Tuesday, August 26, 2008

You Gotta Have Faith

In our discussions we often hear the cry, “The skeptic has as much faith as the Christian.” Or “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” Or “You have faith in science.” These are conflations of the word “faith.”

First of all, on a personal note, this seems a bit like the theist is thinking faith is a bad thing. As if they have been besmirched by the implication of having faith, and must equally tarnish the other person. Have we reverted back to our childhood playgrounds?

“You have elephant ears!”
“Oh, yeah? You have an elephant nose!”

“You believe by faith!”
“Oh yeah? Well, you believe by faith, too!”

The only thing missing is the “Nyah, Nyah, Nyah.”

More importantly, however—why would the Christian so lightly give away this precious commodity? Why would they flippantly treat faith as something one could easily obtain at the local store and the skeptic happened to drop some in their shopping bag?

Think of the strength within the Christian concept of Faith. It can heal. Matt. 8:10-12, 9:22. James 5:15. It forgives sins. Matt 9:2. It can move mountains. Matt. 17:20. It can throw the mountain into the sea. Matt. 21:21. It is the conduit for salvation. Eph. 2:8.

The famous faith chapter of Hebrews 11 lists such iconic Jewish heroes as Enoch. Noah. Abraham. Moses. David. Is this the company we keep when you declare we have the same “faith”? Do we, likewise, have the power to miraculously heal when you say we have “faith” in science?

When you say I have to have more faith to be an atheist, are you anticipating God will be saying, “Well done, you good and faithful servant”?

Of course not! What the Christian means by the term “faith” when referring to a skeptic is a determination based upon incomplete data. The Christian feels accused of making a determination about what their God is like, or what is inspired, or how God could be moral, or what God feels about this, or what God feels about that on incomplete data.

They have a series of books written in dead languages, and with mistakes introduced in copies. They have “gut feelings.” They have philosophistry and apologetics. Yet, in the end, the data is incomplete, and they must make a leap of determination. It is this “faith” the Christian is comparing to skeptics.

In the same way, our data is incomplete regarding natural abiogenesis. The same way the Christian has no data the Jewish leaders would have confronted the disciples about the resurrection of Jesus, we have no data as to the exact chemical nature of the earth at the time of abiogenesis occurred. We each must engage in some form of speculation.

It is here the concept of “faith” is being utilized.

Yet, if you think about it, we don’t have complete data on anything. We all must engage in some determination of conclusion without complete data. I presume the next minute will be much like this one. True, despite the fact there is not a cloud in the sky, it is possible an instantaneous typhoon will come about in the next 30 seconds, completely covering the sun.

Even though it is 77 degrees and August in Michigan, the temperature may suddenly drop, and it will be snowing by 3 p.m. this afternoon. All I can do is rely upon my past experience, my observation, information obtained from observing what others report, and come to the conclusion it will not be typhooning in the next minute. It will not be snowing this afternoon.

Obviously, there is a range of how much we can observe and then speculate. While I can be pretty accurate regarding the weather in the next minute, it is harder for the next week. Or next month. Or a year from now.

Simply using the term “faith” to mean a conclusion on incomplete data is not the same “faith” from one thing to another. It is very little “faith” to believe (due to the amount of data) the next minute of weather will be very similar to this minute. It takes a great deal more to believe we secretly landed on the moon in 1842, and have been keeping the knowledge of trans-warp engines from the ordinary people…

It is insufficient to claim the “faith” to believe one thing is the same “faith” to believe another—the observable data is different in each situation. Part of the confusion of this discussion is to treat “faith” as being all parts equal. It is not.

When I am told, “You have as much faith as I do” the first question that should be asked is “faith in…what?” How much data has been utilized to come to the conclusion? How much is available? And the most important question of all—if more data comes to light, are you willing to change your conclusion in order to explain the data?

One of the most frustrating aspects of this discussion, is having it with someone who does not have all the data, yet will stick with their conclusion regardless of even the possibility there is new data out there. Look, I don’t expect you know Greek. I don’t expect you to know every possible argument, every available text, and all the data we have at this point in time. But if you don’t have it, will you recognize that the “faith” you have may be different than the “faith” others have who do have more data, and reached different conclusions?

