Archive for the 'Religion' Category

Ramblings on certainty

I am certain that there is no god.

For sufficiently small values of “certain”.

Okay, let me explain. There’s a topic that comes up occasionally in various places that goes along these lines: An atheist is someone who is convinced that god doesn’t exist. However, you can never be absolutely sure that there’s no god; there’s always a chance that you haven’t looked hard enough, or in the right place. (Some variations say that in order to know that there’s no god, you’d have to be omniscient, so you would be the thing you claim doesn’t exist.) Therefore, all atheists are actually just agnostic, and whether you believe in god is just a matter of faith. (The argument usually goes on to talk about Pascal’s Wager.)

Logically, there’s nothing wrong with this argument. However, it leaves me wondering what kind of universe the person making the argument thinks we live in. “Certainty”, defined as being 100% sure beyond any conceivable doubt, is a rare thing indeed. I’d go so far as to say that it doesn’t exist. We quite regularly claim to be certain about things that could actually be false for any number of reasons.

For example, I’m certain that I don’t own a Lamborghini. I have no problems saying, point blank, “I don’t own a Lamborghini.” But how sure am I, really? Maybe a rich relative died yesterday and left me a Lamborghini in their will. Maybe someone broke into my garage and did a conversion job on my Corolla in the half hour since I got home. Maybe I had a stroke in exactly the area of my brain that remembers what car I drive. You’d quite rightly say that these possibilities are far-fetched, maybe absurd; but it’s not, strictly speaking, impossible.

At the very least, everything I claim to know is subject to the brain-in-a-jar exception; anything I think I’ve experienced could have been fed directly to my senses as part of a simulation, a la The Matrix. My understanding of logic might not even be valid, in which case anything could be true.

So it’s impossible to be absolutely sure of anything. However, there’s this slight issue that we actually have to live in the real world, where we need to act on things we know on a regular basis. If people who made the “if you can’t prove it 100% then you don’t really know” argument about atheism applied the same argument to, say, gravity, they’d have trouble getting out of bed in the morning for fear of falling to the ceiling. They’d never be able to answer anyone who asks, say, what their name is, because they couldn’t be sure that they’d remembered it right. I’ll stop now, but the point is that we regularly act on things that we’re almost completely sure about. That’s why the standard of proof in criminal law is “beyond reasonable doubt” – there’s always some doubt, however remote.

Now for the semantic part of the argument… The word “certain” has a tiny amount of fuzziness in practical usage. It has to, otherwise you could never rationally claim to be certain about anything. Anyone who claims otherwise is holding the word to a standard that makes it impossible under any circumstances. Of course, you can define a word however you want, but a word that describes something that can’t exist isn’t particularly useful.

So, I’m certain that there’s no god. I might be wrong. But I don’t think so.

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Religion in the 2006 Census

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has just released the first results from the 2006 census. Here’s a continuation of my previous back-of-the-envelope analysis of the 1996 and 2001 religious data.

I’ll try to avoid gratuitous schadenfreude, but there does seem to be a trend, and my own opinions are no secret, so… draw your own conclusions.

First of all, 18.7% specified “No religion” (which “Comprises ‘No Religion, nfd’, ‘Agnosticism’, ‘Atheism’, ‘Humanism’ and ‘Rationalism’”). This is up from 15.5% in 2001, and 16.6% in 1996. Throw in “Religious affiliation not stated” (also up to 11.2% – the religion question was optional), and nearly 30% of respondents did not associate themselves with a religion.

Christianity dropped to 63.9%, from 68.0% in ‘01 and 70.9% in ‘96. This is pretty consistent as an absolute number of people (a bit either side of 12.7 million), which means that about as many Aussies have left Christianity as have joined it in the last ten years, including children born into Christian families (that’s a flame war for another day, Professor Dawkins).

Looking at Christian denominations… Catholicism is still the biggest at 5.1 million, up from 4.8 million in ‘96 but down as a percentage of the population. The Anglican church has lost nearly 200,000 members in that time, from 3.9 to 3.7 million. Similar numbers for the Uniting Church, from 1.3 to 1.1 million. Those are the only three categories over a million.

Among the denominations that have grown, “Pentecostal” has gone from 175,000 to 220,000 since ‘96. That’s slightly worrying. Mormons have grown from 45,000 to 53,000. (I’m making up the number of significant digits as I go along. If you need the real numbers, go and look them up.)

Interestingly, “Christian nfd” (not further defined) has gone up from 186,000 to 313,000. My theory is that a lot of people still have Christian beliefs, but are giving up on actual churches. That’s just a guess.

Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam are all up, to 2.11%, 0.75% and 1.71%. The number of Hindus and Buddhists have more than doubled in those ten years. I don’t think it’d be too controversial to guess that this is partially due to immigration.

