Category: Christianity

Eight Reasons Free Will Is Total Bullshit

 

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If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a million times: God is not responsible for the evil and suffering in the world; that is caused by humans’ misuse of their god-given free will!  Sentiments such as “Don’t blame god, blame your own bad choices!” and “God isn’t responsible for the bad things others do to you!” abound in Christian literature and online enclaves, and they seems to make so much sense to the people who claim it – but what makes sense to the theist mind is often nonsensical in any other context, and this is no exception.  Under even mild scrutiny, free will is shown to be nothing more than an apologetic sleight of hand, glorifying an ostensibly loving and powerful god while simultaneously placing dramatic limits on his benevolence and ability.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is total bullshit.

1. Free will is not a universally held belief among Christians. As is the case with virtually every other claim made by Christians (and, to be fair, followers of every other religion), free will is not only not accepted across all denominations and adherents of Christianity, it is rejected outright by many as false teaching. Some Christians believe that humans are slaves to sin and are not free to choose not to sin, and that since god is the author of evil, it must simply be accepted. As explained by the kind folks at christianfallacies.com, “evil is a part of God’s eternal plan as so many scriptures illustrate . . . Free will is not needed as an answer to deliver God from the charge of evil because evil is not a problem for God, but for man, and man is in no position to question God about its existence.”  The non-believer is then left to ask, as with all other contradictory statements about the intentions and nature of god, what makes one of these claims true and the other one false – a question that I have yet to see any theist answer.

2. Free will and predestination are mutually exclusive. The internet is laden with dime-store theology that declares loudly and unambiguously that whatever is happening at any given moment is exactly what god intends. Try as one might, it’s nigh impossible to find pithy memes and articles that say, “God had a plan for you to be happy, but Monsignor totally blindsided god by using his free will to sodomize you when you were a child, and that threw a wrench into the whole thing. Sucks being you!”  On the contrary, we are told that god would not have allowed Monsignor to rape you unless he had a purpose for it.  Furthermore, given that “god is directing each one of your steps,” and since that claim does not come with an asterisk clarifying that ‘your’ refers to ‘non-pedophiles only,’ then he had to be directing Monsignor’s steps too.  There’s no room in any of this for anyone’s free will.

3. Semantic hoops of fire to make a divine plan compatible with free will are disingenuous. To hear some tell it, god’s plan is really just an idea, a hope, like the plans people have for the weekend, which can be fouled by the free will of other humans who are either ignorant of or averse to our own desires. In this version of “god’s plan,” god has no way to either communicate the plan to humans or to make it happen – it’s all just sitting there in his head while he crosses his holy fingers that our guesswork will cause us to stumble more or less blindly into doing what he wants us to do. This, of course, is entirely intellectually dishonest, because we all know that when theists speak of God’s Plan™ they are ascribing a much greater degree of control and intentionality than this weak excuse allows.  One must also wonder what kind of mean-spirited fool this god would have to be to make a plan that he knows in advance isn’t going to pan out, or to not at least tell humanity what the plan is so that we have a better chance of using our free will in a way that comports with that plan.  This is not the behavior one would expect of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent god – indeed, it is not even the behavior one would expect of a marginally competent middle manager.

4. Free will is never used as an explanation for positive outcomes. We only ever hear about the importance of free will in discussions of why god allows evil or suffering. You can read elaborate explanations here or here or here or here or in many other places that god just had to give us free will because golly, he didn’t want to make an army of robots!  He wanted humans to choose to love (read: enslaves themselves to) him!  Let’s set aside for the moment that an omnipotent god wouldn’t have to do anything (and an omniscient one surely could have come up with a way to make non-automatons who were nice to each other).  If humans are free to choose, doesn’t that mean that sometimes they choose to do good things?  Why do we exonerate god in this child’s suffering by blaming her parents’ use of their free will to abuse her, but credit god for blessing that child who is thriving, rather than ascribe his success to his parents’ use of their free will to lavish him with love and opportunity?  To hold any water at all, free will has to account for both the good and the bad choices that people make.

5. The concept of free will leads to acceptance of suffering as inevitable. “Humans are sinful, flawed, fallible. Of course some of them will use their free will in sinful, flawed, fallible ways. I know, it’s truly awful when children get raped, beaten, neglected, tortured, or murdered.  But oh well, what are you going to do?  That’s just the cost of god making us free beings.”  Which leads us to . . .

6. A god that allows misuse of free will to cause human suffering has the wrong priorities. Most crimes have not just a perpetrator, but a victim – perhaps many victims. Do the victims not have free will?  Surely they did not choose the circumstances that led to their suffering.  Surely they did not choose to suffer.  When the parish priest is sodomizing the altar boy, why does the priest’s free will choice to rape matter to god, but the child’s desire not to be raped does not?  A god who always favors the evil over the innocent can be nothing but evil.

7. Free will does not cause natural disasters. Even if free will was an acceptable explanation for human-caused suffering (which it isn’t), it doesn’t work for the suffering caused by wildfires, tsunamis, floods, landslides, earthquakes, drought, famine, or disease outbreaks. In fact, a great many evangelicals will confidently declare that god does, in fact, send natural disasters as punishment for human sinfulness, such as some claimed with regard to Hurricane Katrina.  Ironically, they do not seem to recognize that killing, maiming, and impoverishing tens of thousands of innocent people (not to mention the devastating cost to non-human animals and the overall ecosystem) as a means of punishing a handful of guilty people is as far away from just and loving as their god could get.  More to the point, it admits outright that a significant percentage of suffering has nothing whatsoever to do with free will, but is caused directly and on purpose by god.

