosophy teach us about dealing with the pandemic? Here Grayling evokes Stoicism, which seems to be popular these days (Massimo Pigliucci is another advocate) and almost sounds like a form of Western Zen Buddhism; but here I’m out of my depth. Grayling also calls out the British government for its stupidity in dealing with the pandemic.

Why are we in this predicament?I refer to the pandemic here, and Grayling’s answer leads to his next topic:

Why is there so much science denialism throughout the world? Again, another good answer.

What is Grayling’s next book? He’s got one coming out this spring, and it’s relevant to the question just above. His book The History of Philosophy also comes out February 2, and I’m going to read that one for sure.

Voilà: the interview:

 

Phil Zuckerman on the rise and influence of the “nones”

December 24, 2020 • 9:30 am

The other day a friend asked me if I thought that religion would show a big resurgence in America after the pandemic abates. I said that I doubted it on two grounds. First, the pandemic, in which many people died without obvious goddy reasons, should dispel any idea of a loving and powerful deity. More important, religion in America has been on the wane for decades, and I expect that the trend will continue. (If you want reasons why, read Steve Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now.)

We heard yesterday that black voters were crucial in Biden’s victory. Today we hear from Phil Zuckerman that one could make a similar case for secular voters. Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in California, is the author of a book I like a lot, Society Without God (2008, second edition 2020), showing that Denmark and Sweden function very well without religion, thank you. He also founded the first secular studies program in the U.S., allowing students to major in that field.

If you want to be heartened about the increasing influence of the nonreligious in America, read this short article published by Zuckerman in The Conversation, and, surprisingly, widely reprinted in U.S. newspapers.

The graph below shows the rise of the “nones” since 1970, with “nones” being those Americans who profess no religion in particular. You can’t really call them nonbelievers or atheists, as some of them do believe in a higher power, but they don’t belong to a regular church. Still, the group is largely secular in outlook. And they’ve increased in the last 50 year from about 5% of Americans to about 23%—a remarkable change in a largely religious country. (The graph is interactive on the Conversation site, so you can get exact figures.) The “nones” are represented by thick red line. Note that their rise has largely been at the expense of mainline Protestants, with the rest of the faiths holding steady or showing a slight decline.

Zuckerman’s point is that although religious voters have been called “values voters”, secular voters have their own humanistic values, and, as he says, “this played out in November in a number of ballot initiatives that have flown under the national media radar.”

These include a referendum in Washington state requiring that students receive sex education in the public schools, and Washington, with over a third of its residents being “nones,” is one of the least religious states in America. It’s known as well that nones tend to favor sex education in school more than do believers.

In Oregon, voters passed a first, Measure 110, which “decriminalizes personal possession of small amounts of illegal drugs, including cocaine, heroin, Oxycodone and methamphetamine. It also reduces the penalties for possessing larger amounts.” Oregon, too, is a relatively secular state, and secularists are far more tolerant of drug use than are believers: “a 2016 study from Christian polling firm Barna found that 66% of evangelicals believe that all drugs should be illegal as did 43% of other Christians, but only 17% of Americans with no religious faith held such a view.”

“All drugs”, of course, includes marijuana.

Finally, California, a relatively secular state, passed a proposition supporting the funding of stem-cell research, an area supported far more strongly by secularists than by religionists.

Zuckerman’s view that secularism played a role in passing these referendums is, of course, speculative, but as the nation becomes less and less religious, we’ll see the effect of humanism in our laws. Phil also notes that secular Americans are significantly more likely to support same-sex marriage than are believers (especially white evangelicals). The same goes for initiatives involved in women’s reproductive rights, the DACA program, and assisted suicide, while secularists are more opposed to the death penalty than are believers. (Zuckerman gives links to all these claims.)

Two more points. The first is the argument that secular voters made a difference in the election.

Zuckerman:

According to Eastern Illinois University professor Ryan Burge’s data analysis, around 80% of atheists and agnostics and 70% of those who described their religion as “nothing in particular” voted for Biden.

This may have been decisive. As Professor Burge argues, “it’s completely fair to say that these shifts generated a two percentage-point swing for Biden nationwide. There were five states where the gap between the candidates was less than two percentage points (Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina). Four of those five went for the Biden – and the nones were between 28% and 37% of the population in those key states.”

Second, Zuckerman reports an analysis of Hemant Mehta showing that every member of the Congressional Freethought Caucus was re-elected, and ten new state senators who are openly secular were voted into office, making a total of 45. Not surprisingly, they’re all Democrats!

If you want more data on the rise of the nones, click on this article from HuffPost:

h/t: Barry

Blatant atheism in The New Yorker!

November 5, 2020 • 10:30 am

James Wood is a Harvard Professor of English, specializing in literary criticism, a practice he regularly engages in reviewing books for the New Yorker. I like his literary work because he seems an advocate of the outdated but still best form of criticism: “New Criticism”, in which works are taken as they are—as aesthetic expressions—not to be dissected with one literary theory of another. Over the years I’ve written about his work now and again, sometimes taking him to task for being critical of New Atheism. And he’s replied to my criticisms on this website, saying, among other things, the following in response to my critique of one of his articles:

Anyone remotely familiar with my writing (I am the author of a novel called “The Book Against God,” for goodness sake) will know that I am an atheist, and proud to call myself one (I grew up in a household both scientific and religious — a rather Victorian combination). [Please see my favorable review of Bart Ehrman’s “God’s Problem” in “The New Yorker.”] Having written often about my atheism, I wanted to do something a little different this time – – i.e. to please neither believers nor non-believers. Clearly, I’ve succeeded! As I made quite clear in the piece, I am on the side of Dawkins and Hitchens if I have to be, but I dislike their tone, their contempt for all religious belief, and their general tendency to treat all religious belief as if it were identical to Christian fundamentalism. Dawkins always sounds as if he wouldn’t mind too much if the European cathedrals were razed. For anyone, like myself, who loves literature and music, so saturated in religious belief and disbelief, one can’t simply dismiss this history it as if it were at the level of astrology or Gypsy Rose Lee.

I’m not sure where Wood stands now on the tone of the New Atheists, but I think he got Dawkins wrong about cathedrals, for Richard has extolled their beauty as well as the loveliness of evensong. I don’t recall him ever saying that cathedrals should be razed, or anything close to that.

As I recall, I met James for coffee in Harvard Square a while back, as I wanted his take on whether he saw literature as a “way of knowing” about the universe and, as I also recall, he wound up agreeing that it wasn’t, though memory fades. . .

At any rate, in a new piece at the New Yorker, Wood seems to have become a little less respectful of faith and a little harder on its delusional nature, evincing a harder atheism than the New Yorker usually allows to appear in its pages.