Monday, August 18, 2008

“You’ve been a bad Puddy Tat!”

Ever go on a trip with a teenager who is firmly convinced they will not like it? Guess what—it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They have a perfectly horrible time.

“Hey, we’re going to ______.”
“Aw, I don’t wanna go! It’s boring. I hate it. Can’t I stay home?”

“Nope. You are going, ‘cause the entire family is going.”
“I won’t have anything to do. Nobody is my age. You guys don’t do anything fun.”

No matter what happens, they are firmly entrenched in not having a good time. If the sun is shining—it is too hot. If the food is plentiful—it is the wrong kind. And if, by some bizarre alignment of the correct stars, they somehow manage to eek out a moment of good time; they will assure you it is in spite of everything you did, and will go immediately back to being miserable.

If you look at an event as being negative, it is easy to find something negative to say about it.

Many Christians hold to the idea of original sin—that since the fall, inherent in humanity is the tendency to be immoral. That it is as part of humanity as hearts, livers and hair. Understand, this is not the claim for the capacity to be immoral, (we all believe that) but rather the overall proclivity to be immoral. This is an important distinction.

As an analogy, imagine having the ability to go right or left, as compared to the proclivity to go right as compared to left. The person with the ability, when reaching a fork in the road, may take a left. At the next fork, however, they may take a right—putting them back in the same direction. Or they may take a series of lefts, realize this was not leading in the way in which they intended, and start taking rights as a correction.

But a person with the proclivity to go right will take a right at the first fork, a right at the second fork, a right at the next fork and the next and the next.

Many Christians view humankind as consisting of the latter situation. Given the choice between a moral and immoral decision, they will make an immoral decision again and again and again. (Since this doesn’t happen in practice, they create the theological doctrine of God’s grace pervasively existing in the universe preventing inevitable self-destruction.)

Just like our teenager, they expect the negative, plan on the negative, and with little surprise—find the negative. I read the blogs, the books, the articles. I listen to the radio programs. Homosexual marriage? One more sign of the impending apocalypse. Movies with violence, sex and drugs? Bad humans, bad! Dancing, sex, crime…all one has to do is watch the evening news and it would confirm your worst fears that humanity is self-imploding.

I’m not saying our world is great. I am not claiming there is no room for improvement. But there is some moral within the world. There are good, beneficial things happening. All is not lost. It is frustrating to constantly read and hear how horrible the world must be, when the person refuses to look for anything positive.

Know what else happens with our teenager? After pointing out some fun things to do, (“I don’t wanna!”) or giving suggestions (“No!”) and being rebuffed, we reach a point of complacency—we don’t care whether they have a good time or not. In the same way, I reach a point of not bothering to point out any moral action, any act of charity to these Christians—it will likewise be rebuffed as, “They must be doing it for selfish reasons” or “It is only because they secretly believe in God.”

What we say is ignored; our reasons disregarded. Do they understand how much insight they give into their own thoughts and motivations?

“If given a chance, and no one knew—you would have an affair.”
“No I wouldn’t. I love my wife, and the guilt would not be worth the small amount of pleasure.”

“Liar. You only say that ‘cause you have to. You have original sin—you want to commit immoral acts.”
“No, I really don’t. I have the ability to make a choice…”

“Yes, and your choice will be immoral. You have a fallen conscience.”
“Actually, I make the choice based upon observation, past experience, upbringing, environment and other factors.”

“And all those factors are corrupt and sinful. You want to sin, sin, sin!”
“Sigh….forget it….”

I am not perfect. I recognize I violate my own moral code—I am certainly violating what some theist thinks their god’s moral code is. But I also recognize I have the choice. And as much as the blame for violating my moral code rests with me, the credit in not doing so does as well. Yet I am constantly saddled with the blame, and never provided any credit.

There is no “common ground.” No point in which we can agree as to what humans are like. If you are viewing us as evil monsters—you cannot find “common ground” in which we are sometimes angels as well.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Our Criminal Justice System is Failing

Because it has become the “art-of-the-deal.” Plea bargaining is a necessary part of our legal system. It is an offer to the accused that if they plead guilty rather than take a matter to trial, they will receive certain benefits. Perhaps the defendant will plead to a reduced charge in exchange for the original charge being dropped. Perhaps the defendant will agree to plead to the original charge upon a certain sentence or monetary restriction.