8. Science indicates that the notion of free will in the biblical sense – individual agency to make choices entirely free of unconscious influences – does not exist. Advances in neuroscience have severely eroded the notion that humans can freely choose their behaviors. Our genes, brain chemistry, parents, geography, and life experiences shape everything from our sense of right and wrong to our intelligence to our emotions and everything in between.  This is not to say that we are automatons who cannot behave morally and ethically, but it does allow us to see human behavior in a different, perhaps more dispassionate light and over time may lead us to more effective strategies for dealing with things like mental illness, violent crime, and other complex and nuanced problems.  Once again, the space of ignorance so long occupied by god has been replaced by scientific knowledge, achieved through observation, empiricism, and evidence.

It’s remarkable to consider the armies of people throughout history who have devoted years, perhaps their entire lives, to figuring out how to reconcile the existence of evil and suffering with the notion of a loving, perfect, and just god.  The intellectual capacity wasted on such a fruitless and absurd endeavor is as mind-boggling as it is tragic – one can only hope that humanity will one day realize that those things are in fact irreconcilable, and rather than devote their lives to understanding why god allows suffering, put that energy into alleviating it.

Ten Claims of Religion That Are Mutually Exclusive

mutually_exclusive_eventsTheists have a script.  No, seriously.  They must.  How else could it be that the very first response of every single theist ever to every single atheist ever is that we are ignorant about their scriptures and their religion?  We haven’t read the whole thing, they complain, or we are taking it out of context, or we are cherry-picking the worst parts, or we are mis-translating, or yada yada yada. So let me put this caveat out there right up front: Every single one of the following statements can be found at any of countless online Christian ministries.  The sentiments represented are ubiquitous not only in the Christian meme-o-sphere, but in discussions with Christians themselves.  There has been no cherry-picking; there is no context to these outside of the standalone images and “whisper quotes” circulating on the Internet; nothing has been translated from ancient Hebrew into English by Google.  This is their theology, in their own words, in all its contradictory and self-refuting glory.

1. “Nothing can stop God’s plan!” → “Pray because prayer changes things!”

Say what now?  If nothing can stop god’s plan, doesn’t that include prayer?  And if it does, then why pray?  And if it doesn’t, why are they lying and claiming that nothing can stop it when something actually can stop it?

2. “God never gives you more than you can handle!” → “God WILL give you more than you can handle!”

So, is god making you suffer because he knows you can take it – or is he trying to break you so that you feel you have no choice but to run to him?  (This claim is everywhere in online Christian circles – which, as an aside, is kind of a dick move on god’s part.) He either does or he doesn’t.  Which is it?

3. “Every person in your life was sent by God for a reason!” → “God will never send you another woman’s husband!”

So let me get this straight: If a married man comes into my life he was sent by god, but because he is married he wasn’t sent by god? Or, he was sent by god, but not so I could fall in love with him? So if I fall in love with him, that wasn’t the plan?  But then, how does that square with item 1A above about everything happening being part of god’s plan? Does anyone else’s head hurt?

4. “God gives us what we need, not what we want!” → “Sometimes God gives you what you want so you can see it’s not what you need!”

Geez Louise, god, can you stop being a dick for like five minutes?

5. “Everything that happens is part of God’s plan!” → “Don’t blame God for the bad things that happen to you, blame your own bad choices / people’s free will!”

In my unscientific observations, the “everything according to god’s plan” line usually comes up in the context of first world problems – unemployment, relationship woes, financial troubles, and similar personal challenges.  Those are the times when it’s convenient to say god is working in your favor even if you can’t understand how.  The moment you bring up hunger, or rape, or child abuse, or famine, all of a sudden god is no longer responsible, because whoa, man, you can’t blame god for that shit when it’s people who are bad!  This leaves theists with the uncomfortable dilemma of having a god who intervenes in the easy stuff, like finding you a job, but can’t be bothered with the big things, like making sure babies don’t get raped; or of claiming two things that cannot simultaneously be true.

6. “God is directing all of your steps!” → “People have free will!”

If god is directing all of my steps, I don’t have free will.  If I have free will, god is not directing my steps.  Ironically, if theists would simply choose one of these it would be logically defensible (though it would still be false).  As it stands, these claims are incompatible.

7. “God is all-powerful!” → “Satan exists!”

There is no reason for an all-powerful, all-loving god to allow a character like Satan to run wild tempting and destroying people unless he (a) is not all-powerful and is incapable of defeating Satan, or (b) he is not all-loving and Satan just makes a good scapegoat or good entertainment (or both).  If Satan is real, then your god is either impotent or incompetent.

8. “God is all-forgiving!” → “Hell exists!”

“There’s nothing I won’t forgive you for!  Except for this list of things that I won’t forgive you for!”

9. “God is all-loving!” → “God will punish the wicked!”

“You can freely choose whether or not to love me! And if you choose not to, you will burn in a lake of fire for all eternity!  And yeah, genocide and war and child rape and disease and famine and natural disasters, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you coz I do! For realz! Even those idolaters and fornicators and blasphemers and apostates and unbelievers that I am condemning to hell!  Love ya, mean it!”

10. “God is always in control / has a plan / answers prayers / will make a way / has put you where he wants you / is the reason for everything you have / bestows blessings / heals / creates miracles!” → “God can’t stop people from raping children / committing murder / starting wars / perpetrating genocide / torturing / lying / stealing / hurting each other because that would take away their free will!”

And finally we get to the crux of why religion does not hold water: Because Christian theology claims perpetual, continuous, incessant intervention by god in the most minute details of your life while simultaneously claiming god cannot intervene to stop suffering because that would take away free will.  If intervention impedes free will, then god should never intervene in any human affairs for any reason.  If he intervenes to, say, send the right people into your life, or send you the storm to make you see he is the only shelter, or answer your prayers, or direct your steps, how is that any less an infringement upon free will than saving children from rape and starvation? Or stopping the Holocaust? Or teaching humans to be kind to each other?  Never mind, I’ll answer that for you: It isn’t.  It’s just that it’s easy to give god credit for being The Best Thing Ever when the stakes are low, but when the stakes are high god miraculously no longer plays by the same rules and must be held to a different (read: lower) standard than his flawed, sinful creations.

