Archive for June, 2006

Coriolis

I had a genuinely bizarre conversation at work yesterday. A colleague and I were talking (via a handful of other topics) about things that should be easy to determine as true or false, but have such entrenched misconceptions that it’s difficult to do get a straight answer with, say, a ten-second Google search. One example I mentioned was the idea that the Coriolis effect causes water to drain from a sink in opposite directions in the northern and southern hemispheres. For the record, this is rubbish, or at best a massive exaggeration; although the Coriolis effect does influence the draining water, the effect is so small at the scale of a sink or bathtub that it’s impossible to detect above other influences, like the flow direction of the water as it comes out of the tap, the shape of the bowl, and the movement of the plug after you pull it out. This site describes a way that the effect can be detected on this scale, but it’s a long shot from what you’re ever going to notice when flushing your toilet. The myth has been perpetuated by a combination of gullibility, people who capitalise off demonstrating it to tourists at the equator, and a sixth season episode of The Simpsons. (Although as an Aussie, that’s the least of my objections to that episode.)

Back to the story. While we were talking about the Coriolis effect, another colleague turned around from his desk with a look of confusion and disbelief – obviously he’d believed it until this point in his life. He challenged us to explain how, when (like, I suspect, most of us) he had tried swirling the water by hand in the opposite direction, it looked like it briefly changed direction, stopped, and then changed back. He completely dismissed the idea that the shape of the plughole and the sink, the motion of the water after hitting the sink from the tap, and the general chaotic effect of him swirling his hand through it would have a much more obvious effect than the difference between the radius of the earth from one side of the sink to the other. Didn’t want a bar of it. I asked him, if he had amassed such a body of evidence, which direction he thought the water did go in in the southern hemisphere; he couldn’t remember, but he knew it was the same. (He later said it was counterclockwise, but he didn’t sound too confident.)

This went back and forth for a while, until I demanded that we take the argument to the sink in the bathroom. We couldn’t find a plug in the bathroom so we went to the kitchen. (Incidentally, this gives you some idea of the immense scheduling pressures of our job.) On the way, the story started to change a bit; he started suggesting that a sink was too small, and there wouldn’t be time to see the swirl change direction in a small sink. We were told that we’d have to go home and fill up a bath – a bath – and then we’d see it all swirling in the same direction. The funny thing is that, until we actually went to look at a sink, there was no mention that there was a minimum size at which you’d see the effect. We tried the sink anyway, with results that I think it would be generous to call inconclusive; but as the water (with bits of paper to see which way it was moving) went down the plughole, the slightest movement in any direction was pointed to as evidence that the direction was changing.

We then tried an appeal to authority (read: Google), and the story changed again, to something like: “It might not be the rotation of the earth that does it, but something makes the water go down the sink the same way.” I suggested that there might be a legal requirement to build sinks shaped such that the water goes down one way in the southern hemisphere, and the other way in the northern hemisphere. The conversation sort of degenerated after that.

I’m not totally sure how serious he was; probably he was at least partially being stubborn and argumentative for its own sake. (He wouldn’t have been the only one.) But the point is that the conversation seemed strangely familiar. There’s something frustrating about trying to make a point to someone when the rules of evidence are reversed – instead of looking for the conclusion that best fits the facts you’re aware of, the conclusion is assumed, and the argument revolves around finding a way to make the evidence support the conclusion. Half-remembered personal experiences are quoted as unassailable facts, while other people’s experiences are dismissed. And when it looks like the other side is getting the upper hand, the goalposts move so that there’s still a chance of claiming a smaller or different conclusion as a win. I’m sure just about anyone has done some of these things in an argument at some stage, but what it really reminded me of was the argumentative merry-go-round that is religious apologetics.

There is something more specific that made the Coriolis thing remind me of a religious debate. The colleague in question is (now) the only believer on our project. I’ve been a bit hard on him so far in this post, but back when I was starting to have doubts about Christianity, he was one of the people I talked to at great length to look for some answers. When I started drafting this post yesterday I wasn’t even going to mention that he’s a Christian (I’m still trying to keep him anonymous of course), but then today we actually did have a discussion about religion, and it summed up what I think about Christianity so well that I thought it was worth writing about.

