Archive for the 'Billboard Heckler' Category

Billboard Heckler – Aren’t they, like, folded together or something?

Haven’t heckled for a while. This is one I took a while ago (September ‘06 if the EXIF data is right):


What jogged my memory about this was a list of the “top fifty” atheist aphorisms, according to some random email (via Friendly Atheist). There are some funny ones there, but check out number 8:

8. If There is No God, Then What Makes the Next Kleenex Pop Up?

According to ThinkExist, it’s a quote from Art Hoppe, a “popular columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle for more than 40 years [who] was known for satirical and allegorical columns that skewered the self-important.” That kinda fits.

Obviously whoever put the billboard up wasn’t being completely serious – or at least, I really hope they weren’t. But I’d love to know by what path the same phrase managed to end up on an Anglican billboard and a list of atheist sayings.

In particular – and again, assuming whoever was in charge of the billboard wasn’t totally serious – I’d like to know how they managed to appreciate the irony of the comment enough to present it to the public, but not enough to wonder what they’re doing in church in the first place. Maybe they have moderate beliefs about the level of God’s intervention in the world, and are taking a swipe at people who pray for parking spaces.

Or, they missed the irony altogether, in which case this is a real howler.

Or maybe they were trying to provoke thought and discussion. In which case they succeeded, ’cause I’ve spent the last half hour trying to unravel this.


Billboard Heckler – Christian Koans

It’s been a long time between heckles.

Usually when I pick a billboard to talk about, I look for one that has a clear message that I can use as a starting point for a rant. But sometimes it doesn’t work that way. This one, from the always-reliable Castle Hill Christadelphians, left me wondering whether they’d put up a Zen koan by mistake:

Consider - fear knocked at the door - faith answered - no one was there...


No one was where? At home? Outside the door? I thought fear was outside the door? Or is “No One” a name? (Third base!) Exactly how many anthropomorphic abstract concepts are there in this lesson?

After I took this photo, Tina and I spent a bit of time trying to decode it. Our current guess is that fear was playing a practical joke on faith by knocking on his (her?) door and running away. We agreed that it would be better if the text of the billboard itself could paint this picture more thoroughly. One suggestion:


Might not be room for that on the billboard though.

On a similar note, from West Ryde Baptist:

Worry is a small trickle of fear that cuts a channel into which everything is drained

So, worry is a small trickle… of fear… hang on, is this a metaphor or not? I could understand if worry was a small trickle of water, that means they’re building some imagery… but what is a trickle of fear? That’s just confusing. And what is this “everything” that is drained into it? I need more information about what’s being drained here. I mean, are problems drained into it? That would be a good thing, wouldn’t it? And where does the channel drain to? If anyone can explain this billboard, I’d appreciate it.

Both of these churches are on main roads. Neither of them update their billboard more than once every few weeks. Tens of thousands of people get to read everything that they put up there. If I had that kind of publicity, I’d make sure that what I wrote made some kind of sense. As it is, they’re not exactly inspiring me about the rationality of their religion.


Billboard Heckler – Feel ugly?

There are a handful of churches around Sydney (and possibly elsewhere) that show the same series of printed signs. I usually snap it from the Epping Gospel Church (here and here) because it’s on the corner of a side street that’s easy to pull into. This time I got it from the Springwood Presbyterian Church instead:

Feel ugly? God thinks you're to-die-for. Romans 5:8

This is a standard tactic that really goes to the core of Christianity. The tactic has two steps.

  1. Make the listener feel worthless.
  2. Tell them that God loves them anyway.

This is one of the only things unique to Christianity among the major religions. At least, that’s what people used to tell me at church. I don’t have a thorough enough understanding of Islam, Hinduism and so on to really confirm this. But it’s certainly not a core selling point the way it is in Christianity.

For anyone who’s never seen a Christian, here’s a quick summary of the beliefs of the world’s biggest religion: Man is evil and deserves to be punished. God decided that he would let his own son, Jesus, take the punishment instead of man. Anyone who accepts that sacrifice doesn’t have to pay for his own sins, and can live with God in heaven.

