Monday, December 28, 2009

Church is Ruined for me

Having grown up in a Christian environment, it is unsurprising I continue to find comfort in many Christian traditions—including many Christmas trappings. I like Christmas Carols. I say, “Merry Christmas” with abandonment. I find angels and stars and nativity scenes pretty.

One thing I always enjoyed was the Christmas Eve service, where typically one sang Carols by candlelight. I announced plans to attend a former church’s Christmas Eve service, and the rest of the family piled along.

We sang Carols by Candlelight; I joyously joined in. Watched the band play Christmas songs; liked that too. Saw a skit about the innkeeper; I chuckled at the appropriate moments.

But there was something else—something that didn’t exist in my memories of tradition. Too much knowledge; too much information.

When referring to the innkeeper from “No room for them at the inn” (Luke 2:7), my mind, unbidden, immediately thought of how this wasn’t a “hotel” as we envision, but rather a large gathering room at one of Joseph’ family member’s house. How the author of Luke uses the word kata luma rather than a pandocheion (Luke 10:34)—a place for strangers to obtain lodging.

Or when it was mentioned how terrible to be born in a stable, I remembered how animals typically stayed in the same lodging as humans, especially in winter. A running gag involved how exciting the census was, and I had to clamp my lips shut from saying, “Not at all! This census so infuriated the Judeans, it led to the Jewish Revolt and the complete destruction of the Temple!”

This nuance would pop up, or this platitude would be spoken, and each time my mind thought of all the things unstated. Incorrect. Unknown to the vast majority of the audience.

I realized an analogy would be watching a magic show. But a magic show where you already knew how every trick was performed. As much as you would try to enjoy yourself in the moment, your eye couldn’t help but wander to where the magician was palming the handkerchief at just the right moment. You can appreciate the mastering of the trick, yet your mind was anticipating how the box would fold, or when the girl would appear, or how the mirrors were not solid.

In some manner it would be regrettable, because you can’t quite suspend your disbelief to enjoy the magic show for what it is; you know too much. You can’t enjoy it as MAGIC--it is parlor tricks.

I felt the same way. I know what the Pastor was trying to say. I understand the points being made. I understand the rest of the audience “oohhed” and “aahhhed” at the wonderment of magic being displayed before them. Yet it is no longer magic to me.

I still enjoyed the singing. I enjoyed seeing people I haven’t seen in some time. I could see how I would enjoy the socialization of church.

I could do the Christmas Eve service again next year without hesitation. I just cannot re-capture the naivety of the nativity anymore.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Lovin' Franken


If you are from Minnesota; I simply envy you unabashedly.

If you don’t watch the video, here is a synopsis.

Lieberman: Pontificating.
Franken: Your 10 minutes is up.
Lieberman: Can I have unanimous consent for extra time?
Franken: No.

McCann: [huffily] In all my years on the Senate floor, I have NEVER seen such outrage.
Franken: Duly noted. Now move on.

Here is why I love it. First of all, there is a reason for a 10-minute rule. It would be one thing if Lieberman was making some necessary points, and was in the middle of a well-framed argument. But no, he is merely blathering with no proposed solutions. This is the reason for the 10 minute rule! The idea is, “Take your best shot. Make good, strong points. Lose the rhetoric and sophistry. Be prepared.”

Even more importantly, I loved the response to McCann. Notice what McCann does NOT say. He does not list a rule Franken is violating. He does not even indicate what important statements Lieberman was not allowed to say. All he says is, “this is the way we always do it.”

For a “maverick,” you would think he (of all people) would understand, “This is the way we always do it” is not the best justification.

Occasionally, I am faced with similar situations in my practice. I come across attorneys who say, “In all my ___ years of practice I have NEVER seen anyone do that.” To which I love to reply, “Great! Today you get to learn something new! Today you get to do something you have never done before! Isn’t it fun to learn?”

Monday, December 14, 2009

Control of what I say; Control of what I do

A religion (or a religious belief) may have the best of intentions, yet by its very nature and the eagerness of people to follow, it is susceptible to being used as a control device. The “True Christian” defense is often employed to explain this very problem away. To explain why some particular leader manipulated the follower’s beliefs for the leader’s own gains. The defender will proclaim, “They weren’t a ‘True Christian’—they utilized Christianity’s methods, words and means to obtain their own ends.”

Even followers of religious doctrines recognize that in the wrong hands, the very techniques, beliefs, creeds and statements of their religion can look so very similar—yet with vastly different motivations and results.

Simply put, religion is an extremely pragmatic tool—effective to exert control.

Further, even without a nefarious motivation, religions naturally entail control through prescription of values. If a God (master of all time, space, energy, etc.) was interested in establishing a particular religion here on earth, it makes sense there would be a reason to do so. That reason results in exercising limitations and restrictions. The reason is the foundation for establishing the rules and regulations of the religion.

The reason is the justification for implementing direction and controlling the behaviors of the followers. Offer the correct sacrifice; the pleased God rewards. Offer the incorrect sacrifice; the angered God punishes.

By searching and proclaiming the reason a God would bother intervening in the world; one creates the rules to satisfy the reasons. If God intervened to make people happy—the religion explains what the person must do to make the God happy. If God intervened to be worshiped—the religion explains how to worship God. If God intervenes to save humans from themselves—the religion provides the means by which the God does so.

Christianity initiated during times when religious prescription was in full force. The Roman Gods required certain acts and sacrifices. The Jewish God required certain acts and sacrifices. Even the mystic religions had secret rituals.

The first Christian writing we have—1 Thessalonians—continues to follow the typical religions dictates. If you read through the book, you will see the focus on doing--not believing “walk worthy of God.” (2:12) “how you ought to walk and please God.” (4:1) “abstain from sexual immorality.” (4:3) “don’t defraud your brother” (4:6) “lead a quiet life, mind your own business, work with your hands.” (4:11) If you read through the entire book (it doesn’t take very long)—it reads like a list of Do’s and Don’ts of any variety of religions.

In fact, it doesn’t emphasize faith or believing, but rather uses those doctrines as tools of encouragement that the believer will continue to follow the rules.

But something changed. What that was, we can only speculate from piecing together the Christian documents we have and our little knowledge about the First Century Mediterranean. Christianity became a religion of belief. As long as one believed correctly, the actions could be forgivable.

“….if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9)

What is the inherent problem here? Well…if all one has to do is have a certain belief, this can be easily made, and then there are no more limitations. Heaven is assured whether one acts a certain way or not. Christianity becomes a one-time thought, and then Blessed Assurance.

Paul recognizes this problem, and spends some length in Romans 6 attempting to justify how Christians were dead to sin, and shouldn’t keep on sinning because they no longer should want to, but what Paul doesn’t explain is why.

The result is a muddled balance whereby a person must believe AND that belief must be evidenced by works. (James 2:17-18) For all the claims about Christianity being “different” because it is not a works-based religion, it necessarily integrates works within its belief. (Go back to the top of this blog entry. Remember those “No True Christian” arguments? Was that as a result of what the person said they believed or what works were present? If one claims they were not a “True Christian” because of their works, then Christianity must be a works-based religion.)

Christianity’s retention of Do’s and Don’ts retains religion’s control over the believers. A comment was made in the last blog entry as to reconciling the concept of immediate justification (salvation) yet subsequently disappointing God. Was the act of salvation insufficient to completely satisfy God?

In short: yes.

Therefore, while God may be 90% or 99% or whatever percentage you desire to pick, pleased with one’s choice, there was still that remaining percentage, no matter how small, where you could still disappoint him.

So Christians spend an inordinate amount of time, effort, and funds to avoid that percentage (whatever it may be) chance of making Jesus cry. That small percentage is area the religious focus 99% of their lives.

If one’s own personal belief was enough—what would it matter if Adam and Steve were married? If one’s own personal belief was enough—who cares whether there was a strip club down the street? Or liquor is sold on Sunday? Or people wear certain clothes or say certain prayers or do certain acts?

By their nature, religions control. Christianity (despite its protests otherwise) is no exception.

(Title of Blog credited to Janet Jackson, of course.)

Monday, December 07, 2009

Sin…what is it good for?

Growing up, we were intimately familiar with the concept of “sin.” We knew the biggies—the ones we would never commit, but could gain a certain amount of satisfaction realizing we weren’t that bad:

1) Murder.
2) Rape.
3) Kidnapping.
4) Sex with farm animals.

There was the category of sins we didn’t want to do, but did anyway to avoid problems:

1) Lying.
2) Cheat on a test.

And finally there were sins we wanted to do, but knew we shouldn’t:

1) Disobey our parents.
2) Not share our toys.
3) Go to Movie theaters.
4) Get to second base.

We were taught the reason we sinned is because…(and this is obvious)…sinning was fun. It was what our [sin] nature wanted to do. No one sinned because they had to, or did it reluctantly. We did it because it was such a temptation to do the thing our very being craved most at the moment.

We sinned because we liked it. (Not the big ones, of course. No one was allowed to enjoy those!)


We were also taught over and over how sin was a disappointment to God. Yes, our sins were covered by Jesus’ blood or atoned for or paid for by His death or _______ [insert appropriate Christian platitude] and we wouldn’t lose our salvation just because we didn’t clean our room when Mom asked us to. Yet every time we sinned—we were repeatedly informed—this hurt God. This bothered God. Jesus cried tears ‘cause we wanted to kiss before we were engaged.