As I mentioned, we’d talked a while ago about the fact that I was having doubts, but I didn’t really keep him up to date with the fact that I’d reached a conclusion (the wrong one, from his perspective). Today the topic came up, and I (for lack of a less weighted phrase) broke the news to him.

The first thing he said was interesting – he agreed that Christianity made no sense. This is a position that, strangely enough, finds support in the Bible:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, NRSV

Apparently it’s okay for the message to seem to make no sense, because God’s wisdom makes no sense to us. This is superior to evidence (Jews demand signs) or reasoning (Greeks desire wisdom). That’s fine, but how then are we expected to decide whether it’s true or not?

He went on to say that Christianity is based around an idea that doesn’t make sense on the surface of it – that you should put everyone else in the world ahead of yourself. Now a lot of religious people see atheism as a rejection of morality, because morality is part of religion. I had to point out that the idea of self sacrifice isn’t the most surprising part of Christianity, nor is it unique to Christianity; plenty of other religions and systems of morality say exactly the same thing. I have no problem with that. That’s not what I disagree with. The point of Christianity, which I do disagree with, is the claim that there’s a divine creator watching us, that he sent his son to us in the form of a human called Jesus, and so on.

After a bit more discussion, he told me that he was concerned that, against Hebrews 10:25 which tells us not to give up meeting together, I had stopped going to church because it’s “easier”, and then lost my desire to believe as I lost contact with the church, eventually justifying the fact that I didn’t want to go back by saying that I didn’t believe in God anymore.

My reply to this was sort of also the reason that I wanted to post this conversation, so that I have it on record for anyone who feels concerned about my decisions. I did not reach my current position lightly. I spent months looking at arguments from different angles, talking to people, asking God for guidance; one day I’ll post more detail about this, because it’s worth having stuff like this written down. As for it being a justification for my non-attendance at church, I actually stopped believing a few weeks before I stopped going to church. I was scheduled for songleading nearly every Sunday, which was a commitment I took seriously, and really enjoyed in earlier times when I was passionate about it. But for at least a couple of Sundays last year, I was looking out at a congregation, singing with them, while thinking, “I don’t believe these words anymore.” It was a surreal experience. My decision to stop going to church was nothing to do with the culture of the church, or the people in it; it was simply because I no longer believed in the God I was going there to worship.

After this, he more or less accepted what I was saying, and was good-natured if a little dejected about it. Full credit to him for recognising that someone has legitimate, thought-out reasons for what they believe or don’t believe. (My partner Tina wasn’t so lucky – one of her workmates told her that the solution to all her doubts was that she should read Philippians 4. She did. It wasn’t.)

The conversation drifted on to a few other topics; for example, he said that there are some things he has real difficuly believing deep down, but he knows they’re true because the Bible says so – a situation I’m familiar with but now find strange. These days I take the position that if the Bible says something that really doesn’t appear to be the case, then it casts the Bible in doubt, not necessarily just your own perception. This led him to the old assertion that it depends on faith, not on sensible reasoning. This has Biblical support as well:

I am saying this so that no one may deceive you with plausible arguments… See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. Colossians 2:4,8, NRSV

There was a time when I accepted that, at least in some cases, blind faith and acceptance of Biblical authority was a better way to find truth than “plausible arguments”. These days I’m less convinced.

I’m aware that this post has rambled over a handful of topics without really doing justice to any of them, and may have generally sounded a bit patronising. The colleague I’m talking about is a good guy, and using conversations with him to make a point isn’t going to totally reflect his character in all its gritty human detail. What I’m trying to show here is that, as I see it in myself (as a former Christian and, to some extent, now as well), and in others, there’s an attitude towards reasoning that accompanies religion. It’s an attitude that says that some truths can be sacred, and anything that seems to contradict it is either wrong or is being misinterpreted. It says that not every truth needs to stand on its own merits, that some things should be accepted on faith, and that that faith is superior to any rational argument that disagrees with it. It says that someone who doesn’t hold certain beliefs is doing so for ulterior reasons, because they don’t want to accept it, or find it too hard, or have emotional barriers that they have to overcome.

This is how I see things. Feel free to disagree with me. None of my opinions are sacred.

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Nasty.