His topic is a new book by Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist of religion whom we used to meet regularly at this site. My beef with Luhrmann, as it has been with Elaine Ecklund and Krista Tippett, is that, without ever pronouncing on the truthfulness of religious beliefs or tenets, they spend their careers osculating the rump of faith, extolling the virtues of religion while avoiding the delicate topic of whether religious beliefs bear any truth. While that’s ok for sociological or anthropological studies, both Eckland and Luhrmann give little doubt that they really think religion is a good thing, not just an object of study.  And, after a while, this kind of soft osculation, without coming to grips with the question of gods, starts to grate on you.

It seems, too, to have started grating on Professor Wood, as his review of Luhmann’s new book, How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others, is pervaded with petulance about her failure to come to grips with the question, “Does God really exist?”  And this winds up with Wood making some of the most atheistic remarks I’ve seen in a magazine not known for confronting religion.

As you can tell from Luhrmann’s title, she sees religious worship and prayer, analyzed worldwide, as a way of creating a Creator, or what she calls “real making.” But what is “real”? Wood notes the problem right off the bat:

This comparative framework suits Luhrmann, precisely because she is not interested in the questions that so gripped me when I was young: what or who is God, and how can we know if this God exists? Luhrmann passes over questions of belief in search of questions of practice—the technologies of prayer. She wants to know how worshippers open themselves up to their experiences of God; how they communicate with gods and spirits and in turn hear those gods and spirits reply to them, and she is interested in the kind of therapeutic transformation that such prayerful conversation has on the worshipper. She calls this activity “real-making,” and adds that her new book is not a believer’s or an atheist’s, but an anthropologist’s work. “Rather than presuming that people worship because they believe, we ask instead whether people believe because they worship,” she writes. Thus “the puzzle of religion,” as she defines it, “is not the problem of false belief but the question of how gods and spirits become and remain real to people and what this real-making does for humans.” Whether these questions—of belief and of practice—can be separated quite as staunchly as she wishes is the “puzzle” that surely haunts her own work.

You don’t have to read Wood’s essay more than once to see that he thinks the questions of belief and practice aren’t easy to separate. If you’re praying for something, as Luhrmann has (she’s engaged in prayer and worship along with her subjects), you expect that someone is listening with the power to give it to you. Prayer, to Luhrmann’s subject, is not just a gussied-up form of meditation. It is “real-making”.

I haven’t read Luhrmann’s book, but Wood’s take appears to be that she’s overly coy about the “reality” of a divine being, even though she denies believing in a God with a white beard who sits above, observing us go about our business.  But in other places, especially in her previous writings (see my links here), she tacitly accepts the presence of Something Numinous, and avers that her subjects really do think that there’s somebody to worship and pray to.

It’s clear that Luhrmann, like Tippett and Ecklund, think that worship “works,” but there are various ways you can construe that. It can “work” as a psychological device like meditation: by talking to a god, you can feel better and calmer, and, perhaps, arrive at difficult decisions. (One wonders, though, whether a decision is better if reached by consulting an imaginary god than by rational contemplation.) But it’s clear that this isn’t what Luhrman’s subjects think. They use the other two senses of “work”: worship and prayer put you in touch with something divine, and, third, that something divine has the power to affect the workings of the universe. It’s Luhrmann’s avoidance of these second two claims that appears to rile Wood,—as it would rile me. And so we get to read skepticism of a brand that I haven’t before seen in The New Yorker. Here are a few quotes from Wood. Be aware that, like all New Yorker writers, he’s trying to show the delusions of faith without being “shrill.”

Here he discussed the subject of an earlier book of Luhrmann’s, When God Talks Back (get it?), a sociological study of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship:

Luhrmann tells us that no one at the Vineyard laid out any rules of discernment, but that when she asked people how they knew that God was speaking to them they would revert to four “tests.” First, did a suggestion seem spontaneous, unlikely, not the kind of thing you would normally say or imagine? Second, was what you were hearing the kind of thing God might say, and not in contradiction to Biblical example or teaching? (Luhrmann stresses that the Vineyard’s God is not the severe God of the Hebrew Bible—who, for instance, orders Abraham to kill his son—but the loving God of the New Testament.) Third, could the revelation be verified by asking other people who were praying for the same outcome whether they had heard a similar message? Fourth, did hearing God’s voice impart a sense of peace? “If what you heard (or saw) did not, it did not come from God.”

I have a flyer from the Jehovah’s Witnesses that asks “Can We Really Believe What the Bible Says?” and lists three reasons for doing so, the third of which is “God cannot lie. The Bible plainly states: ‘It is impossible for God to lie.’ (Hebrews 6:18).” Below this, a friend of mine has written, in pen, “Q.E.D.” The four tests of the Vineyard are beset by a similar circularity, and, in fairness, it’s not clear how any so-called theological test could escape it. The evangelical relationship to God is so possessive, and so near-idolatrous, that it’s hard to see how one could get outside it and manage the necessary “verification.”

What he’s saying in a nice way is what Jesus and Mo express in four panels of their cartoons: it’s circular to say that that something is true because it’s in Scripture, and that we know that Scripture must be true because it comes from God.

Wood also zeroes in on the problem of evil. Perhaps you can avoid theodicy, as some of Luhrmann’s subjects do, by taking the world as a given, not set up by a God, and then relying on a divine being to help you deal with evil. But that’s a non-starter:

The “question of evil,” the ancient dilemma that has driven people to madness or despair—why is the world beset by tragedy if a providential and loving Author created it?—becomes a much easier therapeutic question: why is my life the way it is, and how can Jesus help me to make it better? Luhrmann neglects to say that the interventionist evangelical God ought to make the believer feel the problem of evil all the more acutely, since a deity mundane enough to have an interest in the outcome of a job interview might also be presumed to have had some role to play during, say, the Holocaust.

That’s a brilliantly understated but trenchant criticism (I love the “”say, the Holocaust” bit). And Luhrmann’s subjects do pray to get certain job interview, so they assume an efficacious god. But Luhrmann evades a direct answer, again resorting to the idea that worship “works”. Wood’s take (the bold is mine):

We aren’t told who or what Luhrmann was praying to. My surmise is that she isn’t sure (a perfectly respectable position), which explains how often her analysis, at the very brink of deciding, as it were, which way to vote, engages in curious slippages of argument. Her major refuge is a kind of therapeutic pragmatism. She’s fond of the verb “work.” Prayer works, belief works, real-making works, she says, in the sense that, as far as these believers are concerned, God is made real; and these prayer practices therapeutically change the people who practice them. But does prayer “work” in the most important sense, of achieving what it proposes—which is to communicate with an actually existing God? Luhrmann won’t be drawn out, committed as she is to a kind of Feuerbachian religious anthropology, in which God is merely the reality we conjure and create through our activities, imaginings, and yearnings.

No, hers is not a perfectly respectable position—not if you think that there is someone listening at the other end, and can effect change in your life. I’m surprised, actually, that Wood, an atheist, thinks that Luhrmann’s failure to be drawn out on the issue is somehow “respectable.” It’s not respectable: Luhrmann is being evasive in failing to specify what she means, deliberately courting liberal believers by refusing to come to grips with the issue of whether there is Someone to Pray To. What, exactly, is “made real” by worship and prayer?