Nobody wants to be a disappointment to their parents. We don’t want to hear the “Sigh” and see the long look on their face. This drives a stake of guilt right into the child’s heart. Even worse, we were disappointing God—the one who loved us, and died for us. Imagine how big His “sigh” would be, and how long His face could get!

And so we entered a cycle:

1) Be tempted by sin.
2) Say “no.”
3) Try not thinking about the sin.
4) Think about the sin.
5) Say “no” again.
6) Think about the sin.
7) Ask God to take away the temptation.
8) Think about the sin.
9) Remember the guilt you felt last time.
10) Say “no” again.
11) Remember the fun you had last time.
12) Justify doing it just this once.
13) Sin.
14) Now the fun is over, feel terribly guilty!
15) Ask forgiveness for the sin.
16) Vow to never sin again.
17) Go back to step 1.

We lived in an almost constant state of wrestling between wanting to sin and not wanting to sin and feeling guilty about sinning and talking about the sins we shouldn’t commit and thinking about sin. This creates a bit of inner turmoil, as you can imagine.

Then we would look at non-believers. We understood their conscience had been suppressed. Muted in some way. They didn’t feel quite the same guilt as we did when we sinned. In fact, one of the mandatory, necessary steps in converting the non-believer was to make them recognize they were sinning! If they didn’t realize they were disobeying God; they would never see their need for God to save them from disappointing God.

We also understood that deep, deep down, they secretly knew there was a God. That there were higher morals they should be following. (See Romans 1 & 2.) What we needed to do was reach past that guilt-free sinful exterior and pull those feelings out, so they could see how bad they were.

In other words, we needed them to feel the same guilt and turmoil we did when it comes to sinning.

Realize we were not envious of the non-believer for their non-guilt feelings. Oh, no—we pitied them. They were going to eternal torment in hell; who envies that? They were angering the creator of the universe; who wants to be in that position? We were light; they were darkness. We were salt; they were tasteless. We were fruit; they were despair. Every good analogy (life, light, salt) we were; every bad analogy (death, darkness, eventual agony) they were.

We felt empathy with the non-believer. We fought with and desired to reduce those inner battles over sin; we assumed they did at one time as well. We simply figured they took the wrong route. We faced up to our demons, and (with God’s help) continued to war against the evil sin nature. They had succumbed to it by claiming there is no God. Or that there are no morals. Or believing in the wrong, namby-pamby type God.

This is why many believers tell us deconverts we stopped believing in God so we could sin; it makes perfectly logical sense to the believer. They want to stop the inner discomfort; they assume we do as well. They think not believing in God will do so; they presume this is the choice we made to suppress the internal feud. “Remove God from the picture and one no longer has to feel guilty about disappointing God,” is how they reason.

They think we are convinced in the theory of evolution because it gives us an excuse to sin. They think we find contradictions in the Bible to allow us to sin. They think we look for any excuse in the world to disbelieve Jesus walked on water so we can cheat on our taxes without the same feelings of guilt the believer has.

This is why telling these types of believers we deconverted because of evidence and reasoning is a waste of time. They have already transferred their own motivations and desires on us. They believe we think just like they do, and the only reason they can possibly see for giving up God is to sin.

I wonder if this is why atheist-to-Christian stories often include tales of sinning, but feeling terrible about it. This is exactly the stereotype many Christians have in their mind regarding non-believers. It fits perfectly. That the only reason we don’t believe is to avoid the inner conflict the believer so righteously engages when wrestling with sin.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

No Going Back

I enjoy casually reading Christian apologetic sites. Some include tales of how the Christian used to be an atheist…just…like…me. So they know what I am thinking, apparently. We read the following stories:

My name is Todd Pitner and if you happen to be a non-believer, I used to be one of you – an intellectually fulfilled ‘good person’ who had a pretty good run for 42 of my 45 years. Although born into a Catholic family and lovingly forced into church attendance, after high school I couldn’t get church in the rear-view mirror fast enough. Other than the obligatory annual Christmas and Easter services, I was “godless and doing just fine.”

Upon joining the Church of NarcissistianityThe Gospel According to Me, the next twenty-plus years served me pretty well. I compiled quite an impressive non-believer’s resume. My credentials:

– Made a lot of money, lost it all (bankrupt)
– Got married, had kids, all-work, no pray (divorced)
– Tried drugs, drank enough to kill a moose (alcoholic)
– Broke all Ten Commandments* (could never fix ‘em)
– Decided to kill myself (too much of a wimp)

* See Matthew 5:21-26 and 1 John 3:15 if
your left eyebrow went up on this admission.

Yes indeed, my life sucked. But as God is so prone to do, He brought me to my knees so that I might look up. In my utter despair, I gave up on Todd 1.0 and prayed for a Divine reboot, “God, if you’re there, if you’re really, really real…would you please help me?!”[emphasis all in original]

Humanity had become nothing more to me than an organized network of molecules and enzymes. I viewed people as mere organisms going through their daily routines of metabolizing nutrients and expelling wastes, ovulating their eggs and ejaculating their semen. I knew the psychology of humans almost as well as their anatomies. The hidden things that pulled them this way and that were very evident to me. They were like guinea pigs, only more predictable, and my chief form of entertainment was to see how skillfully I could manipulate them. I knew that I was supposed to care about them, but I didn't. I couldn't. If mankind's goal was to alleviate its own suffering, a bullet to the head was more efficient and made more sense in my thinking than screwing around with medication or disease control.

What was the point of prolonging any one life? What difference did it make if a girl didn't live to marry or her mother live to see it? Of what value were temporary emotional experiences? They were simply the biochemistry of the brain reacting to sensory input and, upon that individual's death, any remaining memory of that experience would be thrown away along with the person who had experienced it. My extreme point of view had reduced people into throwaway metabolic units; I had become as cold and indifferent as the logic that I exalted.

I was an atheist for most of my life. I thought that the idea of an all powerful, all loving God was just silly. I learned in school that evolution was where life came from, so what do you need God for? And I had a lot of self-motivation for living an atheistic lifestyle. I was living a very immoral life and a drunken life, life that was really a hundred percent focused on journalism.

Right from journalism school I went to the Chicago Tribune, which was unusual; but I had so much experience for a kid...because I knew since I was a little kid what I wanted to do. So I started as a general-assignments reporter. I went to Yale to get my masters in law, came back as a legal editor, covered federal courts, covered criminal courts, covered the Illinois Supreme Court and really enjoyed it but without God, without a moral framework, my personal life was out of control, the drinking, the carousing. I had no moral framework of how to do journalism so I would do whatever it took to get the story. I would steal; I would commit a federal crime by stealing federal documents from the courthouse. I made friends with the court clerk, and he allowed me to go by myself into the court files; and so I would go in there, and I would beat the competition all the time by finding all this wonderful stuff in the court files that no one knew about. So when I would find something particularly juicy, I would slip it under my vest, and I would steal it so when the story broke, the competition couldn't find the documents. Then I gave it a day or two, then I put it back. I figured it was worth it because I never got caught.

I would lie. I remember covering stories at the police headquarters, I would call the witness to a crime and I would say, "Hello this is Lee Strobel calling from police headquarters." Well the implication was that I was with the police department. I intentionally mislead and deceived them, because I figured they would tell me more than if they knew I was a reporter. There was nothing that I wouldn't do in pursuit of a story. I would step on my colleagues, in a very Machiavellian way. I, behind the scenes, destroyed the career of one of my colleagues because he was in my way. By the time I was done with him, he was fired from the Chicago Tribune. That's a terrible thing to do, to destroy someone's career; but I did it. And I didn't care. It didn't bother me one iota, because he was in my way. Get rid of him, destroy him...and I was able to do it. He got called on his honeymoon to be informed that he had been fired from his job...a terrible thing. But, as I said, I had no moral sense of right or wrong. If something was in my way, I got rid of it.

And as I read these tales, I realized I could never go back to being a Christian. It would seem I do not qualify to be “atheist” enough.

I haven’t gone bankrupt. Haven’t cheated on my wife, nor been divorced. Not a drunk. The closest brush with the law outside of my job is speeding tickets. I haven’t destroyed someone’s career—I don’t lie and steal to frustrate my competitors. I don’t consider humans to be “guinea pigs,” nor do I think suicide is the solution is suffering.

Evidently, according to these Christians, there is quite a bit more to being an atheist and I am simply not getting with the routine.

Only a cynic would think these are horrendous straw-people, designed to impress other Christians as to how “atheistic” a person REALLY was. Only a scoffer would think these testimonies aren’t intended to relate to atheists, but are intended to tell Christians how miserable atheists actually are in the deep down inside.

I guess, until I qualify as a “True Atheist,” I will never have such great stories to tell of being so despondent, rich, and sexually immoral.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

God’s a Big Human

Non-believers are often faced with the theist’s complaint as to how we attempt to “humanize” their God-concept, or how we complain their God-concept doesn’t act as we expect it too. They complain we approach the theistic question on the basis God acts like a human—only bigger.

I will attempt to explain why this is so.