Possession all Australia’s way since Materazzi was sent off, but one questionable penalty awarded and the Socceroos are on their way home after refereeing controversy in every match.

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Australia vs Italy half-time

No score in a fairly passive game so far. Hard to say which team looks better – Italy looks more dangerous in their attempts on goal but Australia’s keeping possession better. A nil-all draw looks on the cards at the moment, and I like our chances in a penalty shootout.

At least the ref is awake this time.

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Australia through to round 2 of World Cup

Some appalling refereeing; but in the end it doesn’t matter, Australia draw with Croatia 2-2 to go through and play Italy on the 26th.

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Comments on the ICOC Unity Proposal

Just to establish a bit of context: from 1999 until late 2005, I was a member of the Sydney Church of Christ, affiliated with the International Churches of Christ (ICOC). Without going into too much detail, the ICOC had a bit of a reputation as a cult. Over the course of a couple of years centred on about 2003, the church’s reputation finally caught up with it, and a series of apologies, resignations and restructurings turned it into a completely different church. The effect worldwide was inconsistent, but one of the more common changes was that individual congregations started running more or less independently, where before there was a well-defined hierarchy of which churches were accountable to which. The result is that now it’s difficult to say which congregations still belong to the ICOC, or whether the ICOC even exists as such.

Recently there have been a few attempts to re-unite the scattered remnants. The latest (I’ve mentioned before that I still get the church newsletter) is a document called A Plan for United Cooperation, the end result of six months of deliberation by an elected group of nine leaders, with an accompanying set of questions and answers. In summary, they’re calling congregations to agree to a common statement of beliefs and an outline for a new leadership structure.

I left the Sydney Church because I no longer believe in God, not because of any of the ICOC’s particular abuses. I have no desire to use this blog to join the ranks of people declaring the past or present faults of the ICOC. For one thing, I joined long after the most serious period in the early to mid 90s, and although I could tell a few horror stories, they’re really quite ordinary compared to what you’ll find with a quick visit to Google; at any rate, most of those practices are long gone in the majority of ICOC congregations. Also, while most of the church’s critics describe the abuses from a Christian perspective, I believe its most serious problems are those common to Christianity in general, so most of what I’d say about the ICOC would apply equally well to other churches, and possibly (although I’m less familiar with them) other religions. I hold no (…okay, very few) grudges against the ICOC specifically.

But this unity proposal is worth commenting on. Obviously it’s not going to affect me directly. But as a former member, I hope that my thoughts on the subject might at least be relevant. I don’t expect that the comments of an unbeliever will be given any weight in the decision process. But one can hope.

The first thing that stands out to me about the unity proposal is the amount of effort that’s gone into it:

We have worked on the Plan For United Cooperation for about six months. For the first eight weeks, we collected and reviewed about 40 proposals and submissions on the topic of unity from disciples throughout our worldwide fellowship. We are very grateful to all who took the time to study God’s Word, formulate their thoughts and submit them to us. We also studied Scriptures, sought other advice from in and outside our fellowship, and read various books on church government including one entitled Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity, describing in detail how other conscientious religious leaders in the past wrestled with similar issues. It was helpful to see that we were not the first to wrestle with issues of church government, but rather a part of a long list of many who have struggled with these very same things for centuries. We then met on November 14-17 to pray and discuss the various submissions and then develop a comprehensive plan to represent our churches, one based on sound biblical principles and the perceived needs within our fellowship. (p2)

After hundreds of hours of prayer, study, reading, discussions, and edits as well as soliciting many ideas and much counsel, we can honestly tell you that this plan is our very best effort. (p4)

While I applaud the sheer magnitude of this effort, I think there’s a question that needs to be asked: Why is it so hard? I have often been told that the defining aspect of Christianity is that it is God’s attempt to reach out to man, rather than the other way around. But I can’t imagine that this process would have required any more effort if it was an entirely human endeavour. The committee says that they prayed and studied the Bible intently, and I have no doubt of that. But did this really make their path any clearer, if they also had to spend half a year processing and evaluating proposals, discussing and (no doubt) arguing with each other, and dissecting church history? And apparently other churches have been doing the same thing for centuries. What has God actually done in this process? From the outside, you could be forgiven for concluding that he hasn’t had any influence one way or the other. I’ll come back to this later.

