Archive for March, 2007

The God Simulator

Try your hand at running the universe: check out The God Simulator.

PZ said it best:

Hint: if you always pick the least logical, most insane action, you’ll get a pretty good simulacrum of Christianity.

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Juxtaposition

If you saw this collection of images on the SMH website, and didn’t already know the context, what would it mean to you?

Juxtaposition

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Spiritual pornography

Want to hear something funny?

I’ve mentioned before that I used to be part of the ICOC, which wasn’t particularly well-liked as churches go. The internet had (and still has, although much of it is out of date) loads of information from ex-members, cult experts, more traditional evangelicals, and everyday conspiracy theorists about its abuses and bad practices. A quick search for “ICOC” would quickly send up alarm bells for anyone who was willing to look.

Unsurprisingly, we were encouraged not to read such nonsense. There was even a semi-standard term for it – “spiritual pornography”.

At the time of writing, a Google search for “spiritual pornography” turns up, in its top ten entries, four pages related to the ICOC (one in the context of Islam, of all things), a rant about churches that lack substance, two about the Mormon church, one about The Da Vinci Code, and two about Harry Potter. Yeesh.

Speaking of Mormons (and on a related topic), I remember one time, maybe a couple of years after I joined the church, when I ran into a couple of Mormons on campus – or immediately outside the gate, as I think security kept them off the actual property. This was at a time when I was starting to educate myself about Christian history, other denominations and so on (always from ICOC-friendly sources, of course), and I saw this as a good opportunity to learn about someone else’s point of view first-hand. I met with them a couple of times, and they put me through what seemed to be a pretty standard spiel, which wasn’t very convincing, but was quite educational.

I mentioned this to a couple of people at church. They were shocked that I’d spend my time doing something so obviously harmful to my spiritual health.

The funny thing about this was that we did exactly the same sales pitch as the Mormons (although pushing a different product) all the time. We were constantly accusing people of not being open-minded if they couldn’t spare a few minutes to sit down with us and talk about the bible. Apparently this argument only worked in a seller’s market.

Plenty of people have suggested that religions protect themselves by making people scared of listening to differing opinions, convincing them that it’s really easy to be corrupted. Such people go on to say that the truth doesn’t need protection from criticism, and that the only reason to be afraid of hearing other opinions is if you’re worried they might be right. Any idea that needs to be insulated like that, and collapses as soon as people start to question it, is almost certainly wrong.

I can say wholeheartedly that I’ve seen this process first-hand. I was kept away from anti-Christian and anti-ICOC material for most of the time that I would have called myself a Christian. The first time I took the opposite view seriously, it turned me into an atheist within a few months.

The most convincing aspect of all this is that it doesn’t work the other way around. As an atheist, it doesn’t worry me at all to read Christian material. I have a bible sitting next to me on my desk. I’ve read books on Christian apologetics, and re-read stuff that I’d previously read as a Christian; it’s annoyed me sometimes, but it’s rarely made me doubt. I feel like I have a much more robust, defensible view of the world now, and I don’t need to insulate it.

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Up the Nile without a cluebat

Dom Knight has an amusing rant about Fred Nile.

I’m ashamed to admit this, but I think… I voted for him once. Probably in 2004 when he ran for the Senate. It’s a bit hazy – the Senate vote doesn’t really seem to draw as much attention, and I think I just looked at the tablecloth-like ballot, saw the word “Christian” (as in Christian Democratic Party), and went for it. Even then, I should have known better.

That will not happen again.

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Biblical Errantism

Last week, Brian left a comment to this post that I said deserved a post of its own in response. It’s been a little while – I’ve been a bit busy, and the post sort of kept rewriting itself. It’s in at least two separate parts now. This is the first one.

Here’s the heart of his comment:

Your basic assertion, as I see it, is that much of what we have in the gospels are the thoughts, feeling, and experiences of the early Christian community trying to make sense out of Jesus. So some of what we have is history remembered and some (perhaps a lot) is entirely the product of those telling the story. I will say that, for me, this does not diminish the truths that I might find in scripture.

This is a point of view that I don’t come across very often – not because I didn’t know it existed, but because I went straight out of a fundamentalist church to atheism, without passing through any more liberal kind of Christianity. (More on this in a later post.) So most of the people I’ve spoken to about it have had a fairly solid inerrantist view of the bible.

Let me start by saying that, in principle, it is absolutely correct to say that biases in the gospels “[do] not diminish the truths that [someone] might find in scripture.” The fact that it is not direct dictation from God doesn’t immediately make it wrong in every detail. On a fairly obvious level, I have no particular reason to doubt that Caesar Augustus ordered a census, or that Jesus, his mother and his disciples went to a wedding in Cana.