For now, let’s ignore the question of how punishing an innocent man for someone else’s crimes can be called justice. We can come back to that another time. The interesting point is that Christianity is meaningless unless people can be convinced of their own inherent sinfulness. If you feel like you’re a reasonably good person, then you’re never going to feel like you need a saviour.

In order to achieve this, Christianity sets the bar unattainably high. God, we’re told, accepts nothing short of absolute moral perfection. Have you ever lied? You deserve to be punished for all eternity. Ever had a lustful thought? That’s two eternities. Ever felt jealous, lazy, ungrateful, angry, ever held a grudge, ever had one too many drinks, ever reneged on a promise, ever wanted to hit someone? Ever spent money on something for yourself that you could have given to the poor? Ever sat down for a moment when you could have been out helping an old lady across the road? Get your red pyjamas ready, you’ll be in a lake of burning sulfur before you know it.

In fact, if the doctrine of original sin is brought into the picture, then it’s possible that you inherited your parents’ sinful wretchedness before you were even born. So we can safely say that nobody has ever lived up to God’s moral standard.

C. S. Lewis put it like this, in The Problem of Pain:

Now why do we men need so much alteration? The Christian answer – that we have used our free will to become very bad – is so well known that it hardly needs to be stated. But to bring this doctrine into real life in the minds of modern men, and even of modern Christians, is very hard. When the apostles preached, they could assume even in their Pagan hearers a real consciousness of deserving the Divine anger. The Pagan mysteries existed to allay this consciousness, and the Epicurean philosophy claimed to deliver men from the fear of eternal punishment. It was against this background that the Gospel appeared as good news. It brought news of possible healing to men who knew that they were mortally ill. But all this has changed. Christianity now has to preach the diagnosis – in itself very bad news – before it can win a hearing for the cure….A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. Until we really feel this assumption of His to be true, though we are part of the world He came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom His words are addressed.

I could spend a while talking about Lewis’ claim that the first-century Pagan audience was better aware of their own inherent evilness than we are today; but regardless of that, the fact remains that Christianity is irrelevant if people feel good about themselves. As soon as people see themselves as scum, God steps in and rescues them.

The problem is that, all too often, the church is the instrument by which people see themselves as scum in the first place.

This attitude is found throughout the New Testament.

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
(Mark 10:17-27, NRSV)

“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
(Acts 2:36-38, NRSV)

In a rare double-billing of Billboard Heckler, this is from Saint Hilda’s Anglican Church in Katoomba:

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
(1 John 1:5-10, ESV)

Romans 5:8, which is quoted at the bottom of the “feel ugly” billboard, is towards the end of a multi-chapter tirade about the sinfulness of Paul’s readers (you might want to skim over this):

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth – you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:

  ”None is righteous, no, not one;
    no one understands;
    no one seeks for God.
  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
    no one does good,
    not even one.”
  ”Their throat is an open grave;
    they use their tongues to deceive.”
  ”The venom of asps is under their lips.”
  ”Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
  ”Their feet are swift to shed blood;
    in their paths are ruin and misery,
    and the way of peace they have not known.”
  ”There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
nn”Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
nnnnand whose sins are covered;
nnblessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person -though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus ourNo one is good but God alone Lord.

(Romans 1:21-32, 2:17-24, 3:9-18, 21-25, 4:6-8, 5:6-10, 18-21, 6:20-23, ESV)

The International Churches of Christ, of which I used to be a member, had a series of bible studies designed to help introduce new converts to Christian life. (This was before the big ICOC collapse of 2003.) Study #6 (in the order I learnt them – they varied from place to place) was called “The Cross”, and went through Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, death and resurrection from one of the gospels. The previous two studies, #4 and #5, were called “Sin” and “Repentance”. These were basically designed to make the person feel like a worthless dog, by going through everything they’d done to make God angry with them. This was a prerequisite for hearing about Jesus’ death, because otherwise it wouldn’t have its full impact.

The (former) ICOC was a bit of an extreme case, but I think the essential idea is pervasive in Christian culture. The worse people feel about themselves, the more they feel like they need God.

Now, I’m no psychologist. But think for a moment about a system where people are constantly being made aware of their shortcomings, that their only chance for redemption is to seek unwarranted forgiveness, and that they have no hope to improve unless they completely surrender their will to their master, and even then they won’t really be good enough until they die. I strongly suspect that this is going to produce some seriously warped minds. This sounds more like an abusive relationship than a divine one.