Christian apologists, if you’re out there, you’re going to want to attack me for misunderstanding or misrepresenting your religion.  However, you might want to consider redirecting that energy to the myriad Christian ministers and self-appointed spokespeople who are out there selling a version of your faith with which you disagree and making so many claims that cannot simultaneously be true.  After all, it’s not actually my responsibility to correct your theology.  That’s supposed to be your job.

Your Theology Isn’t Sophisticated So Just Stop It

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Image: Royalty-Free/Corbis

According to my own experience and an informal survey of every single other atheist that I know, the number one most frequent response to criticism of religion (especially Christianity) by believers is, “You just don’t know what you’re talking about.”  To wit:

  • “You cannot legitimately attack The Bible without a solid understanding of it. What I mean is that when you make claims ABOUT The Bible that are contrary to what it actually says it aptly demonstrates your own ignorance and illiteracy of it.”
  • “The problem with you atheists is that you don’t understand the will of The Most High.”
  • “My objection is not with what you do or do not believe, but rather that your post . . . appears to be written by a sophomoric liberal arts student with a chip on their shoulder.”
  • “This . . . illuminates the problem with majority of the article: a lack of understanding of what classical theists actually believe.”

And so on.  There’s no chance that maybe your religion is writing checks it can’t cash – if it stings or makes religion look bad, the only possible explanation is ignorance and a view of theology that is not sufficiently sophisticated.

This is complete and utter bullshit.

For one thing, this accusation is leveled even when the critique comes from a former pastor or priest, a lifelong believer who recently came to atheism, a seminary graduate, or someone with an advanced degree in comparative religion. Disagreement with any given theist’s understanding of scripture is tantamount to ignorance of scripture, no matter how much better the opponent actually knows it.  It is interesting to note that many theists take this tack not just with atheists, but with their fellow religionists as well, such as those “liberal” Christians who decry the behavior of the Westboro Baptist Church or Muslims who disavow child marriage.  Rarely if ever do we see an admission that those less palatable interpretations are legitimate, if unfortunate. Oh no, we are told – they’re just wrong.

For another thing, the vast majority of believers possess nothing resembling a “sophisticated” theology.  Let’s take Christianity in the United States as an example.

  • Three in four Americans believe that the bible is either the literal or inspired word of god. For Christians these numbers rise to a staggering 9 out of 10, with more than half (58%) believing that the bible is the literal word of god.
  • More than 40% of Americans believe that god created humans in their present form in the last 10,000 years. Another 31% believe that humans evolved but that their evolution was directed by god.  (Not surprisingly, these percentages correlate strongly with education.)
  • Among white evangelicals in the US, nearly 6 in 10 believe that natural disasters are a sign from god; more than half (53%) believe that god punishes whole nations for their citizens’ sins; and two-thirds believe natural disasters are signs we are living in the end times.
  • Nearly 3 in 10 Americans think god determines the outcomes of sporting events; among evangelicals this number rises to 4 in 10 who believe that god determines the winner outright, while about two-thirds say god influences the outcome by rewarding players of faith.
  • More than half of Americans say god is in control of everything that happens in the world.
  • The internet is replete with laments from Christian leaders (such as this article, or this one, or this one) that American Christians are increasingly biblically illiterate.

I don’t know about you, but belief in a god who sends earthquakes to punish people for having butt sex, chooses the winner of this weekend’s NASCAR race, and personally dictated the bible that you’ve never bothered to read does not strike me as especially sophisticated.

Here’s the real issue, though.  Ultimately, the claims of religion – the very story it’s selling – are wholly, unambiguously, ludicrously unsophisticated.  Christianity teaches that an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent supernatural being created the entire universe for the express purpose of being worshipped by humans; but he wanted their worship to be voluntary, so he gave them the gift of free will; but he subsequently and for generations punished them severely for not using their free will the way he wanted them to (but already knew they would); so in order to forgive humans for using their free will freely he created himself in human form, executed himself in a bloody spectacle, then came back from the dead and ascended bodily into the sky where he now presides over all human affairs and passes judgment; and that those whom he deems worthy will spend eternity in heaven with him upon their deaths, and those he deems unworthy are condemned to hell to be tortured for all eternity.  The rest of the details are window dressing – regardless of whether you take communion, speak in tongues, handle snakes, work on the sabbatth, forbid dancing, or allow women to be clergy, if you are a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word you believe in the divinity and resurrection of Christ and in the crucifixion as atonement for sin.  In other words, you believe nonsense.

The amateur apologists who wag their fingers at us unsophisticated atheists have to compensate for the fact that the proposition of religion is absurd on its face.  The resulting theology, alas, all boils down to a single argument: We don’t have to understand because god.  Of course this does not prevent them from claiming to understand a great many things – indeed, claiming to know them – as they are forever making unequivocal proclamations about god’s desires, intentions, and emotional state.  But when push comes to shove, the argument invariably comes down to nothing more than good, old fashioned rationalization:

  • “That doesn’t apply because it’s the Old Testament.”
  • “God cannot be judged by human standards.”
  • “That has to be read in the context of history.”
  • “That’s meant to be metaphorical.”
  • “That’s caused by humans.”
  • “You are thinking in terms of the material world instead of in terms of eternity.”
  • “You must feel the holy spirit to truly understand.”