Wood ends his piece, and I’m going to give a long final quote, singling out Luhrmann’s big evasion, one that, I surmise, makes Wood think that her book is deeply flawed. To be sure, he never says that explicitly; in fact, he says that it’s valuable. My emphasis in the quote below:

Yet surely prayer can’t be studied solely as a technology or a practice. Prayer is also a proposition. It proposes that God exists and that we can communicate with that God. And evangelical prayer, premised on faith in an interventionist God, goes further, because it insists on a certain connection to miracle. Luhrmann may distance herself from the table-like reality of God, but her evangelical subjects almost certainly don’t. God, for them, is even more real than a table and chairs, and, when it suits him, this real God can do miraculous things with tables and chairs.

There’s nothing intellectually improper about Luhrmann’s omnivorous agnosticism, to be sure, and only a thoroughly unbalanced reader like this one, with rusty old theological axes to grind, would demand that her writing be other than what it so valuably is. Besides, even when one has decided that God doesn’t exist, one might still hesitate to conclude that religious practice, with its glories and degradations, is just one long unending history of illusion and hallucination. When I was growing up, the evangelical church I attended didn’t offer the only example of how to think about religion. Durham is dominated by a beautiful cathedral, one of the great achievements of Romanesque architecture. I spent long hours inside this magnificent building as a cathedral chorister, and grew to love its gray silence, its massive, calm nave, the weight of centuries of devotion. Sometimes I could almost feel the presence of the faithful stonemasons who, in the twelfth century, arduously placed one stone on top of another.

A friend of mine, with whom, when I was older, I used to have long “God battles” (me against, him for), once teased me with a question: If, as I claimed, religion was just an enormous illusion, was Durham Cathedral “just a mistake”? No, not a mistake—of course not, I replied. “O.K., a great temple, then, erected to honor an illusion? A big stone hoax?” Yes, perhaps. ♦

But there’s surely something intellectually improper about Luhrmann’s omnivorous agnosticism, for it fails to come to grips with fact that the only evidence she or her subjects have for a god is their own feeling that there is a god: in other words, the emotional reassurance you get from your peers, parents, Scripture, and revelation. And that’s not evidence at all, but confirmation bias. Her failure to admit that there’s no evidence beyond that stuff, when there should be evidence if there’s a listening, theistic God, is intellectually improper. Wood’s statement that he himself is “unbalanced”, with “rusty old theological axes to grind” seems to be self-denigrating cant: Wood is an atheist, and he’s an atheist for good reasons—reasons that Luhrmann studiously avoids.

In the end, Wood calling Durham Cathedral “a big stone hoax” puts him adjacent to Dawkins, who calls religion “The God Delusion.” It seems as though the last few years have drawn Wood closer to the message of the New Atheists that he once denigrated. If so, good for him! The New Yorker could use a few more nonbelievers and less osculation of religion. That would be real-making!

What do “sophisticated” believers really believe?

October 12, 2020 • 12:45 pm

I was thinking last night about someone who asked a fairly prominent religious scientist—not Francis Collins—if he believed in the literal resurrection of Jesus.  The scientist refused to answer—and it wasn’t on the grounds that he kept his religion private. Rather, it was the equivalent of this person, who publicly and openly professed his Catholicism, saying, “I don’t want to answer.” When you get down to the actual claims of Catholicism, or of religion in general, scientists often take the Theological Fifth, in effect saying, “This far and no farther.”

Now why did the guy refuse to answer the question? After all, if you go around saying you’re a Catholic, and arguing about how your Catholicism comports with science, why would you refuse to answer a question about what bits of Catholicism you believe?

Now I have my theory about this, which is mine. It’s that this person really truly believed in the Resurrection, but wouldn’t admit it in public because it would make him look credulous and superstitious. It didn’t comport with his evidence-based attitude towards his scientific beliefs. And in that sense I take religious scientists’ frequent refusal to specify their beliefs as prima facie evidence of the incompatibility between science and religion. In other words, their taking the Theological Fifth is a sign of cognitive dissonance.  And this wasn’t the first religious scientist I’ve seen refuse to be specific about their beliefs.

If a scientist professes to be Christian, for instance ask them what they believe about the following:

The Resurrection
The soul, and then ask where it is and what happens to it. Also, do animals have souls?
The Virgin Birth
An afterlife; e.g., Heaven and Hell. If they accept these, press for specifics on, say, what form one would assume in Heaven.
If they’re Catholic, ask them if they believe in the transubstantiation, and, if so, in what sense

Now most scientists, when asked if the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 are true, will say no, it’s all a metaphor. But that’s because science has disproved those bits of scripture, and scripture that’s disproven isn’t discarded but simply changes into metaphor. Since the claims listed above are largely (but not completely) unprovable, they can remain (barely) in the realm of literality.

And, as a kicker, you can always ask them how they came to think these things were true.

I’m curious if anybody else has come across this kind of petulance when you ask science-friendly people—those willing to discuss their faith—what they really believe. I’m sure readers have some interesting stories to tell about this stuff.

I’ll add here that if they’re not willing to discuss their faith at all, even if you’re non-judgmental, it’s often a sign that they regard it as something shameful, like carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot.  After all, two centuries ago no religionist was reticent to aver what they believed. Now, in the age of science, religions ask you to believe so much nonsense that, when you take it aboard, you have to keep it a secret.

Accommodationism returns, this time with a nasty streak

October 5, 2020 • 9:00 am

There seems to be a resurgence of accommodationism this week, with people arguing that science and religion are perfectly compatible. The argument goes further, and along familiar lines: scientists like Dawkins and me are deemed “arrogant loudmouthed jerks” because our our vociferous atheism supposedly turns people away from science.  And so we encounter the familiar old arguments for compatibility that I thought had disappeared outside of theology: religious laypeople can love science, scientists can be religious, science can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, and so on. I tackled all these in Faith Versus Fact, but people either didn’t read it, or did read it but would rather repeat the old tropes rather than answer the arguments for science/religion incompatibility.

I have to admit that perhaps I’m a bit responsible for this pushback, as I (and others) engaged in a Twitter dispute with rapper MC Hammer last week. Hammer, trying to cover all bases, basically said that he was down with Intelligent Design (citing the old canard of the eye’s complexity), but also was down with God and with creationism as well. Well, you can’t be down with all of those at once without some vigorous scientific and theological tap-dancing. Here are some tweets by and exchanges with Hammer, including Matthew’s and mine.

Osculation of ID. Let the IDers propagandize Hammer, for they’d love to have a famous rapper on their side:

Unfortunately, I lost my cool at one point in the Twitter exchange and called Hammer an “ignoramus,” violating my own dictum to refrain from name-calling. For that I apologize, and I deleted the tweet. Hammer is, I’m sure, a nice person, although he’s confused about religion and science, and I feel bad that I insulted him. I would be delighted to discuss evolution and God with him, but that will never happen. Besides, Stephen Meyer is busy convincing Hammer of the truth of Intelligent Design.