I acknowledge that no human is perfect. But there’s a one giant leap to get from that to the claim that everyone who’s ever lived was and is inherently evil. To make that leap, you’d need to show that:

  • An absolute moral standard exists,
  • God exists and is the perfect example of that standard, and
  • God draws the line between “good” and “evil” directly underneath perfect adherence to that standard.

I don’t believe any of these things (although I might be willing to concede the first one, given tight enough definitions). And in general, I don’t think churches reach people by providing solid evidence for them. I think the vast majority of the time, they aim for the emotional response of “yes, I’m a bad person, help me”, where the prospect of a saviour seems like a glimmer of hope. Then the goal becomes to maintain everyone’s perception that they’re filth as long as possible.

Of course, as soon as you claim that God is good and people aren’t, you immediately run into a paradox – why did God, who is good, create people who aren’t? Is this an instance where a good tree bore bad fruit? There are plenty of Christian answers to this, generally to do with the nature of free will, but I don’t personally find any of them convincing. If “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, it would seem to be a design flaw, not an occasional fault. To take a variation on Paley’s watchmaker analogy – if you noticed that, for a particular brand of watch, every last watch had the same fault, what would you think?

  1. What a coincidence – all these watches of the same model came from the same manufacturer, and entirely by chance, all of them broke down in exactly the same way! What are the odds?
  2. Clearly each individual watch is at fault for independently not living up to its designer’s specifications.
  3. What idiot designed this piece of shit?

People who are raised with a respectable amount of modesty are usually reluctant to say anything like “I’m a pretty good person”. For a Christian, it’s even harder, because pride is a sin, and “no one is good but God alone”. But I think this is something that each of us needs to believe, if we’re going to reach any kind of maturity. At the very least, we need to evaluate people’s actions by a realistic standard, not one that would condemn everyone who has ever lived.

Until we do, we’ll be living under God’s protection racket.


Billboard Heckler – Certainty is overrated

Okay, I’ve gotten through a busy patch and am hopefully back to regular transmission. Time to continue the billboard series.

This one is from Katoomba Uniting Church:

Certainty is overrated. It stops the searching.

What a beautiful sentiment. It’s not the destination that matters, but the journey. Sigh. I’m picturing green rolling hills and fluffy clouds as we speak.

Okay, I don’t think I need to say that I disagree with this statement, and indeed find it highly ironic. Particularly in light of Hebrews 11:1, which says that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (NIV, emphasis mine).

But it raises an interesting question, and one that I had to think about for a while. How is this different from the scientific method? One of the fundamental principles of science is that no fact is sacred – that any claim must be falsifiable, that we must be ready to abandon our acceptance of any theory as soon as it becomes apparent that it does not fit the evidence. Michael Shermer wrote in Why People Believe Weird Things, quoting from an amicus curiae brief to the US Supreme Court during one of the many attempts to get “creation science” (or more recently, “intelligent design”) taught in public schools:

It follows from the nature of the scientific method that no explanatory principles in science are final. “Even the most robust and reliable theory… is tentative. A scientific theory is forever subject to reexamination and – as in the case of Ptolemaic astronomy – may ultimately be rejected after centuries of viability.”… “In an ideal world, every science course would include repeated reminders that each theory presented to explain our observations of the universe carries this qualification: ‘as far as we know now, from examining the evidence available to us today’”.

So it would appear, on the surface, that science agrees with the Uniting Church that “certainty is overrated”. Then what’s my problem with it?

It took me a while to really pin it down, but I think there’s a fundamental difference in intent between how this idea is used in science and how it’s used in religion. This is a quote from someone I’ve had an email conversation with over the last couple of weeks:

Whether or not we accept something as a fact depends as much on whether or not we want it to be, as on whether or not it is.

In my reply, I disagreed with this. It’s certainly true that this is how many people do perceive facts; but I don’t think that this is the correct approach, or that we have to resign ourselves to never being able to really understand the world beyond our own preconceptions. Instead, I think it’s well within our ability to accept ideas based on whether they are supported by evidence, regardless of whether we want them to be true. Indeed, this is the approach people need to have if there’s any hope to reach agreement on anything.