Something else that’s interesting… Here’s a graph that shows the breakdown by age bracket.

Religion by age - Australian Census 2006

For the record, I’m 26.

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Post-religious morals in Irregular Webcomic

David Morgan-Mar has, in the midst of his generally light-hearted if geeky webcomic, written the most concise and compelling discussion of atheist morals that I’ve seen anywhere. My blog posts have been a bit thin on the ground lately, but I had to mention this – not just because I know David personally, but because… well, because you have to read it.

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Christian-Friendly Deconversion Suggestions

I was reading chanson’s post, How I became an atheist, and realised something pretty obvious – when someone starts to question their religion, they usually start with a religious approach to finding truth. Chanson tried to receive a “testimony” (in the Mormon sense). When I started doubting my Christian faith, I prayed for God to reveal himself in a way that I’d understand it. Many people with doubts first turn to the Bible, or their pastor/priest/minister/elder.

No Christian – even a newly doubting Christian – is going to start by reading The God Delusion, or go looking for contradictions in the Bible, or stop going to church just to see what happens. Many people believe that exposing themselves to different opinions is sinful in itself (see my post on “spiritual pornography“); most people at least feel uncomfortable doing so. It seems like the first step in deconversion is often a spiritual one, and only goes elsewhere when the spiritual steps don’t seem to lead anywhere.

So, I decided to come up with a list of things that I think would encourage people to start questioning their faith, but that are uncontroversial things for a Christian to do, and that many are already doing. All of them were suggested or encouraged by Christians when I was a Christian; I did the first and third, and dabbled in the fourth. (Some or all of them probably apply to other religions as well, but I’m most familiar with Christianity.)

Yes, this is my evil manipulative atheist way of getting people to do things that might eventually undermine their faith. I’m not trying to hide that. But each of these suggestions has the advantage that, if I’m wrong and your beliefs are correct, then it will only help your faith. In that case, the egg will be entirely on my face.

Here goes.

1. Read the Bible.

Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived. – Isaac Asimov

Honestly. Read the Bible, and take it seriously. Don’t just skim over stories that you know well (e.g. Abraham going to sacrifice Isaac, Genesis 22), but actually read what happened. Read the Old Testament – especially at the Pentateuch (Genesis to Deuteronomy), Joshua, Job, Ecclesiastes… well, whatever you want really. Read two or more gospels in parallel and compare them, and compare that to the first chapter of Acts and the various mentions of Jesus in the epistles. When the New Testament mentions an Old Testament prophecy, look it up and read it in context. Read Galatians and James back-to-back.

Just one suggestion – read it as a narrative, as you would read any other book. All I mean by this is that you shouldn’t stand so far back that you read it too broadly and don’t see the story (you read about the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years, and all you see is “there are consequences to not having faith”); and you shouldn’t stand so close that you can’t see the forest for the trees (you research the original Greek usage of the word “hate” in Luke 14:26 but ignore the rest of the chapter). Different people (and different churches) have a tendency to go to either or both of these extremes, and while they might add to your understanding, you really should read it as a straightforward narrative as well. You might learn something new.

2. Keep a prayer diary.

Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea,” it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith. – Matthew 21:21-22

As a Christian, I remember many people suggesting that a good way to build your trust in God was to keep a prayer diary – in other words, write down everything you pray for, and look back over it periodically to see what has been answered. The idea, of course, was that when your faith weakens you sometimes find it hard to remember how you’ve been blessed, and it helps to have something concrete to remind you.

I never did it. I wonder sometimes whether I would have become an atheist earlier if I had – it seems like the perfect way to get around confirmation bias that would otherwise lead people to believe that all their prayers have been answered, when in fact very few have, and those can be explained by chance.

In fact, this is a perfect thing to try; if it turns out that all your prayers are answered, then all it will do is strengthen your faith. Get an exercise book, and write down the things that you’re praying for; then look back over them periodically to see what has happened.

Be honest. Don’t put too much weight on things that would have happened in due course anyway (”help me recover from this cold”), or that happened through your effort (”help me pass this exam”). Try to guess the odds that it will happen by chance without you praying for it (”let it be sunny on Saturday” might be 50%). Pay particular attention to things that are completely out of your control, and that would probably not happen without some kind of intervention.

3. Read about church history.

I think it’s important for Christians to know about the history of their own religion. Besides, it’s interesting. What makes it tricky is that it’s very difficult to know which sources of information are biased – many accounts of Christian history are biased heavily towards Christianity, and many are biased heavily against it. It often helps to read opposing viewpoints. You can go as deep as you want. I’ve linked to a random selection of relevant Wikipedia pages – you wouldn’t want trust it with your life, but I’ve generally found that Wikipedia’s contributors have conflicting biases that tend to cancel each other out. It’s probably okay to use it as a starting point.