For many reasons—some obvious, some not so obvious—plea bargaining is needed. If every case of every accused went to trial, our system would bog down. (If you don’t like jury duty now, when 90-95% of cases are negotiated prior to trial, imagine how many more times you would be called with such an increase of caseload!) We would need to hire more prosecutors (increase taxes), more judges (increase taxes), more court personnel (increase taxes) and build more courtrooms (increase taxes.)

And that is simply to get to the point of hearing a verdict! If we start to impose more sentences, we would need many more jails and prisons. Which would require…I don’t even have to say it, do I?

Let’s make this personal. While out one evening, some miscreant breaks into your home and steals your television. He is caught, charged, and now the prosecutor is offering to have the defendant plead guilty to a lesser offense, most likely receiving minimal or no jail time, some probation and then off he goes.

You probably are mad. And feel a little violated. It was your home—where your children and pets and spouse live. It was your television—you worked hard to earn the money to buy it. You no longer feel safe; you now triple-lock the doors. Who is this punk to waltz through so easily? The law says stealing a television from a home results in a certain crime and a certain punishment; why should they get a break?

But look at it in the bigger picture. While this fellow is (rightly) going through a trial for stealing a television, a child molester is not. Or a wife-beater. Or a rapist. What is a replaceable television as compared to the broken lives waiting for repair? While your criminal is sitting in prison—there are only so many beds. Jails, due to over-crowding, have the right to release prisoners early. Who do you want sitting in prison—a guy who stole a television or a guy who raped his own daughter?

Within the system we ask the victim to sacrifice their justice. As lawyers, judges, prosecutors and probation officers we see case after case after case. To the victim this may be their one and only brush with crime. To us it is case 9,473 out of 10,000. I can understand why the victim feels the system fails to adequately address their needs—they see it once and what they see is a lack of the criminal receiving the appropriate justice. We see it so many times, in order to make it even feasible we compromise over and over.

Unfortunately we have become jaded to the process. Now, everything is about “the deal.” Not the crime, not the victim, not justice—what is the best deal we can make and get out.

It has become too rare we say, “Enough. THIS crime will not ‘get the deal.’ This crime must be addressed.” The case of the Mayor of Detroit is an example of when we need to say “Enough.”

I heard on a news media, there are meetings by which the Mayor’s representatives are meeting with local officials to negotiate the possibility of his resignation in exchange for pleading guilty to a lesser crime. There was even a suggestion he could plead to a misdemeanor in order to keep his law license. (In Michigan, if you are convicted of a felony, your law license is automatically revoked.)

Because the community is tired of this Mayor, because it would be “best for the city,” it would not be surprising to see such a deal emerge. It is what the system does. I think we are slitting our own throats to allow this to happen. He should be tried, and if convicted, receive the appropriate sentence under the statute. Here is why:

You may need a little background. Detroit police officer Gary Brown was investigating an incident surrounding a party alleged to have happened at the Manoogian Mansion (home of the current Detroit Mayor) and as part of that incident, an alleged affair Mayor Kilpatrick was having with his chief of staff, Christine Beatty.

Deputy Brown was fired. He filed suit against the City of Detroit (and others) claiming he was wrongfully fired for doing his job, because he was investigating the Mayor. Mayor Kilpatrick testified repeatedly he had nothing to do with Deputy Brown’s firing and never had an affair with Ms. Beatty. Ms. Beatty testified she had nothing to do with the firing and no affair with Mayor Kilpatrick.

The jury was not persuaded, and awarded a mutli-million dollar verdict against the City of Detroit. The City appealed. In the process of the appeal, the case was settled for almost $9 Million.

It is now claimed that during the settlement negotiations, certain text messages were obtained by subpoena, which appear to completely contradict the Mayor’s testimony. The messages imply both an affair, as well as knowledge of Brown’s firing, and the reason for his being fired. It is claimed the reason the settlement was negotiated was under threat of these messages being released.