On the subject of other churches, the Unity Proposal is also interesting in light of the ICOC’s former position that they were the “one true church”, and that all other churches had lost the true meaning of Christianity. They have noticeably backed away from this in recent years, as seen in the following statement:

We have no desire with this process to formulate judgments about any of those in other fellowships. We agree that, “We are not the only Christians but are Christians only”. (p4)

The document’s statement of beliefs, of course, necessarily excludes people who do not share key beliefs. For example:

4. Our salvation totally depends on the work of God, prompted by his own mercy and grace, not our good deeds. That work redeems those who hear, believe and obey the Gospel message through baptism into Christ through their faith in God’s power and continue to remain faithful unto death. (p5)

The necessity of baptism is the posterchild doctrinal sticking point of the ICOC and the Restoration Movement in general. The above statement says (among other things – I’m picking on the most obvious example) that baptism is a critical part of the Gospel message, and therefore implies that anyone who hasn’t been baptised as an adult believer has not been redeemed. Of course, one would always expect a positive statement of beliefs about salvation to exclude anyone whose beliefs about the matter are different. But I can’t help but wonder why, in a plan for unity among believers, not even a mention is made of the fact that there are millions of others who believe in the same God and read the same Bible, but don’t share these beliefs. The top of the statement of shared beliefs quotes Jesus on unity:

“May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17:23 NIV

However, it is clear that even the most ideal outcome of this plan is a long way short of “complete unity” among believers. The best possible outcome is complete unity among the fellowships of the former ICOC. From a perspective outside Christianity, this is a difference of a couple of denominations in a sea of thousands. What does this “let the world know”? I’m also interested in this position:

With holiness in mind, the romantic and marriage relationships of Christians are to be pursued with only those who “belong to the Lord” as defined by Scriptures (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, 1 Corinthians 7:39). (p6)

The “one true church” doctrine has always meant in the past that dating and marriage was only endorsed between two members of the ICOC. But in what way has this changed? This is not an abstract question – the dwindling numbers of the Sydney Church (and I’m sure other congregations) in the last few years have basically forced people to look outside the church for any hope of finding a partner. So the exact meaning of this statement will be important to a lot of people. Do members of other denominations “belong to the Lord”? Contrary to what the statement says, the term is notably undefined by Scriptures. (Unless we’re allowed to marry the firstborn males of our livestock, on the basis of Exodus 13:12.) If “belonging to the Lord” is claimed to be well-defined by Scriptures, then what about the Gospel, salvation, or our earthly mission? Why does the statement of beliefs need to define these, but not “belonging to the Lord”? If these are also supplied entirely by Scripture, then the whole collection seems redundant beyond number three, “The Bible is the inspired and infallible Word of God.” Or are those who “belong to the Lord” only those who share this statement of beliefs? Or are there people who don’t share these beliefs but do belong to the Lord, which would suggest that the stated beliefs are too strict?

Maybe I’m nitpicking, but it seems that, despite claiming not “to formulate judgments about any of those in other fellowships”, the writers of this proposal have drawn an assumed boundary around the former ICOC, and have formulated statements that make the most sense under the assumption that Christianity does not exist outside that boundary. As another example, consider the “call to arms” later in the document:

Even a cursory glance at our membership figures from DisciplesToday.net shows that our churches have become less and less evangelistic for almost a decade. Many churches have not grown numerically in seven or eight years. While it is crucial to experience Christ in our daily walk, it is equally crucial to proclaim him as well. Both maturity and mission matter. We cannot just know God, but we must make him known as well. That is both the command and the example of Jesus. That is certainly the example of the first century church. Surely, lack of numerical growth is not a sign of maturity. (pp11-12)

I know first-hand that many of the former members who have left the ICOC during that time have gone on to join other churches. In more recent years, many have even gone, with the church’s full blessing, back to congregations of the “mainline” Church of Christ, who share essentially the same beliefs. If these people are still considered part of the Christian body, then the dropping membership statistics are not an evangelistic failure at all. I don’t know whether the ICOC’s declining numbers can be entirely accounted for by those who are still Christians but have gone elsewhere; but it seems obvious that the DisciplesToday.net membership figures are not the full story. Unless, that is, we draw a boundary around the ICOC as those who are saved. The fact that these issues aren’t even considered seems to suggest that this is the boundary that writers had in mind.