As humans we are constantly attempting to figure out the world about us. Why did that tree fall? How can I measure twice, yet the plank is too short? Why do we become sick? Why is traffic stopped and can I get around it? In doing so, we communicate with other humans. We develop language, grammar, and skills to learn information, and figure out the world we live in.

Since we are human, understand human thinking, human emotions, human instincts and human knowledge, it is within that arena we base our communication and attempts to relate our observations. Think of this simple statement:

“My wife’s cat loves me.”

Now, I don’t know the psychology of cats. I don’t know how they obtain knowledge, what emotions they have, or what instincts they contain. We can speculate on such things, based upon observation, but no cat has learned human language in a way it can communicate exactly what it is feeling towards humans.

Look at the first part of the phrase, “My wife’s cat…” I suspect the cat would be stunned to learn it is “owned.” That it is a possession. If a cat is self-aware, it would be repulsed by the notion a human “owns” it. Secondly, how do we designate a certain individual within a household “owns” a cat?

Yet as another human, you understood this statement with no problem. You understood, despite current appearances, at one time the cat was a gift specifically designated for my wife. In my house, my wife has a cat, my son has a dog, my oldest daughter has a cat, and my youngest daughter has guinea pigs. While they all live in the same house, and are all fed by the same person (my wife)—we have broken up ownership amongst various persons.

Now look at the second part: “…cat loves me.” Again, I don’t know how a cat loves. I don’t know what the word means to a cat. I use a human term—“love”—that the other human understands so we can communicate a concept. What we expect from such a statement is that the cat prefers to sit on my lap as compared to my wife’s (it does) that it comes to me for attention (it does) and that it generally prefers, when it allows company, to be in my presence (it does.)

No one hears the statement, “My wife’s cat loves me” and thinks, “You are attempting to humanize the cat” or “You are saying, ‘If I were a cat, I would ____’” No!—we understand the use of the English word “love” is communicating a certain idea where we expect certain actions to align with the word.

We anthropomorphize things all the time:

“My car didn’t want to start.”

We know cars don’t have “wants” or desires. But every one of us (most of us have probably said that very thing) understood the phrase to mean the car was mechanically having difficulty. Does anyone complain, “Your idea regarding vehicles is human-centric”? Of course not!

“The ball wouldn’t go in the goal.”
“My locker door hates me.”
“Traffic was a bitch.”
“The rock refused to budge.”

Each phrase uses a human feeling to convey a concept. Sure, we understand rocks and locker doors do not have feelings or motivations. We utilize these words NOT because the locker door is supposed to understand what we are saying; we use them so the other human can understand the idea.

Now back to the cat example. I say, “My wife’s cat loves me.” But you observe the cat always runs away from me. It hisses at me when I approach. It arches its back. It claws at me if I pick it up. It never purrs with me; never jumps in my lap. This appears to be an incongruity. We have certain expectations from the word “love.” We understand a cat’s emotional base is very different from humans; when a human tells another human something “loves” him—that word “love” presents certain anticipated behaviors. Cars that “love” us are expected to have fewer mechanical problems. Projects that “love” us are expected to be easier than first thought.

And cats that “love” us are not expected to hiss, and claw and run away.

The word “love” is intended, even when applied to non-humans, to portray a communicable idea.

Turning to God…we understand a God is not human. It is different. But in order to discuss this rationally, theists must grasp this seemingly simple fact—non-theists do not have a specific definition for God.

I comprehend to theists, when I say the word “God” a certain mental image pops in their head. A Hindu thinks of multiple Gods with various personalities. A Catholic thinks of a certain Abrahamic version of God. Muslims a different Abrahamic version. Jews yet another Abrahamic version.

The problem I often see, is that this idea is so obvious to the theist, they cannot identify with a God being anything but what they picture in their mind. “Of course God is this” or “God is that” and the notion God could possibly be anything else is as crazy as a thin Santa Claus, or a tall leprechaun.

Yet to non-theists, we do not have a locked-in version of God. Sure, we understand the notion it could be a creator, or that it could have personality, or could exhibit something akin to emotions, or it could be bound by logic. Notice those are all “could’s.” What we are looking for is what actually IS; not what “could” be. So we ask the theist to describe their God-concept.

Because we are human (surprise)…and the theist is human (surprise)…the theist describes their God-concept in…will this be a surprise?...human terms.

The theist may say something like, “God loves humans.” Now to us non-theists, this is an attempt to depict God, using terminology we understand. We get (we truly, truly do) this is not intended to be EXACTLY like human love. We get (we truly, truly do) the thought communicated is a similarity, and that this God, being a completely different species, would have different emotions, feelings, thinking, etc.

The same way we understand “My cat loves me.”

And once this sentiment is expressed, we start to question it, in light of what we observe. We question “My cat loves me” when we observe the cat claw, hiss and run away. We question the sentiment “God loves me” when the God orders genocide, kidnap, and stealing. These are incongruous with our understanding of what the word “love” means.

I am NOT questioning God; I am questioning the human who claims this is what their God-concept is. Much the same way I don’t question the cat, “Why don’t you love him?” I question the owner, “Why do you say these actions are loving?”

If a believer in the Tanakh God indicated God was petty, jealous, malicious, and very powerful—we non-theists would simply nod our head. These words, even though they are human emotions, conform to what we observe relayed in the Tanakh. It is only once a person tries to say such a God is loving, or merciful do we question how those human terms apply to such a creature.

When you say, “God has X characteristic” where “X” is a human description of an emotion, feeling, thought or concept, we expect this God’s actions to align with our understanding of X characteristic.

It is NOT that we expect God to act like a human; it is that YOU have described God in human terms, and we question inconsistencies with that human term. We do not expect cats to act like humans, but if you describe a cat along human terms, we question inconsistencies with that term.

It is NOT that we say, “If I were God, then I would…” rather we are saying, “You claim your God-concept has X characteristic. I understand humans (including me) exhibit X characteristic by doing certain things. But you claim your God-concept does things contrary to exhibiting X characteristic. How do you line that up?”

The same way we do not say, “If I were a cat, then I would…” rather we are saying, “You claim your cat loves you. I understand how humans act when they love someone. But your cat does not act that way. How do you line that up?”

Is this making any sense?

Monday, November 09, 2009

Teenagers, Questions, and Answers

My teenage daughter is currently attending an Evangelical conservative church. (The current boyfriend is the draw.) She questions some things she’s been hearing and told me the following story:

Yesterday the teenagers were asked to submit questions to a Pastor. (“One of the big guys who knows the answers,” as she puts it. *grin*) She and the boyfriend put together what they thought was a pretty clever question—basically “Why does God allow little kids to die of cancer?”

The ol’ Problem of Suffering.

What my daughter found interesting (and slightly amusing) was how the pastor hemmed and hawed, talked around the question, but then she noted this: He never answered the question! She said the closest thing to an answer was, “I don’t know.”

What struck me was how she picked up on that particular problem and how she was savvy enough to see how he didn’t answer it.

See, there really isn’t a good answer. There isn’t a cutsey little phrase, or snap bumper-stick capsulizing in digestible form a coherent response.

Everything we understand about morals, and charity and doing the right thing includes deep involvement in reducing pain and suffering as much as possible, to the point of elimination if possible. We’ve spent millions of hours and probably trillions of dollars research ways to reduce cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, polio, influenze, small pox, malaria, AIDS, and numerous other diseases.

To claim there is a God who can reduce it, but doesn’t, raises the huge question, “Why?” The fact the Christian cannot answer this very basic fact about God demonstrates why I reiterate any claim about God is unenforceable, because God is unobservable and unverifiable.

If you don’t know enough about your God-concept to explain why such a God wouldn’t cure cancer in a five-year-old, don’t tell me how it writes books, or provides you a parking space, or gave your child the winning shot in the J.V. basketball game.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Gay Marriage fails another Popular vote

Well. There it is. Maine’s election this past Tuesday was yet another instance where gay marriage failed to pass. Every single popular vote on Gay marriage in America has failed. Literally from California to Maine. Including my home state of Michigan.


The obviously correct answer is that Gay marriage is not the popular majority position amongst voters. We must recognize this simple fact. We who support gay marriage need to take the next step and question how we convince enough of the majority to change their position, and we become the majority.

There are quite a number we simply won’t. To them it is a matter of principle. Whether for religious reasons or long-held opinions as to what is “traditional” they will never, ever vote for gay marriage. Yes, there are instances where people can change. But deconversions are the exceptions—not the norms—and getting a swing this large will not come in that manner.

I find it hard to believe (perhaps it is true) the entire majority position is comprised of such individuals. Therefore the only hope is to focus on those who are not entrenched in principle, but still do not desire gay marriage to be allowed.

How do we motive these people? What can we say to open their minds to the possibility of allowing gay marriage even though they personally do not want it?

Motivating people is hard, due to the individuality of humans. Some people are enamored by automobiles, and would be motivated by a chance of owning a rare car. To me, cars are unavoidable means by which we get from Point A to Point B. While I appreciate a Corvette, I wouldn’t spend the money on one. (Yet I am the person who couldn’t live with surround sound, and cannot understand people satisfied with listening to Pirates of the Caribbean through…gasp!...TV speakers.)

Those opposing gay marriage use a powerful motivation—fear. They claim gay marriage will lead to school children being taught a certain way. They claim gay marriage will lead to polygamy. To people marrying pets. To your children becoming gay. They understand the power of threats: “If gay marriage is allowed, then _______” and fill in that blank with something--anything--people could possibly be scared by.