William Lane Craig himself trumpets the need for apologetics in a post-enlightenment world where “emotion will only get you so far,” declaring his dark arts necessary to counter the corrosive impacts of science and secularism on religious belief.  Said another way, the truth claims of religion are so manifestly preposterous in light of what humanity now knows about the universe that linguistic sleight of hand is required to ensnare the innocent and hold onto the indoctrinated.

No doubt this column will be met with a chorus of smug accusations of, “She doesn’t get it!  See how unsophisticated she is?!”  And those folks will simply be proving my point: If people won’t buy what you’re selling unless it’s wrapped in layers of double-talk and obfuscation, you’re selling a lemon.  That’s intellectual dishonesty, and there’s nothing sophisticated about that.

Let Them Eat Cake – Just Kidding! Let Them Starve

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Image credit AP/Rebecca Blackwell

I recently had the misfortune of encountering an article by one Peter Guirguis titled “3 Strange But True Reasons Why God Doesn’t Feed All the Starving Children in The World.” (I will not link to the article because I cannot in good conscience send traffic there, but intrepid readers will be able to find it easily enough.) The author explains in great detail why his god – who, you may recall, is supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipresent – prefers to let children suffer and die in agony through malnutrition rather than put his considerable talent to use to, you know, make some food. Alas that the title is rather misleading, given that the reasons he cites are not strange – at least not to those of us who are used to hearing theists make excuses for the failure of their god to alleviate starvation – and whether or not they are true is a matter of some dispute.

Reason #1: It Isn’t God’s Responsibility to Feed the Starving Children of the World

“Of all the times that I have read the Bible from cover to cover, I can’t think of a single Bible verse in which God makes a promise to feed all the starving children in the world.”

Well then, since there is no bible verse in which god is quoted as saying, “I promise to feed all the starving children in the world,” that totes lets god off the hook! Of course there are verses in which he promises to sustain us (Isaiah 46:4), prosper us (Jeremiah 29:11), meet all our needs (Philippians 4:13), give us plenty to eat (Joel 2:26), help us (Isaiah 41:13), satisfy the appetites of the righteous (Proverbs 13:25), and give us whatever it is we pray for (Mark 11:24); but apparently those should in no way be misconstrued to infer that god will actually sustain us, meet all our needs, give us plenty to eat, help us, satisfy the appetites of the righteous, or give us whatever it is we pray for. On the issues of what god was in fact promising in these passages and why he is seemingly constrained to doing only that which he explicitly promised, Guirguis remains silent.

He then goes on to spout the usual nonsense about how it is our job, not god’s, to feed starving children. Never mind that the majority of humans on earth live under circumstances that preclude their ability to influence whether, how, or where food is grown and distributed: They themselves live in or near poverty; or suffer food insecurity of their own; or lack access to information or freedom of movement or other resources; or haven’t the skills or power to implement political and scientific programs to improve food production and distribution; and so on. For most of us with the ability to take some action, the extent of what we can reasonably do is donate to the local food pantry or give money to NGOs, neither of which is going to eradicate hunger. Oh, and how humans were supposed to harvest, preserve, transport, and distribute adequate food across the globe to famine-stricken areas before the advent of modern technology (i.e., for the nearly the whole of human history) is anyone’s guess.

Reason #2 – God Isn’t Like Humans

Atheists make a mistake when they say things like, “If I saw a starving child and had the power to feed him and I don’t, then I am evil. That’s the same thing with God, He is evil because He has the power to feed starving children and He doesn’t.” The mistake that atheists make here is that they compare themselves to God, or they compare God to themselves. They put themselves in God’s shoes. God’s goals are different than our goals. His purposes are different than our purposes. His way of justice is different than the human way of justice.”

This is the claim that theists always make when confronted with the problem of evil: That we can’t apply our own standards of morality to god, which of course begs the question: Why not? And why, if nearly all reasonable and morally normal people would feed starving children if they had the power to do so, and many (if not most) theists at some point struggle with why their god does not do so, is the ethical instinct of all humankind chucked out the window and deemed inferior to a god whose actions are manifestly unethical?  Furthermore, this is not so much a reason why god doesn’t feed starving children as it is an admonishment that we should not ask for one.

Reason #3 – God’s Justice is Coming Soon For All

“While God does see hate crimes, rapes, and murders as sins, He also sees lying, cheating, and hating people as sins too. So since God is a just God, then He’s going to have to give justice to all if He were to judge the world today. That means that there would be a lot of people who would receive punishment for eternity for breaking God’s standards. So instead, God is saving His judgment for Judgment Day . . . So when you don’t see justice taking place immediately, it’s because God is giving everyone a chance to repent, and put their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”

There is a great deal with that statement that is problematic, the most obvious being that it is entirely irrelevant to the question of why god does not feed starving children – unless Guirguis is saying that since Judgment Day will happen someday, there’s no point in feeding starving kids in the meantime. Regardless, it is yet more transparent rationalization of god’s inaction: “It may seem like he isn’t doing anything, but that’s just because he isn’t doing anything right now.  He has to wait and see how many more people will come groveling to him before he decides he’s ready to get his Armageddon on.” In other words, we can’t see god’s ethics, and we can’t see his mercy, and we can’t see his love, and we can’t see his justice, but we still somehow know he is ethical, merciful, loving, and just, so let’s all just accept suffering as inevitable in the meantime and STFU.

Let me be clear that I am not refuting the good Mr. Guirguis because I am seeking to refute the existence of god. Indeed, the god hypothesis has been resoundingly refuted (or at least sufficiently challenged) by many others before me so I have no need or desire to re-invent that wheel. My point is rather that religion – especially the Abrahamic ones – require people to question and suppress their own innate senses of right and wrong, empathy, and compassion in order to reconcile the action (or more accurately the inaction) of their deity. It desensitizes people to suffering and injustice – after all, if god is allowing it, he must have a reason, so who are we to argue? I can only hope that one day people will decide that if god is allowing suffering, maybe it’s his ethics that are questionable, and proceed to embrace and heed their own conscience.