But the exchanges between Hammer and others have brought other accommodationists out of the woodwork again, toting their old, tired arguments. You may remember Sheril Kirshenbaum, for instance, co-author with Chris Mooney of the book Unscientific America How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, which had a strong accommodationist streak. In 2009 I reviewed that book for Science; here are two excerpts from my review:

In Unscientific America, a book slight in both length and substance, science writers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum argue that America’s future is deeply endangered by the scientific illiteracy of its citizens and that this problem derives from two failings of scientists themselves: their vociferous atheism and their ham-handed and ineffectual efforts to communicate the importance of science to the public. According to Mooney and Kirshenbaum, atheistic scientists such as Richard Dawkins and P. Z. Myers [who runs the immensely popular science blog Pharyngula] drive people away from science by forcing them to choose between the facts and their faith. Further, most scientists are neither trained nor deeply interested in selling their work to the public, Congress, or Hollywood. This disconnect could be fixed, say the authors, if scientists would just keep quiet about their atheism and if universities would train a new generation of scientists in public outreach, producing more “[h]ip, fun, trailblazing research pioneers.”

. . . Unscientific America prescribes just the opposite: science illiteracy would diminish if vocal atheists like Richard Dawkins would just keep quiet about religion, a sanction that the authors don’t impose on publicly religious scientists such as Francis Collins. Unfortunately, Mooney and Kirshenbaum provide no evidence that this prescription would work. Do they really think that if Dawkins had not written The God Delusion, Americans would wholeheartedly embrace evolution and vaccination and finally recognize the threat of global warming?

Apparently Kirshenbaum hasn’t changed a bit, for she issued a rude tweet.

I refrain from being rude back.

Apparently not having read my argument for the incompatibility of religion and science, Kirshenbaum asserts “Science neither proves nor disproves religion.” Well, no, Dr. Kirshenbaum, that’s not the case.

First, many tenets of religion have been disproven by science. One of those is, of course, the creation story of Genesis 1 and 2, as well as creation stories of Islam and other religions. Other claims refuted by empirical work are those of the Jewish Exodus and the Roman census of Herod the Great.  And don’t get me started on Mormonism, the golden plates, and the Mormons’ claim that Jesus visited America. The fact is this: although, as Kirshenbaum argues that “religion seeks to understand our world,” it hasn’t provided any understanding, at least of factual claims like is there a God?; was Jesus his divine prophet/son?; did Gabriel dictate the Qur’an to Muhammad and Moroni tell Joseph Smith where the golden plates were?. And so on. The many religions on this planet make hundreds of factual but conflicting claims. Which are right? We don’t and usually can’t know.

“Understanding of our world”, if it means knowing how the cosmos works and what is true, cannot be gained by religion. It can be gained by science, though, and it is this disparity that I describe in Faith Versus Fact as the incompatibility between science and religion. Sure, religious people can be down with science, and scientists can be religious, but there’s the indubitable fact that both religion and science make factual claims—existence claims—and have different ways to adjudicate those claims. Science uses empirical methods (observation, hypothesis formation, testing, falsification, and so on), while religion uses scripture, authority, and revelation. Only one set of these methods—the empirical set—can really tell us what’s true. That’s why there’s only one brand of science, practiced by people of diverse faiths and ethnicities, while there are a gazillion religions, each claiming that it’s right and all the others are wrong. You can find ways to figure out if there are gravity waves, but no way to figure out if you’ll go to hell if you don’t accept Jesus as your savior.

Science, Dr. Kirshenbaum, doesn’t prove anything—it just gives us more or less confidence in various propositions about the world. And, as Victor Stenger noted, there’s an absence of evidence for any of the claims of religion. Importantly, he added that that absence of evidence could indeed be taken as evidence of absence if the evidence should have been there. And it isn’t—not for gods. That’s why more than half of scientists are atheists—and nearly all of them at the top of their profession. Kirshenbaum’s claim that “science neither proves nor disproves religion” could also be stated a “science neither proves nor disproves the existence of leprechauns and fairies.” But I doubt that Kirshenbaum would defend those who believe in fairies and leprechauns.

The statement “science and religion aren’t incompatible; they both seek to understand our world” covers a multitude of sins and misunderstandings. That’s why I wrote my book.

Now a young scientist at the site shown below (click on screenshot) has expanded another old argument, claiming that we loudmouth atheist scientists are “massive jerks”.  We should, they say, just keep our big mouths shut because being a vociferous atheist and antitheist keeps people of faith from accepting science.

It’s tiresome to have to go through all these arguments again—though none of these critics addressed my own claims in Faith Versus Fact—but I’ll do so briefly. First, excerpts from the Small Pond Science piece, written by Terry McGlynn, one of the three scientists who run the site. (I note in passing that McGlynn has closed the comments on this post.)

Science has an atheism problem

An alternative title for this post might be: Atheism has a jerk problem.

Our scientific communities do not fully accept scientists of faith. As I’ve said before, this is a problem, and it actively hinders our efforts for equity and inclusion.

You can be a great scientist and still be religious. You can fully accept an empirical worldview for the laws and theories that govern life and matter as we know it, but also be part of a religious tradition.

I have to admit, I don’t fully understand the choice that people make to have faith, and that’s not for a shortage of study, inquiry and contemplation. Just because I don’t understand why some people have chosen religious faith, that doesn’t mean I’m going to claim that they’re delusional because they have different perspective on the world than I do.

. . . When technology and theory advance far beyond our current capabilities, will there remain some questions about the nature of existence and reality that are best addressed by faith? Well. I dunno. There aren’t for me. But clearly others might see things differently. Why would that be a problem for any one of us?

Yes, some questions can be addressed by faith, but they can’t be answered by faith

The piece goes on, telling us to shut up because “science needs everybody; that includes people of faith.” Presumably we need flat-earthers and anti-vaxers, too, even though they accept their delusions on religious grounds. I’ve put McGlynn’s “data” in bold.

The most visible New Atheists try to win over converts by being loudmouth arrogant jerks. It might work for some, but it looks to me like it’s hardened the hearts of many more against reason and science in general. Clearly, it’s put atheism in an adversarial posture. Which is bad marketing for science, considering how many of us are atheists, or at least not religious.

Folks who don’t hang out with scientists on the regular might mistake the New Atheists for widely recognized representatives of science. They might see Bill Maher on TV, and read a blog post by Jerry Coyne, and catch a quote from Michael Shermer in a facebook meme. What do all these guys have in common? They’re anti-religious jerks, who are unfortunately the public face of contemporary atheism. Which in the eyes of many religious people might as well be the face of science too. You and I know that science is much more than bunch of old white jerky dudes who judge religious people. But we’re not doing so well in the marketing department.

Oy, I’m an old white jerky dude! But what does my age and race have to do with my arguments?

But wait! There’s more!