You can’t talk people out of fear. You can’t reason fear away. Ever have a child wake up in the night, terrified about the monster under the bed? You know there is no monster. You can show them how empty it is under the bed. You can argue, point out and explain how there are no such things as monsters. Did your cadre of reason diminish their fear? Not even a bit.

Instead you hold them, let them know it is alright. We fear the unknown. We fear the dark because we cannot see. We fear the interview or introduction because we don’t know the person’s reaction. By reassuring the child that what is known—you—is there, you calm them down.

We are not going to argue these people out of these fears. The only way to reassure them is to generate familiarity with homosexuals. To meet gay couples. To gain understanding into their lifestyle—which unsurprisingly consists of “who is making dinner?” and soccer games, and watching TV, and enjoying a glass of wine.

See…familiarity is fear’s nemesis. Remember how scared you were driving a car the first time? How you carefully checked your mirrors again and again? How you didn’t want to parallel park? After driving for years, you think nothing of it. You hop in the car, turn the key, and your mind isn’t even focused on the automatic driving process.

I admit I am uncertain how to implement this idea—I just know it is the way to counter fear.

Besides reducing the opponents’ motivation of fear, we must equally propose our own motivation—selfless support for a minority.

To make many of the current majority position sit back and truly think, what harm does it do to them to allow gays to marry? Does it really reduce the value of heterosexual marriage? Think long and hard about that.

Britney Spears’ marriage lasted 55 hours. Zsa Zsa Gabor has had 9 husbands. We have a television show where producers interview potential females to marry a bachelor; the courtship taking place before camera crews. There are wedding chapels next to casinos. You can be licensed to practice marriages over the internet.

Every one of those marriages is legal. Allowed. Sanctioned.

This is the institution we are protecting? We find so sacred, no homosexual need apply? In reviewing such examples, I am uncertain how it is possible to tarnish heterosexual marriage any more than it has done to itself!

Does it really diminish your own marriage? Did the fact Britney Spears was only married 55 hours on a lark make no difference, but the fact Bob and Ted (who you will never meet) are married in Portland make your marriage just that little bit less?

Where were you on July 21, 2005? What happened on that day? Did you wake up and (if you were married) all of a sudden feel as if your marriage just didn’t mean as much? As if you and your spouse were just not as meaningful as before? If you were not married, did you wake up to the realization that your eventual heterosexual marriage would be less significant? Less wonderful? Less passionate?

Do you forever remember July 21, 2005 as a day--marked in infamy--when marriage lost its sanctity and become an unholy, impure travesty?

“What happened?” you are thinking, “What terrible tragedy could possibly have occurred to bring this about?” Simple…the day before, on July 20, 2005, Canada legalized same-sex marriage.

That’s right (remember, marriage is NOT an exclusively American idea)—our neighbor to the north allowed gay marriage. And not a single American felt their current or future marriage was reduced in any way.

See the reality is we each find the meaning in marriage through our own marriage. Whether Zsa Zsa picks up another husband, a celebrity marries or the Gosselins divorce does not affect the depth or value I have with my wife. Nor would allowing gay marriage impact my marriage. My wife and I make our own course—we don’t measure our marriage by the marriage of others.

The motivation we need to impart is protection of a minority position. There are less homosexuals than heterosexuals. There always will be. If we voted down hetero/homo lines, the homosexual will always lose. Yet so would males. And African-Americans. And every other minority.

The reason America can be great is NOT that we can implement majority rule. 1000’s of governments before America understood the simple concept of “might makes right.” We can be great because we use majority rule to protect minority positions. We can look beyond “who has the most votes gets the say” to understanding and granting rights to those who will never have the most votes.

This is where we have gone awry. We have become a nation of bipartisanship, where the only important question is who can get the most votes to support ME. We will do anything to get those votes. We have stopped looking out for the little person. To wonder how we can do better. To push and prod to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

America is failing. Not because of the economy, but because we have lost all empathy with minority positions. We want to win, and win at all costs. Voting is no longer a civic duty; it has become a video game where the final question is “Do I have the highest score?”

Monday, October 12, 2009

Early Challenges to Christianity

Often, throughout internet debates, we hear the claim that what the early Christians and disciples said must be true, because it was said during the lifetime of witnesses. That it could be checked. Verified. That what they were saying was so outrageous, it would be been easily debunked if it wasn’t true.

The implication being, of course, since it was not debunked—it must be true.

So what kind of skeptics would we be looking for? Well…they would need the right mixture of opportunity and motive. Without both, they would be unable to debunk Christianity.

Opportunity. If a potential convert, living in Ephesus, was told by a Christian Missionary regarding this Jesus who came back from the dead, would the person have sufficient ability to verify the facts? Assuming they wanted to debunk Christianity—what would they do? Where would they go? They would have to travel to Jerusalem, hunt down the correct persons, ask the right questions…a difficulty.

Motive. What of a potential convert in Jerusalem? Perhaps they had opportunity, but lacked the motivation. Think of all the wacky claims permeating the world today. Doomsday cults. Heaven’s Gate. Michigan Militia. Scientology. How much do you know about Scientology? Even if you do not believe it to be true—how much effort have you put in debunking it?

Even the major religions—how much effort have you put in debunking Mormonism, if you do not believe it to be accurate? Have you read the Qur’an, in order to debunk it?

See, the reality is this—most of us have beliefs in place already excluding other beliefs. We lack the motivation to debunk claims, because we don’t believe them to be true in the first place. We don’t debunk everything all the time, because it would be exhausting.

Yet there is a fellow uniquely qualified—the Apostle Paul.

According to Christian tradition, Paul was active in and around Christianity very close to the time of Christ. He was in Jerusalem, and had access to the High Priest. According toGary Habermas, Paul was saved within 1 ½ years of Christ’s death.

Here was a guy with opportunity.

Also according to Christian tradition, Paul was actively persecuting the Church. He was willing to go outside Judea, to hunt Christians down!

Here was a guy with motive.

We have, in simple words, our perfect skeptic. Access to early Christians and their teachings; desire to demonstrate Christianity false.

But here is where the wheels fall off the bus. There are two (2) possible scenarios—either (prior to his conversion):

1) Paul had heard the story of the Jesus’ resurrection as given in the Gospels; or
2) Paul had not.

Let’s look at the first scenario—assume Paul had heard the story of Jesus, the empty tomb, and allegedly being seen by the disciples…

The facts were not enough to convince Paul it was true.

Remember, the conversion of Paul came--not because he was argued into it, not because his careful investigation of facts, not Dr. Habermas’ “minimal facts,” nothing whatsoever to do with the physical evidence on the ground—it came due to a miraculous vision from God!

I am stunned when Christian apologist act as if these facts are so certain and obvious that I, 2000 years later, should accept it as “historical certainty” when a fellow who was much closer to the events in time, person, locale and culture--was not convinced by these facts! If Paul, within the 1 ½ years of after Christ’s death, was not persuaded then, why should I be now? If the only thing that could convince such a well-placed skeptic was a miracle, shouldn’t this raise questions as to the viability of the facts? Shouldn’t this raise question as to what was being claimed?

Giving us our second possible scenario—assume Paul had NOT heard these claims. In 1 Cor. 15:3-7, Paul gives a creed regarding the Jesus’ resurrection, which he prefaces with “I delivered to you what I received…” Many apologists indicate the phrase—“what I received”—refers back to Paul learning these things from Peter and James following his conversion. (See Galatians 1:18-19)

What a minute…if he didn’t know this was what Christians claimed; how would he know what to debunk? If Paul didn’t learn what Christians were saying until after he became a Christian, he was in no position (despite being a skeptic) to refute it!

Here is our perfect skeptic—Paul. He either knew the gospel message or did not, prior to becoming a Christian. If he did, then the facts alone were insufficient to convince a person of that time, there is even less reason to think they would be convincing now. If he did not, then the claim skeptics would have debunked the Christian claims is invalid—apparently they were not proclaiming their beliefs loud enough for anyone to know what they were.

I would like to see how Habermas and Licona and Craig explain these facts were insufficient to convert Paul—a person within a few years with both opportunity and motive to investigate. Why should I believe them now, even father removed in opportunity, and with less motive?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Why lying is not convincing

Recently, I was referred to this video by a Christian friend:

Of course, not only is the story completely false, Einstein went to a Catholic Elementary, this doesn’t prove God doesn’t exist, and the ending about putting religion back in education is a non sequitur.

If you are in Facebook, you can follow a discussion surrounding this video. As expected, numerous people linked to snopes and other sources to demonstrate the video is false, and numerous people responded how even if it wasn’t Einstein, it could have happened, and it was making a great point.

And others, (who obviously hadn’t read the previous comments), jumped in with how great the video was, and how Einstein was so smart for being so young. And still others made the stupid argument we couldn’t prove it didn’t happen. In other words—the same tripe we’ve seen on dozens of topics in dozens of places.

This brought back to mind one of my great concerns while deconverting—how many times I caught Christian apologists in non-truths. I understand people bristle at the accusation of “Liar.” When we point out the complete and utter falsehood in a Christian apologetic, the battle cry is rounded out: “Prove they knew it was false!”