I suspected that he would use this line later to claim that I wasn’t accepting his facts because I didn’t want to. Sure enough, half a dozen emails later:

Do you remember in one of my earlier messages I said, “Whether or not we accept something as a fact depends as much on whether or not we want it to be, as on whether or not it is.”, and you didn’t agree. Well, this is one of those situations. You have no reason to doubt [my statements] apart from a fear that if you did admit to it, then your objection to the existence of God falls in a heap.

I should point out that he kept this position after I repeatedly asked for actual evidence.

In my general experience, when religious people use the line that there’s no such thing as absolute certainty (and not all do), it’s usually an attempt to put all claims on equal footing. You can’t be certain that God exists, but you also can’t be certain that God doesn’t exist, so which side you choose to believe is a matter of faith.

In science, while you can never reach absolute certainty, you can approach it. You can’t say with certainty that a particular theory is correct, but you can say that it fits the evidence better than another theory, which makes it likely to be closer to the truth. By applying this repeatedly to new theories, you get progressively better theories that are more likely to be true. Certainty is not an attainable goal, but it is a valid target.

Think about the value of pi. You can never write a number that represents it exactly. But you can get arbitrarily close to it, and you can know how close the approximation you’re using is. 22/7 is a good approximation; 3.1416 is a better one; 3.141592653589793 is better again. 3.0 (as implied by 1 Kings 7:23) is a bad approximation, and 7.0 is just plain wrong.

Nobody would ever say that each of these approximations is equally valid, or that choosing between them requires a leap of faith. Given any two approximations, you can say with certainty which one is closer to the actual value of #, and therefore which one will give you more accurate calculations.

The general situation in science is a bit more complicated, because there can be disagreement over which of two theories fits the evidence better. But this is only the case when the two theories are reasonably well-matched. It may be that, for example, the Copenhagen and many-worlds interpretations of quantum physics are on roughly equal footing, so that there is some dispute about which one is closer to the truth. But there is no doubt that the round-earth theory is closer to the truth than the flat-earth theory.

My point is this. I agree that absolute certainty is unattainable. And, for that matter, I agree that anyone who claims to have achieved certainty is shutting themselves off from improving their understanding of the world (something that Christians should consider more often). But I don’t agree that this leaves us in a position where we’re wandering in the dark with no way to believe anything except by sheer faith. We can never reach the point of certainty, but we can move progressively closer and closer to it; and the closer we come, the more our understanding of the world improves.

In this sense, I’d say that certainty is decidedly underrated.

For myself, I always have to admit the possibility that I’m wrong about the existence of God. My eyes are open to evidence that a divine being of some kind exists. But as long as the opposite conclusion fits the evidence better, I’m staying an atheist.


Billboard Heckler – Who can be against us?

Quick one from West Ryde Baptist, taken from Romans 8:31:


Could this be an answer?

The Lord was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain, because they had chariots of iron. (Judges 1:19, NRSV)

Damn those chariots of iron.


Billboard Heckler – Esaeir tahn who tnhiks?

Next in the Billboard Heckler series. Again, this was seen at the Epping Gospel Chapel, among other places:

Uedsratnindg the blbie is esaeir tahn you tnhik. Matthew 11:15

To start with, the bible itself does not share their optimistic appraisal of the situation.

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15-16, NRSV)

Maybe I misinterpreted what Peter is saying here. But that would mean that understanding the bible, or at least this passage, is harder than I think. Sigh.

There’s a book called Hard Sayings of the Bible; I was going to buy it myself at one stage, but never got around to it. I read a few random sections from a friend’s copy of it though. The book can best be described as a tome – 808 pages, according to Amazon. It goes to extraordinary lengths to provide explanations for some of the Bible’s harder-to-understand topics. And yet, it’s considered an introductory text. Consider this review from Amazon:

Helpful introductory textThe short answer: Helpful answers to the most commonly asked questions about difficult texts of Scripture. Only Brauch’s section on Paul is occasionally unsatisfactory.

It may not be a tome of resolutions for those with the a priori commitment to the Bible being inaccurate, but it is helpful in presenting feasible answers to many misunderstood texts of Scripture.