Ten Contradictions Theists Just Can’t Stop Making

Image via parade.com
Image via parade.com

Talking with theists about religion sometimes – and by sometimes I mean almost always – feels like Groundhog Day,  a painful and monotonous slog that simply travels the same territory over and over and over.  I get weary of both hearing and repeating the same arguments so frequently, so I decided to compile the most tired (not to mention the most tiresome) themes that I encounter, so that going forward I can simply point people here when they trot out these inevitable gems.

1. Explaining what god is or wants, then saying humans cannot understand god.

The conversation goes like this:

Theist: “God loves us and wants us to be saved. God is just and merciful. God will provide. God always gives us what we need, not just what we want.”

Atheist: “If god loves us, is merciful, provides, and always gives us what we need, why do children starve to death?”

Theist: “We are mere mortals and can’t expect to understand His ways. You can’t apply human standards to god.”

Uh . . . If we can’t apply human standards to god when it comes to figuring out why he lets children starve, why can we apply human standards to establish that he loves us, is just and merciful, and will provide?  By what means do you ascertain these attributes in the first place if not by human standards?  God is either knowable or he isn’t; you either understand him or you don’t. If his reasons for allowing innocent children to suffer and die are inscrutable, so too must be his reasons for everything else, and to claim otherwise is to admit that you in fact know nothing of god, but have opted to believe what is most comforting to you – something that is manifestly apparent to atheists already, but which most theists would not confess in so many words.

2. Claiming that god loves us all, then rationalizing human suffering.

Theists most often dismiss human suffering by victim-blaming – declaring that our own free will causes us to make bad choices, which cause us to suffer as a result. Once we get past the inherent privilege of a claim that assumes everyone has an array of both good and bad options from which to choose (or has a choice at all), we are still left with the problem of suffering that is not the direct result of our own actions. “Free will,” they repeat. “Some people use theirs to hurt others.” Ah, okay – so god is willing to stand idly by and watch innocents be tortured and murdered because he prioritizes the free will of evil people to do harm over that of their victims? That’s not much of a resume-builder for god, but for the sake of argument I’ll give you that one too. What about illness and natural disasters then? Even the most nefarious of minds cannot will a tumor or an earthquake or a tsunami into being. That’s when, if we don’t hear “Oh, free will causes climate change which causes those disasters,” we hear (again), “We are mere mortals and can’t expect to understand god’s ways.”

In this world, deliberately inflicting pain and hardship on someone we claim to love is called abuse. In religion, it’s called grace. When we regard human suffering as not only inevitable but as an expression of love by an omnipotent being, we trivialize the experience of those who must endure it and stifle the otherwise natural human impulse to alleviate it.

3. Pretending that free will and a divine plan are not mutually exclusive.

When asked once if he believed we all have free will, Christopher Hitchens ironically replied, “Of course I have free will; I don’t have a choice.” In other words, an omnipotent god endowing humans with free will and commanding that they use it negates the very notion of free will in the first place – with or without it, we are still exactly as god made us, choosing exactly as he already knows we will. Conveniently, free will seems to only ever cause humans to behave badly; when they are charitable, kind, generous, selfless, humble, honest, and virtuous, it is always because they were following the example set by god, but when they are selfish, cruel, and violent their actions are the result of their own frailty, thus ensuring that god continues to reap the credit when we choose well and remain blameless when we don’t.

As if this weren’t bad enough, many of the same folks who talk about free will also claim that god has a plan. Take a common trope on prayer, for example, that says when you pray, “God answers in one of three ways: 1. Yes; 2. No; 3. I have something even better in store.” All three of those responses entail a god who is actively shaping your life, and who is giving or withholding things based on what he either intends or knows will happen. So which is it? Because it can’t be both.

4. Behaving hatefully, then saying “god bless.”

I recently had the pleasure of conversing with a theist on my Facebook page who called me “ignorant;” a “liar;” a “child;” “dense;” “trash;” laughed that I was “probably not” in a stable relationship and therefore infected with “the latest STD;” that my jokes aren’t funny (O, the humanity!); and, predictably, that she wished she could be there when I stand before god after death to see me receive my eternal sentence for disbelief. She topped off this love-fest by saying, “May God bless you and keep you in the New Year and many more to come.” Wait, I thought you were being an arrogant ass, but you want god to bless me? Well, in that case, right back atcha! Hugs and kisses!

These people seem to think that no matter how nasty they act or how mean-spirited their words,  it is all permissible and forgiven as long as they conclude with an insincere blessing.  Some of them will further justify their unpleasantness by claiming they were only fulfilling their godly responsibility to love their enemies by pointing out the error of their ways.  Hence we end up with comments like, “Your ignorance and your unfunny jokes make baby Jesus cry, you slutty, disease-infested piece of trash! I’ll be laughing while you burn in hell! God bless!”

5. Declaring god as the source of objective morality, then interpreting scripture.

It is frustrating and disheartening that the myth that one needs to believe in the supernatural to live ethically persists in the face of thousands of years of evidence to the contrary. Beyond this obvious fallacy, however, lies the transparent manner in which theists lay claim to the objective correctness of their morals while simultaneously applying their own contemporary cultural morality to the world. “Look here,” you say, pointing at the words on the page, “it says to murder your loved ones if they worship any other god.” “You’re taking that out of context,” comes the reply. Or maybe it’s, “You have to consider the culture at the time this was written.” Or perhaps, “That isn’t meant to be taken literally.”