So they were either incredibly incompetent in doing even the most elementary research OR they printed an outright fable—either way, it is not persuasively credible.

In this instance, though, they made a full production video. It is difficult for me to believe no one on the staff performed even the most cursory search to discover this is false. But let’s assume they didn’t; let’s assume someone heard this story from someone, thought, “Gee, that would make a great video” and never thought any further on the subject.

This—THIS—is where I struggled in my research. Too many times, Christians were willing (myself included) to believe anything--anything--in support of the belief. A video about Einstein trouncing an atheist professor? Must be true, ‘cause it conforms to our belief.

See, at some point, in the evolution of this story—someone lied. Someone initiated this story, knowing full well they were making it up. They inserted Einstein in a previously fabricated story, knowing they had no basis or reason to believe it to be true.

And rather than be caught on it, someone else said, “Hey, that’s a great story” and passed it on. And that person passed it on. What bothered me, in reviewing the discussion on this video, was how many times it was pointed out to be false, and how many times Christians didn’t care! A lie? You think lying (and that is what it is, once you know it to be false) is O.K. if it gets the point across?

When else is a lie acceptable? When else can you bend the truth?

As I deconverted, I would read the non-believer’s position. Then I would read the believer’s position. Time and time again, I found the believer’s position to be based on non-truth.

I heard the statement how skeptics once claimed Hittites didn’t exist, but it turns out they did. Not true—no skeptic said this.

I heard the statement of how skeptics claimed Pilate didn’t exist, and it turns out he did. Not true—skeptics have always claimed Pilate existed.

Claims of how Daniel prophetically determined the very day Jesus entered Jerusalem. Not true. How Darwin converted. Not true. How coins proved Quirinius’ second Governship. Not true.

How disciples died for a lie—when Christians don’t even know how they died!

I would have hoped Christians would see such videos and proclaim, “This is a lie! This is wrong! This didn’t happen! Please do not take this to be anything but a fiction along the lines of Beauty and the Beast.” Instead they promulgate, pass it around, and re-enforce how God must exist because Einstein baffled a professor with one of the oldest responses to the Problem of Evil that ever existed. And not even one of the better ones.

I don’t care whether a person knew it to be true or not. Once it is pointed out as false, Christians would be far more persuasive if they acknowledged it to be false, rather than attempt to justify it. Rather than pass it on. Rather than thump each other on the back with how great this lie is.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Jesus, take the Wheel

In discussions, to explain God, we often see theists use a parent/child analogy. I have seen the problem of evil explained, using the analogy of a parent allowing their child to touch a hot stove, in order to learn to not do it. (Granted, I wondered at the time if the person had children…and how far they would go. Do you allow them to be bitten by a pit bull to learn to ask first, prior to petting a strange dog? Do you toss them over a cliff to understand the concept of heights?)

In my last blog it was suggested God has people pray so they feel as if they are involved, or to give them more faith.

Is that important?

As parents, we teach our children to allow them to discover abilities, and to cope with the world as they grow.

I am in the process of repairing my deck. My son (12) and daughter (10) thought it would be smashing fun to help. So I had them pounding in a few nails—1 ½ inch (4 cm) in length. My son couldn’t help himself, and he started to mock my daughter, “Why is it taking you so long to pound in the nails?” I switched him to the 3 inch (7.5 cm) nails. He discovered those are much harder to nail in!

This is what we do with our children. We don’t start them off building elaborate dressers, operating table saws. We start them off with birdhouses, and simple tool boxes. We let them hammer and nail before working a drill. We teach them at age appropriate levels to do things within their ability.

If you want to teach your child to cook—do you start them off with lasagna? No!—you start off making a sandwich, or helping to frost a cake. Do some mixing with you. As time progresses, you help them do harder and harder tasks. To learn.

Further, some things we teach our children so they can deal with life. No one teaches their child how to do laundry because they think the child exhibits some special attribute for it! Thinking the child may someday become a professional dry cleaner. No, we teach them laundry because they will need the ability when they move out.

We teach them how to unplug toilets, how to repair holes, how to vacuum, how to change a light bulb—not because we expect them to gain great joy in doing so, but rather to address such situations when they move on--so they aren’t calling us all the time.

One of the suggestions for why God has prayer is so that the Christian is involved. But is a Christian supposed to be thinking they had some part of the solution? Is a Christian supposed to start thinking, “Good thing I was involved, or this situation wouldn’t have resolved itself”? Is a Christian supposed to start thinking it was his or her prayer that put God into action?

Christianity prides its difference from other religions by being a belief without the requirement of works. If God is having a Christian “being involved”—haven’t we interjected works right back into the religion?

Now I could almost see this as a reason…if prayers worked. The problem is that prayers are so hit-and-miss. In fact, as there is no god, it is as if the person didn’t pray at all! (I am excluding the self-benefit of prayer; concentrating on the results for others.) How does a person explain the situation when nothing extraordinary happens?

Take the most common prayer request—for health. The Christian prays for the sick person, and they get well in record time. God apparently wanted the Christian involved. What happens when the sick person doesn’t get better? Or even dies? Was the prayer a nuisance? How was the Christian’s involvement beneficial?

I realize, because of confirmation bias, the Christian will always focus on the hits, and ignore the misses. Still, from an outside perspective, I would ask, “What happens when you pray for that amputee and their limb doesn’t grow back? Is God saying He doesn’t want you involved?”

The other suggestion was that prayer was to allow a person to grown in their faith. Grow towards…what? I thought the end goal was heaven, where faith will no longer be necessary!

Growth, in learning, requires the ability to differentiate between correct and incorrect solutions. As you learn in school, you take tests. Wrong answers demonstrate where you need further focus—they explain how your thinking went awry and where to correct it. If every answer was “Maybe that’s right; maybe it isn’t”—we could never know how the learning process was progressing.

How many of us, in doing a project, learn what NOT to do in the future? I had the opportunity to build a deck. I now know (somewhat) what not to do, if I did it again, and what to do. It is the experience of realizing, “Ah, I should have done that 2 steps ago—which would make this current step much easier.” It is the experience of learning what tools to buy, what tools to ignore, and what tools are imperative.

The ONLY way we learn this, though, is by trial-and-error and learning what pragmatically works, and what does not.

How does this apply to faith and prayer? Christians pray for everything. They pray for rain when it is dry. They pray for no-rain on their vacation. More snow (Christmas); less snow (January – March). They pray for people to get well. They pray for new jobs, better jobs, promotions, and re-locations. They pray for peace, for converts, for governments. They pray and they pray and they pray.

Yet the world continues unfazed by the Christians’ prayer. It rains on vacations; sometimes it does not. Some people get well, some do not. Peace comes through negotiations, at times it does not. Unblessed food tastes amazingly the same as blessed food.

Where is the learning process? Where is the growth? How does the Christian obtain information as to how to pray, or what to pray for on any basis other than ad hoc? The only way the Christian knows if the prayer was the correct one, was to wait for the specific event to occur. If they pray for peace and it doesn’t happen—it must not have been the right one. If they prayed for a parking spot and one appears—it was the correct prayer.

But what happens the next time the Christian wants peace? Do they think, “Hmm…last time I prayed for it, I did something incorrect. I should have prayed in Olde English”? No—they pray the exact same prayer they did before, and again wait out the results. Does the Christian learn the magic secret formula prayer to precisely repeat in order to obtain parking spaces? No—they pray the exact same prayer they did before and again wait out the results.

There is no growth in prayer because there is not determining factor as to how one is doing it correctly or incorrectly. Christians simply repeat the same prayers over and over and over, and when results roughly align with the prayers, they proclaim, “It was the prayer that did it!” and when the results do not, they forget it and repeat the prayer tomorrow.

As anecdotal evidence only—it has been my experience (with a few very rare exceptions), the reverse is true. Christians don’t “grow” in faith over time; they regress.

What I saw were new Christians “on fire” for God. They thought they could take on the world. A simple prayer and they were ready to storm a biker bar for Jesus! Preach to the inner-city without fear, because they had faith. God was on their side. Give over-generously to just about any ministry, because of their faith that God would provide their needs.

Yet over time, God didn’t set the world on fire as the new convert pictured. Biker bars remained biker bars. No one was converted at the inner-city mission. No matter how much the new convert gave, the ministry wanted more. More time, more money, more commitment.

And older, wiser Christians—mature Christians—start using words like “discernment” and “stewardship” and “wisdom.” Words meant to explain why the world continued on its course despite the new convert’s faith. Older, wiser Christians explain how God works at God’s pace, and all our prayers will be to no avail if it is against God’s will. How faith is important, to be sure, but if faith is in the “wrong principle”…well, then…it isn’t any good, is it?

The new convert cools down. Starts to understand their job is just to pray; God’s job is to do whatever the hell God wants to do. And if God happens to do what the convert prayed for—voila; the convert did it right. God let the convert be a part of God’s solution.

Prayer teaches Christians one thing; when utilized correct (i.e. only remember the hits and ignore the misses) it provides outstanding confirmation bias.

There must be a God—they prayed to find the lost car keys and after an hour of searching, were successful. How can a non-believer possibly say there is no God in the face of such over-whelming proof of the power of prayer

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

God…what if I need my sleep?