So why do I care? Surely the finer doctrinal disputes between different Christian groups are irrelevant to someone who doesn’t believe in God at all. Well, situations like this are some of the places we would most expect to see the fingerprints of divine intervention. Christians sometimes argue that unbelievers shouldn’t expect God to perform miracles in front of them, because the gesture would be wasted on someone whose heart is already hardened. But when believers come together and genuinely, wholeheartedly seek God’s guidance about something, you would expect God to at least consider pushing in one direction. When the issue the believers ask for guidance about is the very doctrinal foundation on which their faith is based, it is hard to come up with a reason why God wouldn’t want to intervene. Look at the lengths the Unity Proposal Group have gone to to try to bring God into the process:

We are asking each church leadership to prayerfully consider ratifying this plan after discussing it with their members… We are also asking all disciples and churches to pray and fast on Wednesday, March 29th for a day of unity, repentance, forgiveness and renewal. Please join us so that together we can allow our light to shine brightly before men so that they may see our good deeds and glorify our father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). (p1)

And yet, despite it being unambiguously in God’s own stated interests to make this process as fruitful and successful as possible, they have completely ignored this most obvious opportunity to come to a definite position on the issues that separate them from other churches. I’m not saying that they should state what they believe about other denominations; I’m saying that they should find out what God thinks about other denominations. A time of widespread church restructuring, utter humility and repentance before God, prayer and fasting for his guidance, and great interest in the proceedings by outside churches would seem like the perfect time to introduce some real unity in the fractured mess of Christian doctrines around the world. To unite the former ICOC is, in short, thinking too small.

One observation I can make from my time at the Sydney Church is that the majority of members had some form of Christian belief before they joined the ICOC. Our basic Bible studies were mostly focused on proving our position against other churches’ doctrines, with a relatively small portion devoted to the basic truth of Christianity. Also, the ICOC’s most outspoken critics were Christians. If God accepts both the ICOC and its critics, then most of the efforts on both sides are frivolous infighting. Alternatively, if one or the other is wrong and not saved, then someone who is genuinely devoted to a relationship with God and living according to his will is completely deluded about what God actually wants, and is actively working against him. (One possible answer to this is that one side or the other is arrogantly clinging to their doctrine in spite of God’s attempts to show them otherwise. My response to this is that, although people like this certainly exist, I find it hard to believe that one side of the fence consists entirely of such people. I can’t judge people’s motives, but I’m as convinced as I can be that many, if not most, religious people I have met have a genuine desire to follow God, and not all of them belong to the same denomination.)

Either way, we are faced with a situation were God can’t (or won’t) make himself clear even to his own “chosen” people. The situation I described relates to the ICOC, specifically the ICOC before about 2003, but similar things could be said about the divide between any of the thousands of Christian denominations. All churches believe, at some level, that they are right about something where all the others are wrong. Many believe that some or all of the others will miss out on salvation because of their doctrinal faults. This has been true for the entire history of Christianity, back to and including the Judaizers mentioned in Acts 15, or Jesus’ own followers leaving at the end of John 6. Examples of churches splitting are in free supply throughout Christian history; examples of churches recognising their common purpose and recombining are much harder to come by. The same point could be extended to the dozen or so major and thousands of smaller religions worldwide.

Many people will say that this just reflects the faults of imperfect humans. I have no doubt of this. My point is that the situation does not reflect the influence of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving divine overseer of the process. Some debates, such as whether Jesus was divine or mortal or both, span all two thousand years of Christian history. One word from God would settle this once and for all. To return to the issue of whether baptism is necessary to be saved, think of how the Christian fellowship would expand (after initial bouts of “I told you so”) if this one issue could be settled unambiguously by the same God who knows himself whether he requires it or not. If you insist that God is there and has set down a path to salvation, then the only conclusion I can reach is that he enjoys watching us bicker over what that path is, because he seems to have made no efforts to clarify it himself.