Also helpful is the notion that the Bible is largely written to Hebrews and not to linear-reasoned Greco-Roman philosophers. It just doesn’t fit many folks grids because it is not necessarily written to the atomistic thinker (i.e., it’s not a text on science).

All in all, this text is an easy to use reference to commonly misunderstood texts of Scripture.

“It just doesn’t fit on many folks grids”? Is this what we would expect for a book that is supposed to clearly lay out the one true path to salvation, that is upheld as humanity’s greatest and most universal moral guide? Mind you, this does fit with Jesus’ approach during his ministry:

When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that
 ”they may indeed look, but not perceive,
   and may indeed listen, but not understand;
 so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.”‘ (Mark 4:10-12, NRSV)

Apparently, some people just aren’t worth the effort to speak clearly.

A couple of classic examples of biblical obscurity come to mind; there are many more, but these are a couple that have stuck in my memory. There are the two well-known consecutive pieces of wisdom in Proverbs:

Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.
(Proverbs 26:4-5, NRSV)

So which is it? Do you answer a fool or not? Most attempts that I’ve heard to explain this say that the contradiction is so obvious, the verses being one after the other and all, that it can’t have been a contradiction, but it must be some kind of literary device. Fine, I can sort of accept that. But I still don’t know what it’s telling me. Amusingly, I’ve heard people use both of these verses (at separate times, of course) to explain why they’re either going to answer or not answer a question.

I’ve talked about the fun surrounding baptism in an earlier post, but for sheer confusion value you can’t go past the controversial “baptism for the dead” passage:

Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? (1 Corinthians 15:29, NRSV)

Nothing along the lines of “baptism on behalf of the dead” is mentioned anywhere else in the bible. The Mormons are the only major group who practice the (arguably) obvious interpretation of this passage, and baptise living people in order to save by proxy people who have already died. The vast majority of Christians see this (quite rightly) as illogical; but in that case, what does the verse mean? One interpretation is that this passage is a difficult-to-translate reference to normal baptism; another is that Paul was referring to an unorthodox practice of the Corinthian church that he himself doesn’t necessarily support (but doesn’t choose this moment, the one that will last to enlighten later generations, to clear up the matter); yet another is that Paul is for some reason using a pagan practice to argue that resurrection exists in Christianity. I’m sure all of these arguments have their merits, but I’d hardly call it “esaeir tahn you tnhik”.

Of course, it’s possible that the point the sign was trying to make was that the important bits of the bible are easy to understand. (That would also fit their use of typoglycemia nicely.) But I find this hard to accept, because there is very little agreement between Christians about what parts of the bible are important. My general experience with churches has been that they tend to put their pet doctrines into the “obvious and crucial” category, and other issues into the “confusing but unimportant” category. Other people and groups who don’t take as hard a line on their pet issues are accused of watering down God’s message, while anyone who turns that accusation back on them is nitpicking about some peripheral theological detail. Yes, I’m generalising, but I don’t think anyone who’s ever been involved in a dispute between Christian denominations would disagree with this. (The bible has examples of this as well – Hosea 6:6, Matthew 12:1-4, Matthew 15:1-11, Matthew 23:23-24 come to mind.)

So what’s the verdict? I guess that understanding the bible might be easier than you think, but only if you originally thought it would be really, really hard. Otherwise, I suggest you prepare for some serious head-scratching.


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.


Billboard Heckler – Consider Baptism

I’ve been thinking about making this (the billboard commentary, that is, not burning down Barney’s) a regular thing. This was on the billboard of the Castle Hill Christadelphian Church yesterday (I went back for a photo but they’d changed it by then):

MATTHEW 28:19-20

Never one to shy away from a challenge, I considered whether baptism really matters.

Christadelphians believe, among other things, that baptism by full immersion in water is an essential part of salvation. It’s a topic of great interest to me, because the International Churches of Christ, to which I used to belong, believe much the same thing. This was probably the single biggest cause of doctrinal disputes with other Christian denominations. (As opposed to accusations of authoritarian and insular cult-like behaviour, which weren’t so much criticisms of core beliefs, and which the church has at any rate grown out of in the last few years, to some degree.)