I’m outside Christianity; but I still have numerous Christian acquaintances who post situations and stories on their blogs, facebook, e-mails, etc. At times, the innate desire to give God credit is puzzling.

One friend noted she was having trouble sleeping, woke up in the middle of the night and unable to go back to sleep—prayed for her son in the military. He contacted her later and mentioned he was involved in an undisclosed incident earlier that day.

Other Christians chimed in how it was God working—how it was God who woke her up so she could pray for her son. How neat and wonderful it was…and…

I’m thinking, “What the heck? God woke you up so you could ask God a favor, so God could do it? Why didn’t God just do it? Why did He have to wake you up first?”

To them—a miracle; to me—inanity.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Do you think like an outlier?

I’ve been having a discussion with Ten Minas Ministries regarding the martyrdom of James, the brother of Jesus. The ol’ Die for a Lie routine I’ve addressed before.

It’s long. Long-winded. And fairly predictable. Summed up in:

“Did not.”
“Did too.”

But one item of interest arose. Ten Minas Ministries was concerned about me:

DagoodS, I really believe this comment illustrates your true problem with Christianity. It isn’t intellectual, although I am sure you firmly believe it is. You cannot bring yourself to believe that a Christian could be being genuine with you. If it is Christian in any way shape or form, you do not trust it. You do not trust my intentions. You do not trust any writings written by Christian authors to be giving you reliable information.

I was a bit perplexed at this claim, considering how many Christian authors I have utilized in my arguments with Ten Minas Ministries. In the very first comment on this blog entry, I recommend a book written by Christian authors. I’ve quoted items by Udo Schnelle—a Christian. In the past I had quoted from Bruce Metzger, another Christian. When discussing the Synoptic Problem I always refer people to Dr. Daniel Wallace’s writings—a Christian. I mostly do this because I fear Christians will ONLY read Christians, and if I dare recommend a writing by…say…Richard Carrier—it will be rejected out of hand simply because they are not a Christian.

I pointed out how I utilized Christian authors. It wasn’t just the far, far left fringe of unscrupulous liberal, hedonistic scholars who were making these bizarre claims [note the sarcasm here]—these are Christian scholars who understand the depth of difficulty in dating the gospels, determining authorship, determining audiences, determining motivations, correctly deciphering the Greek, etc.

And obviously the grandest question of all—historically what actually happened. Ten Minas Ministries replied:

Simply because an author claims to be a Christian, of course, doesn't mean their views represent the majority of Christianity. There are always "outliers." So simply quoting Christian authors is not necessarily going to garner acceptance by Christian apologists.

I could arguably point out the “conservative Christian view” has become the outlier. Although I do not have any statistics: Inerrancy is probably not the majority position amongst Biblical scholars. [Anyone know?] Literalism (with the advent of Old Earth Creationists and theistic evolutionists) is certainly an outlier at this point.

100 Years ago, if I said the ending of Mark should not be included, I would be the outlier. Now, to include the ending is the outlier position.

What I wish is this: rather than worry about dismissing a claim, simply because it is “outlier”--Prove Your Claim! Treat it as if it was the outlier! Treat it as if no one on the face of the earth would believe your assertion, and start backing it up with proof.

(Does anyone see the irony of a Biblical scholar who dismisses any position the Gospels are not 100% historical for the sole reason it is claimed to be an “outlier” position, yet embraces the belief evolution is not true—a belief held by only 0.1% of the life scientists in the world? Talk about outlier position!)

Let me use an example: the death of the apostle Paul. Ask most Christians in the pew and you would eventually scrounge up the answer he was killed in 62 – 68 CE by beheading in Rome. That is the traditional position. The conservative position. The “non-outlier” position.

Now if I claimed, “I think Paul was killed in a shipwreck off the coast of Spain” I would be faced with skepticism. Sneers of “that is an outlier position.” I would be called upon (correctly) for justification and demonstration of my position. I would be told: “Prove it.”

But what if we placed the shoe on the other foot? What if we told the conservative position: “YOU prove it! You demonstrate Paul was killed by beheading in Rome.” I would think they might discover how weak the evidence is for such a claim. How it is passed on as tradition on tradition, with no support.

Let’s look at the evidence for how Paul dies.

Acts of the Apostles, written around 100 CE, ends with Paul under house arrest for two years in Rome. It is argued (by Christians) that the author of Acts knows Paul is dead at the time of the writing, as he writes Paul’s farewell speech at Miletus, saying he will never see the people again. (Acts 20:25-38. If Paul was still alive at the time of the writing, he wouldn’t have known he would never see these particular people again. The author knows Paul is dead, and inserts this somber farewell, “I will never see you again,” because the author knows it is true.)

Regardless, whether Acts was written before, after or during Paul’s death—it doesn’t tell us how he died.

We then look at 1 Clement written about 95 CE by the bishop of Rome. He is writing to the Corinthian Church about certain problems. In the first chapters the author is writing about people who preserved in their faith. He writes on Abel and Jacob and Joseph and Moses and David. Then he turns to more modern examples.

This is important—the author has opportunity, he is from Rome. The author has motive—he has a desire to list important martyrs in the church, what they suffered for and how they suffered. He mentions four: Peter, Paul, Danaides and Dircae. [Curious, if the disciples all were busy not “dying for a lie” how the author could only list one (1) disciple to use as of 95 CE! But I digress…]

Here is what the author writes: “…seven times was he [Paul] cast into chains; he was banished; he was stoned; having become a herald, both in the East and in the West, he obtained the noble renown due to his faith;” 1 Clement 5:6.

Again, the author does not list how Paul died! (Or possibly by stoning.) But he does list specific punishments, and has a strong motive to indicate he was beheaded for his faith. Yet there is nothing. (And yes, I know this is an argument from silence; such arguments are compelling when the author has motive, opportunity and desire to list the stated event, and fails to do so.)

Now look at The Martyrdom of Polycarp. Polycarp was a disciple of John (son of Zebedee), and was killed in approximately 150 CE. Following his death, this story was written, giving an effusive tale of his great Christianity, and the martyrdom he suffered.

According to the tale, Polycarp was being pursued by a Roman authority. Polycarp predicts he will die by fire. When the soldiers arrested him, they marveled over his physical condition at his age, and allowed him to preach for two hours. Some of those who were in the arresting party repented.

He was brought before the Roman procounsel, and confessed three times to being a Christian. They wanted to throw him to a lion, but the time for wild beasts had already passed. So they decided to burn him alive. He was allowed to pray once more, went willingly to the stake and then the fire started.

A miracle occurred--the fire didn’t burn him. Instead a sweet smell of incense floated through the air. As the fire wasn’t working, a soldier stabbed Polycarp with a sword, causing a dove to come out, and so much blood, it put out the fire! Then the body finally burned.

What does this have to do with Paul? Because in the mid-Second Century, a tale of how martyrdom really is supposed to occur began to circulate with the Martyrdom of Polycarp. A glorious hero, so pure they convert even the oppressors. A miraculous ending to their life.

Where were the stories of Peter dying like that? Or Paul? Or the other Great Heroes of the first generation of Christians?
And sometime in the late Second Century, The Acts of Paul is written. The portions we have left include Paul’s interactions with the female Thelca and the ending section is Paul’s martyrdom. Before we skip ahead to Paul, the portion on Thelca is illustrative.

Thelca was a virgin convert of Paul. She was condemned to be burned. However the fire did not burn her. (Sound familiar?) She was then condemned to be ripped apart by beasts, however a lioness protected her from a bear and a lion. She jumped into a pool of seals, and rather them killing her, a flash of light killed the seals, and she was covered in fire. Not burning her.

They tied her to bulls, but flames appeared and burned the ropes. At this, the governor let her go, and Thelca stayed in the governor’s house, preaching to his wife.

We then get a variety of stories about Paul, including a tale in Ephesus where wild beasts were sent against him, but a lion protected him against the other beasts, similar to Thelca.

Finally, we get to the martyrdom of Paul. The cup-bearer to Nero was listening to Paul from a high window, but fell and died. Paul brings him back to life. (See Acts. 20:9) Nero, having heard his cup-bearer died, is surprised to see him alive again. When questioned as to how it could be, the cup-bearer says it is because of “Christ the King” and so Nero rounds up all the Christians.

Nero proclaims all the Christians will be burned, but Paul will be beheaded. Paul tells Nero, that if he is beheaded, Paul will come back to life and show himself to Nero. Paul was allowed to pray for a long time, and then willingly placed his head on the chopping block. When his head was chopped off, milk spurted out.

Paul appears to Nero, post-mortem, as promised. Nero, afraid, releases all the Christians, including Luke and Titus. The soldiers in charge of Paul’s execution become Christians.

The similarities between the Martyrdom of Polycarp and Acts of Paul:

1. Both have predictions that come true. (Polycarp: dying by fire. Paul: appearing to Nero)
2. Both allowed to preach and/or pray
3. Both willingly go to be martyred.
4. Both have miracles at the moment of execution.
5. Both have some of the soldiers convert.

Further, the tale borrows from Acts (the fall from the window) as well as incorporating other tales about other martyrs similar to occurrences to Paul. Humorously, realizing the skepticism “new tales” of Paul may bring, it defends the fact these were not listed by Luke by claiming, “Hey, the gospel of John includes things not in the other gospels; certainly other things happened to Paul not included by Luke.”