My response to this as a Christian would have been that God has already told us the path to salvation, in the form of the Bible, so no new clarification is necessary. This would be a good answer, if the Bible was clear and unambiguous. Yet even the most staunch inerrantist says that the Bible’s message can only be relied on after applying the correct interpretation. The fact that different churches can read the same Bible and reach different conclusions on even the most basic issues (for example, are you saved by faith or deeds, or some combination?) means that the “correct interpretation” is, to put it mildly, not obvious. This is true without even visiting the fact that the Biblical canon was decided, by fallible men of the same calibre as those who can’t agree on doctrine today, based on which books supported the doctrinal directions fashionable at the time. For God to provide his ultimate plan for salvation through such a corruptible channel in a form that is open to varied and mutually incompatible interpretations, and then refuse to clarify his position on anything for the next two thousand years, seems petty to me. There isn’t even a consensus on whether the Bible is God’s final word – the Catholic church, the charismatic and Pentecostal movements, and the Latter-day Saints, among others, believe that God still reveals his will through various prophetic channels today. Members of these churches should consider why there isn’t unanimous agreement between them.

Actually, this last point raises another question: what form would a new message from God take? What should Christians look for? There are a lot of possible answers to this question, and I think that ultimately, if God does exist, then I’m not in a position to dictate how he should communicate. But there are many options. New prophecy, accompanied by miracles performed by the prophet, would be the most consistent with the authority claimed by the writers of the Bible. (Note that I’m talking about unambiguous miracles – faith healings of mild back pain and speaking in unintelligible tongues don’t count.) To remove the middle-man, God could create the document himself, along the lines of the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. But it doesn’t have to be quite so dramatic. The Bible provides plenty of support for the idea that God guides people’s hearts and minds, for believers at the very least; if every Christian woke up one morning with an overwhelming conviction that, say, marriage to unbelievers is okay, it would knock down a lot of barriers. Or God could just show clear support to one particular group. Imagine if all of the outreach efforts of groups who teach infant baptism were thwarted by an unending series of coincidences that led them down dead end after dead end, but evangelism by proponents of believer’s baptism was effortlessly fruitful, always seeming to lead to people who were interested and willing to listen. This approach wouldn’t need people to agree or even notice that it was God’s intervention; after a while the numbers of some groups would dwindle while others would flourish, until doctrine became uniform by default.

These are just a few rough ideas; but it doesn’t really matter specifically what method God uses to communicate with us. The point is that it’s possible. There’s no obvious reason why an omnipotent, loving God wouldn’t want to put his people on the right track, and probably in a more effective way than I could come up with. Certainly, the coordinated efforts of tens of thousands of believers praying for this outcome would give God little reason to deny the request. A coordinated, growing union of churches coming to an agreement on what they believe would stand out against the background of divisiveness between denominations and religions, and would, I’m sure, draw a lot more positive attention from unbelievers.

So here is my response to the ICOC Unity Proposal.

  • It is too human-centric. It sends a message to the world that creating a coherent body of like-minded believers is man’s responsibility, not God’s. It says, in effect, “God has not helped us, and God will not help us, so we need to agree to help each other.” As it stands, it is unapologetically a result of people’s planning efforts; it asks congregations to discuss among themselves, pray for guidance, and then respond indicating whether they accept it or not. Instead, congregations should be praying for God to make it obvious to everyone whether this church structure will be successful, and whether this statement of beliefs is correct. Better still, they should be praying for God to provide his own version of this document. If done unambiguously, this would pretty much put an end to the discussion, and the congregations could move on with no doubt that they are part of an organisation that is built for success and according to God’s will.
  • It is too narrow. It seeks to unite a group of churches that already have (apart from small recent deviations) the same doctrine, and until a few years ago were part of the same organisational structure. While this is a challenging task, it is definitely on the scale of what humans can and have achieved on their own. It ignores the possibility of cooperation and doctrinal agreement with a much larger body of churches. Even a tiny amount of intervention from God in giving unambiguous favour to specific interpretations of doctrine, or even just indicating which doctrines are important to salvation, would have enormously positive consequences for Christianity across the world. Aiming lower than this is an admission that there is no higher power involved in the process.

If there’s one overall point that I want to make, it’s this: I can’t understand how an attempt to unite people under the name of a loving, all-powerful God looks so much like a completely human endeavour. Well, that’s not true – I can think of one explanation for this. But I don’t think it’s one that Christians would like.