As it turns out, many of these messages were released anyway. The prosecutor for the county of Wayne (where Detroit is) decided to charge Mayor Kilpatrick with perjury—lying under oath. I was amazed (and appalled) to see many “human-on-the-street” interviews with citizens who said, “Aw, leave him alone” or “This was peripheral to the case—what does it matter if he lied about something inconsequential?”

The reason it matters is that perjury is our only tool by which we can even reasonably hope a person does not lie in a trial. In Michigan, perjury—deliberately lying under oath— is a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Look, you can lie to your wife about having an affair. You can lie to the papers. You can lie to Entertainment Tonight. But when we have you in the stand—by golly, we expect the truth! Because THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is what a trial is designed to be—an exercise by which we determine what happened, as best we can with fallible human beings.

We understand you may not remember whether the car accident was on Tuesday or Wednesday. That is not perjury—that is simply being human. Or you may not remember where you were headed that day. But to repeatedly meet a woman in a hotel, and send love note after note, and received love note after love note, and if you had an affair over a period of years—it is not “simply forgetting” to say you didn’t have an affair! It is lying!

When we have a person in the stand, we have only two (2) primary ways to motivate them to tell the truth. First, if they fear we have a document or other testimony contradicting them. And second is perjury. Even if we have no way of finding out whether they are telling the truth, we want them so scared of going to prison—they chose to tell the truth anyway.

We want the witness thinking, “I may be able to lie here, but if I am ever caught, I could face up to 15 years in prison and it is simply not worth it. No matter how much money may be at stake, no matter how much this may hurt, I don’t want to go to prison over an untruth.”

The last thing we want is the witness thinking, “Meh…’under oath’? Big deal, I can lie here just as easily as lying anywhere else.” In order for our system to have any integrity; in order to preserve the concept we are looking for truth within our trial, we must impose a tremendous sanction on those who would willingly violate truth. Otherwise the idea of trial loses all meaning. We may as well have an interesting debate over a beer, and then vote with a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.

I know it is tempting to want to deal with the Mayor. Sure, it would be better for the city if he stepped down. Yes, this case is extremely economically expensive. But it is self-defeating to offer anything less than a plea to the charges with a significant sentence.

See, the reason plea-bargaining works is because of the threat of a trial. The idea that if we, as the defense, do not take the deal--the real possibility of a trial, with the witnesses telling the truth, will cause us more harm than agreeing to a deal. If, on the other hand, we can lie with no repercussions within a trial—why take the deal? “Get all your friends together. Create an alibi. Don’t worry—if they are lying they may receive a slap on the wrist, if anything at all.”

I am firmly convinced the easy road of offering a deal to this defendant is a significant step backwards within our ability to enforce truth-telling in the courtroom. We may as well throw out the oath entirely; replace “Do you swear or affirm to tell the truth?” with “Please tell the truth unless you don’t want to, ‘kay?”

Thursday, August 07, 2008

There was no Freedom of Speech in my Head

As a Christian we used the word “Faith.” A lot. It was a slippery little word to define; in fact we had sermons and books and classes and articles and meetings and whole series all designed to give insight into that five-letter word.

We knew it was the conduit by which we received salvation. “By grace you are saved, through faith….” Eph. 2:8. We were justified by faith. Rom. 3:28. It was not merely a belief, but a belief so strong it necessarily resulted in evident actions. James 2:14-20. It could heal. James 5:15. Matt. 8:9-13. Faith could control weather. Matt. 8:26

Faith could (hyperbolically) move a mountain. Matt. 17:20. It was not a one-time belief, or a passing thought, but something to be nourished; something to grow. Rom. 4:20; 2 Cor. 8:7

It was not irrational, but it was not rational either. It was more than just evidence. Heb. 11:1. It was “proof” of creation. Heb. 11:3. Without this thing called “faith” it was impossible to please God. Heb. 11:6

We understood it was a leap (not a blind leap) based upon incomplete data whereby our mind was fully convinced in a God doing…something. We made pithy statements like, “Faith is not thinking God can; but knowing God will.” Or “Faith is the light that guides you through darkness.” Yet even with these, we never quite understood how it worked. Thus the reason for repeated sermons, teachings and readings on how we had to have faith….whatever that meant.

