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.