If objective morality comes from god, then the only way to determine that morality is through scripture.  If you are not going to take scripture at face value, then you are admitting that your morals are inherent within you and influenced by the society around you, not handed down from the outside.

6. Labeling god as omnipotent, then blaming evil on the devil.

Is it that god cannot defeat the devil, or is it that he chooses not to? Not that anyone could blame him if it was the latter, seeing as how the devil makes such an outstanding scapegoat. But seriously – if you believe god is omnipotent and you also believe in the devil, then you have to believe that god has made a decision to let the devil do his thing. If god cannot in fact defeat the devil then he is not omnipotent, in which case it makes little sense to worship and pray to him at all. In either case, though, god sure as shit has both the power and inclination to get involved once you’re dead – by sending you straight to hell for doing whatever it was the devil talked you into while god stood by and watched.

7. Seizing upon minuscule inconsistencies in highly specialized scientific disciplines as a failure of science to explain the universe while accepting supernatural explanations for which there is no evidence.

There are mountains of evidence in support of evolution by natural selection and the Big Bang. Virtually all of modern biology and cosmology are predicated upon these theories; the elegance of their explanations and success of their predictions continually reaffirm their validity. Furthermore, there is no small amount of evidence to suggest that under the right conditions, complex molecules can become self-replicating – the first step towards the creation of life. Meanwhile, there is no evidence for god. As in, zero. Zilch. None.

It has always struck me as odd that an institution that not only extols the virtue of faith but requires it as a matter of course and as a prerequisite of salvation would turn to science at all to justify its claims; after all, if the religious are so certain they are correct, shouldn’t faith be sufficient to maintain belief?  The answer is, of course it isn’t, and their desire to claim the legitimacy of science betrays their understanding (and fear) of this fact.  Furthermore, you cannot pretend to be concerned about the quality or weight of the evidence for a natural explanation of the universe while simultaneously advancing a hypothesis for which thousands of years of inquiry have failed to produce a single shred of evidence.

8. Subscribing to religion, then labeling the religious beliefs of others as “crazy.”

Protestants say Catholics aren’t really Christians. Baptists say Pentecostalism is a cult. Mormons say creationists are nutty. And yet all of these people believe more or less the same thing: That an invisible, omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving deity created the entire universe and was subsequently so displeased with his own creation that he made a virgin pregnant with himself in human form; condemned himself to be tortured and sacrificed to atone for the sins of his creation; rose from the dead and ascended bodily into the sky; and now presides over the affairs of all humans and keeps track of where they put their car keys and whether they masturbate so that he knows who to help while they are alive and who to torture for all eternity after they die.

Anyone who thinks this is plausible forfeits the right to comment on the sanity of anyone else’s ideas.

9. Accusing atheists of cherry-picking scripture to make it look bad.

This one always makes me laugh.  For one thing, no one needs to try to make scripture look bad; it does that all by itself with its genocide and rape and slavery and conquest and general bloodthirsty, vengeful douchebaggery.  For another thing, scripture is packed with so many mutually exclusive commands and prohibitions that cherry-picking is required if one is to follow or even just discuss it.  The only question is which cherries one will pick.  Some will pick the ones about love and kindness and charity and claim these are the “real” version of their religion, leaving the others – the ones about torture and violence and cruelty – on the branch, hoping no one will notice them.  Perhaps cherry-picking isn’t even the right metaphor.  I think a better one is the Tree of 40 Fruit:  Some of what it has to offer is sweet, some is bitter, and some may even be poisonous, but it all grows from the same plant.

10.  Claiming membership in one of thousands of sects of religion as authority for telling non-believers why our interpretation of religion is wrong.

How often do we hear from theists that we misunderstand, misrepresent, misinterpret, or are ignorant of their scriptures? “What the bible (Qur’an / Torah / etc.) really says is X,” they say, or “When god said that he meant Y.” Setting aside for the moment the fact that many atheists are former believers who are intimately familiar with scripture, what do we make of the fact that other people who also identify as belonging to that religion claim that actually, god didn’t mean Y either, but Z? And what of the ones who say not Z, but A? Theists themselves cannot agree with one another on what god really meant or wants and none of them can produce a single valid reason why their interpretation is more likely to be right than anyone else’s. Why then is the interpretation of a non-believer any less credible – or to be more precise, any more incredible?

What most believers refuse to see, or at least to admit, is that there is no wrong interpretation of scripture. What is “known” about god resides inside people’s heads; there is no objective, external yardstick by which it can be measured, nothing that can be observed, and no source to clarify what was truly intended by any given chapter or verse. Furthermore, even if we could eliminate the ambiguity of scripture we would still be left with the contradictions: For virtually every instruction, elsewhere in the text is its prohibition or the command to do the opposite, and since no one can ring up Yahweh or Allah to ask which one is the right one it is left to the individual to decide. Said another way, scripture is sufficiently ambiguous and contradictory that all interpretations are justifiable – in which case we are left with nothing more than a free-for-all in which religion is whatever any given believer says it is.

 

In defense of theists, contradictions are the inevitable consequence of belief in monotheistic religion, given its outlandish claims and its incoherence. It is hard not to wonder, though, to what degree these contradictions are the result of intellectual dishonesty and what can be attributed to a mere extreme absence of self-awareness.  Whatever the case, now that I have (hopefully) saved myself some time in future discussions, maybe I can at least spend less of the next Groundhog Day trapped in tedious debates and more of it sipping Mai-tais with Punxutawney Phil.