And while we were never quite confident on the full definition of “faith” what we were confident was the antithesis of faith—its mortal enemy. Doubt. We believed in a God, even in a specific God with specific characteristics. And we felt the depth of our conviction was on a scale; with faith we became more fully convinced, with doubt we slid backwards to less conviction.

We didn’t want doubt. If faith pleased God, surely the opposite—doubt—would displease God. We placed ourselves on a treadmill in which the only acceptable speed was “faster.” More faith. To slow down—to have “doubt” was unacceptable. Curiously, to maintain speed was equally unacceptable. One could always have more faith. Never did we reach top speed.

So we struggled with how to become more faithful; but at least we knew what to avoid in the process. Moving backward. Having doubt.

That much we knew.

Don’t get me wrong—we knew we were human. Doubt would come; it was not expected we would never have any doubts at all. It was like a canker sore. As much as one doesn’t want one—one still gets them. And while we have medicines to reduce the symptoms of a canker sore; there is no insta-cure to make it “go away.” Doubt didn’t just disappear, sometimes it lingered. And over time, with persistence, the canker sore went away, as did doubt.

Of course, one of the simplest ways to not encounter doubt is to not contemplate the thought. We implemented the “avoid even the appearance of evil” in so many other ways, it was easy to cross-over into our thinking. Want to avoid drunkenness? Simple—never drink alcohol. Want to avoid lustful thoughts? Simple—impose strict dress codes on women so we never even see an ankle, let alone a leg or a thigh or a…

Avoid pre-marital sex? Never kiss, never hold hands and never, EVER dance!

In the same way, if you never contemplate the thought that Jesus might not be God, you never have to worry about entering the dungeon of doubt. Don’t even go in the door! If the thought of “Why, God, did you allow…” you learned to stop at the “did” because God was God. And to start questioning God was to start down the dangerous path of Doubt.

While the intellectual discussion of “Was Jesus God?” would be acceptable, to dare contemplate the actual possibility would not. Within our human mind, it is impossible to precisely differentiate between the intellectual discussion and the empathetic notion of an actual possibility. In order to discuss “Is the Earth flat?” we actually have to think about what the Earth would be like if it was flat.

This is part of the reason we only held such discussions with other Christians. We could debate, even vociferously, the concept of Jesus not being God, but none of us really believed it. We knew, at the end of our “debate” we would have convinced ourselves Jesus was God. It strengthened our faith; it didn’t introduce doubt. We read Christian books. Regardless of how the book started, or what was in the middle, we knew the ending would safely land us on non-doubting ground. The questions would be answered. The correct words stated to saturate any doubt we might have had.

Oh, we would read non-Christian books, too. But first we would put on our armors of Faith. We would question every word stated utilizing a firm Christian worldview. If it did not align exactly with our position (if it dared imply humanity was not completely depraved) we would be free to reject it and any premises resulting from it.

And if it did, by some unforeseeable trickery, manage to instill even an ounce of doubt we ran to any writing by a Christian that could even remotely dispute it and grasped on to the Christian writing with the strong arm of faith. Because we didn’t want doubt.

My mind was no beacon of Freedom of Speech. Far from it. I had censors firmly established, refusing to allow even the possibility of the question to form. I loved what I thought was a God. I was extremely thankful for the gift of salvation I thought I had received, not to mention the bountiful life I attributed to this God. It is remarkably uncomplicated that I wanted to please this God. I wanted this God to say, “That fellow is a keeper.” Faith pleased God. Doubt did not.

Who, in such a situation, would even want to dabble with idea of displeasing such a God? Daring to seriously consider alternate possibilities was, to me, like seeing how close I could hold my face to a running chainsaw before it chewed out my eyes. Unthinkable!

For many years those censors worked. Sometimes they worked overtime, but they worked. In fact, you might say they worked too well. My mind was so firmly convinced of the notions it held, I thought I was upon safe ground in discussing with non-believers.