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Billboard Heckler – Meaningless Purpose?

Sooner or later I’ll post something about my recent trip to the Barossa Valley, but in the meantime, here’s the next in the Billboard Heckler series. The photo is from the Epping Gospel Chapel, but the sign is also displayed by a few other Baptist churches:

GOD EXISTS - otherwise life's purpose is meaningless

The glare and font make it a bit hard to read, but it says “GOD EXISTS – otherwise life’s purpose is meaningless“, and quotes Colossians 1:16. (They probably mean either “life is meaningless” or “life has no purpose” – I’m not sure what it means for a purpose to be meaningless. But I’m not here to debate syntax.)

It’s a pretty common question levelled at atheists, of course. If there’s no god, if you cease to exist when you die, if you aren’t serving some purpose greater than yourself, then what is the point of life? Why should you bother to get up in the morning, let alone bother being nice to people, if the end result of your life is to rot in the ground and be eaten by worms? It’s certainly an argument I’ve used in the past.

The first and most obvious response is that this proves exactly nothing. Even if I concede that the statement “either god exists or life is meaningless” is true, that says nothing about whether god does exist. Attempting to make it do so assumes that life obviously must have a purpose. Obviously this appeals to something in us, that we want life to have a purpose; but wanting something is a long throw short of making it true. If life doesn’t have a purpose, in whatever sense, then we can want it to be different all day, but ultimately we’re just going to have to grow up and accept it. I see no reason why life logically must have a purpose in order to exist.

Of course, this is where Christianity steps in and says that your life is meaningful, that your soul does live on after you die, that you never have to come to terms with the scary thought that nothing that happens during your life can make any difference to you when your consciousness ceases to exist. I’ll readily admit, this is a powerful concept. A large part of my mind still wants it to be true. I don’t want everything I’ve learned and felt for the eighty-odd years I’m alive to just disappear. But if anything, this is the biggest reason to be suspicious of the idea. Our minds have a natural bias to believe what we want to be true, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to find out that enormous numbers of people believe something that’s comfortable but false. As an atheist, I obviously believe this to be the case with religion – many, many people believe in a god, and particularly in an afterlife, simply because they aren’t comfortable with the alternative, and regardless of what is objectively true.

To take a step back though, what purpose does the Christian God offer to our lives that is so comforting? Any good Christian will tell me that the answers lie in the bible.

Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. (Ecclesiastes 3:19, NIV)

Really? That’s not what the billboard says.

Now, it could well be argued that Ecclesiastes was written as the thoughts of someone who was looking for meaning outside God, as sort of a devil’s advocate, and that he comes to a different conclusion by the end of the book. We should probably look elsewhere.

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6-8, NRSV)

People wither like grass? Doesn’t sound much like an eternal purpose to me. The bible declares that God’s existence is meaningful on every page, but this always seems to be in stark contrast with our existence. We are the tiniest insignificant blips on his divine radar.

But I suppose you could say that, although we are inherently worthless ourselves, God gives our life purpose, and has a greater plan for us to make our lives meaningful in a way that we couldn’t do ourselves, right?

And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created – people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (Genesis 6:6-7, NRSV)

This is one of a vast selection of passages that give the impression that God doesn’t much value our lives at all, and will gladly eliminate us if we are in the slightest conflict with his great purpose. It definitely seems that our lives aren’t meaningful to God at all.

But, an apologist would say, our life’s purpose is given by God, so only by following that purpose do we have value to God. It’s when we try to look for a purpose outside God that our life becomes meaningless. So, ultimately, it’s our choice whether our lives have meaning or not. Right?

What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses. You will say to me then, “Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? (Romans 9:14-21, NRSV)

Hang on a second. Paul seems to say that God chooses which people’s lives have a higher purpose and which don’t, and we get no say in the matter. Indeed, it seems that some people’s God-given purpose is to ignore God so that God can show off by squashing them. Those of us who are shown mercy are selected entirely at God’s whim. Paul anticipates the obvious question of the justice of this approach, and answers it by saying, essentially, God’s bigger than you and can do whatever he wants. Forgive me if I’m not ecstatic.