More usefully, I agree that there’s a certain amount of moral “truth” in the gospels. (I put “truth” in quotes because a moral guideline isn’t “true” in the same way as, say, an account of an event.) Love your neighbour as yourself is a great principle, although I’d be surprised if Jesus was the first person to say it. Similarly, let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; don’t give to the needy to be praised by others; and others.

(As an aside, I wouldn’t say it’s all good. “Turn the other cheek” is an admirable alternative to constant revenge, but I wouldn’t say that it’s universal for every situation. Similarly, selling everything you have to give to the poor is a great ideal, but in practice it comes close to negligence. As for Matthew 5:29-30, Luke 14:26 and Luke 12:47-48, we can only hope that they are a metaphor, hyperbole and a parable. And the Old Testament pretty much speaks for itself.)

It’s a different story, however, when we start talking about Jesus feeding the five thousand, or his resurrection, or his identity as the son of God. Here, we start to lean more and more heavily on the assumption that the gospels are historically accurate, because there is simply no other reason to believe that these stories are true. Nobody alive today has witnessed any of these events; it’s hard to imagine archaeological evidence that would support them; and there are no contemporary references to them outside the bible (aside from the very shaky Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus). If the New Testament didn’t exist, nobody today would have heard of Jesus, let alone worship him.

Of course, this is also true of Jesus attending a wedding at Cana; nobody would know about that if it weren’t for John’s gospel. But it doesn’t demand much proof to say that someone went to a wedding. It may well turn out to be untrue; but it doesn’t stretch the imagination to suggest that it did happen. However, if we go forward a few verses to find Jesus turning water into wine, then it’s reasonable for us to ask why we should believe it. We know, from (sad) experience, that water doesn’t turn directly into wine. A case where it did would demand a lot of supporting evidence before we would believe it.

If the document that described it was otherwise known to be very accurate, that would go some way to supporting the truth of the story. If the document was somehow known without a doubt to be completely infallible, then I suppose it would prove it. But if we suspected that the document was “entirely the product of those telling the story”, then we’d be quite right to be suspicious. And if that document was the only evidence we had, it would be sensible to dismiss the story as fiction.

To return to Brian’s comment for a second – one of my assertions, certainly, was “that much of what we have in the gospels are the thoughts, feeling, and experiences of the early Christian community trying to make sense out of Jesus.” But there’s a more important underlying point: I’m asserting that there is an explanation for how the gospels came to be written that does not involve anything supernatural. In other words, there is a natural explanation (possibly many) for the phenomenon of a number of people writing similar stories about the son of God being raised from the dead, and even for that story being copied and retold for thousands of years. Of course, this implies either that they were wrong about some things, and that some of what they wrote is their attempt to make sense out of a difficult, but natural, experience; or that they were lying outright, which is probably less likely.

More to the point, I’m asserting that a natural explanation is more likely than a supernatural one. In fact, that’s a good principle in general – if you have two competing theories, one based on mechanisms that are understood and agreed to be possible, the other based on violations of known physical laws, which one is more plausible?

So I don’t deny altogether that there is truth in the gospels, but I’m not going to accept a supernatural story as truth when a natural one will do. When John’s gospel claims that whoever believes in the son of God will have eternal life, I am far more inclined to think that the writer was misguided, than that it is possible for people to live forever. When John quotes Jesus as saying that no one comes to the Father except through him, I think it’s more sensible to believe that either the writer or Jesus himself was deluded, than that he is the spiritual gateway between us and an invisible God.

So the question becomes: if you (I’m asking liberal Christians in general, not just Brian specifically) don’t believe that the gospels are historically accurate, then what do you believe that makes you call yourself a Christian, and why?

Part two of this post is on its way; it’s mainly a discussion of why I never did call myself a liberal Christian.

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Missing option

According to this quiz

You scored as Modern Liberal. You are a Modern Liberal. Science and historical study have shown so much of the Bible to be unreliable and that conservative faith has made Jesus out to be a much bigger deal than he actually was. Discipleship involves continuing to preach and practice Jesus’ measure of love and acceptance, and dogma is not important in today’s world. You are influenced by thinkers like Bultmann and Bishop Spong.

Modern Liberal

79%

Emergent/Postmodern

71%

Classical Liberal

46%

Roman Catholic

32%

Neo orthodox

21%

Reformed Evangelical

21%

Charismatic/Pentecostal

18%

Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan

14%

Fundamentalist

0%

What#s your theological worldview?
created with QuizFarm.com

Within the options it offers, I suppose it’s pretty accurate. Of course, I would have preferred to see “not Christian” as a possible outcome… but what you gonna do?

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