We need a cohort of people in the public eye who identify as atheists, but also are not massive jerks about it. We could use folks from all backgrounds, writing op-eds and appearing on TV, who make a point to say that they don’t have a problem with Muslims and Christians and other people of faith. Who can describe atheism as a rational choice but not as a judgement of other people.

I really don’t want to run through all the arguments why atheist/scientists shouldn’t shut up; they’re covered in my book, in Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and in other books like Stenger’s God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion.

I’ll just list a few relevant points:

1.) Accepting science is not the only issue here: the other is the harms of religion. It may not kill you to reject evolution, but if you reject Islam in places like Iran and Afghanistan, your life is in peril. And even if you’re not killed, the tenets of several faiths (including Catholicism) deem homosexuality immoral and women second-class citizens. Are we then supposed to shut up about the harmful tenets of Islam, Catholicism, and evangelical Christianity?  Must one harm (ignorance of science) take precedence over all others?

2.) Much religious dogma has led people to reject science. This includes the rejection of evolution, vaccination, global warming, and wearing masks during the pandemic (“God will save us”), as well as advocacy of spiritual healing, theocracy, and the demonization of abortion. Are we supposed to shut up about these issues, too, lest “science lose people of faith”? Give me a break. There are many issues in the world, and scientists are not required to shut up about politics or religion. We are citizens as well as scientists.

3.) Religion is generally a malign influence. The countries that are the happiest, most well off, and most progressive on this planet are the most atheistic countries, like those in Scandinavia and northern Europe. Religion in these cases acts as a stultifying placebo, inhibiting social progress because people can turn to god rather than to their governments.

4.) There is no evidence that the atheism of scientists like Dawkins and others has kept people from accepting science. As I’ve said repeatedly, if you go to “Converts Corner” on the old Dawkins site, you’ll see dozens of people saying that Richard’s atheism and scientific status helped weaned them from religion and brought them to evolution and science. In contrast, I’ve never heard a single person say, “Well, if Dawkins would just shut up about atheism, I’d gladly embrace evolution.” It’s the combination of science and atheism that has done wonders for many people, leading them to reject delusion (yes, religion is a delusion) and embrace science. I know, because I’ve met many of them, and Richard’s site describes hundreds more.

5.) Religion is a more malign force in getting people to reject science than is ignorance itself. A lack of knowledge can be remedied by education, but it’s much harder to overcome religious indoctrination. Which do you think would be the best way to get Americans and Middle Easterners to accept evolution: a) waving your wand and getting rid of religious belief completely, as if it never existed? or b) Giving every evangelical Christian and Muslim a course in evolution and a copy of Why Evolution is True?  The answer, of course, is (a). For virtually all opposition to evolution, and much other opposition to science, comes from religion. I know of only one anti-evolutionist who isn’t motivated by religious belief. That would be David Berlinski, but I suspect he’s secretly at lest a deist.

So there’s no reason why a scientist shouldn’t wear two hats: that of science and that of atheism. Sure, you shouldn’t mix your messages too immiscibly in lectures: I don’t rail against religion when I give talks on the evidence for evolution. That just confuses people. But I do give lectures that show why science and religion are incompatible, and that’s why I wrote a book about it.

I’m not going to shut up, but I don’t demand that other scientist-atheists be as vocal as I. To each their own. That’s true even for religion—so long as your beliefs don’t harm the community of humans. And there are precious few religions that are innocuous in that way.

As for Dr. McGlynn calling me and people like Richard “loudmouth arrogant jerks,” and an “old white jerky dude”,  well, I’ll restrain myself this time and not respond with namecalling. Those names reflect poorly on McGlynn. All I’ll say is that there are cogent arguments for the incompatibility of science and religion and good reasons for scientists to criticize the tenets of religion. Dr. McGlynn might want to read those arguments and answer them instead of making unsupported assertions that Richard Dawkins’s atheism has, on the whole, been bad for the public understanding of science.  (Hint: finding one or two people who say that happened to them is not data.)

And here’s a final source on both incompatibility and the absence of evidence that atheism impedes the acceptance of science (click on the screenshot):

A mundane Sunday sermon on the nonexistence of the afterlife

September 6, 2020 • 9:00 am

While driving back from the grocery store (I shop early), I was forced to listen to Krista Tippett’s “On Being” show on NPR. It’s the show I love to hate, and because my radio dial is set on the local public radio station, I have to hear her on Sunday morning drives.  What I love best of all is when she nearly reduces herself to tears with the profundity of her own words. She always sounds like she’s on the verge of sobbing.

Today Tippett broadcast an old interview with the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, who read some of her work at the end of the show. One of the poems that struck me was about mortality (Oliver died of cancer). The poet asked whether, when she died, she would vanish forever or live again in some form.

When I heard those lines, I thought, “You’re not having an afterlife, for we’re evolved beings.”  This sentiment now comes naturally to me since I’ve studied evolution for so long, as well as religion and theology and their penchant for wish-thinking.

Although theologians have tied themselves in knots trying to show that evolution is perfectly compatible with God and an afterlife (see Faith versus Fact), these apologetics always have the air of desperation. First, you have to reject the stories of Genesis (or, in Islam, the Qur’an) about the creation. One is forced to say, as did Andrew Sullivan, that they were just metaphors, adding perhaps that people of those times could not have understood the idea of evolution. That’s why God had to put it in the form of a fairytale.

But that has its own difficulties. Why, if the Bible is the word of God, wasn’t he able to discuss evolution? “‘Verily, all ye men came from a long process in which animals changed slowly,’ spake Moses.”  Well, we can leave that aside, but then you have to take issue with church fathers like Aquinas and Augustine the Hippo, who believed the Bible literally.

And if you think creation is a metaphor, then you have to explain why, if you’re a Christian who thinks we have souls, at what point the soul “evolved” in humans (actually, Catholics think that the soul is an exception to evolution: God stuck one in us instantly at some point, but left out all the other birds and beasts).  Further, you have to explain why, if we really did evolve, genetic calculations show that we could not all have descended from just two progenitors—Adam and Eve.  A Sophisticated Catholic (or evangelical Christian) would then have to say that Adam and Eve are in some sense also metaphors. You can see the sweating theologians trying to deal with this over at BioLogos. (The Catholic church leaves no wiggle room here: the Catechism states clearly that you cannot reject Adam and Eve as the literal progenitors of all of us.)

But you must explain as well that, if we really didn’t descend from Adam and Eve, whose actions brought us all the Original Sin, how that sin got into all of us. Again, theologians have answers, but they’re ludicrous and make me laugh. For if the Original Sin is just a metaphor, then the whole Christian story of sin and redemption falls to pieces.

Many Muslims simply reject the idea that the Quran’ic story of creation is a metaphor, and deny evolution altogether. This is why Turkey has banned the teaching of evolution in schools below the college level, and why I had such trouble getting Why Evolution is True published in Muslim countries. (It’s now said to be out in Egypt, published by the government press, but they’ve made it almost impossible to get hold of.)