Convince me? Ha! My mind was expert at sieving out the claims contrary to my views. I anticipated I could compartmentalize the intellectual discussion from the conviction of persuasion. I only needed to understand the arguments; not be persuaded by them.

I gave the censors the night off. I allowed Freedom of Speech in my head. Not just the words, but the rationales behind the words, the depth of the arguments, the actual working with the hands of my mind to immerse into what the skeptic was saying.

And I found out that doubt is a good thing. It was so indoctrinated into me, when all this time my brain was saying, “This doesn’t make sense. You need to study this more.”

Sometimes our brain is saying, “Wait a minute. That ain’t right.” My youngest child will stand on the roof of our house; contemplate wind velocity, distance, height, etc. to determine what direction she must jump to correctly land on our trampoline, spring up and land in our pool. Me? I would have some serious doubting going on, envisioning all the horrible ways that plan could go wrong! Her? Not a doubt in her mind.

I see now part of the floundering of the discussion between non-believers and believers is that in even having the discussion we are asking the believer to dare doubt. To have less faith. To do the thing that displeases their God.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Yesterday’s Prayer List

Many churches, back before the internet, had a Prayer List. It was a sheet of paper listing out the current crop of ill, unemployed, or general requests for prayer needed for such mundane things as homes, or cars or recent graduates.

Of course, as people healed, or obtained a job or weren’t graduating from anything, they dropped off the Prayer List for the next needee individuals.

As the proverbial entertainment industry operates, they became yesterday’s news. Today’s blockbuster movie, smashing box-office records, becomes tomorrow’s DVD, and next week’s “Special” and by next month will be in the “$1.99” bin alongside Splash.

When my deconversion initially filtered through the church network, I jumped to the head of the Prayer List. Maybe not the actual paper one (too embarrassing for my family) but the secret Prayer List known to the select few—the one the Pastors and Elders and Deacons knew about and no one else.

They prayed and they prayed and they prayed. They prayed their guts out. And over time…nothing happened. I didn’t come bounding back to Jesus. Turns out this wasn’t a “phase.” I simply stayed not-a-Christian.

Worse, I didn’t pick up any new habits to pray for. No drunken rampages. No divorce. Didn’t lose my job. Didn’t become sick. I became quite boring to pray for. How many times can one say, “God, I wish that feller was saved. Again.”?

I have been relegated to being on yesterday’s prayer list. Old news. Sure, just like the occasional odd movie IS rummaged out of the $1.99 bin, dusted off, and lovingly purchased, I suspect my name equally occasionally is dropped in a prayer every other month or so. But at this point I think the person’s God knows what the person wants. There isn’t any new way to say it.

Just like finding out someone lost their job. Initially everyone feels badly and prays quite extensively for them. As the weeks of unemployment drag out to months, it is human nature to lose the beginning exuberance. We go from “Poor Jim” to “Jim still hasn’t found a job?” Soon it is “There must be something wrong for Jim to not have work by now!”

I was just as guilty. When going through my deconversion, at first I prayed and prayed and prayed that God would help me through it—reveal himself to me. But after a while, I lost the words to say. How many times could I say, “God, I want to know you. Help my unbelief.”? If God didn’t realize it the first time, he certainly didn’t need to hear it 1,094 times more. For all the people that think we deconverts let go too soon—remember we are just as human as you. Are you as faithful praying for “Sara’s Aunt” who was diagnosed with cancer after 2 weeks? 2 months? 2 years? Of course not—we move on. We find new things to pray for.

Why would a God need to hear the same request over and over? If there was a God, and he had been watching humanity for only a few years, I think he got the point we don’t want our grandparents to die of cancer. Does this God really need reminding from Wednesday to Thursday that I don’t want grandpa to die? Does this God need a new Prayer list to smack himself on the head and say “What? Jim wants a job? Gosh, the first 16 weeks he was on that prayer list, I thought they were just kidding!!”

To some extent, I am glad I am off the Prayer list. People should be doing better things with their time than wasting breath, talking to a non-existent being doing non-existent things. On the other hand, I am a bit saddened by it. Because it makes me yesterday’s Prayer list. Old news. Forgotten.

Ah well. Such is the life cycle of a Prayer List individual.