What happens if we treat the beheading story of Paul like an outlier? We note the earliest stories surrounding Paul either do not have a death (Acts) or fail to list it amongst his sufferings as a Christian (1 Clement). We see the earliest account of this beheading is in a work written over 100 years after it was claimed to have occurred, and includes similar fantastic happenings from another book about a martyr.

In short, it shows all the signs of a developing mythical legend.

See, if those claiming to know what happened bothered to research their own claims with as much scrutiny as what they think are “outliers”—they may find their own claims not nearly as well-founded as they thought.

Monday, August 24, 2009

So you want to go to Law School?

On occasion, relatives and friends inform me they are contemplating law school, and inquire as to my thoughts. My first question is always this: “Why do you want to go to law school?”

If you want to become a lawyer, (and you live in the United States), you won’t have much choice. As far as I know every state requires a Juris Doctorate to take the Bar entrance. Long, long ago, you could clerk and intern enough to qualify; but I don’t believe that is still possible.

If you want to bang on tables, F. Lee Bailey style, or become the next Johnnie Cochran, it is off to law school. I found, though, that many law students didn’t necessarily know what type of lawyer they wanted to be. Some were there because their fathers were lawyers, and it was what was expected. Some were there because they thought of dollar signs, and medical school takes too long. (More on this in a minute.) Some were there because they were not ready to leave off college, and it seemed an amicable post-graduate step.

And even those who were certain they wanted to practice law, (such as myself) did not know where they would fall. One could become a transactional lawyer, bogged down in painstaking minutiae, turning a one-paragraph contract into a 14-page document with paragraph titles, contents page and an index. (It must have been a transactional attorney who coined the phrase “party of the first part.”)

Transactional lawyers never, EVER see the inside of the courtroom. Many transactional lawyers hire other lawyers to handle even traffic tickets.

Or one can become a litigator. The person who appears in court, shouting at witnesses and being yelled at by judges. Again, this does not narrow the field. One could go into criminal work (either federal or state), or civil work (personal injury, contract, general litigation). And there are the fields of bankruptcy, taxation and immigration that (being a bit simplistic on my part) are a combination of transactional and litigator. Mostly preparing forms, with a hearing, and a possible trial.

One can go into family law (divorce, post-divorce concerns over parenting time, support and alimony) or into probate work (will and trust preparation, petitions for guardianship or conservatorship). And within each field, one often specializes further. Only Medical Malpractice, for example. Or only Drunk Driving cases.

People generally fell into three (3) areas of practice:

1) An area they were particularly passionate about;
2) What the family did;
3) Where they got their first job.

If a person went into law school, intent on becoming a litigator, they would concentrate their course study towards that ends, look for jobs with litigation as a primary opportunity, and focus attention there. A number of my classmates had parents who were lawyers, and it was expected they would “follow in the family’s footsteps.” If the family work was personal injury—so was the child’s.

And finally, many went out looking for jobs, and where they started gave them the experience enabling them to obtain their first job. If, while in law school, you clerked for two years in a medical malpractice firm, when you start looking for a job your greatest advantage was the two-year experience already under your belt. You tend to naturally end up there.

There are other reasons to attend law school. If you want a political career, a law degree is very helpful. It may help you in a business setting. If you want to teach; you get a doctorate and a chance to wear fancy robes and the longer hood at graduations.

I am not much help in any of those directions. I decided to become a lawyer after my freshman year at college. I wanted to be a litigator. The guy in the courtroom. To me, law school was a necessary drudgery to attend in order to reach that goal. A necessary step in the progression.

It was not a hard decision, nor one I debated over, trying to decide what direction my life would go, or what I would do. Sorry I cannot be any more help in other endeavors.

As I attended exactly one (1) law school, I have no knowledge as to other law schools’ experience. I can only relate from my own.

I can tell you, law school is not some higher institute for the crème de la crème; you get the same personalities you did in high school and college. Remember the girl that panicked and studied 100’s of hours for a simple quiz? She is there. The guy who was always late to class? There too. You find the class clown, the jocks, the partiers, the stress-studiers, the “the professor said we HAD to do it this way!” Even the guy using his pencils like drumsticks; yep—he made it to law school!

A rumor persisted the first year was hard to weed out the lesser students, but I don’t recall the first year being any harder or easier than any other.

Secondly, I attended law school from 1988 – 1992. (Law degrees are typically three year programs, but I attended night school, as I worked during the day to pay for classes at night.) A lot has changed since then. We didn’t have electrical plugs at every desk; we used books. Our “Powerpoint” was the professor writing on a blackboard. In fact, our research class was one of the first to use this thing called “Lexis”—allowing legal research on a computer. And the monitors we had could only loosely be called “color” since the text was in green and the screen was black.

To give you an idea of how times have changed, when I graduated, I contacted a company about legal forms on Word(c). They laughed, “Since 98% of law firms use WordPerfect(c), we don’t bother offering forms in Word(c).”

After you graduate—what are you going to do? The employment is really, REALLY thin in Michigan. (Again, I can’t speak for elsewhere.) Last year our firm advertised for a part-time legal secretary. We are talking maybe 20 hours a week for $10-$12 per hour.

And we had lawyers apply.

We were stunned. They informed us the jobs are so scarce, they would take anything. One particular candidate stated it best. “I thought I would get my law license and I would finally have made it. That the rest would be downhill. It is not happening. There are no jobs out there for lawyers whose only experience is law school.”

Her husband (also a lawyer) had just got a job entering data in a bankruptcy firm, and was happy to have found that work.

Those thinking of huge salaries a la Tom Cruise in a John Grisham novel, best think again. Yes, some of the top students in the United States can make good money right away. But the cold reality is that they are the exception, not the rule.

Worse, the best salaries are in the big firms. Which means you won’t be practicing law as much as practicing office politics. Firms require billable hours. Meaning lots and lots of long hours. And associate attorneys have to please the junior partners who please the senior partners. Your first year you write a lot and maybe…MAYbe attend court with someone. Your second year you get to argue a motion or two. Eventually you get a small hearing.

But if, at any step, you mis-step—your job is in jeopardy. Two (2) anecdotes as to why I never wanted to work for a large firm.

One acquaintance of mine obtained a job with a very prestigious law firm. And did quite well. He pulled a few tricks out of his sleeve, and seemed to be on the fast track to rapid promotion. Then, one day, a partner asked him to handle a matter of more personal nature. A hearing for the partner’s family member. Unfortunately, the facts were not good, the judge was not predisposed, and the other side had the day.

My acquaintance was out of a job. “You are only as good as your last trick” was what he said.

On another occasion I had a motion against an associate in another prestigious law firm. It happened my partner is very good friends with a partner in this firm. The associate’s boss’s boss’s boss. And this was a troubling case. If I won the motion, I would have won the entire case. Immediate judgment for my client. If I lost, the case would simply proceed forward. No harm; no foul.

This associate feared losing the motion; it didn’t make a huge difference to me. He was informed (I was told) that if he lost the motion, don’t bother coming back to the office. I don’t know whether they really would have fired him, but throughout that motion I watched as huge drops of sweat poured off his face. He felt his entire career going down the drain on one motion. (As it was, that day the judge WAS predisposed, and I lost the motion. His job was saved.)

I wouldn’t want so much riding on so little.

And-- with our current recession--partners are reluctant to take a pay cut; the first people on the chopping block, after support staff, are the newest lawyers.

As for me… I am a lawyer who loves his work. We see complaints of other lawyers wanting out of the practice, or looking for alternative work. I do not understand it. I love what I do.

I am not sure I am much help as to whether to go to law school. It was like driver’s education class. A necessary chore that gives you esoteric principles of rules of the road, and where the pedals are, but it isn’t until you are behind the wheel before you understand how to drive.

Law school doesn’t teach you how to practice law, really. Your first job does that.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Can you Tolerate another post on Intolerance?

Two commentators on the last blog entry raised points furthering the discussion.

Reuben referred to Wendy Brown’s interview on tolerance/intolerance. She defined tolerance (after reviewing its use in a broad spectrum of fields) as the “the management of some undesirable element or foreign body invading or taking up residence in the host that one would rather not have to deal with. It is about managing some object of aversion that is different with a stigma—different with a problem.”

Of course, the word “management” leaves much to be desired, requiring further clarification. How does one manage? Is there a limit on management? Is there a limit on reaction? But setting aside the ”how” for a moment; observe the ”what”--what are we managing? Notice the words utilized:

“not have to deal with’

Before we can “tolerate” something—we first made a determination we do not want the thing to exist! Or, at the least, exist in any realm where it impacts us. We first make the decision the thing is NOT desired. NOT wanted. It is, by virtue of our tolerating it, not worthy of continuing.

Sam pointed out an article by Greg Koukl (admittedly I was surprised to be agreeing along with Koukl) making a similar conclusion when he states: “The irony is that according to the classical notion of tolerance, you can’t tolerate someone unless you disagree with him. “

The host on the Wendy Brown interview picked up on the fact, by claiming “tolerance”—we have degraded the thing being tolerated. If I “tolerate” homosexuality, I have made the determination it should not exist—it is repugnantly holding one’s nose while dealing with an undesirable problem.