Edward Feser, cocksure in his delusional theology, has declared that no animal beside humans go to heaven. (Say goodbye to Fido and Fluffy!) But if there’s any lesson from evolution, it’s that this form of human exceptionalism is bunk. Not only aren’t humans the special objects of God’s creation (we have 4-million year old fossils of our ancestors, for crying out loud); but if at some point we were given an afterlife by some unevidenced act of God—and that’s connected with our “immortal soul”— and other species don’t live on after death, at what point was that afterlife graciously vouchsafed to us? At the same time we got a soul? Or, you can aver that. contra Feser, every creature goes to heaven (including rotifers?), but I don’t know anybody who thinks that.

We have to face it: if you accept evolution, the most parsimonious hypothesis is that we’re part of a stream of genes extending back to the dawn of life, and there’s no evidence that we have features that couldn’t have evolved but were instilled by gods. And that rules out the possibility of souls and afterlives.  Those, of course, were already ruled out because there’s no evidence for them—they are wish thinking, pure and simple.

When theologians babble and blather, explaining how exactly God inserted his finger into the evolutionary process to ensure that we’d live on after death, they are trying to make a virtue of necessity. The afterlife is wish-thinking, pure and simple—something that Freud tried to tell us decades ago. Nobody, not even an eloquent poet, is going to live on after death.

But you knew this all already, right?

Amen.

Augustine the Hippo

A Christian tries to save my soul by answering my hard questions about religion

August 23, 2020 • 9:15 am

In 2014 I published a piece in The New Republic (click on screenshot) which, despite the title, which I didn’t choose, described ways to turn religious peoples’ debate arguments back on themselves.

Part of that article involved using a “no-god of-the-gap” arguments, asking religious people to answer a series of six questions. The bit below is from my piece:

But we can play the Gap Game, too. There are huge gaps in believers’ understanding of God, and in those lacunae, I claim, lies strong evidence for No God. Here are a few religious gaps:

  • Why would the Abrahamic God, all-loving and all-powerful, allow natural evils to torment and kill people? Why can’t he keep kids from getting cancer, or stay the waves of tsunamis?
  • Why, if God so ardently wants us to know and accept him, does he hide himself from humanity? And, since modern humans originated over 100,000 years ago, why did God wait 98,000 years before sending his son to redress our sins—and then to only a small portion of humanity within a hundred miles of Jerusalem? Or, if you’re sufficiently sophisticated to see God not as a bearded spirit but as The Ground of All Being, why isn’t that Ground obvious to everyone?
  • Why would an omnibenevolent God consign sinners to an eternity of horrible torment for crimes that don’t warrant such punishment? Official Catholic doctrine, for instance, is that unconfessed homosexual acts doom you eternal immolation in molten sulfur. That’s unconscionable. And would a loving God really let someone burn forever because they were Jews, or didn’t get baptized?
  • Why is God in the Old Testament such a narcissistic bully, toying with people for his amusement, ordering genocides in which innocent women and children are killed en masse, and demanding the death of those who work on the Sabbath? How does that comport with the God that Christians and Jews worship today?
  • Why didn’t Jesus return during his followers’ lifetime, as he promised?
  • How do any believers know for sure that their faith is the right one, especially given the presumed penalty for guessing wrong?

Now I didn’t think that these questions would flummox more “sophisticated” believers, but they were designed to plant doubts in the minds of the more open-minded believers, or of those on the fence, and help them realize the intellectual vacuity of Abrahamic religion.

And, sure enough, six years later a Christian came out of the woodwork, emailing me a long screed yesterday giving his answers to the questions above (the writer is a man). To be fair, the guy spent a lot of time on the answers, even quoting the relevant Biblical passages. But the email turned out to be too long to post here.

Instead, I’ll just show you how he answered  three of the questions above (they’re in bold below, and stuff from the email is indented). I’ll say a few words (flush left after my initials), and let readers respond. I have the writer’s complete email with the answers to the other three questions, and will be glad to send them—without the sender’s name—if you’re interested.

If you respond, please be polite: the gentleman did, after all, have my salvation in mind. But be as hard-nosed as you want in the answers. Afterwords, I’ll inform the sender of the comments on this site so he can see the responses.  I have of course eliminated the name or any identifying aspects of the sender; the point here is to address arguments, not “out” a believer.

Here we go, with the sender’s words indented, with all words exactly as sent: typos and other errors are the sender’s.

In this article from 2014 you said that no theologian could provide credible evidence to the “gap” in believers understanding of God. I have a rebuttal to your six gaps. I know it will probably not change your mind about a thing, but if anything I hope that it enlightens you to the fact that some Christians will research and formulate comprehendible arguments. If it means anything to you know this; even as a stranger, i sincerely do hope that you will think about these things and I care enough about your salvation that I bothered to do this for you.

Q) Why would the Abrahamic God, all-loving and all-powerful, allow natural evils to torment and kill people? Why can’t he keep kids from getting cancer, or stay the waves of tsunamis?

A) This question is easily answered by the most simplistic Biblical concept there is. Loving God=freedom for people, freedom=choice. Humanity chose to rebel against God and the consequences is separation from God=death(Gen 3). God holds all things together (Pslm 75:3)therefore going against him, rebelling, sinning and going our own way leads to death(Rom 6:23). He dwelt among us in the garden which was perfect and God(Gen 1:31) (Gen 3:8) and kept all things Holy, once His presence left death and decay gripped all creation. Satan is the accuser, the liar, the murderer of the human family(Jn 8:48) who holds the power of death(Heb 2:4). Because of his pride he first rebelled against God and has sinned from the very beginning(1 Jn 3:8), and he uses that very same pride today to get people to not believe, masquerading as an angel of light(2 Cor 11:14) making sin look fun and beautiful, lying that we will not die for disobeying God (Gen 3:4). The key is though, that God has been using redemptive work ever since the days of Noah (Rom 8:21). All of the Biblical story points to Jesus and how it is God’s plan to save us from the punishment and judgement of our sins by becoming a perfect man (Heb 9:11) fulfilling all of God’s law and dying on the cross, rising again to bring us to life through him (Jn 6:40). So the all loving God was able to make a way for anyone that believes in the Son to live forever by reconciliation with the Father again(Jn 3:16) (Rom 10:9).

Suffering is a permanent sickness for the earth until we go to our true home, heaven (Rom 8:18-26). Even Jesus was not exempt from suffering. It is used as an instrument of obedience. As Wayne Jackson from The Christian Courier says ” all sunshine and no rain creates a desert”. We use suffering as a means to bring glory to God by persevering, enduring, and to become patient, compassionate, loving, kind, and yes even joyful which are all qualities God desires to see arise out of us from trials. The child that gets cancer has hope, hope in Life with Jesus eternally (Matt 19:14). The tsunami victims have hope if they cry out to God to be saved (Pslm 34:17). God also promises we are not alone during life’s trials(2 Cor 1:3-7)(Heb 4:16). Jesus told us that in this fallen world we would suffer but he has overcome the world(Jn 16:33) so we can overcome the world through him( 1 Jn 5:5). Life is not all about the materialistic. There is another life beyond this. Plus God can heal providentially with medicine, wisdom for the doctors, and for the complex design of the human body and immune system are all ways he can work through natural law. It is foolish to think that if God created the world that all of the resources we have available are not created by him either. Who would understand it better than the one who created it all? With no God, cancer consumes the child and they have no hope, no more life, just a cruel and unfair “chance” that is uncontrollable and uncalculated in an uncaring universe.