So, to summarise the meaning of life as offered by Christianity: God made us as his playthings. He makes some of us rebel against him, then makes a show of being upset before annihilating them. He makes others worship and praise him, acts pleased, and rewards them by letting them live forever doing… well, he never quite says what, but he promises that it’ll be really good. At any rate, they’ll be with him for all eternity, which is obviously the best gift anyone could ask for.

If this is accurate, then it’s not really very encouraging. Personally I’d rather not spend eternity with a childish omnipotent being who derives pleasure from being praised by creatures he made to praise him, and tormenting creatures he made to reject him. If this is the case, I suppose there’s not much I can do about it, because apparently I’ve been chosen to reject him (six years of praising him to the contrary). But it’s a bit presumptuous to try to entice me to believe in God on the basis that this gives greater meaning to my life.

I want to briefly return to something I skipped over earlier, which is the assumption that life can’t have meaning unless it’s given by a higher power. Some atheists would agree with this, and say that life is just the emergent behaviour of a collection of atoms that isn’t of any particular interest or importance. There’s no single agreed position on this – we don’t refer to some Atheist Bible to determine our unanimous doctrine. However, I would say that life is far from meaningless. Indeed, you could make the point that life – that is, the physical life that we know about – is more valuable, second for second, if it’s known to be finite than if there’s the suggestion of a second, everlasting life following it. Becoming an atheist has made me far more determined to achieve what I want to achieve in this life, since I won’t get another one.

But what can I achieve that is in any way meaningful? I think that to answer this, we should look at what life actually is. Life is, to begin with, an extremely rare combination of molecules that can construct copies of itself, and which gradually grows in complexity over millions and billions of years through a process of natural selection, to become one of the most intriguing structures in the universe. I say “extremely rare” because it seems like it has only started once on this planet (that we know of), and so far we have seen no strong indication that it has happened anywhere else in the universe. That may be because we haven’t looked in the right place yet, but at any rate, life is not something that you can readily come across outside our world. Intelligent life – a very difficult concept to define, but one we all have an intuitive idea of – is even rarer.

The point I’m getting to is this. I believe that the purpose of life is to explore just how far this “life” thing can go. Life may have started completely by chance, but now that it has, it – we – have a rare, and possibly unique, opportunity to explore just what this mechanism is capable of. How much of the physical nature of the universe is our evolved mind capable of understanding? Can we use physical laws to our advantage, to see or even travel to other places in the universe to understand even more? What range of emotions and thoughts is it possible to induce in others’ minds through art? Can our minds understand, model and even reproduce the processes that led to our existence? There’s something fundamentally exciting about this. And, of course, since life is so rare, we should always be looking for ways to preserve it. Carl Sagan said, “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”

I can only wax philosophical for so long before it starts to feel cheesy. Ebon Musings has an excellent essay called Life of Wonder that goes a lot further down this path. (I consciously avoided referring to it while writing this post, so that I’m not just adding to the web’s redundancy factor.) Different people will reach different conclusions about what purpose life has without God. But the point is that religion’s offer of the only possible meaningful life is, on balance, not very impressive.

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Maroons claim State of Origin 2

Queensland 30-6. Tahu saves NSW from complete embarrassment in the last few minutes. Oh well. At least it’ll keep the suspense alive for game 3.

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Australia 3, Japan 1

Last 8 minutes save referee Essam Abd El Fatah from being served in meat pies across Australia.

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There is a castle on a cloud

My cousin is occasionally involved in local musicals. Last night we went to see her in the chorus of Ashfield Musical Society’s production of Les Miserables. I’ve seen Les Mis before at least once, and I know a fair bit of the music, but for some reason I could remember very little of the actual story (maybe I was too young to pay attention before). Anyway, it was amazing. So much so that I’ve added the novel (or a translation, anyway – my French vocabulary consists of the numbers one to fifteen plus the phrase “it is not the train station”) to my list of books that I resolutely intend to read one day and probably never will.

Random trivia: Les Miserables was the topic of what is generally considered to be the shortest correspondence on record. Apparently Victor Hugo was on holiday when it was published. He wanted to know how sales were going, so he sent a letter to his publisher: “?” His publisher replied, “!”

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