No, Actually, Murder is Way Worse than Abortion

Some 2,500 people attend a Pro Choice rally sponsored by the National Organization for Women, NOW, in Hollywood, Fla., Sunday, Sept. 17, 1989. Feminists and pro-choice advocates staged the rally to kick off an offensive to ease Florida's current abortion restrictions and to gather support for the issue which comes before Florida's legislature in a three-day special session beginning Oct. 10. (AP Photo/Todd Essick)
(AP Photo/Todd Essick)

Now that I have stopped seething over it, I feel compelled to respond to Dwight Longnecker’s September 15 article explaining why abortion is “more serious than simple murder.”  Yes, that’s right, folks: The destruction of a clump of non-viable cells with no consciousness or nervous system is a worse transgression than the mere deliberate taking of a living, breathing, sentient human life.  While Longnecker’s position does appear to be in line with Church doctrine, which allows priests to absolve the sin of murder but requires a bishop to absolve the sin of abortion (the pope’s year of mercy notwithstanding), it is nonetheless reprehensible and further evidence (as if we needed it) of the yawning chasm between religious dogma and basic human decency.

Let’s begin by reiterating, for the gazillionth time, that about 90% of abortions in the U.S. occur within the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, with nearly half of those being within the first six weeks.  Almost all the rest occur between 13-20 weeks, and only about 1% occur after 20 weeks.  (The Guttmacher Institute has these and more statistics here.)  While reliable data on why women seek abortion after 20 weeks are hard to come by, one major reason is that many of the tests that identify severe abnormalities cannot be done until 20 weeks.  Remember too that the pregnancy is an embryo for the first 10 weeks of gestation.  This means that for very close to 100% of abortions, what is being destroyed is not the chubby-cheeked, fully-formed, full-term infant shown in anti-choice propaganda, but a tiny lump of tissue somewhere between an eighth of an inch to three inches long that has no nerve endings and is completely unable to survive on its own outside the woman’s body.  And this is what we are told is worse to destroy than an actual person.  Let’s look more closely at the qualities he says apply only to abortion and see whether they are not also true of “simple murder.”

  1. The crime is pre meditated [sic] – Even if the woman in the crisis pregnancy is young and ignorant, the others involved in the crime are not. The person procuring the abortion–maybe the father of the child or the parent of the woman who is pregnant–know what they are doing. The abortionist and his staff know what they are doing and usually the woman also knows what she is doing. If the crime is planned and premeditated the culpability is greater.

In June of this year, a Maryland woman poisoned her young son by forcing him to swallow at least one full bottle of pills, and then once he was dead she stuffed his body into her car before setting it on fire.  She has been charged with first degree murder – and yet is somehow less culpable in the boy’s death than if she had had an abortion.

  1. The helplessness of the victim – An unborn child is unable to resist the crime. They are trapped in the womb and completely vulnerable. A crime against a helpless victim is worse than one against a person who can fight back or resist in some way. This is a raw action of violence of the strong against the weak and so the crime of killing is compounded.

In November 2014, a 255-pound man killed his seven-month-old infant son by kneeling on him and crushing him to death because the baby had been “fussy.”  I wonder how Father Longnecker presumes this baby was able to “fight back or resist” an assailant who outweighed him by a factor of 20, or by what criteria he determines the baby was not “completely vulnerable.”

  1. The innocence of the victim – An unborn child did nothing wrong. The unborn child did not offend against anyone. The unborn child is innocent of any crime at all and yet it is destroyed by the guilty. A crime against the guilty is bad, but a violent crime against the innocent cries out to heaven because of its wanton wickedness.

Homicide accounts for 7.2 infant deaths in the United States.  However, whereas their embryonic counterparts “did nothing wrong,” these babies apparently have had the opportunity to commit some offense that makes them less innocent.  Or perhaps the mere act of emerging from the womb taints them with original sin, making their killings cases of “simple murder” rather than of “wanton wickedness.”

  1. The natural duty of care for a child by the parent is violated – a mother and father have a natural and inborn duty to care for the child they have conceived. This natural duty of affection, love and protection is violated by abortion. In abortion a mother and father kill their own child. Therefore the killing is compounded by the sin of betrayal of trust and the destruction of one of nature’s most strong and inviolable relationships: the relationship between mother and child and between father and child.

Six-year-old D’Naja Fields was beaten to death by her parents in July.  The aborted embryo feels no fear or pain and is unaware even of its own existence, let alone any bond with parents.  Little D’Naja felt every bit of the terror and physical and emotional pain that her parents inflicted on her over the course of her short life and horrific death, yet we are to believe that the betrayal against the embryo is the worse offense.

  1. The sanctity of the family is violated – The family is the locus for human flourishing, security, peace and happiness. Abortion violates the family bond and destroys the happiness and security that should begin in the womb and extend to the home. If the womb is not safe for a child, why would the home be safe for a child? If the womb is a place of violence and killing how can the home be a place of love and security?

In the fall of 2014 three-year-old Scott McMillan was tortured by his parents for three days until he died.  He was safer in the womb than outside of it, where he had neither security, happiness, nor peace.

  1. The sexual act is violated – A child is the result of what should be a self giving, secure and tender act of love between man and woman. The child should be the fruit of that action. An abortion not only kills the child it violates and interrupts the natural fruit of the sexual act.

Children are not just the result of the sexual act; they are frequently victims of it. 80% of perpetrators of juvenile sexual abuse, evidencing the ugly fact that all too often sex is not a “tender act of love between a man and a woman” but a traumatic and sometimes fatal act of violence between an aggressor and a helpless victim – a victim like Allorah Warner, whose father raped and murdered her when she was only 19 days old.

  1. Society is damaged – A healthy birth rate means a healthy society. To kill the next generation is to kill the future. Society cannot prosper without children and young people and if the children and young people are killed before they are born society, in the long term, is damaged.