JAC:  Here the blame falls on humans and (naturally) Satan, with God unable or unwilling to intervene to stop natural evil. Humans, of course, were responsible because Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit, damning all their descendants to both moral and natural evil. Note that, unlike theodicy of “moral evil,” in which humans do bad things to other humans as an undesirable but necessary product of free will, free will here invoked only once: on the part of Adam and Eve. (You can’t invoke free will for stuff like cancer and tsunamis, which do not have any capacity to choose freely. Neither, of course, do we, but here we see the critical importance of libertarian free will in Christianity. If our “choices” are all determined by factors we don’t control, the whole explanation above collapses.)

Note, too, the Mother-Teresa-like concentration on suffering as a way to glorify God. This is barbaric. “The child that gets cancer has hope in eternal life with Jesus”? Not if the kid is too young to know about Jesus, much less accept him as a savior! And what about tsunami or accident victims that don’t have time to cry out to God to be saved? After all, as the writer said in another part of the email:

Not being baptized does not necessarily mean you will go to hell. Observe the thief on the cross. All he did was repent and that was last minute(Lk 42-43)! We all have been blessed with time to repent and come to Jesus(2 Pet 3:9). Then through acceptance of him, the Holy Spirit leads you to the decision of baptism and repentance(Matt 3:11)(Acts 13:24).

Not if you meet a sudden and unpredictable death, much less if you’re of a faith that doesn’t worship Jesus as the savior (e.g. Islam or Hinduism)!

Finally, if medicine and doctors are all products of God’s wisdom, why was He so late to bring antibiotics to our attention? Or, for that matter, why doesn’t he heal those cancer-stricken kids himself rather than rely on methods that aren’t always reliable? Why is suffering abated in some children but not others? But we must drop these questions and pass on.

Q) Why, if God so ardently wants us to know and accept him, does he hide himself from humanity? And, since modern humans originated over 100,000 years ago, why did God wait 98,000 years before sending his son to redress our sins—and then to only a small portion of humanity within a hundred miles of Jerusalem? Or, if you’re sufficiently sophisticated to see God not as a bearded spirit but as The Ground of All Being, why isn’t that Ground obvious to everyone?

A) He is hidden, or veiled, away from humanity because He is too Holy to be looked at without humans dying (Ex 20:18-20). He has revealed himself through His Word from which he spoke to prophets and patriarchs through dreams and visions and messengers (angels) see (Pslm 147:19) (1 Sam 3:21) (Isa22:14). Also creation displays God’s attributes and wonders and God is evident through all creation (Rom 1:20)(Pslm 19:1-2). In fact, we bear the image of the Almighty (Gen 1:27) and, God’s people also bear fruits that can only come from the holy spirit(Jn 15:16) which reveals a transformation that is visible for all to be recognized as coming from God(Matt 7:16) which shines a light for others to see (Matt 5:16). He also revealed himself through His Son Jesus (Jn 14:9) who was fully God and testified all that we need to know about God in our present state, more shall be revealed later, in eternity we will have all the answers we have ever sought(Pslm38:15). Jesus even says that there are some who would be unbelieving even while seeing (Jn 5:43-47),(Jn 20:29)(Jn 6:36).

Finally, we are to seek God with all our hearts, minds and strength humbly and confidently (Jer 29:13), (Matt 6:23), (Duet 4:29). God’s timing is His own and his ways are not our ways(Isa 55:8), the reason he waited was because everything had to be fulfilled perfectly for his redemptive plan (Matt 8:17), (Jer 33:14), (Acts 7:17), just as we are waiting now for Christ’s return (Jm 5:8). The area that He chose was foretold in prophesy (Pslm 130:8), (Rom 11:1-5) and the milage sure didn’t seem to make a difference for the spread of Christianity. We are now reconciled to Isreal from all nations and peoples who call on His name, great multitudes (Eph 2: 11-18) (Rev 7:9). Why is the ground not obvious to everyone? Because of our hard hearts. Our idolatry. Our carnal desires that we will not give up to taste and see. Our rebellious nature(Ezek 12:2)(Pslm 53:12). Seeking our own ways(Isa 53:6), inventing our own gods and following the god of this age(2 Cor 4:4)

JAC: First of all, several humans in the Bible (e.g. Moses, Abraham, etc.) did see manifestations of God without dying. But what I was talking about here was not a vision of God as a person, but the absence of well documented miracles these days when they were so frequent in Biblical times. (This is a question I discuss in Faith Verus Fact, even including the kind of miracle that would make me a provisional believer.) In the end, the writer expects us to accept God because the Bible says that there’s a God, and the Bible is TRUE. This is another instance of “begging the question” in the correct sense: assuming what you want to prove. The writer has no evidence that the Bible, as opposed to gazillions of other scriptures that make contradictory claims, is the truth.

Which brings us to the last question this Christian tries to answer.

Q) How do any believers know for sure that their faith is the right one, especially given the presumed penalty for guessing wrong?

A) How we know for sure that our faith is correct is that our God has revealed himself (Isa43:12)(1 Cor 4:1)(Duet 29:29)(Ezek 20:5). This was achieved by signs and wonders, prophets, his Holy spirit, his Word, his promises that have been fulfilled(Jos 21:45). No other God is like Him who created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1)(Col 1:16). No other “god” has ever or will ever be able to prove themselves and have faded and passed through the ages, but the word of the Lord endures forever (1 Pet 1:25). So therefore, if someone in a monotheistic religion believes all of this about the one true God, then they must believe Jesus is who he said he was (1 Tim 2: 5-6). If not, they are calling God a liar and the entire Christian religion is false. If Jesus didn’t create the New Covenant through his death and resurrection, then that means we cannot be reconciled to God. We would be stuck having to atone and sacrifice for our own sins which we would all fail at and be lost forever.

My point is Christians can be confident their faith is the right one through faith in Christ, the other religions are not even confident enough to know if they are saved or not! Even the most devout among them still question whether God will have mercy on them based on their actions, which still might not even be enough for salvation no matter how good they have been. But there is a contradiction: if God has revealed himself then how can one not know what God wants from them to be saved? Even better, how does any other religion have a superior way to salvation than God dying in their place for them? Trusting that Jesus is the way is how to be sure your faith is right(Jn 14:6). Jesus is Divine. Jesus is God. And to deny him is to deny God (1 Jn 2:23(Luke10:16).