I find no virtue in tolerance, because living in our world we are forced to interact with undesirable elements. We cannot control our physical bodies degrading (sadly). I don’t desire to lose my hair—what “virtue” is it that I “manage” this undesirable element? We face financial undesirable situations, physical, natural and…not surprisingly due to the variety of humanity…socially undesirable situations. We will deal with people we disagree with. That we desire would not exist—at least not in their current form. That fact we have to deal with them, and then to label it as “tolerant” and pat ourselves on the back by labeling this forced interaction as “virtuous” is silly. Might as well be proud of breathing.

So it cannot be that we are tolerant—that we “manage” undesirable elements—it has to be HOW we manage them where the divide comes in. Where we consider some responses—some forms of management—to be “tolerant” when dealing with undesirables, and some responses to be “intolerant.”

Can it really be as simple as the Golden rule? Can it be when we treat others as we would want to be treated, we consider that “tolerant”? And when we don’t—it is not?

As I previously stated—street preachers don’t bother me. In my “Golden rule” I could see how treating others as I would want to be treated means I don’t care about this. Yet for others, it IS intolerant. Because they would never treat others that way, and would never want to be treated in this fashion. (It is why I subscribe to the Platinum Rule rather than the Golden rule; treat others as THEY want to be treated, not as YOU want to be treated.)

It is time we stopped worrying about who is being tolerant and who is not. To stop labeling the other person as being “intolerant.” As if that means anything. Better to question whether they would like to be treated the way they are treating you.

The line between “managed correctly” and “not managed correctly” when it comes to tolerance is too nebulous a concept to bother debating it.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Is Atheism an intolerant belief?

A British Television show discussed this with some interesting back-and-forth as reported by The Friendly Atheist.

The problem I see in these conversations is the lack of specificity. The lack of definition. Two (or more) people talking with two (or more) perspectives on the subject. How do we define “intolerance”? Who determines what is “intolerant”? How do we develop a scale where something is “more” or “less” intolerant?

Let’s start with a basic definition—what is “intolerant”? It means “to not tolerate,” leaving us with the next question: defining “tolerate.” I would broadly define “tolerate” as “a situation where the person has no desire to change the status quo.

Think of it in terms of temperature. If a person is comfortable, they do not change the status quo--they leave things as they are. If they become warm, they no longer tolerate the situation and make choices: complain, lose some clothing, turn on air, sit there and sweat, etc. Become cold, make similar choices. They attempt to change the status quo.

Everyday we are confronted with situations designed to be intolerant. Designed for us to not tolerate. Your alarm clock is deliberately noisy and obnoxious to make you modify the status quo of sleeping. That phone ringing is purposely intended to change your situation of not answering the phone.

I have always found this preface phrase rather silly: “This doesn’t bother me, but…”. Of COURSE it bothers you; you would be unaffected and silent if it didn’t!

The question of whether beliefs are “intolerant” is so basic within beliefs (especially those strongly held), I find the question inane. The person with the bumper sticker, “Not out of a Job Yet? Keep buying Foreign Cars” has a belief about buying American products and is, by virtue of putting that bumper sticker there, attempting to change the minds of someone who does not. The very point of the bumper stick (and the belief behind it) is to change the status quo of a person thinking of buying a foreign car. Of making them not tolerate (by fear, or discomfort, or sense of loyalty) buying Honda.

The instant I begin discussing my belief with the intention of persuasion rather than mere information—I have become “intolerant.” I hope to change the status quo of another person by making them no longer “tolerate” their position.

Imagine someone asks me for the fastest way home. I suggest Highway I-75. Another person chimes in, “No, Telegraph Road is faster.” If I shrug and move away—I was only providing information about my belief as to the quickest route. I am not being “intolerant.” But, if I start discussing traffic signals, or construction, or number of miles, attempting to convince I-75 is faster—I am attempting to change the status quo. I am attempting to make the person not “tolerate” taking Telegraph Rd.

If we are in a position where we desire to convince another of the viability of our belief—whether it is atheism, deism, agnosticism, theism, pantheism, whatever—even if it is for a hope they recognize our human ability to be persuaded differently than they are; we have become “intolerant.” We are hoping to change the other’s status quo that our belief is not viable, or we shouldn’t hold such belief.

Beliefs are intolerant. Atheism is intolerant. The real question (hardly every addressed) is what is the proper response way to be intolerant? “Proper” being a heavily loaded word.

What reaction is required? What is “too much?”

Back to our temperature example. My wife is cold-blooded. She likes temperatures when they start to reach the lower 90’s. Then she becomes comfortable. Otherwise she does not tolerate the temperature. And she reacts.

Bless her heart; she tends to overreact. In the car we hear, “I’m cold!” and the next thing you know, the seat warmers are on, the heat is turned on full blast, she is wrapped in a blanket, hoodie, winter coat and boats. The rest of the family starts to peal off clothes like a Nudist Colony Lobby, and let the heat-stroke fantasy of being in a desert wash over us.

We expect beliefs to be intolerant. We expect beliefs to be proclaimed to the point of making another uncomfortable. Not tolerating the situation. The question is this—what is too much?

Here the problem varies so much from person to person. Some find street preachers too pushy. Others find them entertainment and love to engage them. What one person would say, “that level of persuasion is too much” another would say, “doesn’t bother me.”

A great example of this came from the video on Friendly Atheist. A person (theist actually) pointed out that some things said by atheists about theists were not as bad—not as intolerant—as being told you were going to hell. That has never bothered me. Christians who indicate “You are going to hell!” to me do not cause me to flinch. I understand why they think that, I am not afraid of a non-existent place, I understand they don’t have any evidentiary arguments and are reduced to fear-mongering.

I hear, “You are going to hell” and it doesn’t cause me to change my status quo. My heart maintains the same beat. My mind forgets it as quickly as a passing road sign. So what…

BUT, I hear, “The disciples wouldn’t die for a lie” and my heart does start to race. My mind starts to frame the argument as to why this is so terribly wrong. My fingers start to twitch on the keyboard. Other theists may hear this and think nothing of it. Forgetting it as quickly as a passing road sign.

“You are going to hell!” I don’t react. I tolerate this phrase.
“The Disciples wouldn’t die for a lie.” I react. My mind changes from what it was thinking on. I do not tolerate this phrase.

Yet for others it is the opposite. In such a diverse society, how do we learn to get along when each phrase could be considered highly intolerant to some, mildly offensive to others, and of no interest to the rest?

Who sets the standard for when something is “intolerant”? I propose we use the same method we do in other situations—think about the other people present, granting consideration as best as possible.

I sense Christians feel, in this area of intolerance, that their beliefs are being forced out of the marketplace of ideas. That they are no longer allowed to practice what they believe. I sense, when complaints of “Atheists are intolerant” are being banded about, it is saying, “You atheists get to practice what you believe, but we are hindered in some way.”

I see complaints of how Christians can’t pray at graduation ceremonies. Christians can’t hand out pamphlets on the street due to ordinance impositions. Christians can’t do this; Christians can’t preach that. I see Christians who feel like the society is giving deference and favoritism to non-believers.

It isn’t. It is attempting to give consideration to others. Christians should try it themselves with a dash of humility.

Imagine you are in charge of a banquet. What do you put on the menu? Think about it for a second.

Most likely, one of your first questions would be, “Who are I serving?” If you are at First Baptist Church, most likely wine would not be on the menu. Serving “Harleys & Hookers”—beer would be a prerequisite. You start to consider the people.

We’ve all been to wedding receptions. What is on the menu? Some salad, some rolls, a vegetable, a fruit, a potato, ziti with spaghetti sauce, a chicken and a beef. Occasionally a few fish. Why is that the menu over and over and over? Because it is designed to provide for the most people. Some like chicken, some like beef. Rare is the person who will only eat pork or fish. Salads are innocuous. Even a vegetarian will not starve with such a meal.

If you are in charge of a banquet, you will default to the safest menu in consideration of the crowd. Something that hopefully everyone will be satisfied with.

What you don’t see—what you won’t do—is say, “Hang it, I am in the mood for hot Mexican, so we are having chips and salsa (only hot—no medium or mild), and spicy beef & bean burritos and hot Spanish rice, Corona’s and deep-fried ice cream.” Banquet planners understand their own preferences will not please even a majority of the crowd.

Yet what happens when it comes to praying before the banquet? We often see Christians who proclaim, “I am a Christian, so I’m going to pray a Christian prayer, dang it. It is not about what others want, it is not about giving consideration to others—this is about ME and MY BELIEF, and if they can’t tolerate it—too bad. ‘Please God and not humans,’ so says God.”

The same person wouldn’t serve Thai and only Thai, because they like it. Yet when it comes to praying, they demand a Christian prayer, because they like it.

See, it is NOT that non-believers are winning some battle regarding praying at banquets. It is that, like the food, the safest route is to have a non-confrontational prayer, or no prayer at all. It is giving consideration to the audience.

Imagine giving a prayer that is not offensive to Jews. Best leave off Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And not offensive to Christians. “Allah” is right out! And not offensive to Muslims, and not offensive to pagans and not offensive to… In the end, the safest default is to have no prayer at all. True, even THAT will offend some. But it is impossible to pray before a banquet of mixed beliefs and not offend someone.

Face it—your belief is intolerant. What you do with that, and how much consideration you give to others who believe differently is up to you.