Abortion is not killing the next generation in the US: Of the roughly 6.6 million annual pregnancies in this country, about 18% end in abortion, roughly the same percentage as end in miscarriage.  Furthermore, nearly two-thirds of abortions are sought by women who already have at least one child, making the argument that humans will go extinct due to abortion rather absurd.  Additionally, one wonders whether Longnecker considers the fact of homicide being in the top five causes of death for children aged 18 and under as a sign of a damaged or a healthy society.

  1. The human person is devalued – Instead of seeing each life as sacred abortion treats the human being as a weed to be pulled–a problem to be solved. When the child in the womb is killed every human being dies a little. The result is a change in our attitude to individuals. Those who are weak, vulnerable, helpless and poor can be trampled on. Those who are needy, dependent, disabled and suffering can be eliminated.

The culture of American right-wing evangelicalism has done more to trample the weak, vulnerable, and poor than legal abortion could ever do.  Consider the high degree of overlap of the states with the highest religiosity and those whose legislators refused to expand health care for the poor under the Affordable Care Act; those with the most permissive gun laws (and most gun deaths); and the highest numbers of death penalty executions.

  1. The human body is violated – Even in death the human person is to be respected and the human remains treated with dignity and respect. Abortion shreds a baby’s body. It chops up a baby and sucks or scrapes it out of the mother’s womb. The remains are burnt, sold, shredded or just thrown away. If human bodies are treated like scrap humans will be treated like scrap.

First, I’m not sure how often Longnecker visits the current decade, but non-surgical abortions have been available in the US for fifteen years now and account for about a third of all abortions.  But what if 100% were surgical?  Those of us who are old enough remember well the case of Adam Walsh, a six-year-old boy who was abducted, strangled, and decapitated in Florida in 1981. But we don’t have to go back 34 years for an example of a child’s body being “chopped up” – just a week before Father Longnecker wrote his article, the severed head of a toddler was found in Chicago; more body parts have since been recovered.  Or, he could Google “dismembered children” and still have to choose – the one in Colorado?  Or Louisiana? Or the other one in Louisiana? Or California?  Is the termination of an embryo that does not even have limbs (let alone a functioning nervous system) really more gruesome than the dismemberment of a living – or dead – child?

  1. God’s law is intentionally disobeyed One of the first commandments is “Be fruitful and multiply”. A new child is life. A new child is a gift. A new child is the future. A new child is hope. A new child is innocence. A new child is a blessing. Abortion kills all these things and in disobeying God, God is also aborted from life and society. It is not a co incidence [sic] that where abortion thrives atheism soon follows.

I seem to recall another of god’s commandments making reference to not committing murder.  Then too are the passages in the bible that indicate life begins at the first breath (Genesis 2:7), and provide a recipe for abortion (Numbers 5:12 – 31). These would seem to contradict the good father’s claim that abortion is a more grievous sin in god’s eyes than the killing of the already born. With regard to his claim that “where abortion thrives atheism soon follows,” this is of course refuted by the fact that women who obtain abortion are only slightly less religious than the overall population of American women, and that the most religious states in the union do not have the lowest rates of abortion. Or did Longnecker accidentally give away the game with this statement, revealing that his true concern is not with the lives of the unborn, but with the growth of non-belief?

One has to wonder what kind of person thinks that it is preferable for a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term and then murder her infant than for her to take some hormone pills at 6 weeks gestation to expel a tiny clump of cells from her uterus – which is, of course, precisely the claim that Longnecker has made. In the morally normal universe such outrageous cruelty would be swiftly and unequivocally rejected and its sponsors relieved of any further claim to moral authority. But as is forever evidenced by the statements and behavior of the faith-deranged, we do not live in the morally normal universe – we live in the universe where people honestly think abortion is worse than murder, and where those people hold political power and cultural influence.  And that, friends, should frighten us all.

This article was originally published by Rationality Unleashed on October 16, 2015.

A Few Words About Apologetics

I caught some flak over my last blog post, Ten Reasons Why Christianity Makes No Sense, mostly from would-be apologists claiming that my arguments were “unsophisticated” and “show how little” I know about the bible. I even had one person cite what he claimed were marriage laws from Old Testament times to show how the prohibition against coveting one’s neighbor’s wife is perfectly reasonable as one of god’s highest priorities. I’ll admit, that one made me chuckle.

To the people who claim that arguments against religion in general and Christianity in particular must be “sophisticated” to be relevant, I have this response: Thank you for proving my point. From where I sit, the mere existence of apologetics reflects the weakness of the argument for Christianity. If someone needs to be a scholar on the marriage laws of the pre-literate Middle East in order to accept why “don’t check out your neighbor’s wife’s ass” makes the short list of divine moral instructions but “don’t rape your neighbor’s daughter” doesn’t, that simply demonstrates – rather explicitly, in fact – that the proposition is absurd on its face. When your claim requires elaborate rationalization and broad interpretation to be reconciled with a pre-existing notion of a loving and just god, it’s a clue that your claim isn’t a very strong one.

bible-Sunlight

Apologists and theologians in general love to tell atheists why their interpretations of bible passages that portray their god and their religion in a poor light are incorrect. But the contradictions and ambiguity of the texts themselves, and the myriad ways of reading them, belie that there is no wrong interpretation, and no right one either. There are thousands of sects of Christianity, none of which has 100% uniformity of belief, resulting in literally millions of interpretations  of what the bible is really saying. And yet, when an atheist points out the missed opportunity of the Ten Commandments to not issue proscriptions against rape and slavery, apologists expect to be taken seriously when they say we only think that because we are too “unsophisticated” to apply a more favorable interpretation.

I don’t debate apologists for this very reason. It is an exercise in futility and a waste of time to engage in a process in which one’s opponent, by making the argument at all, has already admitted defeat.