Since the Bible is such a central part of many modern Christians’ beliefs, it’s useful to know something about where it came from. The history of the Biblical canon – which books and letters came to be considered part of “The Bible” – is interesting, and doesn’t really start to settle down until about the fourth century AD. Also look at the transmission of the text, how it’s pieced together from manuscripts and translated. Another interesting thread to follow is the variety of early Christian “heresies“, like Gnosticism (see also Valentinius), adoptionism, and the teachings of Marcion and Arius; and how they were dealt with in, for example, the Council of Nicaea.

If you’ve ever heard anyone say that there are lots of references to Jesus in non-Christian writings in the first and second centuries AD, go and find them. (You’ll probably want to start with Josephus.) If you’ve ever heard anyone say that all the apostles (except John) were martyred for their faith, find out where that history comes from.

That’s just a brief and random selection. Don’t worry too about the Middle Ages, the Crusades and such for now. Christians are, and should be, as eager as anyone to distance themselves from such behaviour.

4. Ask other people about their doubts.

If nothing else, this one could turn you into a great counsellor.

At my old church, we used to do a thing at some of our meetings called “good news sharing”. (This was mainly pre-crisis ICOC – uh, if you don’t know what that means, read the first paragraph of this post.) Basically, anyone could talk about something that had happened that they felt showed God at work. Often this would have something to do with their evangelistic efforts, but it could be other stuff – finding a new job, recovering from an illness, something generous that someone else in the church did, or whatever. After a few rounds of this, it was easy to come away with the impression that God was doing wonderful things.

The problem with this – as we realised post-crisis – was that it gave a very biased view of what was happening in the group. There was no “bad news sharing” or “indifferent news sharing”. It was always possible that there were only a handful of positive stories in a group of mostly miserable people, but because those positive stories were the ones that were discussed publicly, everyone got the impression that God was blessing the group left right and centre. In the context of our church, this was significant because having your prayers answered was a sign that you were on the right spiritual track, that your desires were godly.

There may not be an example as blatant as this in every church, but there’s a general principle here. In a community where faith is considered to be a virtue, people with stronger faith will be visible and vocal, while people with weaker faith will only talk about it privately, if at all.

It’s been my general experience (and this is just my experience, yours may be different) that, for every person who’s confident that their prayers are being heard and answered, there are maybe half a dozen who feel like they’re talking to themselves when they pray. But, of course, the one confident Christian is the most likely to talk about it, and to be encouraged to talk about it. The half a dozen will tend to stay quiet. So to a casual observer, it seems like the group’s prayer life is all positive. More importantly, it also seems that way to everyone in the group, even those who don’t feel it themselves. Each of the half a dozen will think that they’re the only one who doesn’t get it, so they’ll just try to sort it out themselves. They might even exaggerate their own experiences to try to meet others’, and their own, expectations.

A similar thing happens with beliefs. To pick a random example, I’d guess that most Christians, at some time or another, have difficulty with the problem of suffering (”if God is good, why is there so much suffering in the world?”). But most of the time, they’ll keep it to themselves. And if someone they trust or someone in authority mentions the issue and makes it clear that it hasn’t affected their faith, then that’s often enough to convince people that there is a resolution to the problem, even if they don’t know or understand it themselves. They might still have doubts, but they don’t see anyone else expressing those same doubts, so it seems like a minor issue.

Now we get to the obvious suggestion. The only way you’ll ever find out how the average Christian really feels about their faith is to ask them. Talk to people you trust to be honest with you. Of course, I could be completely wrong – maybe everyone you talk to will quite honestly have everything worked out, and be completely doubt-free; in that case, it can only help your own faith. And even if people do have issues, it can only help them to talk about it and try to reach a resolution. The point is that you’ll never know unless you talk to people.

Also, be honest about your own doubts (if you have any – if not, well, get yourself tested for non-human DNA). You might find that other people have had the same thoughts. Or someone else might have the answer to one of your problems.

Okay, if I keep talking like this I’m going to start thinking I’m an amateur psychiatrist. I hate people who do that. So that’s all. If anyone actually decides to do anything based on this post, leave a comment so I can see how it goes.

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Spot the irony

There was a story the other day about a pair of British backpackers whose Lotto winnings were nabbed by the newsagency employee who handled their prize claim.

The owner of the newsagency came out with this gem:

“He was a religious person; he went to church twice a week… I know it sounds strange after what has happened, but he was an active member of the church band. He was a well-liked person.”

Who’da thunk it?

(Side question: What’s the “correct” use of apostrophes in “who’da”?)

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Humanist Symposium

The Humanist SymposiumThe inaugural Humanist Symposium is up at Daylight Atheism. Check it out now. (The funk soul brother.)

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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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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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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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