You could be forgiven for wondering how something that amounts to not much more than a quick dip in the pool could become a core doctrinal focus. The short answer is that those who insist it is essential to salvation necessarily imply that anyone who doesn’t practice baptism is on their way to hell. Add to this the disagreement over whether it is a sprinkling, a pouring or full immersion, and whether it should be done at infancy or at a later age when the person can make an informed decision, and the result is plenty of opportunity for Christian infighting.

But what does the bible, the rock-solid standard of Christian beliefs, say about baptism? As mentioned on the billboard, the case for the support of baptism starts with Matthew 28:19-20 – baptism is mentioned as part of Jesus’ “Great Commission”. The next step chronologically is Acts 2:37-41, where Peter lists baptism as one of the two requirements to join the new movement that accepts Jesus as the Messiah. Baptism is defined as dunking in water by reference to the Greek word which literally means “to immerse”, with support from Acts 8:36-39. Acts 22:16 links baptism with cleansing sins, and finally 2 Peter 3:20-21 says outright that baptism saves you.

The argument that baptism isn’t necessary comes from a few different angles. Acts 8:15-16 suggests that people had been baptised (or baptized – American readers must forgive my spelling) without having received the Holy Spirit, which is clearly linked to salvation elsewhere. Acts 10:47 makes the opposite point, that the Holy Spirit can be received without baptism. Matthew 3:11 seems to say that the baptism Jesus taught would not involve water, but would be a direct intervention by the Holy Spirit – and (so the argument goes) this spiritual baptism is what 1 Peter 3:20-21 refers to, “not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God.” Salvation can not be based on your actions, according to Ephesians 2:8-9. If water baptism is required for salvation, what happened to the criminal who was crucified next to Jesus in Luke 23:40-43? How could he have been baptised on a cross? Finally, the argument appeals simply to the absurdity of someone reaching the gates of heaven, having devoted their life to Jesus, only to be turned back because they hadn’t had a bath. And fair enough.

Similar arguments could also be outlined for infant baptism, the concept of an “outward sign of inward grace”, Pentecostal “baptism of the Holy Spirit” leading to miraculous signs such as speaking in tongues, and so on. And an apologist for any one of these positions would be able to make a case against any of the others. My point is not to deny that a coherent interpretation exists. Rather, my point is that there are multiple coherent interpretations. Each of them relies on a specific interpretation of certain key verses and some assumptions about the context of other verses. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. But if you were to get two apologists for two different positions and lock them in a room until they come to a consensus, the odds are high that they would both starve to death.

I would like to propose an idea that could settle this once and for all. Under this new proposition, all of the aforementioned verses can be taken at face value. I believe it has the potential to unite all of the varied opinions about biblical baptism, and put an end to the spilling of massive amounts of ink (and quite possibly blood) over this debate. And I’m going to reveal it here, on this blog. Are you ready? Here it is.

The bible simply isn’t clear on the subject.

The New Testament was written by various people over the course of at least forty years, and it’s not totally surprising that on some of the finer details, they didn’t quite get their story straight. I propose that we don’t need to do their work for them. The writer of 1 Peter believed that baptism, in some form, saves you; the writer of Galatians said that no work can be the basis of salvation; the writer of Acts either changed what he believed over time, or referred to different types of baptism in different places without making it clear which is which. Possibly none of them thought that it mattered much – no one would be pedantic enough to have to debate the fine underlying details of a ritual that was well-accepted at the time, especially coming out of the smorgasboard of God-pleasing rituals that was Judaism. I think this is a much better fit for the message that we have actually been given.

Of course, the issue with this is that it doesn’t fit well with the bible being God’s perfectly inspired message to mankind. I think this is the fundamental source of the problem. Christians demand consistency from a book that is not consistent, and the result is an array of denominations that differ on more or less every point of doctrine. I’ve tried to make this point using the example of baptism; the same could be done with Jesus’ divinity, whether salvation is by faith or works, predestination, the duration of hell, whether God is loving or vengeful, the time and nature of Jesus’ return, the structure of church leadership, and even what it means for scripture to be “inspired”. (I reserve the right to do so in future.)

I’m convinced that the only way to fulfil Christians’ preconception that the bible is without error is with methods of interpretation so loose that a passage can be found to support any opinion, and therefore it might as well support none.