JAC: Here we have more question-begging. We know that Christianity is the right faith because the New Testament says so, and the Bible must be true. If you doubt the Bible, you “are calling God a liar.” I’d put it more gently: the Bible is the word of humans, not of a god. The second paragraph assumes that we all want salvation, but some religions, like many kinds of Judaism, don’t believe in or expect an afterlife.

Oh hell, I’ll put in one more question and just a snippet of the sender’s response, just to show that he sees homosexuality as a sin:

Q) Why would an omnibenevolent God consign sinners to an eternity of horrible torment for crimes that don’t warrant such punishment? Official Catholic doctrine, for instance, is that unconfessed homosexual acts doom you to eternal immolation in molten sulfer [sic]. That’s unconscionable. And would a loving God really let someone burn forever because they were Jews, or didn’t get baptized?

A) First of all let’s get one thing strait: all sins are punished(Rom 5:12). Not just homosexuality but also lust, idolatry, murder, greed, selfishness, fornication, adultery, hate, theft, lying, idolatry, and blaspemers. No one is good, there is not one(Pslm 53:3). We all have weakness(2 Cor 12:9). Now this is considering that these sins are not repented of that we receive the punishment. . . .

Final thoughts [from the sender]:
• How, after fierce opposition and persecution to the early church, did Christianity spread so rapidly by so few men, with such little resources and survive 20 centuries and is still the biggest religion? Why risk your life and families life for something that is false, and why do so many people suffer for the name of Christ but are still zealous and faithful?

JAC: Lots of people have risked their lives and families for religions that this sender claims are false. QED

• The biggest humanitarian and philanthropic movements in history are influenced and supported by Christians and the church and some examples are: The Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, World Vision International, Samaritans Purse, Water Missions International, Feed the Children, ect. Also most addiction services and many hospitals and nursing homes are started in the name of Christ with Christian values and ethics as their mission statement.

JAC: Do I need to point out that the argument above says nothing about whether the tenets of Christianity are correct? At best it says that belief in Christian tenets can motivate some people to do good. The same holds for the tenets of many faiths.

• Some of the most influential historical figures that have impacted society and made for a better life include: Abraham Lincoln, Leonardo Da Vinci, Mozart, William Shakespeare, Martin Luther King Jr, ect.
Ect. indeed!  I won’t bother to list the many historical figures or organizations who were Christians and did bad things. As the physicist Steven Weinberg famously said:
“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.”

Which is worse on a flag: approbation for slavery or for a nonexistent god?

June 29, 2020 • 1:30 pm

The good news: the Mississippi legislature voted to remove the Confederate flag from its state flag, a symbol that has long and rightfully angered people because it symbolizes the defense of slavery. Mississippi was the last state to have the Stars and Bars on its flag.

The bad news: From the Washington Post (click on screenshot):

It’s not a done deal yet, but I’m betting, it being Mississippi and all, that the state seal, complete with an affirmation of our trust in a Nonexistent Man, will be slapped on the flag. Naturally, the idea was from Republicans supposedly seeking “unity”, though of course they’re “erasing” atheists:

JACKSON, Miss. — Two of Mississippi’s top elected Republicans proposed Wednesday that the Confederate battle emblem be replaced on the state flag with the words “In God We Trust,” seeking a path toward unity in their state amid the backdrop of national protests over racial injustice.

“It is my personal belief that it is time for us to change our state flag to reflect the love, compassion and conviction of our people,” Attorney General Lynn Fitch said. “The addition of ‘In God We Trust’ from our state seal is the perfect way to demonstrate to all who we are.”

Mississippi has the only state flag that includes the Confederate battle emblem — a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars. White supremacists in the Legislature chose the design in 1894 as backlash for the political power African Americans gained during Reconstruction after the Civil War.

Mississippi voters chose to keep the flag in a 2001 statewide election, but the design has remained contentious. Elsewhere in the country, debate has sharpened as Confederate monuments and statues recalling past slavery have been toppled by protesters or deliberately removed by authorities amid a groundswell against racial inequities.

Mississippi Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said a new flag would help future generations.

“In my mind, our flag should bear the Seal of the Great State of Mississippi and state ‘In God We Trust,’” Hosemann said. “ I am open to bringing all citizens together to determine a banner for our future.”

Here is the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi. While it would seem to violate the First Amendments, the courts have ruled that “In God We Trust” is a nonreligious phrase (!). After all, it’s on our currency!

In truth, given a choice between the two flags, I’d much prefer the newer version, for slavery is more odious than religion. Some religions are pretty innocuous, while all forms of slavery are immoral and reprehensible. Still, isn’t there a flag that really will unite the people? After all, “inclusion” must deal with the increasing number of nonbelievers in America.

How about a nice emblem of the state bird? Oh, scratch that: Mississippi’s state bird is the mockingbird.

h/t: Stephen

Ricky Gervais chats with Richard Dawkins

May 18, 2020 • 2:00 pm

This video was posted a week ago, but shows a conversation that took place last fall. On 3 September 2019, Ricky Gervais was given the 2019 Richard Dawkins Award. The award recognizes individuals who proclaim “the values of secularism and rationalism, upholding scientific truths wherever it may lead.” Gervais received the award during a Center for Inquiry-sponsored ceremony at London’s Troxy Theatre. Dawkins praised Gervais for being a “witty hero of atheism and reason.” And I have to add, in a mixture of both solipsism and humility, that I received that award in 2015, and now, what with other awardees like Gervais, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Stephen Pinker, and Stephen Fry, I feel like I don’t deserve to be in this club. But I’m not giving my cat back (see below)!

Here are the YouTube notes:

Multi-award-winning stand-up comedian, screenwriter, and actor Ricky Gervais was presented with this year’s Richard Dawkins Award, from the Center for Inquiry. CFI campaigns to remove the influence of religion in science education and public policy, and to eliminate the stigma that surrounds atheism and non-belief.

The Richard Dawkins Award has been presented annually since 2003. Past winners have included philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, activist and feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and actor and writer Stephen Fry.

This event was an unscripted conversation between Gervais and Dawkins, in which everything is on the table and nothing is sacred. They were joined by host, best-selling author and professor of psychology, Richard Wiseman.

It’s worth listening to the conversation, but the best part is the last half. (Wiseman’s presence seems to detract a bit from the flow of conversation.) Robyn Blumner, CEO of CFI, introduces the event and Richard until 7:45, and then at 8:38 in Richard speaks, laying out the reasons why Gervais got the award. The award this year seems to be a glass double helix; mine was a small replica of a skull of a saber-tooth tiger (honoring my love of cats).

At 18:50 Gervais comes onstage for the conversation, and in fact has a gulp of beer as he begins.

I found the most enlightening part of the conversation to be Gervais’s defense of his in-your-face “offensive” comedy style, which starts at 48:00. Richard names his favorite book (you might be surprised), they discuss why comedians tend to be atheists rather than believers, and then Gervais talks about his new Netflix show After Life, which I am still very keen to see.

h/t: BJ