St Barnabas, and Billboard Heckling

Most Sydney residents take the presence of St Barnabas Church for granted. It’s one of those landmarks that doesn’t stand out because it’s particularly impressive, but as… sort of a milestone for where inner Sydney begins, like a signpost at the junction between City Road and Broadway. For much longer than I’ve been around, the announcements on its billboard were made fun of – in the best spirits – by a sign in the Broadway Hotel across the road. It’s a good summary of the much cliched Aussie spirit – open sarcastic ribbing that doesn’t hide a solid underlying mutual respect.

So, religious affiliation aside for the moment, the fact that it was destroyed by a fire early this morning is a bit of a jolt. There’s something about a building that stays the same while basically everything around it is sold, taken over, knocked down and rebuilt, that provides a kind of continuity and identifies the place as still being the same city. I just learnt from that article that it’s been there for 148 years, which is big for a country that wasn’t even known to the rest of the world until 200-odd years ago. I would like to put in my personal vote (this being, obviously, a polling booth) that whatever of the building needs to be rebuilt is rebuilt in at least the spirit of, if not a close copy of, the original building.

But to avoid getting too sentimental, I’m going to use this as a segue into a discussion of a billboard I’ve noticed a couple of times on the way home that has made me think. It’s at West Ryde Baptist Church (update: got a photo):


The reason that this is interesting to me is that I think here’s a sleight of hand in Christianity to do with God doing what we ask. Jesus couldn’t have been clearer when he said what was possible through prayer:

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:21-22, NIV)

Few if any Christians would take these words literally, although Jesus doesn’t appear to make the distinction between the figurative mountain and a very literal fig tree from the previous few verses. James gives a hint of what happens when this doctrine collides with real-world experience:

You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:2d-3, NIV)

The point I’m getting to is this. Christians (I don’t have enough first-hand knowledge to apply this to followers of other religions directly) quickly discover what I call the “prayer fine print” – that is, when you ask for something in prayer, there are any number of reasons that kick in automatically to explain the fact that God might not actually answer it. Jesus’ words hint at one – “if you believe”. There is always room to doubt that you really believe that what you ask will be given, like the father in Mark 9:24. James suggests a different reason, that if you have the wrong motives, God may decline your request.

I don’t have a problem with these restrictions per se – God isn’t man’s servant, after all. The real trick comes with Christians’ perceptions of prayer, today, faced with the practicality of reconciling the biblical promises about prayer with the fact that the most earnest, well-intentioned prayers often go unanswered. Every Christian I know (myself included, until recently) has developed a series of justifications for why God will not necessarily answer each prayer in the way they expect. The most common and universally applicable is that our request simply wasn’t in line with God’s will.

This brings us back to the billboard. The implication of God being able to do “above all we ask” is that what we ask is incomparably inferior to what is best, or what we actually need. Only God knows the plan that will best meet all his objectives, and his plan is infinitely more wise and ultimately more fulfilling than our near-sighted desires. If what we ask doesn’t come about, it’s because God has something even better in store.

Apart from the question that this raises about why we are encouraged to ask at all, it’s important to note that this removes any criteria by which we can ever judge whether God is listening to our prayers. It might be true that a prayer went unanswered because it wasn’t part of a plan for something even better that we can’t understand, but it might also be true that it went unanswered because there was no one to answer it, and we can never tell the difference. A Christian might not need that confirmation, but for someone who is looking for God, or someone who is questioning God, anything that stands out against the random background noise of fulfilled and unfulfilled desires could make an enormous difference.

Now, none of this proves that God doesn’t exist. But it’s interesting to me – in no small part because I tried to come to terms with exactly these things in my own mind – that the set of reasons we develop to explain God’s noncompliance, reasonable though each of them may be, allow us to discount any failed prayer. That is, there is nothing we can pray for (apart from something we would expect to happen anyway, like “please make the sun rise tomorrow”) that is so clearly consistent with God’s character and desires that we have no doubt that he will grant it.

At least, that’s how my mind works. Maybe I’m just faithless. If anyone out there can suggest a prayer that God will undeniably answer, let me know. (I’ll get the comments system up soon.) This isn’t about putting God in a box, it’s an attempt to find some way in which God, in all his unchanging glory, is actually consistent and in some way knowable.